I am an absolute sucker for a well-told and terrifying short story. Sure, novels are fantastic too, and can conjure an entire world that you can lose yourself in for days or weeks at a time; but there’s something really special about that sharp jolt from a short tale that can be read all in one sitting for maximum impact. Short stories are my preferred medium for writing as well, and I hope one day to be able to create something even partially approaching the nightmarish impact of some of my favorite short stories of all time: Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model.” Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Oliver Onions’s “The Beckoning Fair One.” Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” H. Russell Wakefield’s “The Triumph of Death.” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities.”
When I was a little girl, one of my very favorite things was to go to the library and check out one of the giant horror anthologies that flew under the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” banner. A shit-ton of them were published (I think 170 of them altogether between 1945 and 2000, with 45 of them using the precise “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” wording), and I read a pretty big chunk of them during my formative years. The stories contained therein were a huge influence on little nugget me, who was already starting to show a penchant for the literary and the horrific. My maternal grandfather, knowing of my predilections, gave me one of the anthologies out of the vast, dusty collection of books he kept in teetering stacks on the floor of his creepy, overstuffed house. The house is long gone, but I still have the book, though its pages have mostly fallen out of the binding from the many rereads it underwent over the years, and at some stage my cats pulled off the spine and ate it by small degrees. It was published in 1967, only five years before I was born. It was called Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me. Even the title intrigued me! THESE STORIES SCARED ALFRED HITCHCOCK, YOU GUYS. THAT’S HARDCORE.
Sadly, this incredible collection is now out of print, but used copies are still floating around out there, and if you’re into a lot of the horror fiction that came out from around the 1920s to the late 1960s, I would recommend you pick up a copy, because it is the most consistently great horror anthology I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them). There isn’t a dud among the 25 tales featured, and there isn’t a story in there that isn’t excellent at the very least. There are weird monsters, dystopias, vampires, zombies, Nazis, creepy kids, suburban horrors, scifi scenarios, and any number of other things, so the collection has something for damn near everyone.
It’s difficult to choose my favorite stories out of such an embarrassment of riches, but as I briefly discuss each tale, I’ll let you know which ones I love the most and which ones have stuck with me the longest.
“Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb
Set along the banks of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, described as an “afterthought of Creation,” the story begins with a very evocative description of the mysterious body of water and its environs—it’s said to be bottomless in places and contains terrifying gar and man-eating catfish of monstrous size—before getting into the narrative proper. The central focus of the tale is Fishhead, a man who was born along the lake and lived there all his life. Local legends said that his mother had been frightened by one of the enormous catfish while he was still in the womb, and he came out looking like a person from the neck down, but with a face and head that was “as near to being the face of a great fish as any face could be and yet retain some trace of human aspect.”
Not surprisingly, Fishhead lives alone, and most of the locals are afraid of him, though he sometimes acts as a guide for people hunting or fishing around the lake. The stories about him say that he stands on the shore of the lake and calls to all the huge catfish with this weird, spooky cry, and then he swims and feeds with them as though he’s their kin.
Well, it turns out that these two redneck brothers ran into Fishhead on the lake one day and drunkenly accused him of some infraction, capping off their rant by slapping him in the face. Fishhead retaliated by beating the snot out of both of them, so the brothers decide they’re going to go back one evening at sundown and kill him in revenge. This, obviously, does not go exactly the way they pictured it, and they get to learn firsthand how true the tales of Fishhead’s communion with the giant catfish actually are.
“Camera Obscura” by Basil Copper
Mr. Sharsted is your typical, Scrooge-like moneylender, who has absolutely no qualms about kicking people out of their homes if they’re a little bit late on their payments. At the beginning of the story, he’s paying a visit to Mr. Gingold, a gentle older man with an interest in antiques who seems to have money, but is absent-minded and careless about it. He lives in an old house stuffed full of even older things, and wears once-expensive clothes that are now sort of shabby. Notably, he has neglected to pay the three hundred pounds he owes to Mr. Sharsted, and the moneylender has come to collect.
