Thursday, 20 October 2016

The 100 Greatest Short Ghost Stories (Part 1)

There was a problem with writing up a countdown of the M.R. James Collected Ghost Stories. It was akin to open Pandora's Box, when I mentioned it to Mandy, she said "Yeah but he's not your favourite writer, is he?" She Who Must Be Obeyed is of course right, and I alluded to it earlier, but then this made my rather list orientated brain wonder how a ranking of *all* the great short horror I've read would look.

Well, not all. That'd be a list of several thousand stories, and how often does the reader start a new one only to realise they had read it some time before. So naturally a shortlist had to be cut down from vast quantities. I'm not particularly happy with it, as I've forgotten numerous good stories over the years - the risk of wide reading - and it is a last minute put together thing. Should we return to it in 2017, it'll be a better prepared list.

I had wanted to consider British stories, but then that would have left out a number of personal favourites. Also, I notice that the M.R. James stories which qualified are not necessarily in the same order as they were a few days ago, when compared against the rest of the genre. I put this down to the vagaries of list making, and, on deferring to the Preference Ranker on a number of occasions, the whim of feeling in an individual hour!

So here are my, current, 100 favourite Great Short Horror Stories. Most of them are widely anthologised, or easily found within a few searches (that of Amazon, or Google for those long since out of copyright!). Many are well regarded authors, some are well regarded by me, and a few might be more obscure names who, if I can convince one extra reader to look up, I consider a job well done.


100. Rosemary Timperley - Harry

Rosemary Timperley's reputation has become obscured since her death, aged 68, in 1988, to the point where I told one of my writers last year that she had the flair of a Timperley, and then had to explain the reference. This is a terrible shame, as her work stands as some of the finest of all her contemporaries, and hers were welcome, long standing additions to the Fontana series. Her writing is full of suspicion and mistrust, and an unwillingness to shy away from how prejudiced the world can be, especially against women.

Roald Dahl called Harry one of the finest ghost stories ever written, and it is widely anthologised. It is about a woman with a young daughter, who seems to have gained a sudden imaginary friend, named Harry. It's not her imaginary friend, says the daughter, its her brother, Harry, come to find her.

Only, Harry died a while ago...

"The first batch of fifty or so stories I read were so bad it was difficult to finish them. They were trivial, poorly written and not in the least spooky. Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts. The stories I was reading did none of this. Some of the worst ones were written by the most famous writers... Then suddenly a bright star flashed across the murky sky. I had found a good one. The end of it gave me the shivers. It was called 'Harry' by Rosemary Timperley. That bucked me up and I went on with my labours..."

Roald Dahl, introduction to Roald Dahl's book of Ghost Stories

99. Basil Copper - Amber Print

Basil Copper's most famous story is Camera Obscura, a tale never out of print since it's first publication in 1965 in Herbert van Thal's Sixth Pan Book of Horror Stories. (The Pan Books don't show up very often here, as I find them stray too often from the suitable, but here in lies the proof some good stuff snuck in there...) The Alfred Hitchcock collections - which I used to assume were a pseudonym for Haining, because everything usually is, but apparently it's Robert Arthur - loved him too. Camera Obscura became a famous episode of Night Gallery, and is one of the highlights of Copper's lengthy career.

However, it's not on this list, as I last read it nearly twenty years ago, and don't have a copy to hand to refresh my memory!

We couldn't have a countdown with some mention of Basil, however. He was one of our finest ghost story writers, and he seems to have gained more fans and a modicum of pop culture respect since his sad death in 2013.

I first read Amber Print when I was ten. Dad used to let me read his Years Best Horrors and assorted collections, but would warn against me reading certain stories. Naturally, I went straight to those stories and had nightmares. A number of them show up in this list, showcasing the long lasting effect those books had on me! Amber Print was one of those stories, and for years, while I couldn't mind the writer, but I could replay the entire story in my head.

There are a number of those stories I still haven't traced title or author. A girl who dies in a car crash named Theresa by the ghost of her mother, and one about a dad murdered by vampire bats in a Christmas vacation holiday from hell come to mind, and will be tracked down one day due to my biggest clue - they were anthologised by Richard Dalby. But for years, the title and author of Amber Print remained out of my mind, until shortly after Copper's death, when I found out and thought: "Of course!"

A movie collector has found a rare amber print of the German classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It has scenes unknown to the common copy, and what's  more, the ending is different each time! What really strikes me as to the genius of Copper is that this story is basically The Mezzotint, told in a more grisly and portentous manner, and yet, we've seen acclaimed others try their hand at that style of tale, and fall flat. Copper's story creeps along with such an air of tension that the reader only late in the day realises the style of story they are reading.

