Don’t Go Around Tonight*

Scarey StoriesA really interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about really frightening stories. You know, the ones you can’t put down, but at the same time, scare the wits out of you. Of course, each of us is frightened by different things, so the stories that have scared you probably won’t be the stories that have scared me.

That said though, and because it’s Hallowe’en, here are a few stories that I found really chilling:

The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

You’ll probably already know that this is the story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine. Usher is suffering from several complications from anxiety disorders; Madeleine is also ill and seems to fall have catalyptic seizures. Usher writes to a friend – the narrator of the story – asking for his help. The narrator arrives and right away is sobered by the grim physical and psychical atmosphere of the home. But he settles in and tries to help his friend. Little by little, the house and grounds seem to take on an eerie life of their own, and although the narrator doesn’t quite want to believe Usher’s claim that the house is sentient, some strange things begin to happen. It all ends in tragedy, and to me, what’s creepiest about this story is how things we imagine can take on lives of their own. In this case, they turn out to be all too real, but even when they aren’t, the mind can conjure up some terrible things.

The Trial – Franz Kafka

This is the story of Josef K., an ordinary enough junior bank manager who is accused of a crime by two unidentified agents. They won’t detail the crime, nor will they tell him who employs them. K. isn’t imprisoned, but he is told to wait for further instructions from the Committee of Affairs. K. is summoned to a hearing, but every indication is that he will not really have a chance to make his case – that he has no idea what he might have done wrong, and that the court has made a mistake. Everything about the hearing seems engineered against him. He hires an Advocate who ends up doing no good, and as the story goes on, matters spin more and more out of control. As those who’ve read this story know, the more K. tries to make sense of it all and find out the truth, the more surreal things get, and the more obvious it is that there is only one fate for him. And that’s part of what’s very chilling about this story: that lack of control. There’s also a haunting question of what is and isn’t real, as well as the question of whether our fates are decided for us.

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

This short story takes place in what seems like a normal small town. Everyone’s gathering for an annual lottery, a town tradition. The way the lottery works, each family chooses a member to draw from a black wooden box – the same box that has been used for the lottery since anyone can remember. The story follows the fortunes of one particular family that’s drawn this year’s ticket. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it. I can say this though: what’s chilling about the story is how normal everything seems.

Don’t Look Behind You – Fredric Brown

Brown involves the reader directly in this short story, and that adds considerably to its chill. It begins like this:

Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’

Then the narrator goes on to tell the story of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some dangerous people. The end in particular is very creepy – or was to me.

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

This story starts off normally enough. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train ride to visit his estranged wife Miriam. That’s when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey. The two get to talking and begin to commiserate: Haines tells Bruno about his wife and Bruno tells Haines about his father, whom he hates. Then Bruno suggests that each one should commit the other’s murder. If Bruno kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills Bruno’s father, there’s no motive to connect either murderer to either victim. Haines jokingly agrees, sure that Bruno isn’t serious. He is though, and as the story goes on, we see how Haines is drawn deeper and deeper into Bruno’s dysfunctional, mentally twisted world. And that’s what’s chilling about this story, at least to me. Oh, and I recommend Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 flim adaptation of the story. It’s a little different, but no less haunting…

A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell

This novel has one of the most famous first sentences – and I think one of the most powerful – in the genre:

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’

Right from there we know that the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family is doomed. The story tells how George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman to be their housekeeper. Tragically, they don’t find out much about her, but she seems to suit, and at first, all goes well. But the new housekeeper is hiding something that she is desperate not to reveal. As the story goes on, she gets more and more paranoid, and the Coverdale family gets closer and closer to danger, although they are eerily unaware of it. When one of the family members accidentally finds out the truth, this seals their fate. One of the truly frightening things about this story is how easily everything goes horribly wrong. The Coverdales aren’t stupid, but you could say they’re comfortably unaware of the danger that awaits them. They’re not too different really from a lot of everyday people, and that’s creepy too.

So there you have it – a few stories that I found really frightening. What about you? Do you dare to share?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Hey, folks, have a look at Moira’s list. And while you’re on the hunt for terrifying tales, you’ll also want to visit Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews every Tuesday for Tuesday Terror!! Lots of frightfully good suggestions! You may not want to be alone when you do, though….

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.


Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Fredric Brown, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson

26 responses to “Don’t Go Around Tonight*

  1. Ooh, great suggestions, Margot! And thank you for the link! 😀 I’ve only read ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ but I love the film of ‘Strangers on the Train’. And if ‘The Lottery’ is at the same standard of Shirley Jackson’s other stuff, it definitely needs to be added to the list…

    I’ll add Agatha Christie’s ‘The Last Seance’ from ‘The Hound of Death’ – in fact the whole collection is great, but that one terrfied me when I was a kid, and had a similar impact when I re-read it recently. And a more modern one – Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s ‘I Remember You’. It’s all the traditional stuff of horror – lonely house, strange noises, lights go out – but somehow she manages to make it feel fresh and terrifying. I had to stop reading it just before bedtime after a couple of nights… 😯

    Happy Hallowe’en!