Mr. Gingold invites Mr. Sharsted to have some sherry with him, because he doesn’t have that many visitors, and in the course of this activity, the moneylender notices that Mr. Gingold has all sorts of rare and valuable antiques in the place, and thus wonders why the old man is always behind on his bills.
When Mr. Sharsted starts to approach the topic of money, Mr. Gingold acts like he didn’t say anything and instead wants to show him this cool new thing he just obtained. This object turns out to be a camera obscura, and even Mr. Sharsted has to admit that being able to see a panoramic view of the whole town is pretty awesome.
Mr. Gingold then kind of pivots, though, showing the moneylender the former home of the Thwaites family, who Sharsted booted out due to lack of payment. Since Sharsted won’t reinstate the Thwaites family into their home, Gingold takes him upstairs to his workshop, which contains another camera obscura…only this one shows the city as it was many years ago, as though it has the power to peer into the past. Sharsted is freaked out and leaves, but finds that once he’s back out on the street, he’s trapped in the long-gone era shown in the device.
This story was adapted for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, on season 2, episode 12, along with H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air,” and a tale about Edgar Allan Poe called “Quoth the Raven.”
“A Death in the Family” by Miriam Allen deFord
This story was also turned into a partial episode of the great Rod Serling-helmed series Night Gallery; specifically season 2, episode 2, which originally aired in September of 1971. All in all, it was a fairly decent adaptation, I thought.
It’s the tale of a lonely undertaker named Jared Sloane who has created an entire “family” of stolen, preserved corpses in his basement to keep him company, who he interacts with as if they are real people: he sits in the living room with them in the evenings, reading his newspaper, asking them about their days and telling them about his. Jared was an orphan and was raised in various foundling homes, so he always wanted a large family, but somehow things never really worked out for him and he ended up completely alone.
His grotesque idea of basically compiling a family out of other people’s dead was initially kicked off when a woman he was desperately in love with married someone else, but then died not too long after. He handled her funeral, and decided he was going to steal her body and preserve it, so he could keep her forever. It’s not sexual at all; he just posed her at the piano in his living room, because she liked to play the piano while she was alive. He’s grossed out by the thought of sex in general, it seems.
Little by little, as notable “candidates” come through his funeral home, he assembles a family. He’s very calculating: they have to have something of a family resemblance, they obviously can’t have been killed in a way that really mangled their bodies, and so forth. At the beginning of the story, he has a wife, a ten-year-old son, parents, a grandmother, and a younger brother and sister. But what he wants more than anything, to make his family complete, is a daughter.
It so happens that a beautiful little girl has been abducted for ransom from the nearby town, and the kidnappers drop the murdered body of the girl on the doorstep of his funeral parlor. Jared then has to wrestle with the decision of either doing the right thing by the girl’s family by reporting it (since her parents think she’s still alive because they paid the ransom), or adding the perfect daughter to his own.
This whole tale just oozes a cold, chilling atmosphere, and the helpless empathy you feel with the bereft protagonist gives this one a real emotional punch. While the whole idea of what he’s doing is disgusting and morally reprehensible, you somehow feel sorry for him anyway, which is something that I don’t think a lot of writers would have been able to pull off. Incidentally, this is easily one of my favorite stories in the whole collection.
“Men Without Bones” by Gerald Kersh
This tale is kind of like a reverse telling of The Blob, with some Ancient Aliens kind of action in there too. It’s a frame story, whereby a group of passengers on a banana boat come across a stranded scientist named Goodbody, who tells them about a lost expedition that he was part of. His group, he says, befriended a tribe of Ahu Indians, and they told him a legend about a race of gods who came from the sky a long time ago.
The expedition go out to this “bad place” where the gods supposedly fell, though the Ahu nope out and refuse to go with them. Once there, they find a big metal thing that looks like a star chart, plotting a course from Mars to Earth, and also a large machine that could conceivably be a spacecraft. They also, unfortunately, discover a whole bunch of gross, gelatinous, quasi-human creatures, about four feet long, that have rudimentary limbs and walnut-sized brains. They suck the blood out of animals, but seem to be afraid of the people on the expedition.
