It seemed a solid concept - and people liked it - so here we go again, harking back once more to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage), for a compilation of short horror stories by American and Canadian writers - some you might have heard of, some might be new to you - that are all well worth a read. I hope you find something to explore on the list!
Where possible, the title/author link will take you to Amazon where the story is available as an ebook (usually as part of a collection) - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.
The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury
There are many of Ray Bradbury stories that I could have chosen for this, such as The Small Assassin, but I love The Veldt from The Ilustrated Man which I read in my early teens. Detractors of Bradbury say that his work is predictable and sentimental. I've certainly read more graphic and scary stories but when you put him in context with his time he becomes startling and original. I think he was a pioneer with one foot in the past of small American towns, railroads and carnivals and the other in a future of space rockets and robots. Whether he was writing horror, sci fi, fantasy, crime or romance, his effortless style belied his skill as a master of his craft.
The Veldt is set in a Happylife Home, an automated house that sees to the Hadley family's every need. The children are particularly attached to their playroom, which can reproduce any environment, and furious when their parents decide it's not good for them anymore.
"And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the yellow dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them was in your eyes and the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions and summer grass, and the sound of matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent noontide, and the smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths."
chosen by Priya Sharma
Goodbye, Dark Love, by Roberta Lannes
Having first read Stephen King in the early 80s, I used his book Danse Macabre as my guide to the genre and through it discovered a lot of great writers, books and films I might have otherwise missed. In the mid-80s, he championed a young English writer called Clive Barker, which led me to the excellent Books Of Blood series. Through those, I discovered Splatterpunk and then, quite by chance one lunchtime in John Menzies in Corby, an anthology called Cutting Edge. I was already aware of the editor, Dennis Etchison and a lot of the contributors (including Clive Barker) but it was a short story called Goodbye, Dark Love by Roberta Lannes that really grabbed my attention. The tale of Marla, in the bedroom with her now-dead lover, it was sexual, painful, terrifying and brutally realistic. According to the editors notes, it was Ms Lannes first published story and I thought it was astonishing then and I still do now (I re-read it just before writing this piece). Unflinching, wonderfully written, this is a real treat of a dark-as-night horror story and well worthy of your attention.
chosen by Mark West
The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson
"How far down do the roots go?" Shirley Jackson's most famous short story is of course The Lottery, but the one that really crawls under my skin is The Tooth. Clara visits a dentist to have a tooth pulled. She must endure a long bus journey to get there first, and at various stops she is dogged by a strange man who murmurs seductively to her about a mythical place. Clara is disorientated from both her toothache and codeine, so we can't be sure if he's even real. Once she reaches the dentist, she becomes obsessed by the idea that her tooth is all she is, that "only as the bearer of her tooth" is she of any interest, and that once it is extracted, she has lost something of herself - if not her entire identity. The story gets weirder and weirder and by the end we're in as hallucinatory a state as Clara. There's a Yellow Wallpaper feel to the story and it leaves me just as unnerved. It has the authenticity of a story that could only have been written by someone truly haunted by her own mind and the places it takes her against her will.
chosen by Thana Niveau
Cain Rose Up, by Stephen King
I first met Stephen King in 1988. I was 18 years old, living in London and just started at University. Stephen was 41, living in Bangor, Maine and had just published his 21st and 22nd novels the previous year. Every Friday there was a second hand bookstall on Holloway Road, not far from where I lived. One week I couldn't find anything of interest in the sci-fi/fantasy section and, as I had nothing to read, I picked up The Dead Zone for 70p. I finished the book the same day and spent the rest of my first year hunting through second hand bookshops for Stephen King's back catalogue. Towards the end of that year I picked up Skeleton Crew, and in an effort to focus on my exams, I decided to wrap it up as a present to myself and open it after I’d finished revising. I think it stayed sealed for about two hours before I decided to treat myself as a reward for finishing a chapter on Accounting.
