Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ten little tales for a late of a Halloween night

{Painting by an unidentified child, spotted in the window of a daycare on Foster Avenue in Chicago.}

As I wind up this widdershins walk around my October library, spooky volumes piled around me where they've been pulled from the shelves for a consultation with a strange story here, a creepy conte there, it seems fitting to make the last shovelful of earth thrown on the corpse of the month a list. So herewith are my current ten favorite creepy stories for Halloween. They're offered with some context and content, in no particular order, and with a bit of extra matter and a few also-rans. Hope you find some here you enjoy.

1 "The Hour after Westerly," by Robert M. Coates (1947)

It's fitting to start with this story, the least overtly creepy of the bunch, yet the one that, via James Hynes's recommendation years ago on his blog, reminded me of the chilly pleasures with which creepy stories had invested my childhood and thus brought them into my adult life. In the story, a man heads home from work, and . . . something happens. Time goes missing. We get a glimpse of what he may have experienced--and there are contours of it that are familiar from our own experience of memory and forgetting, but Coates's deliberate vagueness leaves much of it a mystery. As Ray Bradbury put it in his introduction to Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, which is the best place to find the story,
We are on the outer shell of a mystery, delicately touching at it, afraid to go away without finding the answer, yet afraid, perhaps more so, of the answer itself.
Bradbury is writing specifically about Coates's story, but his description could easily apply to any number of uncanny tales--that looking-between-your-fingers feeling is at the heart of the best ones.

2 "The Sadness of Detail," by Jonathan Carroll (1990)

I wrote about this one in 2010, after I encountered it in Poe's Children, an excellent anthology edited by Peter Straub. A tired woman takes a break in a Berlin cafe, only to have a stranger complain about her humming. Then:
I made an “excuse me” face and was about to turn around again when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a number of photographs he had spread out on the table in front of him. Most of the pictures were of my family and me.

“Where did you get those?”

He reached behind him and, picking one up, handed it to me. Not looking at it, he said, “That is your son in nine years. He’s wearing a patch because he lost that eye in an automobile accident."
What would it take to make you believe you were being told the future? And once you believed, what would you be willing to do to shape it?

3 "Mr. Lupescu," by Anthony Boucher (1947)

This is the purest example of the twentieth-century magazine story in the bunch: short, straightforward, and packing a hell of a twist. It's so brief and potent you could almost memorize it as a party entertainment--and I guarantee you'd entertain if you did so. It's most readily available in the two-volume American Fantastic Tales anthology that Peter Straub edited for the Library of America a few years back (which, let's be clear, should already be on your shelves.)

4 "The Inner Room," by Robert Aickman (1968)

Aickman's stories are so firmly located in the uncanny that reading them almost feels physical at times, as if we're understanding their images and disjunctions at some level beyond that of culture or the mind, something more primitive. This story, which begins with a dollhouse with an unusual floorplan, takes a couple of unexpected, wonderfully chilling turns. You can find it in Aickman's collection The Wine-Dark Sea.

5 "The Specialist's Hat," by Kelly Link (1998)

Creepy old house with a dark history. Family that has recently suffered loss. Twins. A forest. A babysitter. An attic. Familiar elements, all good ingredients for a weird tale, but Link makes of them something wholly new, achieving a voice that somehow feels both mythic and contemporary. The child-like matter-of-factness with which the narrator relates each new, strange, disturbing development is unforgettably chilling. It's available in Link's Stranger Things Happen.

6 "The Rock," by Shirley Jackson (1951)

Any number of Shirley Jackson stories could have made this list, but "The Rock" is my favorite, for it offers a great example of Jackson's greatest virtue as a writer of short stories: a refusal to fully explain, trusting instead to the mood she's generated. This one finds a pair of sisters retreating to an "rather ordinary summer resort" with the unwell husband of one of them. The unwed sister almost instantly takes against the island, with its "dreadful reaching black rock and sharp incredible outlines against the sunset" and its lone guest house, feeling a "great despair and impulsive dislike." Yet she soon finds that the island has attractions, especially for a woman who is beginning to more feel like a third wheel every day, as her brother-in-law recovers. The last two paragraphs made my skin crawl. You can find the story in Jackson's Come Along with Me.

