Halloween treats: writers reveal their favourite scary stories
Thirty literary types, including Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett, Sinéad Crowley, Donal Ryan and John Boyne, on why certain stories send shivers down their spines
If you have ever seen an Irish Jack O’Lantern carved out of a turnip, you will know that it is a lot scarier than an American Halloween pumpkin, almost as scary in fact as the prospect of Donald Trump’s tiny fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes. Similarly, Irish writers have serious claims to a tradition of scaring the living daylights out of readers dating back to the works of Charles Robert Maturin, Bram Stoker and Sheridan le Fanu. So for Halloween, I asked a host of Irish writers to pick their favourite scary story and explain why.
The Lammas Hireling by Ian Duhig
“If you would go out of the world, go to Islandmagee” was a local saying the poet Adrian Rice told me, a resident there I often stayed with who was an expert on its lore. It was no more than the truth: the home of Ireland’s only mass witchcraft trial, Islandmagee has also been the scene of religious killings from the Cromwellian massacre of Catholics written about in John Hewitt’s The Bloody Brae, to Protestant paramilitaries during the Troubles but the peninsula also boasts an ancient, complex history and folklore celebrated in Rice’s own poetry - not to mention the Rinkha, with its name derived from the Irish word for dance. The Rinkha was originally a dance hall, but now a family shop making ice cream to their own recipe so wonderful it tastes like the forgiveness of sins. Adrian and I ate it by the bucketload.
Returning from there late one evening with supplies, l fell into conversation with an elderly gentleman taking the air by an enormous fuchsia hedge. I commented on this and he explained that the Irish for fuchsia was deora Dé, meaning “God’s tears”, so maybe He shed a lot of them over here. I laughed a little nervously as he fell in with my stroll, chatting amiably enough, and though Islandmagee tourist guides are nowadays unsurprisingly advised to steer visitors’ queries away from witchcraft and sectarian slaughter, our own talk encompassed the local Druid’s Altar, then other Islandmagee magical traditions, and he did not seem embarrassed. In fact, he pointed out a house we passed that he said belonged to a dynasty of witches. When its last patriarch was dying, apparently they called in my companion to assist with what were rather hasty arrangements - he explained this was probably because the old man would revert to the form of a hare as he died, which would shame the family were his body seen in that state. My companion told me he agreed to serve as a pallbearer at the rushed funeral for the old man, about which all he could remember was that the coffin seemed to get lighter the closer they got to the graveside; and then, as the earth shovelled down, he swore he heard hare’s paws beating on and scratching at the coffin lid. By that point, I could have sworn I heard them too: the metamorphosis of his story seemed to spread beyond its bounds and dissolve my own.
We said our goodnights and he melted back into the fuchsia while I turned off for where Adrian waited impatiently for the honeycomb and vanilla that had somehow remained frozen. A shapeshifting poem was already forming and reforming in my mind that took on a life of its own later as The Lammas Hireling. This was a long time ago but sometimes even now, when I turn to its page for a reading and hold it for a little while, the paper begins to feel like fur.
Ian Duhig's latest collection is The Blind Road-maker
Ted The Caver
SCP Foundation archive
It pains me to say it, but I don’t think I’ve ever been scared by a story in print. Disturbed, absolutely: I’ve read Selby’s The Room, or suffered through it, and it’s not an experience I’d recommend. Recently, I’ve adored the creepy beauty of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (though if you’re after something truly depressing you need to let Human Acts get under your skin). The response to such tales is one of mournful awe, I think, rather than skin-crawling fright. For that stuff I’ve found myself relying on the internet, where those who write horror publish just for the hell of it. There’s a lot of dross to wade through, but it’s worth it to find such ghoulish slow-burners as Ted The Caver. And frequently I’m taken by the sickening compulsion to read entry after entry in the SCP Foundation archive, a collaborative project where the chosen stories surpass the very best of the X-Files in terms of button-pushing weirdness. Horror writing works rather too well in the obsessive link-following, late-night screen-flickering online landscape.