For me, what makes Cain Rose Up such a powerful story is the brevity of the text. In just a couple of terrible pages Curt Garrish’s life is exposed. It’s the fact that even his closest friends don’t suspect what is going to happen; that we know he is an admired student; that we know he has thought about this moment, planned it. We know so much about Garrish, his life, his history, his feelings. Even now, I finish Cain Rose Up and think “I remember it was longer…” but it’s all in there, every word carries weight. Every sentence is important. Nothing is wasted.
Berenice, by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was THE author that showed me the difference between reading a story and feeling a story. For Christmas somewhere around 1987, my parents gave me a Poe collection and that is where I met Berenice - I say met, because I read the beginning of the story, but I felt the end. Although we never hear from Berenice herself, I suffered her horror at having been mistakenly presumed dead, buried alive and then, at the moment she could have been saved by her fiancé digging her up, he instead pulls her teeth and leaves her, screaming at her own graveside. I presumed the last part, because Poe never shows it, but I could just imagine it from the evidence in his study.
chosen by Kim Talbot Hoelzli
Purists may wonder why I’ve chosen Harlan Ellison, science fiction’s acerbic wunderkind, for inclusion on a horror mixtape. Simply put, Harlan is horror as fuck. True, this story concerns the survivors of a dead Earth and an insane supercomputer, but such sci-fi trappings are window dressing for the tale’s real focus. “And what’s that?” you ask. Some of the most soul-destroying prose set to paper. It covers all the bases, including body horror, quasi-bestiality, and brutal violence. Yet its power comes from drenching these visceral concerns in a tidal wave of dread, heartache, and paranoia. Told you: Horror as fuck.
Buckets, by F Paul Wilson
Most people when they hear the name F. Paul Wilson immediately think of The Keep or Repairman Jack and although they are both fantastic storylines, I have a fondness for his short stories. In Soft & Others: Stories of Wonder and Dread you will find a stellar collection of stories from sci-fi to horror, many that have been out of print for years. One that really stands out is Buckets, a controversial story that was met with scathing reviews. It tells the story of an abortionist who comes face to face with those he so easily terminated. Truly a hair-raising read!
Sticks, by Karl Edward Wagner
If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise.
Sticks is Karl Edward Wagner's homage to the weird tradition, and has been collected several times since it first appeared in Whispers back in the early '70s. It's also, purportedly, based on a true story of illustrator Lee Brown Coye's experiences in 1938 in a farmhouse in the Mann Brook region. I didn't know that when I first read it, in the Arkham House reprint of the Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology, and even if I had, it couldn't have made the impact of the tale any stronger than it was already.
I don't know if it's because I'm a country lad and spent a lot of my time rambling in woodland and playing with sticks myself, but something in this story crept into me and stayed there. I was reminded of it strongly in The Blair Witch Project, and that made the movie even more creepy for me, but the story itself, simple enough as it is in plot, has depth and heft and a capacity to make you look over your shoulder to make sure you're not being watched. It still strikes a chord today, even after repeated readings. It's the kind of story I aspire to write, and reminds me, in a way, of Algernon Blackwood's The Willows, or Machen's The White People. It's in good company, and deserves to be.
chosen by Willie Meikle
For The Blood Is The Life, by Francis Marion Crawford
I feel it might perhaps be a cheat for this Mixtape to pick an American author who is renowned for writing horror set in Italy! This story's scenes are vivid and its events chilling. I could easily imagine myself sitting atop that tower with those gentlemen, looking at that mound and its indistinct figure in the setting sun. While the back story of poor Angelo is told, I constantly had the image of that mound in my head, reminding me that this story has no happy or definitive ending. This is a vampire tale, but a subtle one. If it’s chills rather than gore or sudden frights that you’re looking for, this story is well worth your time.
chosen by Charlotte Courtney-Bond
There Will Come Soft Rains, by Ray Bradbury
For me, Bradbury's tale of an automated house that continues its duties despite its owners being killed by an atomic bomb blast, was a highlight of the truly marvellous The Martian Chronicles.
I first read this when I was fourteen and was taken with its structure. The tone and pacing are remarkable in that the reader is introduced to a light yet sinister refrain as the house chirps happily to a family that no longer exists; the sedate narrative gradually picking up pace as the pet dog returns starving, shut out of the kitchen as the house cooks meals that will never be eaten. As the dog dies of radiation poisoning, it signals the demise of the house, the narrative flow becoming frenetic as the house succumbs to fire and is ultimately destroyed with the exception of a wall with a speaking clock that recites the time ad infinitum.