Most of the party die from snakebites or exposure or what have you, but Goodbody makes it back to the Ahu village, and hence to the boat where he was found at the beginning of the story. One of the passengers thinks Goodbody’s story is a crock, pointing out that if these “men without bones” were indeed Martians, then how in the hell did they smelt metal and build a big spaceship and stuff if they were mostly just made of goo? This leads to one of the best closing lines in a horror story I’ve ever read: “Those boneless things are men. We are Martians!”
“Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight
I think I first read this story when I was about nine years old, and I liked it, but didn’t really understand the import of its chilling final lines at the time. I read it again when I was a bit older, finally “got it,” and thereafter this became another one of my favorite stories in the book.
Taking its title, of course, from the famous T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men”—”This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper“—this is a post-apocalyptic story with a fucked-up Adam and Eve vibe. The entire population of the planet has been wiped out by a plague, the first symptom of which is a kind of full-body paralysis. There is an antidote, but it came too late to really save anyone.
The only two people left on Earth are a kind of shitty thirty-five-year-old man named Rolf, and a super prissy religious fundamentalist woman named Louise, who’s about forty. Louise was a nurse before the world went swirling down the toilet, and appears to have a natural immunity to the plague, but she seems to have disassociated from reality because of the horrible things she’s seen. She reluctantly agrees to meet Rolf after she realizes that there isn’t anyone else left. Rolf is keen to repopulate the planet, though he’s pretty disappointed that Louise is the only woman available; he considers raping her, but although he’s shitty, he’s not THAT shitty.
Because Louise is a stickler for tradition, she won’t have sex with him unless they’re married, and Rolf has to go through this whole courtship charade for her in order to get some, and promise her a wedding with all the trimmings. The entire story takes place in a department store café in Salt Lake City, where Rolf is trying to convince Louise to marry him so he can get started on impregnating her (and hope she has a daughter…yuck, maybe he IS that shitty). When she finally agrees, Rolf happily excuses himself to the bathroom. Once inside, though, the paralysis that’s the first stage of the plague hits him. Even though he has the antidote, he can’t move to retrieve it, and remember how the entire story was setting up just how very proper and prudish Louise was? Here are the last two lines:
“Behind him, he was aware of a tiny click as the door, cushioned by the hydraulic check, shut forever. It was not locked; but its other side bore the warning MEN.”
“Party Games” by John Burke
Another one of the best stories in the collection, in my opinion. Simon Potter is not a popular kid: he’s small for his age, very quiet and polite, and too smart for his own good. At the beginning of the tale, the child turns up on the doorstep of a classmate, Ronnie Jarman, for Ronnie’s birthday party, even though he was explicitly not invited. The whole story is told from the point of view of Ronnie’s mother, Alice, who is immediately creeped out by this kid.
The party goes about the way you’d expect a kid’s birthday party in mid-1960s England to go. At one point, Simon tries to interest everyone in a game, but they think his idea is stupid, opting instead to play Murder (which entails fake body parts and an investigation). They’re in the middle of the game when Ronnie’s dad Tom finally comes home, to Alice’s great relief. She tells him that she thinks the other kids have done something to Simon during the game, because she keeps hearing thumping noises coming from upstairs. Tom assures her he’ll go check it out.
A bit later, Alice tells the rowdy kids to knock the game off because it’s time for cake and ice cream, but when she turns on the lights, the kids realize the fake body parts they thought they were holding—a severed hand, a snippet of hair, a couple of squashed eyeballs—are actually real. Turns out that Simon is just fine, but Ronnie’s dad Tom…not so much.
Interestingly, as I was researching this post, I discovered that this story was also adapted for television: in 1968, it was broadcast on a British anthology series called Late Night Horror under the title “The Corpse Can’t Play.” The telecast was thought lost for a long time, until a 16mm print of it turned up in 2016. It has since been restored and was released on DVD, along with a booklet, in August of 2022.