Lisa McInerney is the author of The Glorious Heresies, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize
Carrie by Stephen KIng
Carrie, Stephen KIng's brilliant first novel, has an unsettling, intense, ability to disturb you on multiple levels. It's ostensibly a horror story about an adolescent girl gaining telekinetic powers; but it's deeply grounded in the real horror of being a social outcast in school. Famously, King started writing it, freaked himself out, and threw it in the bin. His wife Tabitha came home, saw the balled-up pages in the bin, uncrumpled them, read them, and said "This has something. Keep going." He did. If Stephen King's bin had had a lid, he might not have had a career. THAT'S SCARY!
Julian Gough's works include Jude in London and Rabbit's Bad Habits
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black scared the bejeesus out of me. A perfect combination of gothic influences and dastardly family secrets all wrapped up in a story-in-a-story. Chilling and very satisfying. I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson for the first time last year (it was first published in 1959) and I wondered would it feel somehow old-fashioned – and less scary for it – in the same way I find Sheridan LeFanu’s writing not frightening, even though I appreciate how good he was at turning the scary-button up to eleven. I shouldn’t have fretted: Jackson’s combination of external horror and internal mental anguish was very unsettling. One to read with ALL the lights on.
Henrietta McKervey’s latest novel is The Heart of Everything
The Valley of the Squinting Windows by Brinsley MacNamara
Maybe not a typical choice, but I read Brinsley MacNamara’s The Valley of the Squinting Windows when I was 12 and it scarred me for life because it was so real. An oppressive, claustrophobic, narrow-minded, vicious-tongued, gossip pit – it just proves that a story doesn’t need to be supernatural to be absolutely terrifying!
Jo Spain’s latest work is Beneath the Surface
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily is narrated by the inhabitants of Jefferson, a fictional southern American town. The narrators of the story – which seems initially to be set during, or just before, the second World War – tell their tale in an unquestioningly unified voice, one that is averagely ignorant, undoubtedly conservative and consensually racist. And guided by this unassuming small-town voice, we follow the story of Emily Grierson, a genteel southern woman of some means and respectability, whose shots at love and married life have been compromised by an overbearing father, so that when he eventually dies and frees her from her duty of care she is close to 30 years old. Afraid she will be a perennial spinster, Emily strikes up a relationship with the foreman of a company contracted by the town to pave its sidewalks. Homer Barron is a man described by the communal narrator here as “a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face”, a man who “liked men” and who declares himself to be “not a marrying man”.
Halfway through the story Homer disappears. And here this Southern Gothic tale (all the Gothic tropes are there – Emily’s house is “decaying”, the opening line of the story is do with her funeral, the smell from her house is “close and dank”) takes a turn. From Homer’s disappearance onwards, the story itself becomes haunted by the mystery of what has happened to him and to his and Emily’s relationship. Something dear is lost, and this already dark story becomes then a strange sort of ghost story, in which the ghost is absent.
Before Homer vanishes we are told that Emily entered a pharmacy and bought arsenic, that Homer was last seen entering her house “at dusk one evening”. We are told that for the rest of Emily’s life her servant cares for her and keeps the upper part of the house shut off from visitors, and that after she dies, the skeleton of Homer Barron is discovered lying in bed (in his nightshirt and in an “embrace position”) in an upstairs room that has been decked out like a bridal suite. Beside him in the bed is a fresh indent on the pillow, together with a long strand of iron-grey hair, no doubt belonging to Emily.
But we are not told, exactly, what happened all those years ago. That Emily poisoned Homer is clear enough. But why? Did he refuse to marry her? Or did he betray her in some way? Or was he indeed “not a marrying man” because he was gay? Though he is said to have “liked men” this is probably just a way of saying he enjoyed the bachelor life. The mystery in the story is never answered. It chills the reader not only to think about how Homer met his death, but what passions and pains must have driven Emily to kill him. That love and some kind of perceived betrayal are all mixed up in the story lends it veracity and weight. For the best ghost/horror/macabre stories have a certain human truth about them, they are warnings of some sort. They scare us because a part of us suspects that if our lives were ever to lose their various blessings and comforts then a similar situation might conceivably happen to us.
Jaki McCarrick is the author of The Scattering
Carrie by Stephen King
Even though I am an easily-terrified wimp I have a weakness for anything by Stephen King, and the one that stays with me most is Carrie. The way that the supernatural is mapped on to the everyday horrors of adolescence, and made all the more plausible by the inclusion of fictional reports throughout, makes it both chilling and memorable.