Inspired by the anti-war poem by Sarah Teasdale, the intense melancholy and incredible sense of hopelessness in Bradbury's tale demonstrates the power of the short story when in the hands of a true master.
chosen by Dave Jeffery
Mrs Todd's Shortcut, by Stephen King
I first discovered King when I was in my early teens – and while I have a great fondness for most of his shorts, Mrs Todd’s Shortcut is one of the ones I enjoy coming back to most. Found in his Skeleton Crew collection, it‘s a deceptively simple tale that tells of one woman’s crusade for a better shortcut and the man who’s there to witness the stranger parts of it. The easy going relationship between Mrs Todd and her friend, Homer Buckland, makes this a comforting story to read, and Mrs Todd’s fearless determination in her adventures are great fun; but it’s the hints of otherworldly horrors that really make it one of my go-to re-reads, as I’ve always been a fan of stories where the borders between worlds are thin enough for things to crossover. In this case, it’s Mrs Todd’s neverending quest for the best shortcut that provides the reality slippage as it takes her down all manner of eldritch roads – roads that cross the same kind of worlds where the creatures found in The Mist and From a Buick 8 might hail from, where the foliage will snatch the hat from your head and time is skewed enough to reverse aging. Roads where anything is possible, and what is not to love about that?
chosen by Jenny Barber
Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity, by David Morrell
I love this story. It’s the only thing I have ever read that has made me miss my train stop, hitting me out of the blue as ‘just’ the next story along in Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil anthology. It made it so I can never look at a painting again without studying it for tiny, screaming faces. I love its concept of ‘lancing the creative abscess’ as palliation for encroaching insanity. I love the tortured artist stabbing his eyes out when that insanity of bubbling, incessant, gnawing creativity all becomes too much. I love this story. And I’ll outlast Van Dorn.
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert
The Hanging Game, by Helen Marshall
I bought Helen Marshall’s collection Gifts for the One Who Comes After at its launch at Fantasycon a few years ago. Already familiar with her outstanding prose, the book came with the added lure of a novelty cat ring! The Hanging Game remains one of my favourite stories ever, opening the collection and setting the tone for the stories that follow. In this story, Marshall conjures a world of wilderness, of spruce and cedar and bears, where Hangjaw holds dominion. The hanging game, played by the logger’s children, is a strange rite of passage that allows them glimpses of the future but leaves them indebted to Hangjaw. The Hanging Game is a beautiful, haunting story that speaks of the deals we make in forging our destinies.
chosen by V. H. Leslie
House Taken Over, by Julio Cortázar
House Taken Over by Argentinian author Julio Cortázar has to be one of the greatest pieces of Latin American strange fiction ever written. Short and matter of fact in its telling, the story’s plot seems deceptively simple. The narrator and his sister live in a big, sprawling house - we assume inherited but are never told so - which is gradually taken over by ‘them’. Who ‘they’ are we are never told, for the siblings are unable to enter the parts of the house which ‘they’ have occupied; the two of them live an existence further and further constrained as more and more of the house is rendered off-limits. The story really is just an expansion of its title.
But to try to understand just what it means is to enter a labyrinth of ambiguity and omission. Is it a ghost story? Maybe. Is it a perceptive psychological allegory? Uh, maybe? An astute political parable? Maybe, maybe. The House is all these things and more; TARDIS-like it encompasses more inside itself than at first glance seems possible. It’s one of those stories that, upon finishing, you immediately turn back to the start and re-read.
I first read House Taken Over in the huge anthology Black Water (ed. Alberto Manguel), sadly out of print but well worth hunting out if you can. You can also find it in Cortázar’s superb collection Blow Up & Other Stories. If you do seek it out, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Because, while much is unclear about House Taken Over one thing is beyond doubt: it is a work of absolute genius.
