As it’s Hallowe’en and, as I’ve recently been reading loads of supernatural fiction from the late 19th and earliest 20th Centuries – you might find out why when I come to write my next book… – I thought I’d share some of my favourite supernatural stories. All the works are out of copyright so I’ve included links to them online.
I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but they will be there so nonetheless you might want to read the stories before reading my comments.
- “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” by Algernon Blackwood
My publishing editor Kerri recently introduced me to Algernon Blackwood and I’m a huge fan. He wrote about the supernatural but is not a horror writer in the conventional sense. “The Willows” is a brilliant piece of horror writing but generally he seemed far more interested in creating a sense of wonder and awe at the possibilities of the supernatural than outright frightening people.
Several of his stories are based around the idea of plants and nature having a secret life and mind of their own and “the Man Whom the Trees Loved” is one of the best of them. What I find incredible about it is that it’s a story with virtually no action whatsoever – if you made it into a film then it would basically be an elderly man wandering around some woods a lot whilst his wife sits at home fretting about him – but it nonetheless builds up this compelling sense of psychological horror a whilst, at the same time, it’s also a brilliant portrayal of quiet sadness in the gradual unspoken and unfixable disintegration of a marriage.
2. “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle is another writer who was a master of the supernatural and the collection “Tales of Unease” brilliant. Perhaps “Lot No. 249” – one of the earliest and the best stories examples of Mummy fiction – is perhaps the scariest story of the collection but I love “the Horror of the Heights” for two reasons. Firstly the macabre glee that Conan Doyle takes in the gruesome violence – “And where, pray, is Myrtle’s Head?” – but also because the story functions as a time capsule of a story with its central horror – a Cryptozoological explanation of the deaths of early aeroplane pioneers – long since obsolete. Nonetheless the ideas are incredible and it’s not only a masterful piece of fiction from perhaps my favourite short story writer of all time but also an incredible piece of imagination and insight into the ideas of the 19th Century.
3. “The Eyes” by Edith Wharton
There tends to be a certain snobbery about supernatural stories and, perhaps like any kind of ‘genre’ fiction, a sense that it’s not as impressive as ‘proper’, serious literature. This is, of course, absolute nonsense. However Edith Wharton makes a brilliant case as someone who was best known as a ‘proper’ author but absolutely excelled at writing in the supernatural genre. “The Lady Maid’s Bell” and “Afterward” are perhaps her best-known ghost stories but “The Eyes” is my favourite. The story of an elderly socialite and ‘confirmed bachelor’ who is haunted by the vision of two mysterious and horrendously evil eyes haunting him at various junctures of his life, the ultimate reveal of the owner of the eyes is phenomenal and it’s a brilliant character study of how somebody can trick themselves into believing that doing the right thing and wanting to be seen as doing the right thing are one and the same thing.
4. “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” by M. R. James
M.R. James is perhaps the most consistent writer of ghost stories I’ve ever encountered so I’ve essentially picked one at random to serve as a favourite. What I love abut him is that he writes in this brilliantly anecdotal style. Most of his stories happen to a friend of a friend of a work colleague, he’ll divert from the telling to talk about his own thoughts and he’ll occasionally forget or not be aware of certain details of the story, which adds to this brilliant sense that it all might be real. It also functions as a ruse to avoid superfluous narrative and flowery language as he’ll frequently break from his stories to apologise for the fact that, as he’s never been to the town in question, he can’t possibly begin to explain what it looks like.
What’s more he creates stories where, although a ghost is implicit in most of his stories, he deliberately shies away from providing definitive evidence and he’s got an incredible knack of ending his stories by basically saying ‘of course, I can’t say for sure what really happened so you’ll have to draw your own conclusion’, whilst of course being well aware he’s already made sure the reader knows exactly what to think about what’s happened.
Thrown in with this is a tendency to find the horror in simple everyday events – in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” the basic idea is lying alone in one of two twin beds in a bedroom and then realising something is happening in the bed next to you. James created ghost stories terrifying in their very simplicity.
- “The White People” by Arthur Machen
Like Algernon Blackwood, Machen was recommended me to me by my Kerri and, whilst I find his work a bit more patchy than Algernon Blackwood, when it’s good it’s utterly brilliant. “The White People” is possibly his most famous story and certainly, of what I’ve read of him so far, one of his best. In complete contrast to MR James, it’s an absolute masterclass in descriptive writing and, after an opening five pages of thought-provoking philosophising over the nature of evil and introducing the central diary entry that tells the central story, it bursts into a dizzying, spellbinding narrative that is breathlessly intense in the form of a series of diary of entries as a teenage girl writes in an innocent, child-like fashion about her induction into the world of the occult.
It’s written as a collection of fragments, thoughts and feelings rather than a fully-formed narrative (and indeed it tantalising breaks off at the crucial moment) but it’s an utterly spellbinding piece of writing.