Claire Hennessy’s latest YA novel is Nothing Tastes as Good
The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James
My favourite scary book, one of the most enigmatic books I’ve ever encountered, is a narrative- and character-free graphic novel from the ’70s called The Cage, drawn and written by Martin Vaughn-James. About all I can tell you about The Cage is that it is a place, a location and that something catastrophic has happened in, or to, time. There is no story in the way we think of stories. Each page features a single panel composition, sometimes accompanied by a stream-of-consciousness text, often not. We seem to be presented with the debris and detritus of several vanished or departed civilisations. No humans appear, though their traces are everywhere apparent in the haunted arrangements of recurring, transmutating objects we do encounter: there are vast pyramidal structures, a dilapidated gas station, spore-like fauna, an empty cage in a desert horizontal, telephones, microphones, assemblages of raggy clothing manipulated into tortured, scarecrow-like totems, a hospital bed, airborne bursts of a viscous black substance that is either oil, ink or blood. The erosive flow of time is everywhere tangible, though there is no sequentiality to that flow: objects are shown pristine, then decayed, then pristine again...
The Cage is a book you can only experience. It feels like it delineates a place I already knew without ever having been there. It’s one of my favourite books and a source of endless inspiration to my own work.
Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I was introduced to the work of Shirley Jackson through her short story The Lottery, and if you have any interest in short stories, in fact, if you have any interest in human nature, then you must read it too. Anyway, I was so impressed with her work that I immediately bought a novel, The Haunting of Hill House, and kept it as a “scary story” to read over Halloween. It certainly did the job, and I was able to appreciate it as a work of art, too. Once I’d stopped shaking.
Like another favorite of mine, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, I had to put down The Haunting of Hill House a couple of times while I was reading because I was too afraid to continue, and then pick it up again, too gripped by the story to abandon it. Unlike Salem’s Lot, however, there is an initial period in Jackson’s work where you’re not sure if the evil is internal or external to the characters. There then follows a period of doubt, followed by moments of terror that are completely persuasive.
In this era of pastiche, comic horror and twists on the tradition it’s refreshing to read a book that’s just plain scary and comes complete with strange noises, cold spots on the landing and a weary housekeeper overseeing the chaos. I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t hesitated before walking into an empty room after dark or been squeamish about looking into the mirror in an ill-lit bathroom, and Jackson takes all of those fears, and more, and combines them with intricate character studies that make your sympathy for her victims all the more acute. The final pages are excruciating, the penultimate paragraph terrifying in its simplicity. Is the evil real? The reader can decide, but I know what I believe. I’ve bought We Have Always Lived in the Castle to read this Halloween weekend, I just need to pluck up the courage to do so.
Sinéad Crowley is arts and media correspondent for RTÉ and the author of Are You Watching Me?
It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby
It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby is about a little boy named Anthony who has godlike powers, the ability to read minds and who keeps the people of Peaksville in a state of terrified obedience, careful of demonstrating any sense of disapproval. Even if Anthony likes someone, a stray thought might lead to Anthony trying to “help” them, which can have horrific consequences. If Anthony dislikes someone, as occurs at one point in this story, they may be turned into something unspeakable and then disappeared into a grave in the cornfield at the edge of town. It’s safest to think about what “a good day” it is around Anthony much like, I should imagine, it’s safest to talk about long, elegant fingers when you are near Donald Trump.
How has this happened? It’s unclear. Peaksville has been removed from the planet, or the rest of planet has been destroyed. The people of the town aren’t quite sure which. Every week the adults gather to watch “television” at Anthony’s family home (as there’s no television station, television is just weird sounds and images that Anthony makes occur onscreen) and one day some of the citizens make the mistake of having a few drinks and one of them starts speaking truth to (Godlike) power. “You had to go and have him!” he shrieks accusingly at Anthony’s mother.
It’s a Good Life had a huge effect on me when I read it as a child. I recently reread it here http://ciscohouston.com/docs/docs/greats/its_a_good_life.html and it had a huge effect on me all over again. Bixby was best known as a writer of science fiction and westerns and he was also a scriptwriter who wrote for Star Trek. It’s a Good Life itself became the basis for one Twilight Zone episode and it was later included in the Twilight Zone film.
