#weird 2016: My Top Ten Horror Stories

An essay of mine went up at Strange Horizons yesterday, in which I mull over the state of British horror and where we might be going with it. As part of that mulling-over, I took issue with a certain horror editor’s Top Ten list of favourite horror stories. For me, it seemed staid and just a little bit dull, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. I also acknowledged how difficult it is to compile such a list, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. Should we pick the stories that happen to be our favourites right now, or should we actively tend towards the conservative, selecting the works that have haunted our memories for decades, those stories we return to imaginatively again and again when we think about what most delights us in horror fiction?

A little of both, maybe. And fair is fair – if I’m going to pick holes in someone else’s list, it’s only right that I put up a top ten list of my own, to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. There will doubtless be some who think I don’t go far enough in challenging the status quo here, just as there will be others who simply can’t believe I’ve not happened to choose one justifiably classic author or another. But that is exactly what these kind of lists are for, isn’t it? Discussing our choices, and hopefully challenging our perceptions of the subject in question. The main thing is that we have a conversation.

So who is my list for, primarily? At the most cursory level, I’d say it was for any horror reader or writer who feels curious about what kind of stuff another horror reader and writer happens to be into – you’ll get a pretty good idea of who I am as a horror fan from reading this list. I’d also say it’s for new writers: here is my best summary of the kind of work you need to be paying attention to if you want to get an idea of what horror is about and how you might fit into it. These ten works will give you a pretty good idea of the journey horror literature has been on and how it’s evolved. (It goes without saying that other fans, editors and writers might have differing opinions on exactly who is most important here and why.) I would also like to think that this list might be a starting point for people who think they don’t like horror: read the stories on this list, and perhaps you’ll end up with a pretty good idea of why you might have been wrong, and where you might go next to feed your growing enthusiasm.

Who knows – you might even end up compiling a list of your own…

And so here goes with my top ten. I’m going to try and lay these out in the order I might arrange them if I were editing an anthology:

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907). This is a classic work of English weird fiction. Two friends travel down the Danube in a rowing boat and become ever more fixated upon the landscape they pass through, convinced of its malignancy and possessed by it. An incredibly modern, prescient work of cosmic horror. Lovecraft admired this story tremendously and for me it signals the passage from the more buttoned-up, Jamiesian type of Victorian ghost story to the psychological idiom. A story that can be savoured time and again.
  2. The Ruins of Contracoeur by Joyce Carol Oates (1999). Joyce Carol Oates is thought of by most people as a mainstream literary writer. In fact, she’s one of the most important horror writers working today. A good chunk of her output – story collections such as Haunted, novels such as the Stoker-winning Zombie and the epic vampire novel Bellefleur – is specifically horror anyway, but more than that, everything she writes carries more than a touch of the gothic. Together with Iris Murdoch, I would have to cite JCO as the writer who lies closest to my heart, the writer I turn to when I want to regain a sense of where I stand as a writer. It’s hard to pick just one story to list here, but I’m going with this marvellous novella, a weird and unnerving offshoot from Bellefleur, because it’s the first Oates I ever read and it made me fall in love with her writing there and then. For a neat introduction to Oates and her importance to horror, I’d recommend this great little essay by Paula Guran.
  3. Welcomeland by Ramsey Campbell (1988). Arguably the most important British horror writer of the postwar era, Ramsey Campbell’s stories and novels carry echoes of the earlier weird fiction that has clearly worked a profound influence upon their author. Yet they are also grimly, often brutally of today: angst-ridden, bleak, alienated and genuinely terrifying. No one explores despair – both existential and circumstantial – like Campbell, and this story of a man returning to his home town bears all his trademark themes. Campbell’s layered use of language to create a sense of entrapment is pretty much unique in all of horror and I would say it’s essential for anyone interested in writing horror to read him. (NB: He can also be really funny.)
  4. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1931). I’ve been thinking about Lovecraft a lot recently, and rereading him a bit, and I’m coming to the conclusion that this ‘terrible wordsmith’ business of which he is routinely accused is received opinion: people keep saying it, therefore it must be accurate. But whilst it’s true that HPL does not always know when to end a sentence, and he’s not so good on dialogue, when you go back to the writing itself, you’ll perhaps be surprised to find how evocative, precise and beautiful it often is. Take this passage here from At The Mountains of Madness: ‘The last lap of the voyage was vivid and fancy-stirring. Great barren peaks of mystery loomed up constantly against the west as the low northern sun of noon or the still lower horizon-grazing southern sun of midnight poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope. Through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible Antarctic wind, whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.’ Because so much of contemporary western horror literature arises from Lovecraft, I would say that insofar as anything is essential reading for anyone interested in horror fiction, Lovecraft is it. (And pssst – his stories are highly entertaining.)
  5. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948). As with Iris Murdoch’s early fiction, I’m always amazed when I’m confronted by the date-stamps on Shirley Jackson’s stories, because their ethos is so fiercely, so uncompromisingly modern. ‘The Lottery’ truly is a horror classic, and whilst its by no means the oddest or even the best of her stories, it’s a wonderful introduction to the art of a writer who could perhaps be described as the Katherine Mansfield of horror, bringing strange fiction out of the gentleman’s club and into the home. (In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s own 1912 story ‘The Woman at the Store‘ could itself easily qualify for inclusion on this list.) I’ve read this story more times than I can remember, yet it never loses its power to shock and delight. You can’t not love it.
  6. The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub (1990). Often seen as standing in Stephen King’s shadow, Straub has written fewer novels but their overall consistency – not surprisingly and for me at least – is finer. Ghost Story and Shadowland are colossi of the genre: novels both intellectual and visceral that you can read again and again and never quite come to the end of. I love his work. This novella is so weird and so disturbing and it showcases Straub’s writing and style to beautiful effect. In fact, go away and read the entire collection from which this story is drawn, Houses Without Doors – it’s one of my favourite story collections ever. For more on Straub, there’s an informative essay by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer here.
  7. Riding the White Bull by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2004). I first read Kiernan – her story ‘Valentia” – in one of the Jones/Sutton Dark Terrors anthologies and, as with Oates, I knew at once that here was a writer who spoke to me directly. Her confessional style, combined with the beauty of her language, make her dear to my heart in a way that few other writers are. I wanted to include The Dry Salvages here, because it’s perfect and I wish I’d written it, but it’s another novella and I have the feeling I’ve sneaked in too many of those already. ‘Riding the White Bull’ contains many of the same themes as The Dry Salvages – alien contamination, existential dread, the end of the world as we know it – but for the purposes of this listing it has the advantage of being shorter.
  8. The Swords by Robert Aickman (1975). How to explain Robert Aickman? He’s often grouped together with M. R. James and Arthur Machen as a ‘master of the English weird tale’ and indeed Aickman does belong to – or rather issue from – this tradition. There’s more, though. His stories belong to a strange, indeterminate time for horror fiction, which unsurprisingly fell out of fashion after WW2, and did not truly arrive in its various modern incarnations until the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974. What permeates Aickman’s fiction most of all is a sense of disappointment, of washed-upness: the postwar ‘never had it so good’ utopia has failed to arrive. In Britain there’s a mood of confusion and displacement in the aftermath of empire. Where now? Aickman’s protagonists seem to be asking, and none more so than the travelling salesman who is the ‘hero’ of ‘The Swords’. In its depiction of decay and disillusionment, Aickman’s fiction provides something the English weird tale had never attempted up till then: a version of the dirty ‘kitchen sink’ realism we see in the mainstream novels and films of the period. It also directly paved the way for the weird fiction of writers from the so-called ‘mundane’ school such as M. John Harrison, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane.
  9. The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson (2014). It was this urgently compelling story, nominated for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, that introduced us to the art of a writer who promises to be genuinely important to the field. I’ve recently read his follow-up, the dark fantasy (you could almost call it horror) novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and found it equally assured, even more innovative in terms of its language and construction. It’s always a joy to discover a writer this good, and ‘The Devil in America’ deserves all the praise it has garnered. A sort-of werewolf story, it exposes some of the darkness that lies at the heart of American history. It is also a very fine example of the new and more diverse writing that is starting to reinvigorate American fantasy.
  10. Her Deepness by Livia Llewellyn (2010). American horror fiction seems to be in a particularly healthy place at the moment, with a veritable tribe of newer writers such as John Langan, Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Damien Angelica Walters and Sarah Langan producing work of high literary quality and chilling depth of field. Of all these New Lovecraftians, perhaps the greatest is Livia Llewellyn. Her story ‘Horses’ is one of the starkest and most upsetting pieces of science fictional horror I’ve ever read, but I’m plumping for Llewellyn’s novella Her Deepness as my current favourite of her stories, because of the beauty of its language, the completeness of the world it evokes, and because it’s just fantastic. I’ve never read a duff sentence from Llewellyn. She is a major talent.

