I’ve recently written a horror story for an anthology, The New Abject, that will be published by Comma Press on 29th October and it has set me thinking about my favourite scary stories. It is the measure of a good one that it lingers in the mind for years after you have read it. I have to admit that the story that has terrified me most – I was only nine or ten when I read it – was not a ghost story. It was a Sherlock Holmes story: ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band.’ Unfortunately I had a ventilator in my bed-room and though the chances of a swamp adder (‘the deadliest snake in India’) slithering through it in the middle of the night were extremely small, the thought of it disturbed me for many, many nights to come. A few years later ‘W. S.’ by L. P. Hartley, about a writer who is haunted by a character from one of his own novels, gave me the creeps, so much so that I recognised it instantly when I came across it a few years ago, even though I’d long forgotten both title and author.
To my mind the short story or the long short story (such as Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw’) is the most appropriate form for horror and 1880-1930 is for me the golden age of the ghost story. M. R. James is the master here and I love the way his stories often have such deceptively cosy openings: dons bickering at high table in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’; poor Mr Anstruther being hen-pecked over the breakfast table by his formidable wife in ‘The Rose Garden.’ You are lulled into a false sense of security, all the while knowing that something nasty is about to happen.
And that is why the sub-genre of the haunted house is so effective. Houses are just where we should be safest and yet . . . ‘The Empty House’ by Algernon Blackwood has stuck in my mind. I have just skimmed through it again and I felt a chill on the back of my neck. It is masterly. Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and D. K. Broster’s ‘The Pestering’ are also the stories of haunted houses, though very different in tone from Algernon Blackwood. I could go on listing favourites: ‘Man-Sized in Marble’ by E. Nesbit, ‘The Open Door’ by Mrs Oliphant, ‘A Story of Don Juan’ by V. S. Pritchett . . .
But I’d better stop here, because – what’s that sound? Footsteps on the stairs? Oh, it must be the cat – but, wait, didn’t I put the cat out . . .