These Things We Have Always Known, by Lynda E. Rucker
Although I think we Brits can cheekily claim Lynda E. Rucker as one of our own, one of the big draws of her writing, for me, is the vivid sense of place she always conjures, and the Twin Peaks-esque town of Cold Rest is such an alien landscape for me that I find it endlessly compelling. A wire-taut tension runs through the story, manifesting in Neil's weird sculpures, Sarah's secretive poetry, Gary's crippling headaches and paranoid sense of impending doom; an undercurrent of such virulent strangeness that the entire narrative is brilliantly uncomfortable. Rucker's subtle handling of the monstrous darkness at the core of Cold Rest is simply brilliant and blends beautifully with the small-town mundanity. Nothing is as it seems, whether it be the bigger picture or Neil's life on a macro level.
The Colour Out Of Space, By H. P. Lovecraft
Given the current fashion for denigrating Lovecraft as a writer because of his politics, and in some cases magnifying his failings to the detriment of his considerable achievements, I’m even happier to declare that The Colour Out Of Space is my favourite of his stories, and among the greatest tales of awesome horror that I know. The alien colour is his single purest symbol of the otherness of the universe. It’s one of the earliest examples, and one of the most powerful, of his increasing use of science in his fiction, which doesn’t expunge the occult and fantastic but often embraces them, drawing on the imaginative strengths of both (just as he unites the British and American traditions of the field, as Fritz Leiber would subsequently do). The narrative structure is exemplary, building up suggestiveness that gathers into gruesomeness and passes beyond it into awe, and the modulation and variety of language should be an example to us all – it certainly has been to me. Form and content are one throughout the whole climactic scene. The extended coda sinks into language that is mostly plain, but of course this has gained resonance from the entire narrative – even such an unemphatic phrase as “the splotch of grey dust” – and nearly at the end we find the extraordinary device of repeating an entire sentence from early in the narrative, an effect close to poetry or music. Lovecraft devoted his career in fiction to trying to develop the perfect form for the weird tale, and I believe The Colour Out Of Space is one.
chosen by Ramsey Campbell
Wendigo's Child, by Thomas F. Monteleone
I don’t know that I can claim this is my favourite American short horror story, but it is definitely one that has stuck in my mind over the years and given me copious nightmares. I first read it when I was nine or ten, the book, borrowed from the Longreach Library, was Monster Tales edited by Roger Elwood. Marty Alvarez explores an Indian cemetery, finds a mummy and takes it home. He puts it in the cellar. Cellars were never going to be places that gained my affections − dark, subterranean, damp − but after reading Wendigo’s Child there was no chance whatsoever that I might soften my stance towards them. Needless to say it doesn’t end well.
chosen by Angela Slatter
Riding The Black, by Charles L. Grant
Some day I'll tell you how Harlan Ellison changed my life, but not today. Today, I want to talk about Charles L. Grant.
Elmore Leonard (who knew a thing or two about writing) once said you should never start a story with weather. I'd add the caveat: "unless you're Charlie Grant". No one wrote weather like Charlie. No one else could make it speak and breathe the way he did. It wasn't just mood, it was a character, and he wrote place as well as Machen or Blackwood.
It pains me that he's not talked about more, that there aren't websites full of interviews and columns that he wrote; that his name doesn't come up more often when people speak of Greats within our genre, because he was.
The cadence and the rhythm of his prose, the attention to the ebb and flow of it, is almost musical; certainly poetic. It demands attention, full and undivided. Not because it's 'difficult', but because it's delicate. Fragile. And to break it is to lose its finely wrought sensibilities, perfectly balanced craft. It demands to be savoured. No use chomping down on this one, you have to let it melt in the mouth, let the flavours overwhelm you.
I feel like I should have a porch to sit and read him on at the end of the day - perhaps the best time to read Charlie - as the sunset bleeds from shades of blood to shades of dying (that's one of Charlie's right there), as shadows lengthen and the night sets in, and the clock in the hall talks death to itself (that's one of his too).
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks re-reading Charlie’s short stories (those I have to hand), and trying to pick just one. I almost settled on Coin Of The Realm, because there’s something sort of perfect about it. Something very classic, very TWILIGHT ZONE, very American about it. But I’m choosing Riding The Black instead, and here’s why:
Because it just won’t fucking go away.