“X Marks the Pedwalk” by Fritz Leiber
This story is probably the shortest in the book, clocking in at only about five pages. It’s essentially a dystopian type tale, which details a future where there are two factions of humans: the Wheeled and Footed Sects. Obviously, the wheeled people go everywhere in vehicles, and over time, their limbs have atrophied so they can no longer walk, just drive. The Footed people, equally obviously, are pedestrians. The Government has come up with all these laws pertaining to interactions between the two groups: for example, it’s perfectly legal to run down a pedestrian in a crosswalk, provided you honk your horn to warn them first. On the other hand, it’s also legal for the pedestrians to be packing, and to shoot your face off through your windshield if you attempt it.
This one is less a traditional story and more like a vignette describing an alternate future, so there’s not much more to it than that. Incidentally, a German band who were big in the goth/industrial scene in the 1990s were named after this story.
“Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” by Nugent Barker
Really more of a novella than a short story, this tale is told in three parts. Mr. Bond is a traveler—where he’s going, where he came from, and why he’s traveling are never really specified—who first comes across a cozy inn called The Rest of the Traveller, run by a proprietor named Crispin Sasserach. Crispin’s wife, Myrtle, makes a “lovely broth,” and Crispin is almost orgasmically into the stuff. Mr. Bond has to admit that it is delicious, and he spends a pleasant evening with the couple in front of the fire, telling them of his travels so far.
Crispin insists that Mr. Bond next go to the inn owned by his brother Martin, which is called The Headless Man. The hospitality at this place is also top-notch, and Mr. Bond passes another satisfying night playing chess with his host, commenting particularly on the beautiful, hand-carved ivory chess pieces.
Turns out the Sasserachs also have a third brother named Stephen who likewise owns an inn; that one’s called The Traveller’s Head, and Mr. Bond is sent there in turn on the following night (the brothers employ a manservant named Stennet who drives the guests between all the inns). The main thing at the third inn is that Stephen has a brood of bratty, “unlovely” kids who aren’t far off from animals, and they play this weird game whereby they throw wooden balls through a big board with a bunch of holes in it, which their dad calls “practice.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Bond, as it turns out, the three brothers have a whole system going on: Stephen at The Traveller’s Head keeps the travelers’ heads so his kids can throw balls through the eye sockets of the skulls; Martin at The Headless Man peels off all the skin and uses the bones to make his chess pieces; and Crispin at The Rest of the Traveller gets, literally, the rest of the traveler, so that Myrtle can make her “lovely broth.”
I love this story so much, because it has sort of an eerie fairy-tale feel, and the gruesome outcome is satisfyingly icky. I don’t think there’s ever been a TV or film adaptation of this one, but there damn sure should be.
“Two Spinsters” by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Another tale of a traveler coming across an inn that he shouldn’t have, this story follows Erneston Grant and his little dog Flip as he wanders across Devonshire. He soon gets hopelessly lost, though, and comes across a house occupied by two sisters named Annabelle and Mathilda Craske. They’re weird, but offer to make him some food and put him up for the night, which he heartily appreciates.
As Mathilda leads Erneston to his room, she stops and listens at another closed door, and he asks if there’s another guest in the house. Ominously, she says, “Annabelle has a guest. You are mine.”
Later that night, he’s awakened by the growling of his dog, and when he turns on the light, he sees Mathilda standing there with a big-ass knife. She keeps calling him William and admits she was going to kill him to keep him there, because killing a man is the only way to keep him from leaving.
Turns out that both sisters were in love with the same dude, but he took off, and they’ve been waiting in this house alone for him to come back to them all this time. Annabelle already has a “guest” that she believes is William—in the form of a dead guy in the other room—but Mathilda is certain that Erneston is actually William, and laments that Annabelle is so far gone that she didn’t recognize him. The police come and find that the guy in Annabelle’s room is a guy who’s been missing for a week, and Erneston (and his dog) escape, shaken but unharmed, from the two lunatic ladies.
“The Knife” by Robert Arthur
A guy named Herbert Smithers finds an old, crusty knife in a drain in Whitechapel. He takes it into a pub and starts scraping off the muck, though his buddy doesn’t think it’s worth anything. As he cleans it, though, it does appear as though the handle has a ruby in it, which the barmaid Gladys remarks upon. Smithers comments that the knife feels as though it’s part of his arm, and when Gladys asks to hold it, he suddenly stabs her right in the heart, though moments later, he comes back to himself and insists he didn’t do it.
