10 scary stories for Halloween

You may be too old to go trick or treating, but are you brave enough to read one of these tales before you go to sleep tonight?

 

1. The Rider on the White Horse by Theodor Storm

One of the finest short novels in the German language, it has everything: ambition, passion, revenge, churning water, despair and a white horse. Published in 1888, shades of Goethe’s Faust mingled with the wrongdoings of the world of men are juxtaposed here. If one could only read one ghostly tale, this would be the one to choose.

2. An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street by J Sheridan Le Fanu

Often hailed as the master of the ghost story, in this, his bi-centenary year, the Dublin-born Trinity College classics graduate remains a supreme stylist who balanced horror with psychological insight. Revered as the author of Carmilla (1872), he became reclusive after the death of his wife but left a wealth of work. There are flashes of genius in this story as well as humour. Although terrified, the narrator recalls his housemaid, “a girl of two and fifty”, and don’t forget the narrator’s friend, the one who laughed at the idea of ghosts and yet has to confess to wandering the streets at night because he is frightened of going into his bedroom.

3.The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Freudians have always had a field day with this dark tale concerning two helpless, if knowing, children. A man decides to finally share an account written by a now-dead governess about her experiences in a corrupted household. James treats suspense with his habitual elegance and leaves us all pondering the ambivalence of a most vile evil and what actually killed the various protagonists. Still, James’s father recalled seeing the Devil while seated at his dining table.

4. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Be wary of doing evil as it has a nasty habit of backfiring on the perpetrator. The highly unreliable narrator of this story is, as he stresses, nervous but not mad. That may be so but he does seem to be suffering from a particularly heightened strain of paranoia. Published in 1843, it is perfection and might well cause a reader to suddenly become aware of exactly how loudly a heart beats … particularly at night – and especially tonight, Halloween night – as the shadows close in.

5. The Kit-Bag by Algernon Blackwood

It is possible to cheat the laws of men, but sometimes the weight of conscience intervenes and even a helpless object recalls its passive role in an act of violence. No one is entirely innocent and Algernon Blackwood, one of the acknowledged masters of the ghost story, spent his literary career terrifying his eager readers. This story says a great deal about the ways in which guilt makes us complicit.

6. Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad by MR James

Another of the Victorian ghost story specialists, MR James was a medievalist and career scholar. He set out to show the terror in the ordinary and avoided the more conventional devices in stories that were realistic yet not less frightening. In this one, a solitary academic finds an ancient whistle while exploring a church yard and makes the mistake of saying that he does not believe in ghosts. Cue his big mistake. Ultimately his opinion does change.

7. The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller/ Knocking on the moonlilt door….But no one descended to the Traveller;/ No head from the leaf-fringed sill… only a host of phantom listeners/ Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight/ To that voice from the world of men….” When read aloud, preferably after midnight in tone of chill resonance, well… Although it was written in 1912, this unforgettable poem conjures up that melancholic desolation that takes over even the grandest of mansions once the living leave. To whom had the Traveller made his promise? Was it to one of the spirits left wandering the deserted house?

8. Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman by Wilkie Collins

As much a romance as a ghost story by the shrewd Collins, who was well aware that love often ends with some blood on the carpet. Here the narrator falls in love with a French woman who, alas, has another lover and she is expecting him to return. She also informs the narrator that she will die soon and violently. Meanwhile the narrator’s mother is dying and he promises her that he will enter the Church and renounce his love. Her grisly prediction fulfilled, the French woman appears as a bloodied apparition leaving a mystery to be solved and there is no one better at mysteries than Collins. He was a contemporary of Charles Dickens – himself no mean hand at spinning a ghost story, which he often did.

9. The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the most wonderful writers of all time, few evoke atmosphere quite as well and his feel for character is invariably superb. A drunken old doctor becomes very animated indeed as a former colleague, now wealthy, appears in a tavern and is called to the side of a great man, now stricken. Heated exchanges begin to fill the room, causing the horrified inn keeper to exclaim: “What in the universe is all this? These are strange things you have been saying.” Strange indeed what a pair of aspiring young medics once got up to when taking corpses from their graves.

10. At Chrighton Abbey by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

You could, of course, choose to wander through the nearest deserted churchyard – you know the one with the tower that those bats keep circling? Or you could instead remain indoors and read this story by flickering candle light, which might even make you want to make a quick examination of the space under the stairs, or behind the door leading to the attic. Funny how unsettling that sudden blast of cold air feels. Is that blood oozing down the wall? Braddon was one of several female Victorian writers attracted to the ghost story genre. The Victorians understood and respected the power of the supernatural as Emily Brontë so brilliantly demonstrated in Wuthering Heights. If there is one unifying quality about all of the titles included here, it is the ability these writers have for evoking unease… and unease is a feeling that can seep up out of nowhere like a dense fog. Who needs special effects?

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