Everyone tries the Mezzotint. To try it and succeed in a way no one had before, and to be better than the master himself, is a rare feat.

98. EF Benson - In The Tube

The first of many appearances for one of Britain's finest horror writers. Benson was a noted humourist, with his Mapp and Lucia novels, but he could also turn his hand to a fine horror tale when need be, despite accusations of being a dilettante in the matter. It doesn't bother me if someone wrote horror due to a fascination in it, due to trying to write in a specific genre, or because they need to pay the bills. One of my favourite ghost stories - to come later - is written by someone renowned for being a classic children's author!

What matters most is the tale, and Benson could certainly tell one.

In this famous tale, two academic types are visited by the ghost of a recent suicide, with a message...

97. EF Benson - The Face

A dream related tale of Benson's, in which Hester has a repeat a dream of a beachside crumbling cemetery where a man foretells her doom. The man turns out to be the figment of a portrait from two hundred years back, but that must mean that dreams are only dreams, and can't harm people in real life. Especially when you wind up in the place you dreamed. Right?

He's good at conveying these isolated places, is our Benson. 

This tale in modern times has been considered a sign of Benson's attitude towards women by some anthologists, as Hester doesn't deserve her fate. That strikes me as something which tends to be true of most ghost stories - how many tales do we finish and think: "deserved it, the sod?" While some - Lost Hearts comes to mind - I'd suggest that being the median would dilute the reaction, somewhat.

96. HP Lovecraft - Pickman's Model

By now, people tend to know the elephant in the room when it comes to Howard Phillips Lovecraft - he was immensely racist. Not just in an "of his time" way, which, while difficult, can be viewed in context as an unfortunate element of fiction. Some of Lovecrafts most acclaimed works - Arthur Jemyn, The Dunwich Horror - is dripping with virulent hatred, to the point even a Donald Trump would tell him to cool it. This can wreck Lovecraft's literary reputation for some, though I find it the cherry on the cake with his bloody awful prose style. (Yeah, he's an awful racist, and worse, he's a terrible writer - I've often found humour gets round the worst of life...)

So whilst part of me would like to ban Lovecraft entirely from the list, there are the odd story when he manages to stop blaming foreigners and dark skinned people for five seconds to tell a gothic tale, and when he wasn't outright paid by the word, so didn't need to repeat the same phrasing over and over.

Pickman's Model is about an artist who produces incredibly lifelike drawings of demons. Night Gallery turned it into an episode, but missed the point of the thing, by showing us the demon.

I guess you could say that's akin to having Lovecraft on this list. I see that he was important, though that was on his inspiration and the elemental horrors he wrote about, rather than on personal writing merit. He was however a vile, vile individual, and his work reminds you of it on nearly every page. He might inspire with nightmarish imagery, but his own nightmares were grimmer than any demonic horror, and the man more terrifying than any Cthulhu.

From memory, Pickmans Model lacks the racist touch, but I fear going back to it and finding out otherwise.

95. Ambrose Bierce - The Middle Toe of the Right Foot

A tale of vengeance from beyond the grave from the writer of the Devils Dictionary.

94. AM Burrage - The Waxwork

An early entry from my favourite ghost story writer. Possibly his most iconic story too, given the number of times it has been adapted by TV, film and fellow writers. The story is quite famous - a man asks to spend the night alone in the murderer's gallery section of a waxwork museum, to write a story on his experience. All the famous killers are there, especially that recent one who disappeared without trace, and whom the police never found.

93.  WW Jacobs - The Monkey's Paw

Another famous tale. What new is there to say about it? I like the Simpsons version of the story, complete with "I wish for world peace" "Lisa, that was very selfish!" Here, Jacobs takes a family's dearest wish, that their dead son could be with them once more, and corrupts it in a brutal and horrific way. "Not a sign nor hint of a ghost" claimed Chetwynd-Hayes, but then, more of one, I'd suggest, than in some of the most famous ghost stories!

92. MR James - The Uncommon Prayerbook

See the M.R. James list for more details.

91. M.R. James - The Ash Tree

See the M.R. James list for more details.

90. Lisa Tuttle - The Horse Lord

Another of the Years Best Horror stories, recent adapted by Pseudopod, and still able to raise a nasty shudder. A family with adopted children move to this converted farm house where a number of years previously the horses suddenly tore the owner to shreds. There's a sort of ghostly presence in the area, which hates ownership. Hey, aren't the kids acting strange all of a sudden?