The whole underlying concept of the story is that the knife belonged to Jack the Ripper, and was either possessed by evil from the start, thus leading to Jack the Ripper doing what he did, or was imbued with the evil spirit of Jack the Ripper, which permeated the object ever after. In any case, whoever handles it starts to zone out and get a bit stabby, as you might imagine.
“The Cage” by Ray Russell
There’s a beautiful Countess who’s married to a much older Count. The Count has an overseer who is rumored by the local peasants to be the Devil himself, though the Count thinks these tales are ridiculous. The Countess is intrigued, though, and soon begins a flirtation with said overseer, though she excoriates him for encouraging her husband to be more tyrannical in general, and more specifically for advising opening up his dad’s old torture chamber to keep the wayward serfs in line.
The overseer jokingly plays along with the whole Devil thing—”I have no toes at all. Only hooves,” he tells her at one point—but she doesn’t quite believe it. The Countess is very sure of her irresistible beauty, and plans to make the overseer lust after her for a long time and essentially beg for it before she’ll give in to him. This seems to be working, and the overseer is groveling nicely, at which point the Countess tells him he can essentially get to second base if he’ll grant her a tiny favor: she wants everlasting life, youth, and beauty. He says he’ll do it, and she gives up the goods.
But now there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the overseer does indeed have supernatural powers, and can indeed grant everlasting life. The bad news is that the Count finds out about his wife’s little dalliance and decides to cram her into an itty bitty cage in the torture chamber. He tells her that he’ll be merciful and let her out in the morning, but during the night, the Count’s enemies overtake the castle and kill the old duffer, making plans to raze the entire edifice to the ground. Which means, it’s implied, that the Countess will be stuck in this tiny cage, buried under the earth, for the rest of eternity.
“It” by Theodore Sturgeon
This novellette, first published in 1940, was influential on several other subsequent comic book characters, including The Heap, Man-Thing, and Swamp Thing. This is basically a monster story, where the creature is a partially sentient mass of goop that sort of resembles a person, and is completely fascinated by people and animals, tearing them to pieces out of simple curiosity. At the end of the story, it’s revealed that the monster was formed when a man named Roger Kirk died in a swamp, and a bunch of mold built up around his skeleton.
“Casablanca” by Thomas M. Disch
To be honest, this is the story that I remember the least out of the entire collection, though that’s no ding on its quality; it just had a lot of stiff competition. It’s another post-apocalypse kind of tale, dealing with an American couple, the Richmonds, who are on vacation in Morocco when they discover that the United States has been wiped out by nuclear missiles. Though Morocco is largely unaffected, it comes to light that because all of the American banks and credit card companies have all been blown to smithereens, and no one will accept American currency, the Richmonds are in a bit of a pickle, as they can’t continue to pay for their hotel or purchase food. After Mr. Richmond resorts to selling off his electric shaver and whatever else he can scrounge up, he discovers that his wife has gone missing, and no one seems particularly keen to help him find her.
TV Tropes actually uses this story as an example of the “Persecution Flip,” as the horror and black humor of it arises from Americans abroad being treated the same way that some Americans treat desperate foreigners on their own soil.
“The Road to Mictlantecutli” by Adobe James
Another one of my favorite stories in the collection. I’m always down for a good devil story, and this one takes a fairly original and somewhat dreamlike path, giving me a real “Hotel California” vibe. Saturated in the atmosphere of the American Southwest and shrouded in Aztec myth, this is the story of an unsympathetic fugitive from the hangman, whose name is Morgan. He escapes from his captor, Hernandez, by killing the poor guy and stealing his car. After a while, he sees a priest walking alone through the desert, and neglects to give him a ride, since he has something of a portent of doom. A short time later, though, he rolls his car into a ditch and wakes up later that night. It appears that the priest has rescued him from the wreck, and offers to walk with him to the nearest city. Morgan agrees, but is a real dick about it.
