In time for Halloween, Sean Wilson takes a look at some of the most delightfully ghoulish and flesh-creeping stories ever put to paper.
The Turn of the Screw
Author Henry James described his own sensational chiller as a ‘pot-boiler’ but it’s clearly so much more than that. A deeply unnerving tale of a young governess who suspects her wards are under the influence of malign spirits, it’s a creepy classic that muddies the waters between spine-tingling spook story and frightening psychological drama, exerting a massive influence over every subsequent entry in the genre. In 1961 it received a timeless adaptation The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, scripted by Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr.
The Woman in Black
Not just a mainstay of English literature courses but one of the most genuinely frightening stories ever written, Susan Hill’s hair-raising tale of supernatural menace is infinitely superior to its long-running stage spin-off, 1989 TV movie and 2012 Daniel Radcliffe hit. The key is its subtlety: in relaying the cautionary tale of the Woman in Black, Hill leaves gore at the door and builds a deliciously Gothic atmosphere in the manner of master M.R. James that builds to a forbidding, bleak ending that leaves the reader poleaxed. Never has the sound of a rocking chair been scarier.
The Empty House
Sometimes the scariest stories are the most simple. The name of Algernon Blackwood may not immediately spring to the lips of horror fans but he was one of the most revolutionary ghost story writers the genre has ever seen. His trippy piece of ‘weird fiction’ known as ‘The Willows’ is perhaps his most famous work but even scarier is this slice of raw, distilled terror in which two people decide to spend a night in an unassuming house said to be haunted. Blackwood’s ability to escalate the sense of terror through his acute description of sound and atmosphere is genuinely masterful.
The Rats in the Walls
More a proponent of trend-setting ‘weird fiction’ than ghost stories in their own right, Lovecraft was nevertheless a massive admirer of supernatural contemporary M.R. James, and in between his own Cthulhu mythos he turned out some deliciously eerie stories playing around with possibly supernatural happenings. This disturbing story of a man who makes a terrifying discovery within his crumbling English ancestral pile is one of Lovecraft’s most understated yet genuinely bone-chilling offerings, building to a shrieking climax that, in the writer’s typical style, rips apart the very fabric of reality and consciousness itself.
Never one for economy, Stephen King’s typically sprawling supernatural tome is the story of an alcoholic caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel, and the malevolent spirits that pose a threat to him and his family. Far more literal-minded and explicit than Stanley Kubrick’s ambiguous 1980 movie adaptation (which King himself hated), the book builds a steady sense of dread (bar some silly interludes like topiary animals coming to life) and, like any great ghost story, is centrally grounded in a genuine sense of compassion for its characters, namely central figure Jack Torrance whose background is explored in much greater detail than in the film.
What constitutes a ghost, exactly? Is it a spectre or the echo of a long-distant memory? It’s a question posed by the opening of Guillermo del Toro’s fantastic Spanish Civil War chiller The Devil’s Backbone, but a century before writer E.F. Benson was already playing around with conventions in this deeply poignant and beautiful work. The story of a successful, ageing merchant haunted by happy childhood memories who makes the decision to purchase the Cornish property where he grew up, it could well be the most moving ghost story ever written.
The Haunting of Hill House
“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more…” One of the most famously frightening opening passages in literature inaugurates one of its greatest ghost stories, courtesy of genre master Shirley Jackson. The author’s ability to imbue the aforementioned Hill House with malevolent personality is unsurpassed but it’s the psychological slipperiness that lingers in the mind: are ghosts to blame, or is it all in the mind of spinster Eleanor? Forget the dreadful 1999 movie remake; Robert Wise’s seminal 1963 does superb justice to its source.
Not just one of the great literary practitioners of the 19th century, Charles Dickens was also a populist trendsetter in the realm of the ghost story. His timeless 1843 tale A Christmas Carol famously mixes a wintry atmosphere of supernatural intrigue with a stirring story of redemption but his 1866 short story The Signalman offers no such sentimental respite. The final work completed by Dickens in his lifetime (inspired by his own involvement in the Staplehurst rail crash), this chilling story of a spectral locomotive that seemingly acts as a harbinger of doom helped paved the way for the menacing likes of M.R. James, and was masterfully adapted by Andrew Davies in 1976, staring Denholm Elliott.
Man-Size in Marble
Best known for her beloved The Railway Children, Nesbit also proved she could turn her hand to a creepy yarn when necessary. This overlooked horror story is quite something, a deeply unnerving account of a young newlywed couple terrorised by an apparently innocuous marble figure found within a church. It’s a fine example of an author taking a frankly ludicrous concept and investing the reader in it absolutely, steadily building a sense of threat until the tragic end game.
Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
Arguably the greatest ghost story writer in the history of the medium, M.R. James was extraordinarily adept at honing a sense of the uncanny in his tales, ones that helped cement ghosts as malevolent and terrifying forces of evil. A master in establishing seemingly minor details and plot points that gain added menace with every passing page, James delivered his crowning glory with this dread-inducing story of an academic and an ancient whistle that summons up dark forces. Jonathan Miller’s windswept 1968 adaptation starring Michael Hordern distills the terror of James’ work brilliantly, the crisp black and white photography perfectly reflecting the precision of the author’s writing.
The House by the Churchyard
Along with Charles Dickens, Irish writer Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was another pioneer of the populist horror story, composing not only one of the earliest vampire novellas (the unforgettable Carmilla) but also some of the first ghost stories, too. His first, The Ghost and the Bonesetter, was published in 1838 but his sprawling 1863 mystery The House by the Churchyard is his greatest accomplishment. Not consistently scary and intentionally digressive throughout, the novel nevertheless contains within it the deeply scary ‘An Authentic Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand’, an offshoot of the main narrative that has even been published separately.
Better known as an expert in dissecting the classic system and social mores with heavyweight novels like The House of Mirth, Wharton was also one of the greatest-ever writers of spooky tales. The Eyes takes the classic story-within-a-story conceit so deliciously apt for ghostly chillers, recounting two separate occasions when handsome central character Culwin was tormented by a pair of monstrous red eyes peering out from beneath his bed. Rippling with Wharton’s usual undercurrents of sexuality and identity, it’s one of the most sophisticated horror stories ever penned.
A Warning to the Curious
M.R. James’ later life was deeply shaken by the emotional after-shock of World War I, a conflict that robbed his beloved Cambridge University of many of its bright young minds. Consequently his penultimate ghost story, found in his fourth and final collection A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories, is one of his starkest, bleakest and most unashamedly frightening, the story of an archaeologist who digs up a cursed Anglo-Saxon crown and brings down the wrath of supernatural evil. Lawrence Gordon Clark’s eerie 1972 Ghost Stories for Christmas adaptation remains one of the finest James adaptations ever put to screen.
Sean Wilson is a film reviewer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined at the same time, all is good with the world.