It is genuinely terrifying. When people talk about the innocence of a child I think about this story and whenever I babysit for friends and family I usually end the night shrieking “You had to go and have him!” accusingly at the parents. In short, this story is so brilliantly terrifying it’s been actively bad for my character. When you’re done reading this, read I have no Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, two other tales about people caught in horrific systems over which they have no control.
Patrick Freyne is an Irish Times writer
The Speckled Band by Arthur Conan-Doyle
'It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful country-side.' And it is when Holmes and Watson take to the road that the stories are at their scariest: The Hound of the Baskervilles, of course; The Copper Beeches, from which the above quote is taken; and my favorite, The Speckled Band.
'When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.' This perfectly wrought story sees Conan-Doyle at his most colorful and atmospheric: the five little livid spots upon the white wrist of the terrified Miss Stoner, the broken down ruin of Stoke Moran, the sinister gipsies in the plantation, the cheetah and the baboon like a 'hideous and distorted child', the brutish Dr Roylott with his reek of Indian cigars, the newly installed bell-pull and ventilator, the dreadful night-time vigil. I first read it at fourteen, faintly delirious with glandular fever; its climax scares me yet.
Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright
The Room in the Tower by EF Benson
I first discovered The Room in the Tower by EF Benson some years ago, in a collection of vampire stories. It’s an uneasy little chiller that combines an idealised image of sunny Edwardian England – croquet lawns, blue skies – with an oily, ugly Gothic that latches onto the reptile part of the brain and stays there. It was written in 1912, two years before Europe plunged itself into its own ugly horrorthon. I remember only a few details; a room that turns dangerous at night, a nameless presence that scratches away at the narrator’s dreams, and his soul. I read it quickly, without much thought. That night, I had a bout of sleep paralysis. An oppressive, inhuman weight on my chest, voices whispering in my ears. I have the book open now. It’s inviting me to revisit the Tower. I’m not sure if I dare.
Mia Gallagher’s latest novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, is published by New Island. She is guest-editor of the Stinging Fly’s special Fear & Fantasy issue, out now.
The Paperboy by Pete Dexter
I think if Mr Freud had me on the psychoanalytical couch and the subject of horror writing and my resistance thereto came up, the good doctor might say that I’m so terrified of being frightened I protect myself from horror literature by wilfully insisting it’s just a construct. And he’d be right. I read horror but I can never completely erase disbelief when I do because I always have a mutinous voice in my head which won’t stop reminding me that such texts, even when brilliantly articulated, are just concoctions designed to terrify, with a manipulative puppeteer-cum- author lurking behind them.
But with other kinds of literary texts I‘m perfectly happy to suspend disbelief. So I’m not always so terrified of being frightened that I undermine the text by emphasising its artificiality. And the book that has frightened me most, so far, in nearly 60 years of reading, is Pete Dexter’s The Paperboy.
The novel is set in the recent past in the American Deep South. Good Old Boy Sheriff Call stomps a handcuffed felon to death. The account of this killing is nauseating. The dead man’s uncle, another Good Old Boy, Hillary Van Wetter, kills the sheriff. That killing is disgusting too. Wetter goes to prison. Charlotte Bless, a woman Wetter’s never met, falls for him. Her infatuation is terrifying.
She wants Wetter out, so they can marry. She enlists two idealistic reporters who have already garnered a reputation uncovering US university initiation rites (the descriptions of hazing ceremonies are stomach-churning) to expose Wetter as a victim of redneck justice.
Our hacks triumph but only by violating journalistic standards (which they do because they want their Pulitzer). Wetter goes free and what follows is, well, violent, hideous, revolting, et cetera.
The Paperboy, as you’ll have gathered from this resumé, is ultra-violent but what made it so frightening, at least for little old me, was not so much the violence (though there were several places where I had to look away from the page) as Dexter’s relentless insistence that the origin of all the ills he describes is us. People, quite simply, are awful and if you believe that (and he makes you believe it, trust me) then you really are left feeling very afraid.
So how or why am I able with this text to suspend disbelief when I can‘t with, say, the works of Stephen King? Mr Freud might say it’s simply because, which horror writing mostly doesn’t, it affirms my sneaking misanthropy.