Not long into their journey, an amazingly hot woman on a horse rides up and offers to give Morgan a ride to Mictlantecutli’s ranch, telling him that the priest is actually a bandit. She also low-key flirts with Morgan, implying that she’ll sleep with him if he comes with her. The priest warns him that she’s evil, but Morgan is led solely by his pork sword and tells the priest to get lost.
Of course, Morgan has made the wrong decision; the woman indeed lets him have sex with her, but during the act, he discovers that she’s a revolting corpse, and that this whole scenario is just the reckoning of his soul. Morgan’s body, you see, died in the car crash near the beginning of the story, and he was given the opportunity to go to Heaven by continuing on with the priest, but of course he choose BOOBIES and now has to burn for all eternity.
“Guide to Doom” by Ellis Peters
Another fairly short story, this one is actually told in the second person, structured as though a tour guide is talking directly to you. You’re apparently touring a small castle, and after the rest of the tour group has left, you ask about a particular well in the castle where someone named Mary Purcell drowned herself. The tour guide is shocked you know this obscure information, and agrees to take you to see it. All the while, as the tale goes on, you’re starting to realize that the reader—the “you” that the tour guide is talking to—is actually the person who pushed Mary Purcell into the well, and has returned to the scene of the murder. The tour guide twigs onto this pretty quickly, and exacts some revenge, while telling you that it won’t do any good to scream, because the walls are very thick.
“The Estuary” by Margaret St. Clair
There are a bunch of old ships quietly rotting away in an old estuary, and Pickard has no shame at all about poking around in there to salvage anything valuable, as he figures the ships are going to be cut up for scrap anyhow and the guard doesn’t seem to give a crap about catching potential thieves.
Pickard has become so successful at his night-time foraging that he finds it necessary to hire a helper, a gangly kid by the name of Gene. The young man is initially game, but soon starts to ask if Pickard has ever heard anything creepy on the ships at night, like the sound of someone following him. Pickard just laughs it off, having never had any strange experiences at all.
A couple nights later, though, Gene doesn’t return from his forage, and Pickard searches the wrecks for several successive nights, finding nothing but the kid’s hat floating in a puddle of bilge water. He starts to get unsettled, and remembers an old story about a welder who was trapped inside one of the ships while they were building it and died in there. He also has a really eerie dream that wigs him out even more, that he’s on one of the ships looking for some valuable piece of metal, but that something horrible is lurking just outside his field of vision.
He ends up hiring another assistant named Fred, who gets spooked on the job and quits after a few days, and a week later, Pickard himself is set upon by the zombie-like corpses of Gene and the original welder.
“Tough Town” by William Sambrot
Ed is a traveling salesman, plying his wares in small town after small town. He’s used to being given the brush-off sometimes, and having doors slammed in his face, but man, the town he’s working in on this particular day is the toughest crowd he’s ever tried to sell to. Everybody seems to be looking at him suspiciously, even the town constable; people sic their dogs on him, and shout after him in the street, and he’s only made two sales. What the hell is wrong with everybody?
Turns out that a local girl named Judy Howell has gone missing, and it’s suspected she’s been murdered; it also turns out that poor old Ed looks very much like the description of the person last seen with her. It doesn’t seem to matter that Ed only just arrived and couldn’t be responsible; he’s the stranger in town, and the residents aren’t about to let him get away with killing one of their own.
“The Troll” by T. H. White
This one is sort of a strange, fantasy-based monster tale, again told as something of a second-hand frame story. A man named Mr. Marx is relating an anecdote that his father told him; his father was a fisherman, and on one occasion, went to the Swedish village of Abisko on a fishing expedition. While he was staying in a hotel, he said, he was awoken from dreams of blood to see that actual blood was coming through the keyhole of the door of his room, a door which communicated with the room next to his. Marx’s father peers through the keyhole, and sees, very clearly, an eight-foot troll with a blue face and yellow eyes, eating a woman. The troll finishes his meal, licks all the blood from the floor, then happens to look over at the keyhole. Marx’s dad isn’t certain if the troll saw him or not, and he’s actually not sure if he just saw what he thought he saw. He just goes back to bed, unsure if he’s going mad.