89. LP Hartley - The Killing Bottle

The first appearance on the list from a fine horror writer, better known for his novel The Go-Between. The Killing Bottle concerns a nasty noveau riche chap who plans to bump off a pal, through the use of a friend who can't bare to see the sight of any animal harmed, and so goes into a murderous rage. Our victim, you see, is fond of collecting butterflies.

Hartley works out well on TV. There is a fine adaptation of this from the 1960s. Underrated next to the likes of James and Benson, and even by myself at times, Hartley is one of the Big Five of the British genre, and we'll return to him often during this list.

88. Ambrose Bierce - A Jug of Syrup

 Memorable tale about a shop owner who dies, yet is still around. Here solely for the punchline:

"'A jug of maple syrup -- I brought it along from the store and set it down here to open the door. What the --'
'There, there, Alvan, please don't swear again,' said the lady, interrupting. Hillbrook, by the way, is not the only place in Christendom where a vestigal polytheism forbids the taking in vain of the Evil One's name.
The jug of maple syrup which the easy ways of village life had permitted Hillbrook's foremost citizen to carry home from the store was not there.
'Are you quite sure, Alvan?'
'My dear, do you suppose a man does not know when he is carrying a jug? I bought that syrup at Deemer's as I was passing. Deemer himself drew it and lent me the jug, and I --'
The sentence remains to this day unfinished. Mr. Creede staggered into the house, entered the parlour and dropped into an arm-chair, trembling in every limb. He had suddenly remembered that Silas Deemer was three weeks dead."

Yeah, I bought the food from the shop owner, what about it? He was very friendly... oh yeah, he died three weeks ago, totally forgot about that.

And with one small section of prose, Ambrose Bierce invented Homer Simpson...

87. MR James - Number 13

As seen in the MR James article.

86. Arthur Conan Doyle - Playing with Fire

Some friends have a seance. It goes badly. 

85. Rosemary Timperley - Stella

 Another fine tale by Timperley sees our main character the victim of a bombing on the underground. His life is almost certainly in jeopardy, but lucky, he and a fellow passenger, Stella, who he secretly fancies, promise to get each other out of it. I aim not to spoil the rest, and besides, my copy of the Armada collection this rare tale is in, I gave to a sickly child with cancer. "It's terrifying, you'll love it" I said. He did. The trick is to know your audience.

Timperley reminds me of my old school teacher, Mrs. Walker. She too would read her children ghost stories in the class, and like Miss Walker, Rosemary Timplerley had health issues which stopped her working. From teaching, via all the spirits you meet in long hospital stays, Timplerley took to writing her own ghost stories. Her big break came when Cynthia Asquith anthologized her in Asquith's Second Ghost Book, alongside Hartley and other greats.

A collection of her works was published in 2016 in limited edition hardbook. Let's hope it receives a larger print run soon.

84. Robert Aickman - Ringing the Changes

Highly atmospheric piece, though I, like most, haven't a clue whats going on. The constant ringing of bells seems to conjur up the dead to dance, and make off with the wife for a bit of loving, and the changes are her metamorphosis into a different personality. Or all of that could be tosh, and Aickman is laughing at us from beyond the grave for overthinking his fiendish nonsense even now.

It is highly atmosphere, however. Just try not to base a dissertation around it.

83. HP Lovecraft - The Moonbog

The second of three Lovecraft tales, and a highly atmospheric one.

82. Guy de Maupassant - Horla

From one mood extreme to another, via a haunting, in a few thousand words. A famous French ghost story. 

81. Winston Churchill - Man Overboard

(previously published in The Spooky Isles, April 2015) 

Winston Churchill was a British Prime Minister, from 1940-5 and 1951-5. You might have heard of him. “We will fight them on the beaches”, “Our finest hour”, “In the morning I shall be sober”, World War Two and all that.

A renowned drinker, a sufferer of depression (it was he who coined the phrase “the black dog” to describe it) and a man of so many facets, good and bad, that it is impossible to make a binary point on the man. Not that it stops most hagiographers or denouncers, of course.

The man Churchill has become as much a myth of the British ethos as Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes, and the papers like to, on occasion, carry reports that X amount of school children believe Holmes to have been a real historical figure and Churchill to have been fictional.

One takes it as read that the reader has heard of Winston Churchill.

There is a horror story in the public domain. Man Overboard. As it suggests, a man falls into the sea from a cruise ship. As he struggles with fate, he loses his faith, and eventually salvation arrives. Just not the salvation you might be expecting, in an expert use of the twist ending. (And in fact, one that Saki went on to borrow for The Interlopers!)

It is written by a Winston Churchill.

Now, there were actually two Winston Churchills. One, the noted Prime Minister, wit, and wannabe Nobel Prize Winner. The second, an American writer who lived into the 1940s.

