and what I learned from them
A Shock Room Guest Post by Angela Slatter
I’ve written a lot about the fairy tales I loved as a child and how they’ve influenced my writing, but I also read a lot of ghost and horror stories, which are quite different. They left a trace, those early frights, and I still reach into the back brain for the lessons they taught me about writing and scaring people. So here’s a list of ten short stories that still haunt my dreams thirty-odd years later. These are by no means the only influences, but they are the ones that sprang immediately to mind when I began to think about this post. The only thing that makes me really sad about this list is how few women are on it. :-(
1. “The Tower” by Marghanita Laski
I first read “The Tower” in a book of stories we’d been set for Year 11 English class. I read it late at night (in the usual last-minute rush to finish homework), and was terrified by it. In Italy, a lonely young English woman at a loose end while her husband is working, discovers the tale of a purported dark magician from the Renaissance period whose own young wife mysteriously disappeared. The protagonist discovers that Nicolo’s tower still stands, so she makes a day trip out of it. She counts the number of stairs as she climbs to the top of the tower, but loses track of time and so it’s very dark when she begins the descent ... so she counts the number of stairs to keep track and to keep her mind focused ... and all of a sudden she’s counted more stairs down than up ...
You’re left with this wonderful feeling of terror, and this terrific sense that the story continues beyond the page, beyond the final full stop. It’s a deceptively simple tale, very well-paced, with an echoing sense of loneliness. The sense of pace and slowly growing dread have always remained with me.
2. “Gabriel-Ernest” by Saki
The most gentle and disturbing werewolf story ever. I first read it in Barbara Ireson’s Spooky Stories 2, in the early 80s. I remembering being struck by how terribly English it was, how the very strict sense of manners and impatience with anything different were at the core of − and were the cause of − the tale. And Gabriel-Ernest is a wonderful character, so clever and sleek and dangerous. The dialogue is layered and subtle and works on several levels of comprehension. I couldn’t help, when I wrote one of the stories in The Bitterwood Bible collection, but to name a character ‘the Toop girl’ in a nod to Saki’s ‘the Toop child’ who goes missing. “Gabriel-Ernest” taught me the value of subtlety and layering in stories that, while they may be short, can still have a tremendous impact for the reader.
3. The one about the Wendigo the title of which I cannot recall
I cannot for the life of me remember what it was called, but I read this tale in my teen years, about a boy who found a strange ‘bird’ skeleton out in the woods − it was about the size of large infant and had a sharp beak. The boy brought it home and kept it in the basement ... I think the family cat or dog disappeared. Somehow, the boy got locked down in the basement, his torch went out, and the last thing he heard was the clicking and clacking of that sharp beak. I consumed this during my phase of reading under the covers with a torch in order to circumvent the lights out directive, so you can imagine the effect it had. It taught me that the home is not safe and that your protagonist can die − both very good lessons for a writer.
4. “Dame Crowl’s Ghost” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
I love this one and honestly, what’s not to love? Dame Arabella Crowl in her decrepit finery and her decayed beauty, with her nasty little secret that won’t let her rest? The tender little housemaid come to Applewale House, whose curiosity means she sees more than she should? The story-in-a-story format? I remember feeling that sensation of being frozen to the bed from fear as the old ghost made her way around the room, then the finding of the secret chamber with the murdered boy inside. Wonderfully creepy, with a great sense of time and place evoked.
5. “The Chosen Vessel” by Barbara Baynton
I read this one when I was about nine or ten, and we were living in a town called Longreach in the Australian Outback (which had a most excellent public library). This story makes me shudder to this day; it caused nightmares at the time, but please note: it did not stop me reading horror. It hit hard me because it’s set in the kind of country we were living in at the time; the drover’s wife is recognisable and the landscape and the situation were also very recognisable and relatable. That’s one of the lessons I took away as a writer: the more familiar something is to us, the more terrifying it can be when a twist of difference is added to it, when we lead a reader down a path that looks familiar and then make it strange. It shakes and shifts the world beneath our feet − and that kind of frisson is why we read horror.
6. “Red Reign” by Kim Newman
I first read this at about fifteen in the Stephen Jones edited The Giant Book of Vampires and it cracked my mind open. Initially, I didn’t like it: it MIXED THINGS UP! It broke barriers between the walls of stories and made them sit together in class. But, as I have inevitably found throughout my life, the stronger my initial dislike of something, the more I return to it and analyse it ... and then one day I find I love it. I have seen all its myriad facets and how cunning the construction is of the tale, how the characters are so true, the setting so well-painted, the dialogue so brilliantly weighted. “Red Reign” taught me how to look at stories differently, how to write something unexpected, how to throw in surprises that break a reader’s brain in a good way. I still love it and I re-read it at least once a year. And I am still gripped by, and tremendously envious of, Newman’s ability to sprinkle his stories with the most wonderful and fascinating ‘clutter’ that never gives a sense of making the story cluttered − descriptions always appear to be in precisely the right place, always appear to be precisely the thing the story needs at the time.
7. “The Wailing Well” by M.R. James
M.R. James is the master of making a seemingly harmless tale of schoolboys on a field trip suddenly morph into something dire and threatening. Creepy creeper things in a field, stealing away a child, then having him join their ranks. Enough said.
8. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch
Again, a Ripper story and again a story I did not initially like because it played with the natural order. And again, a story I went back to over and over until I appreciated everything it did. There’s a sparseness in the language that I love, something that I also find at its best in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. It taught me the value of choosing the right word, putting it in the right place and not trying to then embroider it, but just to leave it alone to do its job.
9. “It Only Comes Out at Night” by Dennis Etchison
Another one from The Giant Book of Vampires and it’s left me with a life-long fear of, and distrust for, truck stops, public toilets, and blankets on the back seats of cars. It’s a story about atmosphere as much as anything, for not a great deal happens. Two people pull over into a parking lot at a rest stop, the woman goes to the loo and the man waits. And waits. And waits. He checks out the other cars in the lot and realises they’re covered in dust. They’ve been there a long time. But there are no owners about ... A brilliant exercise in building tension.
10. “Laird of Dunain” by Graham Masteron
And yet again, another from The Giant Book of Vampires − yes, this book did have a large influence on me! A female painter becomes obsessed by the Laird, she begins to paint with her own blood, eventually eviscerating herself and dying − in the process the Laird becomes younger, handsomer. But that’s not the end: the secondary character who is jealous of the woman who dies? She tears the painting in half in a fit of pique, causing the newly refreshed Laird to burst apart. The lesson I took away from this story is that a tale might be made different by allowing a secondary character to have their head (but only after you’ve done all your foreshadowing); that the best laid plans of mice and men will go astray when you’re busy ignoring someone else’s needs; that humans are often unpredictable. So, this tale is an example of how important psychology and depth and complexity are to your characters.