Horror will always be present in the world—therefore, an art of horror will always be necessary…
Bookseller Elijah presents his ten favorite horror stories, available at bookpeople.com. Enjoy!
In his Poetics, Aristotle famously says that a good tragedy should inspire “pity and fear.” Yet why should fear be a desirable effect of art? Aristotle explains that intense fear (at an artistic distance) may lead to catharsis: the clarifying, purifying, and purging of our emotions. Horror is a lifting of the veil: when we feel dread before horror occurs, and when we are disturbed after horror occurs, our layers of mental security dissolve: we are forcefully reminded that life is precious, fragile, and fleeting. We view the world as it is: as a place that’s wondrous, mysterious, and monstrously hostile. Our everyday emotions, compared to these existential considerations, are seen for what they are, are clarified; they are cleansed of pettiness and frivolity, put into their proper place—purified; and as we learn to accept that the world can be horrific and that our lives are limited and tenuous, but also wondrous, our anxieties and fears are finally purged. If art’s objective is to better understand the relationship between the human soul and its reality, achieving catharsis clearly ought to be one of the highest goals of art, and a dose of horror is necessary to achieving that goal.
With this in mind, I offer for your consideration ten examples of horror in literature masterfully handled in its most potent vehicle: the short story. These are stories which are psychologically subtle, existentially profound, and offer clues as to what is expressively possible when we take horror in art with the seriousness it deserves.
“August Heat” by W.F. Harvey
Only a few pages long, yet brimming with unforgettable eeriness and ambiguity, “August Heat” is a masterclass of horror narration at its most concentrated pitch. The story follows a man who absent-mindedly doodles an “imaginary” criminal receiving his sentence. A series of morbid and unexplainable coincidences follow, and by the cliff-hanger ending, we have a sick feeling that we know exactly what is about to happen, but we have no idea why…
Read it here!
“The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers
A particular room in a guesthouse has become notorious for its string of suicides; a police inspector rents the room to investigate, keeping track of his experiences and mental states every day in a journal. A riveting slow-burn of psychological deterioration, “The Spider” explores themes of infatuation, domination, and mania in a manner not unpredictable, but thrillingly powerful.
Find it in this excellent anthology: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780765333629
“The Eyes” by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton, the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, is best known for social realist novels such as “The Age of Innocence” and “The House of Mirth.” Yet she admitted to being terrified by the idea of ghosts her whole life, and partly to reconcile herself to this fear, composed some of the best ghost stories in the English language. In “The Eyes,” a rich old man recounts to his young male admirers his previous experiences with supernatural events. As his story draws to a close however, he finally realizes what the events signify, and a new kind of horror is revealed.
Order a collection of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780692548356
“Green Tea” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
At the same time that Edgar Allan Poe was pioneering his grisly and decadent take on the gothic tale in America, J. Sheridan Le Fanu was pioneering an equally revolutionary yet more subtly terrifying approach of psycho-spiritual terror in Ireland. Le Fanu wrote the works which would become the direct inspirations for both Jane Eyre and Dracula and a major source for Finnegan’s Wake (“A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family,” Carmilla, and The House By the Churchyard, respectively), and was considered by ghost story icon M.R. James to be the greatest horror writer of all time. Accolades aside, the best of Le Fanu’s stories transcend their competition through the way they blur the line between naturalism and supernaturalism—it is hardly ever clear whether the demons and ghosts of his stories are conjured by damnation or psychosis, and Fanu ensures that both interpretations remain plausible. In “Green Tea,” a man becomes haunted by visions of a terrifying monkey, and fears that he has contacted a hostile dimension. Through the narrator’s search for both scientific and mystical explanations, the reader learns to appreciate the psychological subtlety possible in discussing supernatural events, and is forced to consider how fragile human consciousness, as well as any human metric of truth, really is.