I don’t know that it’s the ‘best’ Charles L. Grant story ever written; as with all Great writing, and all Great writers the work grows, and changes, and means something more, or less, or different every time that you return to look again. But, of this I’m sure: I’ve read a tonne of Charlie’s stories in the last few weeks. Swum in their deep, dark waters; breathed their shadows and tasted their particular chill. I’ve wallowed in the worlds that Charlie created. A week ago I closed the covers on those books and came back home. This story that came back with me.
It haunts me.
Not because it was the scariest. Not because it shocked me so. Because it moved me. Because it oozes sadness. And because I’m not quite sure what it means. Is the guy just an ageing gunfighter who outlived his times? Is he a God or a Legend? Is he one of the Four Horsemen? Is he the Devil, or Death itself?
I don’t know. Sometimes I think one, sometimes the other.
But I’m sitting here, with the kids playing in the room behind me, and it’s still with me. He’s still with me. Haunting. Lingering. Like the smell of the summer as the clouds close in and thunder rolls in the distance. There’s gooseflesh prickling my arms. And I’m smiling, and thinking of Charlie...
chosen by Neil Snowdon
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates just gets it. All of it. Everything. I can’t remember ever reading a single one of her stories and not going, oh my God, yes! Yes!! Because she isn’t just a brilliant story teller, she’s that other special, largely indefinable thing that a writer either is or isn’t. I always know that I’m going to love what she’s written, and I always do.
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is probably one of her more well known stories, and critiqued half to death, even though it’s a fairly simple premise: a young, spoiled, bored teenage girl drawn (or trapped) by the attentions of an older man (or someone – something – pretending to be an older man). The stifling security of home; of family versus the exciting, dark, grownup unknown. Oates captures wonderfully what it is to be a teenage girl: sullen, scornful, naive, curious, desperate to be noticed, adored, accepted. So certain outside and terrified inside. And the story is a masterclass in building unease, tension, horror. It is layered, effortlessly clever, and deeply unsettling. And that truly wonderful last line: I know it just about by heart, but it still gives me goosebumps every time I read it.
I didn’t discover Oates until my late twenties, but in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t read this story when I was that sullen, certain teenager. It wouldn’t have scared her half as much to death as it does the me now old enough to be her mother.
The Summer People, by Shirley Jackson
Generally my tastes in horror fiction run to the bizarre, the supernatural, the grotesque, and the formally innovative. So it’s strange that my favourite tale of dread by a US writer is relatively straightforward in its telling and entirely naturalistic. The Summer People is the story of a couple on the brink of old age, the Allisons, who decide that, rather than return to the city, they will stay on at their summer cottage in the country past Labor Day, something they have never done before. The ordinarily friendly and helpful locals turn against them, one by one, and their links to the outside world are cut: their telephone goes dead, their car is tampered with.
It’s as simple as that: no weirdness, no experimental technique, no rending of the veil. And yet it’s a story I can’t shake. What makes The Summer People so effective is its structure. Basically, it’s all preamble. We don’t get to find out what happens to the Allisons, as whatever it is takes place after the story’s end. Their fate preys on our minds; we imagine the worst. And the story toys with our emotions too; the sense of the Allisons’ growing isolation is harrowing, but we are aware that, in some ways, they deserve whatever is coming to them, for their flaunting of the laws of the place, for their supercilious attitude and condescension. The story also contains what must be one of the most chilling moments in all fiction: the Allisons finally receive a letter from their son for which they’ve been waiting, only to find, for all that it seems quite ordinary on the surface, it ‘doesn’t sound like’ him.
chosen by Timothy Jarvis
Lovecraft has become something of a hot potato in certain corners of the interweb of late over his often racist, bigoted and sexist musings that raise their multiple hydra-like heads through his writings. I think it’s important to note that Lovecraft was very much of his time, something I always take into consideration when reading his work, rightly or wrongly. Lovecraft's contribution to the genre has been a huge, all-consuming, influence over a number of our most talented horror writers. He practically invented cosmic horror and many a grandmaster has paid tribute to him over the years. He certainly sparked my interest.