    • FictionFan – Happy Hallowe’en to you, too! And it was my pleasure to link to your excellent blog. I think The Lottery is terrific, and it’s a short story, so it’s not a big investment of time. And I couldn’t agree more about The Hound of Death. Those stories are excellent, and I remember thinking that The Last Seance was terrific.
      Also thanks for mentioning I Remember You. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is such a very talented writer, I think, and so well able to weave a very spooky atmosphere. As you say, traditional elements, but a modern take on it, which keeps her work interesting.

  2. I’m proud to be one of the inspirations of this Margot, and I totally agree with all your choices, good frightening stuff. And also share Fiction Fan’s reco of the Last Seance, which I found terrifying.

    • Moira – I’m very grateful for the inspiration – trust me! Given previous conversations we’ve had, I almost added Jamaica Inn to this list, but didn’t at the last minute. I definitely should’ve added The Last Seance, though. Truly creepy…

  3. I’m not necessarily one that goes in for scary books but all the same, i should at least watch a scary movie tonight! Happy Halloween Margot 🙂

    • Thank you, Sergio – And to you as well. 🙂 And sometimes I think well-done films can be at least as frightening as any book. I’m sure with your knowledge of great crime films, you’ll have at your fingertips a whole list of fine frights that are just perfect for the occasion.

  4. I know you have Shirley Jackson already for “The Lottery” (and agree with you that it is TRULY frightening)…but the same author’s “The Haunting of Hill House” is another masterpiece of terror.

    If I were including horror stories, I’d probably opt for something by M. R. James. As a general rule, he avoided describing the horrors – they were usually glimpsed out of a corner of someone’s eye. Among his best and creepiest: “Count Magnus,” “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” “Casting the Runes” and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.” James’s influence can be found in some fine Golden Age mysteries by the likes of Edmund Crispin and John Dickson Carr.

    • Les – Let’s face it; Jackson knew how to write truly scary stories. She was just amazing at that! Thanks too for mentioning M.R. James. It’s interesting that he had real influence, but not everyone is really of his work or his influence. I’m glad you brought it up. In fact, one of these times I ought to do a spotlight on his work.

  5. The Lottery sounds appealing…
    The Shining with the Hotel California back drop is my scary pick.

  6. Ms. Kinberg, Happy Hallowe’en! I have read some of these authors but not these particular novels. Shirley Jackson was a terrific writer. She wrote short stories in a way you didn’t need to read full-length novels. I haven’t read a scary or horror book in a long time and if I do, it’d probably be the vintage-Gothic kind.

    • Thank you, Prashant 🙂 – I agree completely with you about Shirley Jackson. She was brilliant at creating rich stories that didn’t need the length of a novel for the telling. And I don’t blame you for preferring the vintage Gothic sort of story. Those can be quite frightening.

  7. Col

    Highsmith and Rendell are on the stacks somewhere – looking forward to them both.

  8. Kathy D.

    Avoid scary movies and books. Not my thing. Most I’ll so is read some psychological suspense, but it depends on how severe it gets. Paddy Richardson’s books are my speed.
    My sister reminds me that when she watched horror movies, I’d leave the room. When we were young, our mother dropped us off at the YMCA to see Poe’s The Telltale Heart. A big heart was erected, which was pounding. You could see the heart throbbing. That was it! From then on, no horror.
    Murders in the Rue Morgue was a mystery, not scary; that was fine.

    • Kathy – I think Paddy Richardson’s work is excellent; don’t blame you for liking it as well as you do. An Murders in the Rue Morgue is a classic of early detective fiction. As for frightening stories and films? They’re definitely not for everyone.

  9. tracybham

    No scary stories for me. I have read Judgment in Stone, eons ago. And I plan to read Strangers on a Train, in 2015 I hope.

    • Tracy – I think Strangers on a Train is a really well-written book on several levels, not the least of which is the way Highsmith builds suspense. If you do read it I hope you’ll post about it.

  10. Margot – Terrific list of titles and a good find re: Moira’s post. I would add to the mix George du Maurier’s Trilby, which is not strictly speaking a horror novel but has some really creepy aspects. I just saw the 1931 movie version, Svengali, with John Barrymore and it’s genuinely atmospheric with a great performance by Barrymore in the title role.

    • Bryan – I completely agree with you about Svengali. It is moody, atmospheric and even creepy and yes, Barrymore gives a terrific performance. I’ll confess I’ve not read the novel, but I’m not surprised you found it had some eerie aspects to it. I should put that novel on my reading list…

  11. I remember reading about The Lottery right here a very long time back. Sounded creepy then, still does not.
    I am not one for creepy stories, and avoid them if I can. Even creepy scenes in books, I often skip! But creepy short stories, I might just be able to read!

    • Natasha – The Lottery is a really creepy story. And it’s a tribute to Jackson’s skill that it is also not what you’d call gory. You’re not the only one who avoids creepy scenes and books. I think a lot of people would rather not have that kind of chill. If you do decide to read The Lottery at some point, I’ll be keen to know what you think of it.

  12. I got cold chills just at the mention of Shirley Jackson. This is indeed a creepy post, Margot.

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