Order a collection of Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780486204154
“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood
Considered by H.P. Lovecraft to be the greatest horror story of all time, “The Willows” tells the tale of two friends whose whimsical canoe trip down the Danube goes horrifically wrong: after the appearance of a disturbing omen, the pair become stranded on a small island in the middle of the river, surrounded by nothing but sinister-looking willows. As night falls, the island seems to take on a sentience of its own, and it soon becomes clear that some ancient force is unpleased by their arrival— horrors ensue. The tale’s greatness stems from three things: the beauty of the writing, the mysteriousness of the menace, and the masterful way in which the terror builds. A perfect introduction to Blackwood’s unique brand of animistic horror, “The Willows” is an essential read for any horror connoisseur.
Order a collection of Algernon Blackwood’s stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780142180150
“Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang
It’s always risky business to make grand assessments of living authors, but in this case, I warrant an exception is in order: I believe that Ted Chiang is, without a doubt, one of the greatest masters of the short story of all time, and easily one of the best fiction writers alive. Each of Chiang’s stories is a well-wrought gem of cerebral intrigue, philosophical heft, and speculative ingenuity, and one of my favorites, “Hell is the Absence of God” happens to be a potent metaphysical horror story as well. In this parable, Chiang imagines what it would be like if God, angels, heaven, and hell were obvious and intrusive realities in our world, and how various members of society would react if, on occasion, humans were arbitrarily granted beatific visions of the afterlife. Chiang claims that he was inspired to write this story because of his dissatisfaction with the ending of the Book of Job— as those who read this story will see, Chiang’s vision of God’s cruelty is even more vicious than that of the Hebrew Bible.
Order a collection of Ted Chiang’s stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9781101972120
“They” by Robert Heinlein
“They” is the story of a paranoid man who believes that reality has been constructed around him in order to torture him for the pleasure of a higher power. What is so terrifying about this story is that, except for its flawed ending, it relies on actual philosophy, not fantasy, for its horrors, and the solipsistic train of thought which drives the main character to his conclusions is one we could all plausibly entertain, and perhaps could even come to find convincing were we not so tempted to embrace the status quo. The idea that reality itself is hostile is one of the most powerful themes possible in horror (in an essay I wrote inspired by this story, I call it “gnostic horror”) and is the basis for some of the greatest work in the genre, from Heinlein and Chiang to Blackwood, Le Fanu, and Machen. H.P. Lovecraft was fascinated by this sort of horror, yet in his own work shifted the threat from the metaphysical to the physical level (“alien gods”), and in so doing, lost a great deal of the grandeur and seriousness of the cosmic theme. In “They,” the horror is not “out there” somewhere—it is in your very skin.
Order a collection of Robert Heinlein’s stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780312875572
“The Jolly Corner” by Henry James
It is a testament to the wide genius of Henry James that he managed to be not only the most impressive fictionist of his age, but perhaps the best ghost story writer of all time. Much like his friend and protégé Edith Wharton, James wrote ghost stories in between tackling his large-scale realist works; yet James took his ghost stories as seriously as anything he wrote, and utilized the form to examine the intricacies of human psychology as painstakingly as in his novels. Though his best known ghost story is undoubtedly The Turn of the Screw, I would argue that, fine as that story is, it is outdone in artfulness by a later story, “The Jolly Corner.”
In this story, a man who has spent the majority of his life in London returns to the house in New York where he grew up; as time passes, he becomes obsessed by the idea of whom he might have been had he made his career in New York rather than London. Prowling around his old house at night, he becomes convinced that there is another presence in the house— a presence he soon realizes is the specter of the man he might have been: the man is haunted by himself. Whether this “ghost” exists in any meaningful way outside of the man’s own neurotic fantasy is never revealed, but the point is nearly moot, as the effects the ghost produces upon him prove to be very real indeed. James’s moral, akin to Le Fanu’s, is deeply frightening: the mind itself is the real haunted house.
