by Cary Christopher and Lisanne Harrington
This month’s topic is Thrills and Chills and we thought we’d share some of the stories that gave us chills. Some people prefer more psychological horror, as opposed to slash-em-ups. In the words of the inimitable Stephen King, “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
This is evident in the end of King’s fictional town of Castle Rock: Needful Things (1991). A new shop, named “Needful Things,” promises that residents of Castle Rock, Maine, won’t believe their eyes, sparking the curiosity of its citizens. Proprietor Leland Gaunt is a charming gentleman who always has what the customer needs, at half off, as long as customers are willing to play a little prank on someone. Far from harmless, these pranks are Gaunt’s way of forcing the town into violence and madness.
For centuries, he has tricked unsuspecting people into buying worthless junk that they see as whatever they treasure most. They become paranoid about keeping their items safe, and before long, Guant sells weapons to them in exchange for their soul.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing of all is captured on the final page: “…OPENING SOON…ANSWERED PRAYERS…You won’t believe your eyes!”
Gaunt, who seems to represent the evil that lurks in each of us, survives to wreak havoc on yet another unsuspecting town.
King delves deeply into the minds of his characters, building tension and suspense until you tremble in terror at their exploits. How does he do this? By creating believable characters who could actually be your next-door neighbor, your child’s teacher or the clerk at the convenience store.
Bentley Little also does this (King called him “the horror poet laureate.”). The Mailman (1991) delivers a tale about the time before email, when people still wrote letters and sent them by mail. The town’s beloved postal carrier has, for some unknown reason, blown his brains out, and his death leaves the small town of Willis, Arizona shell-shocked. His replacement soon arrives, and the town finds him a bit…odd. But suspicions aren’t aroused until strange things start happening. Bills never arrive, causing power, water, and phones to be shut off. Mail is delivered at all hours of the night, full of letters from dead relatives, porn, and other people’s letters exposing their deepest, darkest secrets, resulting in violence and driving them to commit sick acts of revenge against each other.
As the town falls apart, one resident follows the mailman to a ridge just beyond the town limits, where he finds the mailman chanting something he can’t quite make out. Before long, the words become clear: Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail…
He was chanting the motto of the Postal Service.
Little is a master at luring the evil out of ordinary people and the fact that the exact nature of the mailman and his motivations are never fully explained makes the story all the more horrific and terrifying.
True terror, sans the supernatural element, is difficult to achieve. However, Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee do it superbly in The Woman (2012). It’s the story of the only survivor of a feral tribe of cannibals who is captured by Joe Average—who isn’t quite so average after all. What he does to her, while “attempting” to tame her, is monstrous and brutal. Chilling doesn’t begin to describe the horror that frankly, in this age of serial killers and psychopaths, could have been on the nightly news.
Supernatural Short Stories
While some folks like the more psychological horror with a supernatural bent, others prefer straight-up supernatural creepiness. Since many of you reading this may not want to commit to a novel length horror story, here are some short stories in the genre that are guaranteed to chill you.
“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood is a classic tale of supernatural horror. Blackwood was an English short story writer and novelist whose tales often had a little bit of himself in them. He was an avid outdoorsman and at the same time was a dedicated student of the occult. His whole life, he experimented along with others in an effort to see if the supernatural could be proven real. As a result, his stories often feel like tales from a survivor more than just fictional yarns.
“The Willows” follows two men in a canoe who shore up on a small island in the middle of the Danube. While the island is little more than sand, there are willow bushes and an occasional tree to offer some cover. The river is rising so they make camp and decide to wait until morning in hopes that the flood waters recede. There’s something about those willows though. Something just doesn’t seem right.
Blackwood is a master at making the mundane seem otherworldly. If you like “The Willows”, be sure to check out his other masterpiece “The Wendigo”. It’s also about two outdoorsmen but this time it’s a hunter and his native guide who go into a part of the forest that other hunters and tribesmen won’t venture. The horror there comes in the form of a Native American myth with a creature so huge, it cannot be seen in its entirety by the human eye. Again, Blackwood ratchets up the creepiness by just exploiting the age old idea of being alone in the woods, but he does it so incredibly well that the story will stick with you long after you finish it.
Of course, no discussion of thrills and chills would be complete without mentioning H.P. Lovecraft. His Cthulhu mythos has inspired countless nightmares through generations, but many people who recognize the name haven’t really dug into his stories beyond “The Call of Cthulhu”. If you want a great example of a chilling setting, here you go…
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a novella Lovecraft published in 1931, is a fantastic example of Lovecraft doing what he does best. A young student of architecture is heading on a short holiday along the New England coast. After missing his bus to the next city, he finds another bus, usually locals only, which will be going in the same direction he is headed. It’ll be driving to Innsmouth, where it will stop for a bit before continuing on to the next town. Our student decides to head that way. After all, there’s bound to be some interesting architecture in a small, old fishing town like Innsmouth, right? Never mind the odd looking people, their strange offshoot church or the way everyone looks at him funny as he wanders the streets. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” will definitely get under your skin and it’s highly recommended for a quick Halloween read.
The great thing about Lovecraft’s mythos is that he never copyrighted it. He encouraged other writers to use it as a jumping off point for their own stories. As a result there are thousands of stories out there referencing the Elder Gods that Lovecraft originally invented.
Tales of Horror Through Time (2011), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, features twenty-six tales of Lovecraftian horror starting with stories from Ancient History, through The Middle Ages and finally into the Modern Era. The stories hit way more often than they miss and you can read them in order or just pick them at random. You’ll find that Innsmouth was just one in a long line of locations around the world where the Old Ones had an influence.
So there you have it; multiple recommendations for getting in the Halloween mood. Do you have some you’d like to recommend to us? We’re always open to suggestions and would love to hear from you!
Cary Christopher was born and raised in Florida and Georgia but has called Southern California home now for almost 20 years. He’s written extensively about music, movies and pop culture online and for various publications around SoCal. Now he primarily writes for his blog (www.carychristopher.com). His new novel The Wash is available on Amazon.
Link to my Amazon Authors Page: https://www.amazon.com/Cary-Christopher/e/B076FD8MJ3
After sixteen years as a paralegal, I staged a coup and left the straight-laced corporate world behind forever. I now pander to my muse, a sarcastic little so-and-so who delights in getting the voices in my head to either all speak at once in a cacophony of noise or to remain completely silent. Only copious amounts of Diet Cherry Dr. Peppers and hamburgers will ensure their complicity in filling my head with stories of serial killers, werewolves, and the things that live under your bed.
I live in SoCal, in the small town I fashioned Moonspell’s Wolf Creek after, with my beloved husband and persistently rowdy, always-has-to-have-the-last-word Miniature Pinscher, Fiona.
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