Victoria Nelson is a writer of fiction, criticism, and memoir. Her books include Gothika and The Secret Life of Puppets, an award-winning study of the supernatural grotesque in Western culture. Nelson is the editor of the newly published Compulsory Games (perfect for fans of Poe, Kafka, and Lovecraft), which brings together stories by Robert Aickman, the master of the “strange story.” As Nelson writes in her introduction to the book, “an Aickman story is a dream you never wake up from.” Here are 10 scary stories recommended by Nelson.
A number of these stories I came across as a teenager in the superlative Modern Library collection Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser, published first in the war year 1944 and many times thereafter. “52 Stories: Over 1000 pages!” the tattered cover of my copy trumpets, and I can testify that every one is a winner. Here I first made the acquaintance of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Saki, Le Fanu, the two Jameses (Henry and M.R.), and many more. Maybe reading great ghost stories is like learning a language: the younger you begin, the more deeply they imprint you?
1. “The Trains” by Robert Aickman
Virtually unknown in the U.S. outside a small coterie of dedicated fans, the British writer Robert Aickman (he died in 1981) is a virtuoso of the sophisticated “strange story,” as he dubbed his tales. The scares in an Aickman story come not from gore or violence but from the way he perversely bends reality right before your startled eyes. Not just once but again and again—and still again, all in the same story. In this little masterpiece of Gothic indirection, two young women stranded on a walking trip in the north of England seek shelter in a remote Victorian mansion adjacent to a train track. There is a handsome host, a menacing servant, a mad aunt who died mysteriously, even a murder, but all this is beside the point. The real scares come from the trains that scream loudly past every few minutes on this “main, important line” in the middle of nowhere and their unseen engineers, who always wave at girls. Curiously, the trains pass by less often on the third floor than on the ground level. As a child, it should be noted, Aickman liked to invent imaginary kingdoms complete with meticulously constructed railroad schedules.
2. “Three Miles Up” by Elizabeth Jane Howard
One of the greatest English ghost stories ever written, this acutely observed, utterly terrifying tale is tied for first place in my affections—and perhaps appropriately, because Howard, better known for her realist novels of upper class English life, was briefly Aickman’s lover in her younger years. Together they produced the joint collection We Are for the Dark in which this tale appears. Two feckless young men rent a narrowboat for a holiday on the inland canals of England. The journey takes a left turn after a violent fight and they acquire an enigmatic young woman companion as the canal stretches on, and on, and on, until—.
3. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H. P. Lovecraft
My all-time favorite Lovecraft story. A young man on holiday takes an unplanned detour to a seaside New England town saturated with the smell of fish. (Said to be based on the real fishing town of Gloucester; Lovecraft not coincidentally loathed that smell.) With glimpses of strange misshapen folk in alleys and doorways, he gradually learns the town’s secret: the infamous “Innsmouth look” shared by the town’s inbred inhabitants—flat noses, bulgy eyes, rough skin. Possibly a tad too long and featuring one of those irritating characters who delivers truckloads of information in an impenetrable dialect, it’s still a masterpiece of atmospheric horror.