With Hallowe’en – that most atmospheric and imaginative of all holidays – brewing on the horizon, I thought it might be fitting to take a moment to think about the sorts of horror stories that best suit that august occasion. Here I’ve detailed seven of the most all-canvasing horror archetypes. There are certainly more, but this batch seem to dominate so much of the field that I think they deserve a little bit of special consideration. Along with a short tip-toe through what makes these archetypes so thrilling and chilling, I’ve included a list of 31 stories that I would recommend to illustrate each type. It’s certainly not exhaustive, but I would love for you to comment with your own recommendations: what is your favorite haunted house story, werewolf tale, or vampire book? Until then, ease back, pour a glass of dark, red wine, and – after you’ve made sure that one window that keeps opening is thoroughly locked, and that nothing is breathing under the bed – enjoy this Hallowe’en treat…
7. Stories about a Bad Place
THE HAUNTED HOUSE. (Exemplar: The Fall of the House of Usher) Unlucky homes are among the first ghost stories that we have in writing. Pliny the Younger recorded a story about a spirit who haunted a house with clanking chains; the Tower of London is so famous for its ghosts that they are virtually part of the furnishings. Bad places are symbols of the institutions in life which convey the wickedness of previous generations forward into the future: patriarchies, prejudices, inequalities, unspoken segregations. Houses symbolize the heart of man, and for a house to be haunted, its previous owner must be symbolically guilty of some unresolved sin which society has agreed to ignore. For this reason – like the crimes of a civilization – the house propagates its evil with each generation until someone resists it.
THE LONESOME PLACE (DERLETH), THE EMPTY HOUSE (BLACKWOOD), THE TOLL HOUSE (JACOBS), SOME HAUNTED HOUSES (BIERCE)
6. Stories about a Lingering Presence
THE GHOST. (Exemplar: The Turn of the Scew) Ghosts, like haunted houses, remain extant long after their natural life has expired because of a lack of moral resolution. A crime has gone unpunished, a lust untasted, a hate un-satiated. And so the immortal essence continues to thrive and disturb. Ghosts are metaphors for the unspoken fears, anxieties, appetites, and neuroses that plague our lives. Hamlet’s father reminds him of his (potentially unfounded) suspicions of homicidal incest. Marley’s ghost is a manifestation of Scrooge’s unchallenged misanthropy. The Headless Horseman represents the impotent loss of identity that interlopers (like the gold-digging Ichabod Crane) suffer when they try to alter the status quo. They terrify not because of the fear of the dead, but because of their defiance of death and what that says to us, that distasteful issues, once out of sight, should be out of mind – but they aren’t: we lust and hate and fear and suspect and no amount of denial or politeness can frighten away the ghosts that lurk in our own minds.
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (M. R. JAMES), TO BE READ AT DUSK (DICKENS), THE WELL (JACOBS), THE OPEN DOOR (OLIPHANT), SOME STRANGE DISTURBANCES IN AUNGIER STREET (LE FANU)
5. Stories about a Life-Sucker
THE VAMPIRE. (Exemplar: Dracula) Vampires take many shapes other than aristocratic womanizer with a Slavic accent, and they drink up far more than just hemoglobin. Vampires, like monsters, are the manifestations of forbidden desires. Most of these desires are sexual in nature, its true, but some are power-fed, some are revenge-fed, and some are ego-fed. At their most basic, vampires drink life from those they encounter. It is easy to see how this particular monster came to be: people noticed how some among their number shamelessly bled power, money, self-respect, and dignity from those they stood to gain from, and after those sycophants died, who wouldn't guess that they might rise again to drink life-blood as greedly as they slurped up life-power? The vampire reminds us of our human tendency to use each other and serves as a warning to stem our appetites and control our greed. They prey on the beautiful, pure, and virtuous, but what good has it done them? They are grotesque, corrupt, and vulgar. Whether viewed as a sexual, social, or spiritual metaphor, the vampire is never satisfied and never content.
THE TRANSFER (BLACKWOOD), JOHN BARRINGTON COWLES (CONAN DOYLE), THE FAMILY OF THE VOURDALAK (A. K. TOLSTOY), FOR THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE (CRAWFORD)
4. Stories about a Shape-Shifter
THE WEREWOLF. (Exemplar: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde)
While the vampire represents human shamelessness and decadence, the werewolf – a close relative notwithstanding – explores a different, even darker side: human deceptiveness and degeneration. The werewolf was used to explain cannibals and serial killers during the Middle Ages because it was not intellectually acceptable to believe that human minds could be capable of such unspeakable carnage without Satanic influences. Since then the werewolf has continued to be a metaphor for the passions and appetites that we secret away from one another. Dorian Gray was beautiful externally but within he was a horror show. The BTK Killer was a church elder, Boy Scout troop leader, and father, but while he ate breakfast with his wife and children before church, he fantasized about torturing families to death. Werewolves plague our imaginations for the same reason that we are drawn to stories about double lives: it offends our civility but resonates with the very real understanding that all which separates us from behaving badly in public is the fear of shame, and that if that fear was lowered enough, we too might be tempted to succumb to our animal nature.
