Posted on: December 20, 2017

I once overheard someone saying she hated short stories “where everything’s left up in the air”.  That’s precisely the kind I do like.  I’m not really a fan of the Everything Neatly Tied Up At The End scenario, partly because life is rarely like that, and partly because I like the puzzle element.  The constant guessing game of “so what did happen there?”  I like the challenge of it.  My favourite type of short stories are the ones where the author seems to slip into another dimension, giving us a window on a parallel world.  Anyway, I thought I’d compile a list of the short stories that made a profound effect on me when I first read them.  These are the ones that immediately sprang to mind when I thought of doing this list, and I’m largely doing this from memory, off the top of my head.  I may well add to it at some point.  You’ve been warned.

The Hospice by Robert Aickman

Anyone who knows me well will know I’m a massive Robert Aickman fan, and I find it nigh-on impossible to pick out one story above all the rest.  I went with The Hospice because it was the very first story of his that I read, and it’s left me with a long fascination for his work.  It’s one of his most popular, and has been published in many anthologies.  Aickman is highly surreal.  Sometimes he is too much so, and his stories can feel as if they’re disappearing off onto some wild tangent that skates dangerously close to just being plain silly.  There are times – such as with The School Friend – when I wish he’d helped the reader out a bit more, as that story both beguiles and exasperates me every time I read it.  In The Hospice a man seeks shelter for the night at a small suburban hotel.  The most striking thing about this odd establishment is the copious amounts of food which are constantly served to the guests.  Things take a very dark turn when he finds some of the guests are literally chained to the dining-tables.  Everyone has their own theories as to what is going on with this story.  I’ve read some who believe the hospice is a kind of halfway house, between this world and the next.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if the guests are like human cattle being deliberately fatted up at an abattoir. Apparently this story was filmed about 30 years ago, but I’ve not been able to find a copy anywhere.  ADDENDUM 29/12/2017: a kind soul has posted a copy of this highly elusive film onto YouTube, and it does full justice to Aickman’s original story.  Try and catch it as soon as you can, before some interfering busybody goes and removes it.

The Night Wire by H R Arnold

I know very little about the author of this, and it’s the only work of his I have found.  It is marvellously eerie.  Written in 1926 (according to Wikisource), The Night Wire concerns two wireless operators whose job it is to receive news reports from around the world (the days before Breaking News apps).  One of them begins to receive reports of a mysterious fog descending on a town called Xebico … unfortunately there is no trace of a place called Xebico.  There are free transcripts of this story Online, including on Wikisource, and I have heard a good audio reading of it on YouTube.

Mrs Amworth by E F Benson

E F Benson is most well known for his much-loved Mapp And Lucia books.  But he was also a prolific author of what he called “spook stories”, and his ghostly tales have been anthologised so many times that it can feel as if no short story anthology would be complete without one.  I found it very difficult to pull out one.  I have a soft spot for The Room In The Tower because at times it has a very dreamlike quality to it (the black playing-cards for instance), and The Man Who Went Too Far is an interesting study in someone who lives life to such a rarefied extent that he loses touch with his own humanity.  You can read all sorts of Freudian subtexts into Mrs Amworth.  Benson’s sexuality has been an endless source of speculation (he always comes across as a shy, gentle soul, so I don’t know what he would have made of that), and there is no doubt that women have often featured as the villains in his stories*.  The epitome of that is Mrs Amworth, in which an older woman comes to live in a small English village, and preys upon the young male locals.  It’s a vampire story with a difference, and has a fairly chilling punchline from what I remember.   A short 30-minute TV adaptation of the story was made in 1975, with Glynis Johns superb in the title role.  *Benson was once asked who he preferred writing about, men or women.  “Women”, he replied “They’re more complicated”.

The Summer People by Shirley Jackson

When it comes to short stories, Ms Jackson is most well known for The Lottery, a story about the vindictiveness of small-town mentality, which provoked a furore when it was first published.  The Summer People is less well-known, but it is splendidly dark.  A vacationing couple decide they want to extend their holiday let beyond the end of the Summer, unfortunately this does not work out well.  In some ways this has similarities to W Somerset Maugham’s The Lotus Eater (see below), but it is much more haunting.  As Stephen King once put it: “to Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice”.

The Mezzotint by M R James

I almost felt obliged to include one by M R James, and the one that immediately sprang to mind was The Mezzotint.  It concerns a haunted picture, which seems to change regularly, showing a sinister creature crawling along a lawn to an old house.  It turns out that the picture is replaying a crime from many decades before.  I liked the imagery James creates with this story.