Carlo Gébler’s latest work is The Wing Orderly’s Tales
The Jaunt by Stephen King
Stephen King’s short story The Jaunt stayed with me for years. It’s one of the few stories I’ve read that confronts what we might call substratal horror: that to which the tropes of much horror fiction –gore, torture, demons, zombies and so on – are the shadows dancing on the cave wall. The Jaunt deals with eternity and metaphysical terror without limit – in other words, absolute horror, thus absolute fascination. Like a dime-store Borges, King drags us to the lip of the abyss in 10 pages and then shoves us right off.
Rob Doyle’s latest work is This is the Ritual
Miss Smith by William Trevor
Here’s a short story by William Trevor to chill the blood. You’ll find it in his collected short fiction, lurking innocently as a seeming tale of school life. James Machen, a young schoolboy, is perhaps a little slow, much to the frustration of his horrid, snappy teacher Miss Smith, who scolds and bullies him. James will do anything for Miss Smith to like him. But his efforts end in humiliation. “When somebody hurts you,” James said to the man who came to cut the grass, “what do you do about it?” The story creeps under the skin. Trevor slowly turns the screw, twisting James’s innocence into something monstrous. If this were a film, it would be made by that master of icy, sophisticated terror, Michael Haneke.
Paul Lynch is the author of The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning
Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman
One Christmas when I was about six, an aunt gave me a beautifully illustrated collection of Grimm’s fairy tales. The pictures were enticing, hinting at dark undertones, and I spent hours puzzling out the text. My mother was horrified to discover these unsanitised versions, but by then it was too late. Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples, written for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, is a modern fairy tale that captures all the creepiness of the original Snow White with a few twists along the way. Written from a putupon stepmother’s point-of-view, Snow White is a vampire ruining community life. No Disney-esque forest full of sunshine and chubby-cheeked animals helping her do her laundry here. Gaiman’s reinterpretation effectively plays with expectations so that the ending, while expected, is still surprising and macabre. I don’t advise reading it before a woodland walk.
Marie Gethins’ The Sugarloaf and the Red Shoes – inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoes but in a dance reality show setting – features in the horror short story collection Twisted50
The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs
The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs was lurking in a black-bound anthology called Strange Stories of the Supernatural that found its way from a jumble sale onto my parents’ bookshelf when I was around eight. My sister Mary and I were terrified by and drawn to that fiendish volume in equal measure. She only risked a peek when our grandmother visited because they’d share a room and she’d have protection. I’d read it in the mornings when the world was full of light and sound and lie awake at night with the covers over my head, praying to Jesus and Mary and Joseph and all the angels and saints to deliver me from evil. The Monkey’s Paw made me seek the refuge of my parents’ bed, though, for many nights. “I’d burn that book,” my father said, “if burning books wasn’t such a sin.” He read the story himself after a few nights of my trembling, sweating company. “Pfft,” he said of the Whites and their pathetic first wish to the cursed paw ... . “£200? They should have asked for more.”
Donal Ryan’s latest work is All We Shall Know
Dracula by Bram Stoker
You feel the gravebreath on you in Chapter Three when Jonathan Harker looks out to see Count Dracula emerge from his window and crawl down the castle wall, face down with his cloak spreading about him like great wings. The gothic falls away and the reader is faced with the profane, the Count seeming less a man than a familiar of Aleister Crowley’s vile, occult bestiary. The light of God is extinguished. The Count speaks of the wolves howling in the valley below. “Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!”
Eoin McNamee is the author of the Blue Trilogy
In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan le Fanu
Living in Chapelizod has prompted me to read the Victorian ghost-story writer Sheridan le Fanu. In a Glass Darkly is a collection of stories ostensibly from the casebook of a Dr Martin Hesselius, a psychologist with an interest in the occult.
The first story, Green Tea, tells the tale of a clergyman who is driven to the brink of madness and finally to his death by a black monkey, a creature of “unfathomable malignity”. Le Fanu leaves it to us to decide whether the monkey is real or a product of the clergyman’s disturbed mind. But I found it difficult not to think of Le Fanu’s wife, Susanna, a delicate and nervous woman, who, before her death, believed she had been visited by the ghost of her father, who told her: “There is room in the vault for you my little Sue.”
Not to be read while house-sitting in a creaky old house on a stormy night.
