Halloween is approaching and there are lots of horror classics that people read for the sake of indulging the season. As for myself, while I often revisit horror stories that have pleased me in the past, I really enjoy discovering horror stories that I have not read, particularly older stories that are largely neglected in this era of Stephen Kings and Clive Barkers (thought there is nothing wrong with either of those gentlemen). For the sake of alleviating my own guilt at long neglecting the writers below, I have compiled a short list of short stories that are, for my tastes, in equal merit to the more celebrated icons of Horror. Many of these are in public domain, so you can read them online for free. That said, there is nothing better than holding an actual book in your hand in the Witching Hours and reading by candlelight (or lamplight, if you must).
“The Phantom Rickshaw”, By Rudyard Kipling
A horror story and simultaneously a black comedy, this tale concerns a man who abused a young woman’s affections for ungentlemanly ends, after which he abandons her— rather callously— so that she dies of a broken heart. Just when the narrator believes his life is changing for the better (with a new fiancee), he becomes haunted by a rickshaw and the young woman who had only recently pined away. The story is at turns funny and tragic. While Kipling has become more well known for The Jungle Book, I am of a mind that he should be equally regarded for his other works, including his horror stories. He was, in terms of skill and imagination, equal to Poe, utilizing his understanding of human psychology and society to concoct excellent stories to please the most jaded reader.
“Strange Event In The Life Of Schalken The Painter”, By Sheridan Le Fanu
While many people are aware of Sheridan Le Fanu’s seminal work “Carmilla” because of its themes of lesbian eroticism and vampirism, Le Fanu wrote several works of equally interesting topics, as well as macabre atmosphere. The abovementioned story is perhaps my favorite horror story that Le Fanu wrote. It is masterfully told, of course, with all of its lyrical writing, but what is most impressive about this morbid story is what it implies throughout the tale. Le Fanu was an expert of exactitude and could write so as to provide the reader with the scantiest clues to circumscribe what is happening within the story without forthrightly stating it. And the story is all the more powerful for what it withholds as much as for what it explicitly reveals.
“Toby Squire’s Will”, By Sheridan Le Fanu
A moral tale that is neither ham-fisted or tedious, “Toby Squire’s Will” is a story about morality (or the lack thereof) among several unpleasant characters. The cast of people are so unlikeable that the reader finds it difficult to favor any one side over the other among the contentious factions. The story is told very skillfully and with proper pacing that is never sluggish or bogged down in its own prose. As with all of Le Fanu’s works, it excels as an experience when read in silent solitude or spoken aloud.
“A Madman’s Manuscript”, By Charles Dickens
Perhaps the most well-known horror story penned by Charles Dickens (besides A Christmas Carol) is “The Signal Man”. Yet, “A Madman’s Manuscript” deserves more attention than it currently receives among the laudable literature of Dickens. It is written from the perspective of a man obsessed with a woman. Any reader with even a little bit of familiarity with the double-life that Dickens lived will wonder immediately if the narrator is not some wry caricature of Dickens’s own darker desires and latent madman. Even if it is not a fantastic story, it is interesting for its insights into Dickens’s brilliant, and neurotic, mind.
“The Ash Tree”, By M.R. James
While M.R. James is still read today by a large audience— more so than most other classic Horror writers except Lovecraft, Poe, and Stoker—the mention of his timeless stories is nonetheless justified. This is by far my favorite among his many excellent yarns, for it weaves together a story born of supernatural conceit and scientific rationalization. It is for the reader to decide which explanation best suits the misadventure of the subject in this story. Perfectly written with an excellent eye for detail, an ear for rhythm, and a discernment of diction, this story is both brief and bountiful in its atmosphere. It is a masterwork and deserves credit not only as a flight of fancy, but, contrarily, a pointed tale compelling with its plausibility.
“The Mezzotint”, By M.R. James
Although “Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is James’s most often celebrated story (or, at least, the most remarked upon), “The Mezzotint” is one deserving more recognition as well. Without saying too much, it is hard to believe the memorable Night Gallery episode “The Cemetery” would exist without this tale, for it is likely the inspiration of that excellent television episode. While not an actual page-to-screen adaptation, it is undoubtedly the thematic basis for that episode, at least in conceit.
“Twilight”, By Marjorie Bowen
I only recently discovered this lush, disturbing story by Marjorie Bowen. It is a beautifully written short story that is as decadent as Lucrecia Borgia herself (insomuch as the story is concerned). And like Borgia, the story takes a very eerie, nightmarish turn toward its final act, hinting at all of the debauchery which Borgia was accused of in her life (whether deservedly so or not). Bowen’s command of language and imagery has motivated me to seek her other stories wherever I might find them. Why she is not celebrated more, I do not understand.
“The House Of The Nightmare”, By Edward Lucas White
Despite its admittedly generic title, this horror story is memorable for many reasons. Oddly, while it is explicitly a ghost story, its truly horrific implications could categorize it loosely as Body Horror, much like his other, more famous story “Lukundoo”. A fear of pigs has never been more justified.
“The Kennel”, By Maurice Level
Written in a more Modern vein, and with a wry Black Humor slant on extramarital affairs that only a Frenchman could conceive and achieve without coming off as Melodrama, this story is full of sound and fury, but without signifying nothing. Atmospheric, briskly paced, and sly, there is no supernatural element in its design: only basic human nature and all of its darkening complications.
“Gavon’s Eve”, By E.F. Benson
An adroitly painted vista of Scotland folklore mixed with horror, this tale combines old mythical motifs with modern sensibilities for storytelling. Excellent descriptive passages. Excellent atmosphere. Benson is another unsung hero of literature.
“The Case of Lady Sannot”, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Widely known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle also dabbled in other genres. This story combines his love of the macabre with his love of human trickery and crime. A revenge story without a whiff of the supernatural, it excels on the merits of its narrative and its devilish ending. Like Maurice Level’s story, this one is concerned with human nature and the demons inside our hearts. Simultaneously, it is a case that would have pleased Holmes, if only in its criminal machinations.
“The Giant Wisteria”, By Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman is best known for her psychological allegory “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which concerned itself with injustice toward Women. I must be in the minority because although I acknowledge “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a superior work, her story “The Giant Wisteria” is, in my estimation, a superior story. It is, of course, well-written, but not only well-written in its sense of craft, but its sense of restraint. Gilman does not reveal overmuch, nor wallow in melodrama. If anything, there is a sense of detached condemnation in the story rather than an explicitly vociferous pursuit of a message. Like the characters in the story, the writer pieces together the past events to reveal an act of terror as if a historian recounting a period of history. It certainly reflects on the suffering of Women throughout history, but does so subtly, without impairing the narrative.
Additionally, I would recommend anything by Lafcadio Hearn. The traditional Japanese tales he recorded for the sake of posterity are all excellent stories in and of themselves, but are also keen portals into the culture of Japan (if you happen to enjoy Japanese culture, as I do).