Minuke by Nigel Kneale

I’m never entirely convinced that the haunted house scenario is really suited to the short story.  I can’t help feeling it’s a form that needs time for the reader to move around in, a Slow Build-Up Of Tension as it were.  But sometimes it can work.  This is a rip-roaring read from the author of The Stone Tape, not exactly a gentle ghost story.  An estate agent sells a bog-standard suburban semi to a couple, and then all sorts of mayhem ensue.  This could so easily have been ridiculous, and yet it works.

The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti is one of the most enigmatic writers around today.   He has been compared to Lovecraft, and he shares the same detached, coolly unemotional style.  I was drawn to this story because I’ve had a fascination for the legend of the Gorgon for as long as I can remember.  In The Medusa the central character is also obsessed with the snake-haired creature, and is convinced that she really exists.  He finally gets to encounter her in the basement of a house.  I found the ending to this quite haunting in a very subtle, low-key way.  This little man (presumably) went willingly to his doom, knowing full well that the object of his fascination would destroy him.  ADDENDUM: for another Gorgon-related short story, I can also recommend The Gorgon’s Head by Gertrude Bacon.  This is an old tale, rarely anthologised these days, in which a ship’s captain relates a very odd experience he had in his younger days.  I’ve seen it branded as far-fetched, but who cares?  I found it eerie and atmospheric.

Seaton’s Aunt by Walter de la Mare

A schoolboy goes to stay at the house of an unpopular classmate, whose little eccentricities make him disliked by the other boys.  Seaton lives with his Aunt, a terrifying woman, who mocks him cruelly.  The Aunt comes across as the type of person I call a psychic vampire.  Someone who sucks the energy out of everyone around her.  I once saw this strange, elegant story compared to Hitchcock’s Psycho.  For sheer originality it takes some beating, and it does show the psychological cruelty that adults can mete out to sensitive children.

The Lotus Eater by W Somerset Maugham

This story concerns a man who has saved enough from his moderately-paid job to afford a holiday on the Isle of Capri.  He likes it so much that he decides to stay there permanently, and to sacrifice his quiet, hard-working existence back home in London, for a life of idleness and ease.  Unfortunately it all backfires on him, and I suppose the moral of the story is that you can have too much of a good thing.  Some might dislike it for that reason, as the author seems to be implying he would have been better off going home and doing his job.  BUT, whilst work certainly isn’t everything, I can’t help thinking of the fact that so many people seem to die within one year of retiring completely.  Just a thought …

The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

I had to include one by Ms du Maurier, and I suppose the obvious one to go for would be The Birds, which is certainly exceptional.  But I like the subtle dark wit of The Apple Tree.  The central character is a woman, Poor Midge, who rules her husband through a sort of understated tyranny.  She exudes martyred patience, and is the sort who constantly gives a sad sigh of “oh well”.  When she finally dies (“oh well”), the husband finds his troubles are only just beginning.  I’ve known far too many women like Poor Midge (“oh well”), and I can only assume Ms du Maurier had too.

The Inn by Guy Preston

I read this one in  a very old anthology many years ago, and although I could remember the story vividly, I couldn’t recall the name of the author!  Anyway, it has been recently rediscovered and anthologised in a new volume, The Greatest Ghost and Horror Stories Ever Written Vol. 7, which is currently free in Kindle format on Amazon.  This is gloriously OTT pulp fiction from the Golden Era.  In it a lonely traveller on the Cumbrian moors seeks shelter at an inn, only to find the owners are a touch on the odd side.  When I first read this I just loved the way the author went for it, and gave the reader a full-on experience. Sometimes I get a little tired of long drawn-out subtlety.

The Little Room by William Sansom

A story which seems to be virtually unknown these days.  I first read it in an old Pan Horror paperback collection during my schooldays.  The story concerns a nun, who has been naughty and broken her vows (it’s never exactly specified how, but sex seems to be involved), and her punishment is to be walled up alive.  Rumours are that this was used as a punishment against nuns in Medieval times, although I’m never sure if it ever actually happened.  This story though seems to be set in the modern era.  The nun has the use of an electric fire for instance, and a device on the wall cruelly informs her how much oxygen she has left.   This story terrified me when I first read it, and I think it still holds up well now.

The Grey Men by Dame Rebecca West

This one was a bit of problem, but I had to include it.  I read it in an old anthology back in the 1990s, and I’ve never been able to track it down since.  I haven’t been able to find it included in any list of Dame Rebecca’s works, and I’m starting to wonder if she did write it at all!  It’s a very short story, barely two pages, but I remember being very creeped out by it.  It concerns the inhabitants of an old people’s home, who claim they are haunted at night by visitations from The Grey Men.  It proved to me, once and for all, that you don’t need a long story to make an impact.




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