October is the perfect month to look at the stories which have genuinely chilled my blood and which, if I pluck up the courage to re-visit them, have to be read in a busy place, with all the lights on. Here’s four which have left a lasting impression:
- M. R. James’ Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904)
The short story form can lend itself perfectly to raising hairs on the back of your neck very quickly. For me, there’s little more terrifying than the idea that there is something in your room, and James plays this out perfectly in this story. Parkins, a Cambridge academic, finds an old whistle on a Suffolk beach. Having blown the whistle, and determined to find out more about his discovery, he pockets the object. His actions awaken a terrifying force, something seemingly ancient and intent on avenging the theft of the whistle. If it’s possible to read between your fingers, I do it every time when I get to the line, ‘There had been a movement, he was sure, in the empty bed on the opposite side of the room’. Bedding will never quite seem the same again.
2. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983)
This has all the elements of a classic ghost story – and it is bloody terrifying. Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, has to visit Eel March House to sort out the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow. It is here that he learns the story of the late Jennet Humfrye, a young unmarried mother who lost her child. And it is she who people have seen, and it is she who will haunt Kipps now. Noises in empty rooms, sightings in the mist, terrifying consequences for all who see the wasted figure of the woman in black… even as I’m typing this, I’m feeling a cold chill creep across my shoulders.
3. Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991)
There had to be one from the master of psychological horror here – King does the unmasking of raw ambition and the horrors of human greed so well, and this is a novel which makes this a focus early on. A new shop, run by one Leland Gaunt, has opened and is drawing people in, providing each person with that which they think they need. Obviously, nothing is without its cost, as the inhabitants of Castle Rock discover. As with most of his novels, the horrors lie in what people are willing to do to others when the chips are down.
4. Sarah Hall’s The Little Stranger (2009)
This is a clever, clever novel and one which both plays along with and challenges the genre. Sinister, unexplained events at the crumbling Hundreds Hall are recounted by the pragmatic narrator Faraday, a local doctor with a personal interest in the house and its family. The novel charts social post-war changes for such large houses and the aristocracy, but it is also an excellent ghost story of sorts. Hall’s unreliable narrator may be doing his damnedest to find explanations for events but the events the family face are increasingly terrifying and Hall’s description of what happens when Mrs. Ayres goes to investigate noises in the old nursery made my blood run cold.
So there you have it. They’ve all scared me in an enjoyably terrifying way and they all play on our fears of the dark and the unexplained. I’d love to know which stories have had the same effect on you.