Andrea Carter’s latest work is Treacherous Strand
Prof Darryl Jones
Count Magnus by MR James
The greatest ghost-story writer in the English – or any – language is MR James. James was a Cambridge don – a manuscript scholar and authority on medieval architecture – whose works effectively set the template for the twentieth-century ghost story in English. They are repressed, spare, scholarly, intensely civilised tales, in which malevolent forces, never fully explained, are unleashed in university libraries, ancient cathedrals or remote country houses. The most terrifying of all of them is Count Magnus, in which a hapless scholar travelling through Sweden happens upon the mausoleum of an aristocratic vampire, who has gone on a Satanic pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Antichrist – and brought something back with him. One by one, the locks on his casket open and fall to the ground … Like all of James’s stories, it’s best read alone, at midnight, in a leather armchair in front of an open fire, accompanied by the best single malt you can afford.
Prof Darryl Jones is Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Trinity College Dublin
House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
House of Leaves is a straightforward haunted house story where narrative and form meet to create a labyrinthine meta fiction that is genuinely frightening.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing predates We Need To Talk About Kevin in its depiction of the perfect family torn apart by the birth of their unlovable or unloved fifth child. It raises questions about nature versus nurture in a way that is terrifying and hearbreaking.
Cathy Brown is arts programmer at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy. Co Derry
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by HP Lovecraft
From the first sentence of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward it’s evident that something evil lurks amidst the decayed elegance of the old New England city of Providence, Rhode Island. The reader is put on guard: the murderous antiquarian Ward, addled by some “dark mania”, has escaped the insane asylum. Dogs howl and strange smells waft from under doorways. HP Lovecraft infuses the tale with suggestions of demonic possession, vampirism, devil-worship, witchcraft, alchemy, and grave robbing, but the real star is the narrator who tells the tale in a clinical voice that is as dry as the dead leaves skittering along winding streets that predate the American Revolution.
Marguerite Helmers is Rosebush Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and author of Harry Clarke’s War: Illustrations for Ireland’s Memorial Records, 1914-1918
The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens
I’m a great fan of The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens, a chilling story that uses a trio of events as a harbinger of doom for the titular character. In fact, when I wrote my ghost story novel, This House Is Haunted, Dickens appears in the opening chapter giving a reading from this very piece. One of the strengths of the story is that the narrator is initially as dubious about the existence of the supernatural as the reader might be. By the end, however, he has no choice but to believe.
John Boyne’s latest work is The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
With his 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury pretty much claimed Halloween as his theme and territory forever. Ostensibly a story about two boys and an evil carnival, it’s also one long prose poem about the passing of innocence and a reckoning with age and decay. In it, the satanic ringmaster GM Dark, one of the all-time great literary villains, corrupts the young with forbidden knowledge and seduces the old with cruel illusions of youth everlasting.
The book, in my mind, will forever be synonymous with the first time I heard The Doors’ carnival swirl, songs like People Are Strange and The Crystal Ship and The End. Bradbury is the poet laureate of the American autumn, that magical twilight zone between the end of harvest time and the onset of winter, the fall in the true metaphysical sense. “I think Bradbury created October,” Neil Gaiman once remarked as an aside in a conversation about his novel The Graveyard Book. “Bradbury created the American Halloween.”
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River
The Old Nurse’s Tale by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde
Elizabeth Gaskell, best known for Cranford and North and South, also wrote ghost stories. The beauty of The Old Nurse’s Tale lies in Gaskell’s willingness to leave restraint behind while terrifying Victorian readers with ghostly happenings in a remote house: a helpless child ghost, freezing outside and battering to get in, the old lord – long dead – playing the organ. The steady stream of over-the-top elements makes this story memorable. A hoot.
In his novella The Turn of the Screw, Henry James creates terror with psychological uncertainty. Is the governess mad or is she seeing ghosts? And do the orphaned children in her care see them too?
Oscar Wilde, in The Canterville Ghost, approaches his subject with a droll sense of fun. You know, clanking chains. Who can resist his attitude and style?
Fay Sheco is a US-based book lover
The Mezzotint by MR James
I’m a nervous soul and can barely bring myself to think about M.R. James’s short story The Mezzotint. It tells of a university museum curator who is sent an old engraving; at first it shows only a manor house in the moonlight, but later includes a sinister figure who seems to have crept nearer to the windows every time someone looks at it. The curator comes to realise that he is witnessing a ghastly crime – one which, he later discovers, actually took place at the house in question. We’ve all had nightmares in which we’re desperate to prevent some terrible occurrence, but are somehow paralysed: James’s genius lies in replicating that state of mind in the most rational of surroundings.