The Alchemist was written in 1908 when Lovecraft was a wet-behind-the-ears spotty adolescent eager to make his way in the world and is told in first person. The main protagonist, Count Antoine's, ancestor was responsible for the death of a dark and evil wizard, Michel Mauvais. However, the wizard had a son, Charles, as proficient as his father in his craft. Michel was said to have sacrificed his own wife in a gift to the Devil. Charles swore revenge on not only Antoine's ancestor but also on all his descendants. He cursed them to die on reaching their thirty second birthday. Antoine was raised by Pierre, a servant, and as the castle began to collapse they ended up residing in one tower. Pierre eventually passed on and Antoine began exploring the towers himself and here I will let you read the rest for yourself.
This is great because we are reading Lovecraft's earlier work, as a young man. His descriptions and ability to tell a story so eloquently from first person POV show even at this age and this was one of my first readings of magic in an old world style. Such is Lovecraft's influence, his work is often reflected in the stories I am drawn to and the games in which I roleplay. This short really has it all. There is the old, mysterious castle with a dark past; a curse that needs deciphering; murder and mayhem; the ghost in the tower and a young man born into this world. What this short also has is a brilliantly fresh, engaging and totally out of the ordinary style of writing for now, let alone 1908, which will have you wondering “why can’t all horror stories always be this good?”
chosen by Carrie Buchanan
Pop Art, by Joe Hill
“My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.” With this, one of the great opening lines I feel, the reader is either on-board for the tale that follows or they aren’t. Those that are able to suspend their disbelief for the simple, yet original, premise of a boy made of plastic and air are rewarded with a simply amazing story that has much to say about pursuing your dreams in spite of your limitations. Hill makes the oddness of the story work by grounding it in a very recognisable world of inadequate parents, loneliness, school bullies, and blossoming friendships. It also has a perfect last line to go with that great opening, but I won’t spoil that here. I hope you’ll go read it for yourself. If you are as captivated by the story as I was, there is a beautiful chapbook that was put out in 2007 by Subterranean Press with a cover and illustrations by Gahan Wilson; tricky to find and a little pricey it is however a gorgeous presentation of a truly wonderful story.
chosen by Ross Warren
The king of the American Gothic short story has to be Edgar Allan Poe. I can wax lyrical for as long as you like about how he was the pioneer of the short form in American literature, and how in his short life he was also instrumental in the development of mystery and crime, as well as a bit of science fiction... I could, but I’m already in danger of making this piece longer than the particular short story I wanted to write about: The Masque of the Red Death.
Prince Prospero throws a party in plague time, believing the hideous, quick and bloody inducer of death is safely shut outside, while he and his courtiers get on with their hedonistic pursuits. Seemingly only the musicians remain nervous, stopping their play on every hour’s clock chime while they check they are still alive - they know Death is supposed to ring a bell, not sidle up to the buffet and pick at the cheese and pineapple. All the guests have been asked to dress in hideous, grotesque costumes, and they only look worse when seen in the light cast through the stained glass in each sumptuously decorated room, each a different colour. No wonder the band is fidgety! However, the Red Death comes dressed as a guest, too, and is a bit too convincing with all the real blood running down his face, so Prince Prospero spots him straight away, gets a bit angry, then drops down dead. Then so does everyone else. As quick as that.
The 1964 Hammer Horror version of this story stretched the story to a feature-film-like length, but spooky as the story is, there really isn’t much to it. It makes Peter Jackson’s 3-film version of The Hobbit look eminently sensible.
I don’t read any allegory into the tale as such. This is not really a case of ‘serve the rich party dudes right, Death is coming for us all in the end’. But I do really like it as an exploration of the grotesque aesthetic, and the way it hangs puns of a black humour throughout, with references to “this great fête”. Also“glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm—much of what has been since seen in ‘Hernani’" - a reference to Victor Hugo’s sumptuous drama, which was more famous for the fights breaking out in the audience at the première. A precursor to horror then, and perhaps also “decadent” literature. Perhaps a bit of Monty Python, too.
