Laura Macfehin shares 10 stories that stay with you long after you’ve closed the book!
I have to say my number one favourite thing to read is spooky short stories. They are the literary equivalent of comfort food for me– mashed potatoes in book form. Ghost stories, stories of magic or horror or the unexplained–I love them all. So because sharing is caring here are ten stories that have stuck around in my psyche – I hope you find some new reads!
- Margaret Atwood Death by Landscape
The Canadian author has published many novels, short stories and volumes of poetry and whether she is writing dystopian futures or describing the protean friendships between girls there is always a cutting edge to her words; she is often funny but never safe.
Death by Landscape appears in Wilderness Tips (1991) and explains how Lois, now living alone has been defined her whole life by the disappearance of her friend Lucy, who vanished out of (or into) the landscape while they were on a canoeing trip as girls.
One of those stories that remains with you—a cumulative creepiness like that found in unconcerned nature, it contains what in my mind Atwood is best at—the description of formative female friendships, as well as an evocation of the instantaneous nature of tragedy.
2.Caitlin R Kiernan In the Waterworks (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)
Kiernan is an Irish-born writer from the southern states of America, whose dark fantasy works are steeped both in that Southern Gothic genre and in her scientific interests—she has published articles on paleontology, among other things.
In the Waterworks first appeared in her short story collection Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000) and recounts the experience of spindly schoolteacher Henry S. Matthews, whose fossil-hound habits around the foothills of the Appalachians lead to his sharing with the men of the Water Works Company an unusual discovery deep inside Red Mountain.
The story has tendrils of Lovecraft creeping around its edges but the writing and the atmosphere it conjures is all Kiernan, and delightfully monstrous.
3. Shirley Jackson A Visit
Jackson was born in 1916 in California, and from the get-go chafed at the culture and society she found herself in.
Her work has always a sense of unease, of something sinister in the seeming normality that the increasingly panicked protagonists find themselves in that conjures like no other writing a nightmare sense of sleep paralysis that cannot be woken from.
In A Visit Margaret is welcomed into the home of her school-friend Carla for the summer, and although she is so grateful to be there and the family are so pleased to have her there all the time reading it you will be shouting “but what is wrong—what is happening? Get out!” A Visit can be found in Jackson’s 1968 collection of stories Come Along With Me.
4. Dorothy K Haynes King of the Fair
Folk horror has been having a bit of a resurgence on the cinema screen in recent years, and it has always been a favourite genre of mine in film and in literature.
The ‘King for a Day’ theme has always been a popular one for horror writers—where an unwitting outsider is jokingly made king by the locals in keeping with some longstanding rural tradition—often to find that he is to lose more than his crown by the end of the day.
Haynes re-writes this narrative into the context of a garish English seaside pier, told from the perspective of the fool/king’s wife and in doing so gives it a sticky, sherry glazed domesticity that makes it all the more horrible.
Haynes was a Scots writer whose work regularly crops up in horror anthologies—she wrote short stories and novels as well as articles for The Scotsman.
Her own childhood had in its outline more than a little of the gothic to it—she grew up in an orphanage with her twin brother Leonard, and later married a former resident of the same orphanage.
It is impossible to read this story without hearing in your head the sound of carousel music, screams and the voice booming “who-o-o’ll be King of the Fair?”
5. Rosemary Timperley Harry
Timperley was born in North London in 1920 and wrote prolifically right up until her death in 1988 (on my thirteenth birthday, as it happens). Her stories appear in many anthologies—some of which she also edited and introduced.
She also wrote scores of novels, as well as plays and scripts for television. This story, Harry, has been filmed many times because it is so creepy in its imagery—in what is both seen and unseen.
Such ordinary things make me afraid. Sunshine. Sharp shadows on grass. White roses. Children with red hair. And the name—Harry. Such an ordinary name.
Harry himself is unseen by most, but not all in the story—but that does not stop him from exerting his will, however loving—on those around him.
6. Elizabeth Gaskell Lois the Witch
Gaskell was born in 1810 and is well remembered for her novels describing life across the whole strata of Victorian society, with a particular emphasis on the roles and lives of women.