Anthony Gardner is the author of Fox
The Axe by Penelope Fitzgerald
In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Axe (1974), a bureaucratic narrator is instructed to make his ageing clerical assistant redundant. The office is damp, and the assistant timid and apologetic – fit only to be given the axe. Out of these unpromising materials, and with the style and economy that later would become a trademark of her novels, Fitzgerald produces a short story of slowly building tension and nerve-shredding blood and horror.
Neil Hegarty is the author of Inch Levels
Proof Positive by Graham Greene
The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier
Proof Positive by Graham Greene – this very short story has a twist that unfortunately I’ll have to reveal. A very ill-looking man called Philip Weaver addresses the British Psychical Society about the phenomenon of life after death, but he rambles and is increasingly incoherent before eventually collapsing. A doctor in the audience certifies him dead, but as his body begins to become malodorous, adds “for at least a week”.
The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier – this story is included in an anthology that contains The Birds, but is less well known. A man’s passive-aggressive wife dies of pneumonia – but her soul, he is convinced, haunts an apple tree in his garden. He cannot bring himself to cut it down, but everything around him smells and tastes of apple, in a way that nauseates the palate. I actually can’t recall the ending – it was the sense data that overwhelmed me. I couldn’t eat apples for months afterwards.
Susan Lanigan is the author of White Feathers
The Derelict (1912) and The Voice In The Night (1907) by William Hope Hodgson
All of Hodgson’s work was published between 1904 and 1914, when he was killed at the age of 40 at Ypres. He’s a difficult writer to classify and the quality of his output was variable. As a result he is often overlooked.
When we think of horror in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, we automatically think of great figures such as MR James, Walter de la Mare or Bram Stoker. Hodgson, a former sailor, fitness fanatic and body-builder, hardly fits the image of donnish men turning out ghostly tales to pass their private hours. His work too defies category, but its influence on modern horror is a powerful one.
His novels have a mystical turn to them, reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood, but it is in his short stories that his unique powers of imagination shine. Stories like The Derelict (1912) and The Voice In The Night (1907). In The Derelict sailors encounter a drifting hulk at night. Boarding the ship they find the entire deck covered in a strange, spongy mould. Weird odours and vapours fill the air. As they explore the ship they become aware of a rhythmic, thudding sound. Too late they realise that the once derelict ship is, in fact, an entire living organism, a rippling carpet of flesh-stripping mucus...Extending the bio-horror concept, but with greater poignancy, is The Voice In The Night which recounts the tale of a shipwrecked couple, in the first flush of love, who slowly become something less than human after encountering a strange fungus on a deserted island
While we now consider these images the domain of cheap gore, as cliches of the VHS era, yet they still a huge part of our collective imagination. Films such as The Blob (1958), Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982) are well-known exponents of body horror, but it is in the dingier realm of things we ought not to have seen as children, that it reaches us, our soft, vulnerable bodies a prey to violence and metamorphosis.
Daniel Caffrey is a director at The Lilliput Press where he has been the commissioning editor for Donal Ryan, Elske Rahill, Rob Doyle and Sam Coll
Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu
I find Dubliner Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea absolutely terrifying, all the more so because the demon may well be within. The Reverend Mr Jennings, a bachelor of irreproachable integrity, tells Dr Martin Hesselius, our narrator, that, for many years, he has been tormented by the presence of “a small monkey, perfectly black”, with burning red eyes and a “character of malignity – unfathomable malignity”. This malevolent spectre, although invisible to everyone else, disrupts his work, destroys his sleep, and snarls a string of blasphemies at him when he attempts to kneel in prayer. It’s clear that Jennings is demented, but is his tormentor a product of his overwrought imagination?
Eleanor Fitzsimons is the author o f Wilde’s Women
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
From its famous first line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca builds in tension and drama. Housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, is the perfect sinister antagonist, slowly tormenting the second Mrs. de Winter, and guaranteed to creep beneath the skin of anyone who reads this wonderfully atmospheric novel.
