Every week I’ll sample the goods and spit out the juiciest pieces of prose and poetry for you—heavy on flavor, light on fat. In spirit of the month leading up to Halloween I thought I’d entertain you this October (and torture my poor susceptible imagination) with some wickedly well-written, terrifying tales. This week: a three course meal of hefty servings from some of the best spine-creeping, skin-tingling twisted and savory short stories you should never read before bed. Prepare yourself for [intrepid,] imminent insomnia.
For this particular post I’m going super fat-and-gluten-free on the commentary and super-sizing the samples, because these twisty-turny sinister selections deserve substantial, slabby servings. The three following stories were chosen because unlike so many scary stories, the simple, often helpless, human characters are the most horrific element. The eerie and haunting humanity sinks so much further into one’s subconscious and it cannot be brusquely brushed off like the typical ghosts, goblins, and gore. If I’ve done my job (and if you read the full–short–texts which I’ve provided through links at the end) you will find yourself worshipping the dexterous abilities of these writers to frighten the reader in so subtle a way it feels intrinsic.
A Rose for Emily–William Faulkner (1930)
“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist…
“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I’d recom–“
“I want the best you have. I don’t care what kind.”
The druggist named several. “They’ll kill anything up to an elephant. But what you want is–“
“Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a good one?”
“Is…arsenic? Yes, ma’am. But what you want–“
“I want arsenic.”
The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face like a strained flag. “Why of course,” the druggist said. “If that’s what you want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for.”
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up. The Negro delivery boy brought her the package; the druggist didn’t come back. When she opened the package at home there was written on the box, under the skull and bones: “For rats.”
A Rose for Emily is in some ways very traditionally creepy, but the creepiness is mostly unexpected. The whole narrative follows the idea that if there’s a gun in the room, someone better well use it before the end of the story (ahem, see above quote). For those looking for disconcerting twists set in the deep south–this one’s for you.
The Yellow Wallpaper–Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.
The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!
Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast and her crawling shakes it all over.
Then in the very bright spots she keep still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that patterns–it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.
They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!
If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.
I have to say The Yellow Wallpaper leaves me the most skittish of all. The voice of the speaker completely creeps me out–you never really know exactly what she is talking about or whether she is locked somewhere or crazy or–ok, the crazy part might be indisputable–just so damn bored she’s writing crazed entries (it is written like a diary) to entertain herself. Either way, it’s the tone that sets this story.
The Fall of the House of Usher–Edgar Allen Poe (1839)
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue—but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage. At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness; for I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound. It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influence of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.
Predictable, I know, but I had to put a little Poe into the mix. This is the longest of the three and entirely distinguished in its disquieting detail. The voice of the narrator and the layout of the story form a more traditional “ghost story” than the other two. Afterwards you’ll find yourself listening a little closer to the walls.
These three can be found in full online if you’re poor and lazy like me:
Next Week: More stories to scur the scivvies off ya.