The Juniper Tree, by Peter Straub
When I first read this back in the late 1980’s, I didn’t think it was really a horror story. Now I realise it is more horrific than anything with zombies, vampires or ghosts. It is a thing of beauty, crafted by a master author.
The subject matter does not lend itself to an easy read, nor should it. The story at its basic form is about the sexual abuse of a boy, yet told in such a careful, powerful way, from the child’s point of view, about how the abuse affects his later life. Power, uncomfortable at times, but spellbinding.
The Wrong Grave, by Kelly Link
When I heard about this project I knew I wanted to do a story from Pretty Monsters. It's the book that brought me back to short stories and after much consideration I decided to go with the beginning. The first story in the book and one that still makes me smile and shudder just a little too. It starts with a boy called Miles, but I suppose although most of the story follows him, it's really Bethany's story. Bethany being dead doesn't detract from that one bit.
It's a story of love and bad poetry, dark and tender all at once, and a little bit funny too. It's hard to say much about a short story without spoilers. I can say it will leave you wondering, mostly about hair, also that I think it's ok if you think Miles is a bit of a twit really.
Link writes with agility and wit, balancing the darker elements with a lightness of touch that allows the reader to be charmed and unsettled all at once. I fell in love with pretty monsters a few years ago, as wholeheartedly as I fell in love with the Just So stories as a child, and the collection reminded me of the joy of peeping into a story, witnessing a moment rather than having the whole tale unfold in full.
chosen by Adele Wearing
Michael McDowell, despite his fine reputation among horror aficionados, is one of the lost writers of truly great modern horror fiction. His early death prevented him from developing a body of work as fiendishly readable and genuinely frightening as Stephen King’s. McDowell was principally a novelist, and – to my knowledge – only ever published two short stories. Mrs Mack was one. And it certainly demonstrates what a loss he was to the shorter horror form. The tale is set in one of McDowell’s traditional southern US states, where a rivalry between schoolteachers turns incredibly sinister as occult rituals are enacted, enabling one teacher to triumph over another. Nobody other than King could make the commonplace so memorably frightening. With allusions only to some dust and a smashed clock, McDowell triggers an extended scene shot through with a sense of dislocated space and time. The tale’s eponymous heroine ends up wandering her small part of the world forever more, trapped in a single nightmarish scenario. I first read this tale 25 years ago, but it feels like yesterday - just a single appearance of the moon in the past. Lucky me. Oh, but poor Mrs Mack…
chosen by Gary Fry
The Swimmer, by John Cheever
Perhaps not an obvious choice, perhaps not conventionally ‘horror’, but I believe it belongs to the genre inasmuch as it details the swift passage of time and one man’s awakening to the process, his seemingly sudden decline into old age and loneliness.
Neddy is not young when the story begins, but nor is he yet old – he’s compared to the last hours of a summer’s day – and he prides himself for his vitality and prowess, even has “a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure”. He challenges himself to travel the county via swimming pool, passing from one neighbour’s property to the next as he swims his way through suburbia. Parties and poolside drinks suggest a frivolous way of life and Neddy seems a popular man despite his tendency to neglect various people and even, as the story progresses, forgets small details about them. Later these details prove to be more significant - he doesn’t remember a friend’s operation, for example - and later still we learn he’s had troubles of his own he seems to have conveniently forgotten. A mistress asks “Will you ever grow up?” and it’s both a comment on his immaturity and a catalyst to speeding up the process of his self-awareness. He loses his strength in each pool, ages, becomes old, cold, and finally returns home to a house that is as empty as his own life has become. It’s a tragic story and for me very, very frightening.