Man Overboard was published in 1899, and modern writers have tended t o assume the American writer wrote the story. After all, if you have two options, and one is a writer, and the other is one of the most famous people to have ever lived, then the former makes far more sense!

However, the anonymous UNC Professor who writes the Skulls in the Stars blog, points people to the first publication of the story in 1899, in the Harmsworth Magazine.

“As by a very remarkable coincidence there are two Winston Churchills, both writers, we may mention that this Winston Churchill is the son of the late Lord Randolph Churchill.”

So Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Chancellor, First Lord of the Admiralty, horror writer. It all makes sense.

The publication was a year before he won his first parliamentary seat, Oldham. A year before he retired from the army, and during the year in which, as war correspondent for The Morning Post, he was captured as a prisoner of war during the Boer War, only to escape.

Within a decade he was Home Secretary, involved in the solving of the Siege of Sidney Street. Forty one years on from publication, after several down periods and a fews ups (and a near fatal car accident in New York), Lord Halifax remained silent on the issue of succession from the dying Neville Chamberlain, and Churchill found himself Prime Minister. A concept he may have found staggering back in his mid 20s, when he was writing horror and trying to avoid being shot on the front line of a nasty war.

Truly, no great person knows they are destined, until history grabs them by the lapels. Why, they might even write the odd horror tale to earn money as a budding writer, as unaware of their future legacy as a grasshopper is of the existence of the planet Neptune.

80. Edgar Allan Poe - Tell Tale Heart

A wonderful tale of madness. We all know it, but it remains one of the more readable, enjoyable and performable Poe tales. There's no doubting Poe never met a bit of purple prose he didn't like, but when he got down to it, he could write evocative, character pieces. This is one.

" TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

79. AM Burrage - The Sweeper

Now Roald Dahl did the world (or me) a disservice by packaging this story with Playmates. You see, while it has creepy elements, Playmates is a wonderful and kind ghost story. As friend of this blog, Whiskers, once pointed out, its a "rare example of a positive ghost story." So naturally, when The Sweeper starts up in Burrage's amiable style, you assume more of the same...

Whereas the spectre here is most certainly of the "let no bad deed go unpunished" variety. Tessa has a new job at one of those big mansion houses in the city so beloved of M.R. James, complete with Miss Havisham style owner of the manse. The lady is always giving to the homeless, and yet, from what we hear, this is entirely against her character. Miss Ludgate is in the Samuel Smiles mould, you see, and one time she told a beggar to sweep all her lawns for her, for his food. Why, he's still at it now, sweep away, in the dark hours each Autumn, and eventually he'll reach the house itself. The only trouble is, he died on the job that day, and that hasn't stopped his work.

The servants do see the sweeper though, and his description is one of the more macabre. There's a ghost who has had a long time to plot his revenge. I was also fascinated to learn that, at time of writing this tale, Burrage owned a large house and had servants of his own. I wonder what inspired this tale!

"A figure with a "white cadaverous face and eyes that bulged like huge rising bubbles as they regarded her. It was a foul suffering face that he showed Tessa, a face whose misery could - and did - inspire loathing and a hitherto unimagined horror, but never pity."

There are comparisons between Burrage and Benson, aided by the fact that Burrage's big break in, if I recall correctly,  the London Magazine,  came as the magazine couldn't afford Benson's services! Still, one finds the ghosts of Burrage vengeance filled, but more often than not for crimes rendered. Whereas Benson's tend to snare people unaware in their grasp, as the victims of The Room in the Tower and the final victim of Negotium Perambulans might attest.

78. Lord Dunsany - Two Bottles of Relish

Lord Dunsany preferred the more fantastical tale, and there are elements of that in this, but this one is straight out of the horror ouevre. And yet, to have it on this list sort of spoils the twist. Two friends try to solve the disappearance of a local woman in the style of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Their main clues are that the husband has spent the week cutting down trees in the back garden, and that he recently bought two bottles of relish.

An adept horror fan can see the twist coming, probably even from my paragraph above, but it caught 15 year old me completely off guard, and turns what was a black humoured tale into a really dark sting. The last one stuck with me, but I'll refrain from repeating it, to avoid spoiling.

77. HP Lovecraft - The Statement of Randolph Carter

As told in the delightful song "Harley Got Devoured by the Undead".

76. Saki - The Interlopers

Two enemies wind up injured in a forest, awaiting help. They wind up needing to help each other to survive. Isn't that the sound of backup on the way? But who's backup?

Saki's death during World War One became a bit of an urban myth - he was shot by a sniper telling a fellow soldier to put out his cigarette.