The next morning, he asks the hotel staff about the occupants of the adjoining room, and is told that it’s been rented by a professor and his wife from Uppsala. He goes about his day, hiking in the hills, but starts to wonder if maybe the professor can turn into a troll. When he gets back to the hotel in the evening, his suspicions seem to be confirmed, as the professor’s wife has gone missing, and apparently the professor is acting really broken up about it. Marx’s dad sees the professor at dinner, recognizes that he’s a troll, and realizes further that the professor knows that he’s a troll. The professor low-key threatens him, by shaking his hand and saying, “And what shall I have for my supper tonight?”
So basically, the terrified guy falls asleep in his room, and is awakened by the troll in his room trying to eat him, at which point he wields a rosary at him, which causes the troll to drastically shrink in size and fall out the window. The professor is found dead in the lake nearby the following day.
“Evening at the Black House” by Robert Somerlott
The narrator, whose name is Eric, has come to the home of his friend Henry Black in Mexico one evening, and proceeds to tell Henry that he suspects he might be being followed, though he’s careful not to oversell the threat. Henry, along with his housekeeper/girlfriend Frieda, has retired to this tiny Mexican village, and it’s pretty clear that he’s hiding from something, as evidenced by his nervous nature and his insistence on going everywhere with his two Doberman pinschers, Loki and Inga.
Eric describes how he met Henry and eventually befriended him, gaining his trust through long months of visits, chess games, and discussion. It turns out, though, that Eric actually knew exactly who Henry was when he saw him, and finagled his way into his life in order to take revenge. Henry, you see, is a Nazi, and Eric is the child of a couple who were killed in the camps.
“One of the Dead” by William Wood
A couple named Ted and Ellen can’t believe their luck when they purchase a lot in the exclusive area of Clay Canyon for a measly $1500. Sure, the former house on the lot burned down, and some electrocuted doves were found on the land along with some other dead animals, but hey, this was the stomping grounds of old Hollywood royalty, and Ellen in particular is over the moon, hoping that once they get their dream home squared away, they’ll start that family she’s always wanted.
Warning signs start almost straight away, however. A bulldozer clearing the land before construction tips over and destroys the neighbors’ car. These same neighbors tell Ted and Ellen that the Spanish used to do hangings on the property and there are rumors that angry ghosts still haunt the vicinity. More accidents plague the house’s construction: a worker blinded by an acetylene torch here, a rockslide there; hell, even Ted himself busts his head open on a can of paint.
Then Ted starts to hear strange noises in the middle of the night, and Ellen begins to act very oddly, as though she’s ill, or as though something is sucking the life out of her. Ted also finds a mutilated dead raccoon on their roof. Their friend and neighbor advises them to move, telling them there’s a jinx on the property.
This is sort of like a haunted house story, of course, but it’s very modern and subtle, which is something I always quite liked about it. It reminds me pretty strongly of Anne Rivers Siddons’s classic novel The House Next Door, as a matter of fact; it has that kind of vibe to it, and the same kind of narrative about a newly-built house being cursed from the beginning.
“The Real Thing” by Robert Specht
A short but impactful vampire story (sort of), this one tells the tale of two friends: village idiot Charlie and practical joker Tad. Charlie works as a handyman at a funeral parlor (and rents a room in the rear of it as well), and Tad comes up with the idea to rib him a little bit, asking him if a pretty but newly-dead local girl at the mortuary ever gets up and walks around. Charlie is skeptical at first, but Tad manages to keep a straight face, regaling Charlie with rumors that the girl was bitten by a wolf before she died. Because Charlie isn’t too bright, he thinks this makes her a vampire, so Tad just rolls with it.
