A 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.