Order a collection of Henry James’s ghost stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780141389752
“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions
“The Beckoning Fair One” is often considered to be the greatest ghost story of all time, and for good reason: it is perhaps the most subtle, gripping, elegant account of a descent into madness ever written. Onions takes a well-worn trope, the haunted house which exerts a malevolent influence on its occupants, and makes it come alive in this story of an aging artist who shacks up in a dilapidated mansion, attracted by the low rent. In beautiful language, Onions describes the artist’s inner monologue as he gets to know his new abode, and, as in the most masterful horror stories, the uncanniness slips in so quietly that it’s impossible to tell whether a ghost or psychosis is responsible for increasingly eerie events and disturbing thoughts. One thing which sets this story apart from others of its kind is that the ghost is not only never fully revealed, but the narrator is never scared of it— instead, he comes to love it with an almost erotic passion, and the horror is left entirely for the reader to feel as the tension escalates.
Find it in this excellent anthology: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780312862176
“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen
It is difficult for me to speak objectively about “The Great God Pan.” It is a legendary tale among horror fans, and is the story which awakened me not only to my love of Arthur Machen’s work but to the literary power of horror in general. At the time it was published, it was panned as a morbid, decadent pastiche of a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure story, and so it is— but it is also one of the best horror stories ever written, the dividing line between Victorian and modern horror, and a crucial touchstone for the entire subgenre of cosmic horror which was to follow it. But what makes the story so great? Simply put: the premise.
The premise is that, if one were to surgically alter the human brain in a particular way, one would be able to see “beyond the veil” of ordinary perception, see what is behind the world we experience every day: and that vision would be one of pure, overwhelming horror. That horror is “The Great God Pan:” the architect of the universe, the soul of unlimited evil which generates reality for its own unknowable purposes. The God is called “Pan” not only because, like the Greek god, it represents chaotic primal force and causes “panic,” but because “Pan” literally means all: Pan is reality. In the story, a Faust-like surgeon forces a woman to “see The Great God Pan.” She does so, goes insane, and eventually dies, but not before mysteriously giving birth to… something. Something that looks and acts like a little girl, but isn’t. Years later, a team of spooked and baffled Londoners must track down the thing she has become.
This “child of evil” idea might seem to some like a typical antichrist trope, but it is in fact far beyond it. Though the plot is of course a perversion of the incarnation story, the child in question is not the child of Satan— it is the child of reality itself, manifest in a raw, strange, and hostile human form. If this child is the child of the devil, it is only because the devil is God; there is no alternative, there is no escape. In “The Great God Pan” we have the most explicit and influential example of what I earlier called “gnostic horror,” the horror of reality itself.
As I say, the power of “The Great God Pan” lies in the fertile philosophical ground of its premise, but it does not represent Machen at the height of his literary ability. For that, one must turn to his two masterpieces, the short story “The White People” (which has nothing to do with Caucasian identity) and his novel, The Hill of Dreams. These two works combine transcendent mysticism, hallucinogenic terror, and proto-stream-of-consciousness narrative into a mesmerizing cocktail of beauty and dread unlike anything else ever written. So long underrated, Machen is now finally beginning to receive his due, and his work has been the subject of numerous new and critical editions in the past few years. As a matter of fact, if the reader is curious to get to know Machen better, the latest edition of the New York Review of Books has a wonderful feature on his life and works entitled “Rending the Veil,” which is well worth checking out.
Order a collection of Arthur Machen’s stories here: https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9780198813163
In the seemingly apocalyptic times we live in, it can be all too tempting to indulge ourselves in media which encourages escapism and fantasy. The value of horror however is that it forces us to do the opposite—done well, it does not merely entertain us, but moves us to confront the real fear in our lives, and to attempt a better, healthier understanding of our relationship to that fear. Horror will always be present in the world—therefore, an art of horror will always be necessary.
These titles and more are available to order from BookPeople today.
Elijah is a poet, writer, and bookseller living in Austin, TX. You can find more of his recommendations on the blog and some of his magnificent poetry readings over on our Instagram.