BLACKWOOD (THE WENDIGO), THE HAUNTED 'PAMPERO' (HODGSON), THE THING IN THE FOREST (CAPES), THE WOLF (DE MAUPASSANT)
3. Stories about a Nameless Thing
THE MONSTER. (Exemplar: Frankenstein) Like werewolves and vampires and ghosts, monsters are symbolic of things which should be either kept away from society, or things which should be faced and resolved. They are summoned when a person dabbles in the taboo or the forbidden, and just as vampires represent shameless abuse and werewolves stand for brutal hypocrisy, monsters suggest the violation of societal values. Frankenstein's entire family is snuffed because in attempting to understand the power of god he summoned a Creature for whom he lacked the compassion of God. King Kong ravages New York and humiliates his captors because they hoped to dominate a part of the world that wasn't yet ready for civilization. Godzilla terrorizes the Pacific rim due to the cosmic hubris of nuclear scientists who never questioned the ethics of their experiments. In fact a monster is almost always an ethical symbol, calling into question the suitability of mankind's endeavors. They, like Frankenstein's Creature, are hybrids of the human and the beyond-human, and like any abandoned child of neglect, they are angry and eager to be heard.
MOXON'S MASTER (BIERCE), THE HORROR OF THE HEIGHTS (CONAN DOYLE), THE GREAT GOD PAN (MACHEN), THE CURSE OF YIG (LOVECRAFT)
2. Stories about a Terrible Feeling
THE PREMONITION. (Exemplar: The Signalman) Most popular during the Victorian era, and most popular among female writers, the Premonition Tale spoke to deep, unsettling feelings of powerlessness – and sometimes empowerment. Endowed with an irregular ability to sense things which were not seen by others, these characters (almost always women or children) had the ability to forecast future calamities: murders, train wrecks, distant deaths, changes in fortune. But they are unheeded (more often than not), and their warnings are written off as the ravings of an overactive imagination, hysteria, or silliness. Intuition has often been played down by those with power to change fates (typically well-off men) and clung to deliciously by those who have been denied that power (women, children, and minorities). Danny is not listened to in The Shining except by Dick Hallorann – a black man – who shares the shine. Cassandra is not listened to when she foresees the fall of Troy, only to become one of the war’s most tragic victims. Premonitions validate the abilities of powerless classes to sense things unnoticed by those in privilege, and they warn the empowered classes against condescension and hubris.
BEHOLD, IT WAS A DREAM! (BROUGHTON), THE FACE (E. F. BENSON), THE BUS CONDUCTOR (E. F. BENSON), THE MYSTERY OF THE SEMI-DETACHED (NESBIT)
1. Stories about a Laughable Mistake
THE GOTHIC FARCE (Exemplar: The Canterville Ghost). Not all horror is grim and dire, and as Hallowe'en dawns on us, I feel compelled by the spirit of that Hallowed day to remind myself that Hallowe'en is just as much about fun as it is about fear. While most of the spirits that haunt this holiday are malevolent and brutal, some are impish and wry -- the trickster, the gremlin, the brownie. They tease us about our misapprehensions and taunt us about our fears. The Gothic farce can appear in a variety of colors: the fool who is terrified by the sound of a branch rubbing against another; the man who is tricked by a rival dressed in a costume; the victim who is playfully tormented by real ghosts. At its heart is mirth and tomfoolery -- the tricks intermingled with treats. In The Canterville Ghost Oscar Wilde portrays a family in the market for a respectable ghost. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" Ichabod Crane is terrified of snowy bushes and flying beetles and ultimately duped by the resourceful town hero into fleeing the country. In "Rip Van Winkle" the supernatural influence is real -- the ghosts of Hudson's men appear to be the genuine article -- but the effect (Rip's euphoria of outliving his nagging wife in spite of having slept away two decades, and his mercenarial political apathy) is hilarious. So don't forget -- while the ghosts haunt your sleep and the monsters stalk your dreams -- to laugh a little before the end of the day.
NUMBER 17 (NESBIT), SOME WORDS WITH A MUMMY (POE), THE ACCOUNTANT OF A GHOUL (STEPHEN CRANE), IN MID-ATLANTIC (JACOBS)