She also wrote exceedingly spooky gothic fiction. Most often included in anthologies is the The Old Nurse’s Story – which features a cold dead child who cries and taps on the window—but even more haunting for me is her novella Lois the Witch (1861).
There is something so precarious and awful about the predicament of poor Lois Barclay—the English girl who finds herself left with unknown Puritan relatives on the raw edge of the wilderness in seventeenth century Massachusetts.
Satan may be abroad in that splintered settler community, but Mrs Gaskell knows that a girl’s greatest danger has always been the unrequited affections of an unwanted suitor.
7. Jean Rhys I Used To Live Here Once
By far the briefest story on this list, with I Used To Live Here Once Rhys shows that you the simplest moment—some pretty children in the sunshine, a split second realisation—can outlast some of the most verbose tomes in its power to stick with you.
Rhys was born on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean in 1890 and is best remembered today for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which functions as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. As someone who felt themselves a perpetual outsider in the British society she mainly lived in she had a knack for presenting a perspective unlooked-for in most literature of it’s time.
I Used to Live Here Once can be found in Rhys’s 1976 collection Sleep it Off, Lady
8. Delia Sherman Mrs Carstairs and the Merman
Of all the authors on this list Delia Sherman is my most recent discovery.
Born in Tokyo in 1951 this American writer has published young adult and adult fiction in the Fantasy genre, and her first short story collection—Young Woman in a Garden—came out in 2015.
She is a most satisfying world-builder whose fantastic environments look much like our own except for the presence of werewolves, paper-poppetts come to life or witches practising space bending magic.
The titular Mrs Carstairs is a late nineteenth century Massachusetts spinster and naturalist, with a ‘reputation of being very sound on the Mollusca of the New England coast’.
Then one day the stormy sea brings her a very interesting specimen indeed.
Not so frightening as fantastical I like this story very much—perhaps my penchant for the creature of Black Lagoon fame makes me a little biased— I can only hope we get more from her soon.
9. Joan Aiken Furry Night
Ok, so strictly speaking Furry Night isn’t really all that terrifying either, despite having lycanthropy at it’s golden-eyed heart.
Joan Aiken wrote plenty of stories that are really very spooky—she was a dab hand at the creepy—but perhaps because of the title or perhaps because of her distinct take on werewolves I love this story very much and often come back to it.
Aiken was born in Rye, in Sussex, in 1924 and is best remembered for her alternative history books for children, known collectively as the Wolves Chronicles.
She also published many collections of spooky stories and one supernatural novel for adults as well as novels that act as companions to some Jane Austen titles.
In Furry Night Dr Ian Peachtree is employed to act as secretary/physician to Sir Murdoch, a renowned Shakespearian actor who has had to retire from the stage due to his being a werewolf.
All seems to be alright until the local tradition of ‘furry night’ threatens to bring trespassers onto his land. Furry Night can be found in the collection A Bundle of Nerves (1976).
10. Kelly Link The Specialist’s Hat
Unlike the last two stories, The Specialist’s Hat is as spooky as all get out.
The first time I read it I found it so disturbing I had to read it again immediately to try to inoculate myself against its creeping horror.
Like all really good horror it is hard to put your finger on what it is about it that brings such chills; it taps into something inside yourself you didn’t know was there.
Kelly Link was born in Miami in 1969 and now lives in Massachusetts where she writes and co-manages Small Beer Press with her husband.
She has published several collections of stories as well as individual stories like this one, for which she won the World Fantasy Award in 1999.
And lucky for you, you can read The Specialist’s Hat straight away, for here is a link to it. http://kellylink.net/specialists-hat
Be sure and let me know what it did to you.
Surprise! Because you are such very good readers here is a Bonus Story: Joyce Carol Oates Where Are You Going Where Have You Been. Because no list of creepy stories should be without a story by Oates, the author of some of the most horrifying of short horror fiction. You are very welcome.
Surprise surprise! I am always on the look out for new reading suggestions.
Comment with your favourite creepy or fantastical story is (any author, any story) and I will put you in the draw to win a brand new copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier.
This competition is open to any blog reader anywhere in the world but only for a week! I will draw a winner on August the 9th 2017, so hit me with your story suggestions and good luck!
This competition is now closed! Congratulations Helena!