Hazel Gaynor is the author of The Girl Who Came Home, A Memory of Violets and The Girl from the Savoy
Hand in Glove and The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen
A tale by Myles Na gCopaleen
When I think of ghost stories, I think of Elizabeth Bowen. The farcical Hand in Glove is a gem while The Demon Lover is a delicious communion of place and time, its driving, surprising plot ticking away like the fare in that horror of a taxi at the end. And that taxi reminds me of the eerie compressed ghost-story in Louis MacNeice’s poem, The Taxis. Was Flann O’Brien thinking about these when he wrote his hilarious Myles Na gCopaleen piece about two terrified drunks stopping their taxi at various County Dublin watering holes in their attempt to escape from “an emanation from the tomb”? There is a sense that Flann was no stranger to that route as the names ring out like a familiar pilgrimage; Lucan, Stepaside, Enniskerry, Celbridge. I won’t ruin the surprise ending but the circumlocutions of the narrator’s language which so perfectly mimics the exaggerated actions of a drunk trying to appear sober and the way that drink is “absolutely essential” in circumstances where the characters have to heroically “deal with” their stout and whiskey make the brief journey well worth the fare.
Martina Evans is a novelist and poet. Her latest collection is The Windows of Graceland
A tale by Myles Na gCopaleen
I happened to look at my hands the other day and they noticed they were yellow. Conclusion: I am growing old (though I claim I am not too old to dream). Further conclusion: I should set about writing my memoirs. Be assured that they would be remarkable, for to the extraordinary adventures which have been my lot there is no end. (Nor will there be.) Here is one little adventure that will give you an idea.
Many years ago a Dublin friend asked me to spend an evening with him. Assuming that the man was interested in philosophy and knew that immutable truth can sometimes be acquired through the kinesis of disputation, I consented. How wrong I was may be judged from the fact that my friend arrived at the rendezvous in a taxi and whisked me away to licensed premises in the vicinity of Lucan. Here I was induced to consume a large measure of intoxicating whiskey. My friend would not hear of another drink in the place, drawing my attention by nudges to a very sinister-looking character who was drinking stout in the shadows some distance from us. He was a tall cadaverous person, dressed wholly in black, with a face of deathly grey. We left and drove many miles to the village Stepaside, where a further drink was ordered. Scarcely to the lips had it been applied when both of us noticed – with what feelings I dare not describe – the same tall creature in black, residing in a distant shadow and apparently drinking the same glass of stout. We finished our own drinks and left at once, taking in this case, the Enniskerry Road and entering a hostelry in the purlieus of the village. Here more drinks were ordered but had hardly appeared on the counter, when, to the horror of myself and my friend, the sinister stranger was discerned some distance away, still patiently dealing with his stout. We swallowed our drinks raw and hurried out. My friend was now thoroughly scared, and could not be dissuaded from making for the far-way hamlet of Celbridge; his idea was that, while another drink was absolutely essential, it was equally essential to put as many miles as possible between ourselves and the sinister presence we had just left. Need I say what happened? We noticed with relief that the public house we entered in Celbridge was deserted, but as our eyes became more accustomed to the gloom, a more terrible apparition than ever before, ever more menacing with each meeting. My friend had purchased a bottle of whiskey and was now dealing with the stuff in large gulps. I saw at once a crisis had been reached and that desperate action was called for.
“No matter where we go,” I said, “this being will be there unless we can now assert a superior will and confound evil machinations that are on foot. I do not know from whence comes this apparition, but certainly of this world it is not. It is my intention to challenge him.”
My friend gazed at me in horror, made some gesture of remonstrance, but apparently could not speak. My own mind was made up. It was me or this diabolical adversary: there could be no evading the clash of wills, only one of us could survive. I finished my drink with an assurance I was far from feeling and marched straight up to the presence. A nearer sight of him almost stopped the action of my heart; here undoubtedly was no man but some spectral emanation from the tomb, the undead come on some task of inhuman vengeance.
“I do not like the look of you,” I said, somewhat lamely.
“I do not like the look of you, either,” the thing replied; the voice was cracked, low and terrible.
“I demand to know,” I said sternly, “why you persist in following myself and my friend everywhere we go.”
“I cannot go home until you first go home,” the thing replied. There was an ominous undertone in this that almost paralysed me.
“Why not?” I managed to say.
“Because I am – the taxi-driver!”
Out of such strange incidents is woven the pattern of what I am pleased to call my life.
Martin Doyle edits the books section of The Irish Times