chosen by Ray Cluley
I had never read anything by Elizabeth Hand or anything quite like The Erl-King when I first encountered it in one of the Datlow-Windling edited Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies in the mid 1990s. With its dark fairy tale underpinnings, it is certainly a descendent (whether deliberate or not) of stories like those in Angela Carter's The Red Chamber and Tanith Lee's Red as Blood but the elements that I know now are purely Hand territory made it stand out: the bohemian artist's community, the fading rock stars and Factory leftovers, here seen through the eyes of girls on the brink of adolescence, “the summer before the dark,” as Linette's mother Aurora calls it. It is Hand's juxtaposition of these elements with an enchanted forest and dangerous creatures from myth along with her decadent use of language that enraptured me along with the trajectory of Haley, the observer, and the one left behind. Hand explores similar territory in later stories (and novels/novellas) that are arguably even more brilliant as her work just gets better over the years, but I chose The Erl-King because it was my first foray into her distinctive vision of a world of artists and visionaries, iconoclasts who find cracks in the world that permit them to reach for the sublime but who may face an appalling price for their hubris. The Erl-King is sad and gorgeous and lush and horrifying and you should seek it out right now and read it.
chosen by Lynda E. Rucker
Miriam, by Truman Capote
When asked to write about a short story from an American or Canadian writer, I had to have a good long think. I didn't want to go for the obvious choices, but I wanted to write about a story that resonated with me - after days of mulling over it I decided I had to write about Miriam by Truman Capote.
Mrs H. T. Miller is a widower of many years, she lives alone and is proud of the fact that despite her age, she can still do everything for herself. On a trip to the cinema, she meets a girl called Miriam. Mrs Miller ends up paying for Miriam's ticket. And a few days later Miriam mysteriously appears at her door, and after agreeing to feed her a jam sandwich if she leaves, she allows her into the house. Miriam ends up getting a brooch from Mrs Miller, but after Mrs Miller refuses to give Miriam a goodnight kiss, Miriam flies into a rage and smashes a vase of flowers, then leaves. The next day Miriam arrives with a large box and proclaims that she is moving in. Mrs Miller runs downstairs to her neighbours in fear and asks them to come up and see if there is a girl or a large box in her flat. When they see neither she returns to her flat even more scared, but this prompts her to find an inner strength until...
Miriam is one of those stories that is open to all forms of discussion and debate, a wonderfully atmospheric tale filled with symbolism, such as the importance of colour in the story, rich writing that is the epitome of quiet horror, and an ending that is truly terrifying. While many will say this isn't horror, the exploration of loneliness and isolation and the fear of death for me makes it the perfect horror story.
chosen by Jim Mcleod
Dead Bodies Possessed by Furious Motion, by Gemma Files
I'm not sure when exactly I began to hear talk that Gemma Files was an exceptional Canadian horror writer, but in 2010 I decided to discover if the rumours were true. I bought her first collection, Kissing Carrion (2003), and read it quickly with a breathless admiration that happens only occasionally.
Immediately I wondered why this writer wasn't winning every award going (she had already nabbed the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction), and why she wasn't better known. But I had entered the Files Fan Club just when her talent was getting wider appreciation, and she was starting to publish the Hexslinger novels. Her latest book, Experimental Film (2015), just won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel.
But that first collection contained all the proof needed that Files was a creator of powerful, dark, visceral stories that attacked the twin obsessions of horror - sex and death - with uninhibited passion. And among all of them one of has lingered in my memory the most: Dead Bodies Possessed by Furious Motion.
I've always had a soft spot for vampire stories, yet it's a genre that often disappoints. Files' story is about the vampire Elder Tallbie, who is anarchic, lethal, and scornful of living within the restrictions of her kind established by the old guard. Elder's immortality gives her the widest possible perspective on living - once several human lifespans speed by it is easy to spot the falsehoods and conventions that people are enslaved by, especially when social mores, technology, and nations keep evolving. Vampires, stuck in a static body, but moving through a perpetually changing landscape, are the ultimate smack in the face against nature.
Elder's continual thirst for adventure and her ambition makes her one of the truly memorable vampire characters. What's astonishing is that Files creates Elder's superlative character arc spanning several decades in one short story, and ends it with Elder shooting for the stars, again refusing to be bound by anything, even planet Earth.
In a genre populated by moribund, languid, pretty vampires obsessed with petty agendas it's refreshing to read about one who embraces the future with fearless desire.
'Things were born in chaos, and they ended in chaos. And the only thing between chaos and chaos was velocity. So the only reason to go backwards, In Elder's eyes--
--was because you'd already reached the end.
My thanks, once again, to all the contributors!