Leaning hard into the joke, Tad decides to get his girlfriend to dress up as a vampire and lie in one of the coffins, sitting up in the middle of the night and scaring the shit out of Charlie. Everything goes to plan initially, and the prank is going gangbusters, but unfortunately for the girlfriend, the owner of the funeral parlor told Charlie some important information about how to kill vampires…
“Journey to Death” by Donald E. Westlake
The narrator of the story is obliged by nature of his business to make frequent journeys by ship across the Atlantic, though he’s never really enjoyed the experience. On one particular voyage, he’s quite happy to meet a man named Cowley, who also hates sea journeys and is an insomniac like the narrator. The two men while away the wee hours in the ship’s game room, shooting pool and smoking cigars and trying to take their minds off the constant rolling motion of the ship and the deep black waves beneath them.
Well into the voyage, though, the worst possible catastrophe occurs: the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean, leaving Cowley and the narrator trapped in the airtight game room with little hope of escape or rescue. The rest of the story is a nightmare of psychological terror, as the two men try to come to terms with what’s happened, going somewhat mad in the process, and eventually contemplating cannibalism in order to stay alive. Another one of my favorite tales in the book, this one features a gruesome death by pool cue that’s really stuck with me over the years.
“The Master of the Hounds” by Algis Budrys
Malcolm is an artist who decides to spend a summer at a remote house with his wife Virginia, after he quits his advertising agency job and loses out on a fellowship he was hoping to get. The cheap place they rented looks well-kept enough, though Malcolm is a bit unnerved by the two Dobermans who peer at him through the fence of the house across the street.
Later on, he sees a crippled man in the yard of the house with the dogs, and assumes the guy must be the caretaker. The couple notices that the dogs are able to run all kinds of errands for the man, like bringing him things from the store. They go over and introduce themselves, and find out that the man is named Colonel Ritchey, and that he’s not only charming, but also somewhat famous, having had a movie made about him several years prior, about his time in a German prison camp in World War II.
He says he learned to train the Dobermans from the Germans, and his two dogs—Max and Moritz—were raised and trained by him from puppies. Over the course of the long conversation he has with Malcolm and Virginia over tea and cookies, though, it becomes quite clear that Colonel Ritchey is planning to keep the couple as his prisoners, with the dogs as his enforcers.
“The Candidate” by Henry Slesar
Yet another one of my favorites in the collection, this one follows a businessman named Burton Grunzer, who is basically gunning for the job of his hated rival, an older man named Whitman Hayes. Grunzer gets a letter from a secretive organization called Society for Collective Action, who ask him to come to a meeting to discuss a proposition that may be of “exceeding interest.”
When he gets there, a man named Carl Tucker tells him all about the goals of the Society, which believes that some people are not fit to live, and that they can make the world a better place by wishing certain people dead. Grunzer, of course, is skeptical, but Tucker tells him all about various voodoo curses and other things that worked, being very persuasive, and Grunzer finally has to admit that just knowing that a thousand people were collectively wishing you dead might be sufficient to freak someone out enough to actually kill them.
Of course, this whole time, Grunzer is thinking that this Society is asking him to join their ranks, and is already fantasizing about wishing old Whitman Hayes dead, but as you might have guessed, Whitman Hayes is already a member of the Society, and suggested Grunzer for death. All Tucker is doing is informing Grunzer of the death wish for him, which began at noon on that very day.
“Out of the Deeps” by John Wyndham
First published in 1953 under the British title The Kraken Wakes, this one is an entire novel that closes out the book. John Wyndham, of course, is probably most famous for his novels The Day of the Triffids (made into a film in 1962), and The Midwich Cuckoos, which was adapted into the 1960 film Village of the Damned (also remade under the same title in 1995).
Out of the Deeps is set in post-war England, and follows married journalists Mike and Phyllis as they investigate reports of a series of mysterious fireballs that fall into the ocean. It’s no surprise that these fireballs turn out to be alien spacecraft, and it further comes to light that these aliens can only live at the very high pressures at the bottom of the sea. They seem to start establishing their society down there, and at first it’s suggested that the humans and aliens could co-exist, but of course the humans get nervous about it, nukes are deployed, and the aliens begin mounting a several-stage attack which ends up with most of the earth plunged underwater and widespread societal collapse. Eventually, the Japanese come up with a weapon that wipes the aliens out, leaving humanity to pick up the pieces of their decimated civilizations.
I hope you guys enjoyed this little trip down memory lane, and as always, until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
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