And in honor of my favorite holiday.
Here is an updated list of my annual top ten best horror stories. Perfect for Halloween, right?
10. The Great God Pan - Arthur Machen. Okay, I cheated here a bit. This is more than a short story; it's actually a novella. But it is creepy beyond imagination. Machen is right out of the school of Lovecraft - better to just hint at the true horror of what is out there rather than to beat you over the head with blood and guts. And he succeeds brilliantly here.
9. "Masks" by Douglas Winter. I read this in an anthology devoted to Halloween, October Dreams. Like all great horror stories, it is not about blood and guts and things that go bump in the night. It's about the fears we all have . . . and what would happen if they really were true. The ending is brilliant.
8. "Cell" - David Case. From the quite excellent (and likely now out of print) The Mammoth Book of Werewolves. I'm realizing as I comprise this list that each of these stories has a moment or two where we just glimpse the true terror or horror of the characters and their situations. I think that is ten times more powerful than if you just throw open the door and try to show us the true monster lurking there. And just hinting always works better - because that technique is like steroids for our imagination. And what we can imagine is always worse than what someone else can devise. Well, except for my top two choices. In those cases, the authors throw open the door and invite us right into the room where we not only see the monster and try to flee but end losing traction on something slippery on the floor . . . and then we look at what is splattered on the walls around us . . . then the stench hits us . . . then we hear the monster start after us. That's how good those top two choices are.
7. "Maypole" - Brian Mooney. My first new addition to this list. It's a take on the old 'corn king' legend supposedly associated with the druids. It's a great companion piece to "The Lottery," though I could never teach "Maypole" in school.
6. "N." - Stephen King. From his newest short story collection. It is a tribute to Machen's "The Great God Pan." Once this starts spiralling downward for the characters, there is no stopping it. Just hold on and enjoy the descent. Lovecraft and Machen could not be prouder of a story.
5. "Hunting Meth Zombies in the Great Nebraskan Wasteland" - John Farris. I've read a couple of Farris' novels when I was much younger (the classic All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By being the only one I really remember). This was up for a Bram Stoker award for best short story. And so I hunted it down and found it in a collection of other great horror and sci-fi stories. This story alone should make it just for its title - not to mention that the story itself is a term paper written by a high school student for an English class. Plus, how can a list of top horror stories not include at least one zombie story, right?
4. "The Summer People" - Shirley Jackson. Not as horrifying as "The Lottery," but just as disturbing and perplexing. It scares the hell out of me without actually being a horror story at all.
3. "Crouch End" - Another Stephen King staple. This one is written as a tribute to HP Lovecraft (whose eternal - no pun intended - "Herbert West: Re-Animator" is usually included on this list but got bumped off this year). King's prose is so effective whenever I read it, the room I'm in just fades away and I'm right next to Mr. and Mrs. Freeman try to find their way out of Crouch End. Sadly, only one makes it. Well, one makes it out alive . . . though they never really are able to make it back completely. But I've already said too much about this one!
I got lucky and found this one on Scribd.
2. "The Pattern" - Ramsey Campbell. I've read the final page several dozen times. It still scares the hell out of me each time.
1. "Pig Blood Blues" - Clive Barker (from his iconic The Books of Blood). There is not a better collection of horror fiction than Barker's classic anthology. He has such a knack for starting out in reality and with a small twist, throwing us into a world that is totally horrifying and unbelievable, but he throws us in so quickly we can't help but accept it and find it believable. Read this sucker with the lights on.