APPENDIX – BONUS MATERIAL: Stephen Jones added two extra Ray Bradbury stories to his top ten, so I’m damned if I’m not sneaking in two extra stories of my own!

  1. In a Falling Airplane by Otsuichi (2010). The Japanese horror tradition is a lifetime’s study in itself, and as a reader I’ve only just begun to brush the surface of it. There is something antic, something anarchic and deeply unsettling in the stories I’ve read thus far that leaves me definitely wanting more. We already know that japan leads the world in the jagged brilliance of its horror cinema, and there’s something of that same bizarro quality in Otsuichi’s fiction. His stories really ought not to be funny but they often are. They can also feel desolate, perched on the very edge of the abyss. I love the whole collection, Zoo, from which ‘In a Falling Airplane’ is drawn, and would recommend it as a starting point for getting to know what J-horror is all about.
  2. Pan by Bruno Schulz (1934). European horror, so dear to my heart, so utterly vital for the growth of the genre, so often forgotten in discussions of the literature. The best known writer of the European weird is probably Franz Kafka, but there are also amazing lesser known voices such as Friedebert Tuglas, Stefan Grabinski, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Gabriele Wittkop who are equally worth getting to know, not to mention contemporary writers such as Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Anna Starobinets and Karin Tidbeck. The prince of them all is Bruno Schulz, whose stories are perfect gems of strangeness and ambiguity. It’s almost unbearable to read him, knowing how his life and career were cut short, knowing what we lost when we lost him, but at least we have the stories we have: luminous, humane, resplendent in their strangeness and beauty. ‘Pan’ is just a few pages long but no matter – once you’ve read it, I guarantee you’ll want to seek out everything Schulz ever wrote and make loud, obsessive noises about it to every other horror fan you meet.

What strikes me most harshly as I look back over this list is the writers who aren’t on it. How can I justify including both Caitlin Kiernan and Livia Llewellyn, when that means denying a place to Kelly Link, whose shivery brand of horror is one of the most unsettling and original around? How can I not have included Kaaron Warren and Margo Lanagan, who are two of my favourite horror writers working today? How could I not have found room for ‘Caterpillars‘, a weird little tale from E. F. Benson that I like better than a lot of M. R. James and that has equal rights to be here as representative of the classic ghost story tradition? There’s a fantastic novella by Tade Thompson that would absolutely have been on here but can’t be, because it hasn’t been published yet. Likewise any of the stories from Helen Oyeyemi’s new collection, which isn’t out until April. And what about the two magnificent anti-horror stories, each in its own way representative of metafictional horror and each adored by me, Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Colonel’s Son’ and Joe Hill’s ‘Best New Horror’? What about Thomas Ligotti’s lifelong, ongoing dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft? What about the densely interwoven, experimental horror fictions of Michael Cisco and J. M. McDermott? What about Nnedi Okorafor’s phenomenal ‘Spider the Artist‘? These exclusions hurt, and if you think that my mentioning them here is just a sneaky way of getting them in under the wire, you’d be right.

A top ten should be what it says it is though (or almost), so I’ll leave it at that. Anything else would be cheating. If you don’t like it – and even if you do – why not get down to business compiling your own?