7 "The Whole Town's Sleeping," by Ray Bradbury (1950)

I make no argument that this is anywhere near Bradbury's best story. It's not even really his best creepy story. But I like having it on this list for what it is: a perfect example of how Bradbury took shared nostalgia for Depression-era small towns, for walkable downtowns and porch-sitting and pre-air-conditioning summer sounds floating in the windows, for movie palaces and boarding houses and neighborliness--and, rather than confronting us with the hideous secrets that underlay it (as people like Sherwood Anderson and David Lynch would do), he simply scared us with it as is. In this case, a young woman walks home from the movies, and to do so she has to cross the ravine (a feature of Bradbury's boyhood Waukegan that plays a part in a number of stories):
The ravine was deep, deep and black, black. And the world was gone, the world of safe people in bed. The locked doors, the town, the drugstore, the theater, the lights, everything was gone. Only the ravine existed and lived, black and huge about her.
It's a perfect example of the "makes-you-jump" genre, and it succeeds not because of any particular inventiveness or uncanny quality, but simply because Bradbury commits to stringing it out, lovingly investing its small-town cliches with summery life. You can find it as the lead story in Bradbury Stories, or in the 1961 Alfred Hitchcock anthology Stories for Late at Night, which also includes the next tale on this list.

8 "Lady's Man," by Ruth Chatterton (1961)

This is easily the gentlest story on this list. It's presented as fiction, but its casual lightness of narrative approach makes it feel like memoir, as if we're simply being told a true story of something inexplicable that happened to Ruth Chatterton once, "in the soft perfect stillness of a June night in England, just before World War II." That tone is just right for her tale of a country house weekend at Noel Coward's Goldenhurst in which a ghost makes an appearance. Is it a true, or even a "true" story? Chatterton gives no external sign--but Philip Hoare's biography of Coward does note that Goldenhurst was said to be haunted. Regardless, the story is charming and chilling in equal parts, Coward's "sweet, sardonic grin" and the habitues of his house excellent company for an autumn afternoon. It can be found right after "The Whole Town's Sleeping" in Stories for Late at Night.

9 "The Sea Was Wet As Sea Could Be," by Gahan Wilson (1967)

These days, Gahan Wilson, in his eighties, is a cartoonist for, among other places, the New Yorker. But he made his career at Playboy in its midcentury heyday, and his thick-lined, pop-eyed, gape-mouthed monstrosities are as distinct as the creations of any cartoonist working. Until this story, however, I hadn't known he wrote fiction; it's so good that one of my upcoming library tasks is determining whether he wrote more. It paints a picture of early 1960s urban sophisticated success--of Playboy's readership, in other words--and filters it through a disappointed, sour, self-loathing, alcoholic haze that will be familiar to readers of Cheever, O'Hara, or any number of other writers:
We should have been lovers or monks in such a place, but we were only a crowd of bored and boring drunks. You were always drunk when you were with Carl. Good old, mean old Carl was the greatest little drink pourer in the world. He used drinks like other types of sadists used whips. He kept beating you with them until you dropped or sobbed or went mad, and he enjoyed every step of the process.
When their party on an isolated beach draws the attention of two wanderers who are bizarrely but convincingly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Walrus and Carpenter, the story takes a turn for the strange--before ending up in sheer horror. It's collected in The Weird, a massive--and almost uniformly excellent--anthology edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.

10 "Desideratus," by Penelope Fitzgerald (2000)

Like Ray Bradbury's "The Whole Town Was Sleeping," Fitzgerald's story doesn't necessarily feature any supernatural elements, yet it is as creepy and uncanny as any other on this list. It tells of a young boy whose one prized possession is a gilt medal, of how he loses it ("Anything you carry about with you in your pocket you are bound to lose sooner or later."), and the eerie experience he has to undergo to get it back. It's as good as any story I know at marrying the material and physical to our latent belief--sometimes hope, sometimes fear--that something more inheres in all that matter. It can be found in Fitzgerald's Means of Escape.

{Painting from an unknown artist, spotted in window of a craft store on Foster Avenue in Chicago.}

A couple of additional tidbits, before I close out the month. First, some honorable mentions, stories that, on another day, might have made this list:

"It's a Good Life," by Jerome Bixby
"The Town Manager," by Thomas Ligotti
"The Great God Pan," by Arthur Machen
"After Dark in the Playing Fields," by M. R. James
"The Little Room," by Madeline Yale Wynn
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving
"In a Dim Room," by Lord Dunsany

"The Mujina," by Lafcadio Hearn

And a special, overarching honorable mention for The Arrow Book of Ghost Stories (1960), which I read over and over as a child, until Joseph Jacobs's "The King o' the Cats," Walter R. Brooks's "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons," and Barbee Oliver Carleton's "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean" were burned into my brain. If my love of weird tales is anyone's fault, it's that of the anonymous editor of that collection.

I'll leave you with one last story, one of the true classics, told by a master. It's a scene from Peter Bogdanovich's first film, Targets: "The Appointment in Samarra," told by Boris Karloff.

Happy Halloween!

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