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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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10 Woodland Horror Stories Perfect for Summer Campfires: Camping, Hiking, & Cabin Living Gone Wrong

Every summer there are nights that I feel the urge to wander into the shady woods of my native Midwest: the air has a soft, steamy texture that carries the heavy odors of rain-soaked earth, sun-warmed grass, and air-stirred flowers, the days are lengthy and bright, the nights short and warm, and the outdoors ring with the harmonics of frogs and cicadas hidden in the dark. I haven’t been camping in a few years, but I still get that restless feeling to pack up the car and drive to some remote state park where the trees block the sky and the land rolls in a twisting surf of craggy hills and misty vales.

But as much as my spirit feels a warm draw to the wilderness, it also shudders when I begin to imagine combing my way through unfamiliar trails miles away from help. The woods have always been a symbol of the darkest recesses of the human mind – an archetypal unconscious bedeviled by violent spirits and littered with buried bodies.

Tales of dark and scary forests are older than history itself. World literature – especially fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction – has seemingly always recognized woodlands as a zone that emulates the frightful shadows of the human heart, in which lurk unseen monsters and unnoticed traps. The forest harbors both an archetypal attraction – of freedom and sincerity – and an archetypal horror – of chaos and evil. While modern man may find solace in a weekend camping trip, there is still a small part of our evolved brain which shivers at the sight of trees blocking out the sun. They represent the loss of civilization and order, the reign of savage Nature and merciless Fate. The woods allow us to reconnect with our roots, but they also threaten to undo the work of society: to turn boys into monsters, men into murderers, and brave souls into cowering sheep.

Classic horror fiction – especially British horror fiction – usually takes place in cities or villages, sometimes on mountains or moors, but rarely in the dense woodlands that bring to mind the thrills and chills of camping. But there are certainly some powerful stories about people venturing into the wilds in search of peace – only to find their very lives and souls at stake. The following ten horror stories follow their characters on hikes, hunts, and camping trips into the wild. Read them before your own next camping trip; it might prepare you with some pleasant chills – or convince you to stay safe at home…



Get used to that name – Blackwood. Between canoeing down the weedy Danube and backpacking through the Canadian wilds, Algernon Blackwood was a highly experienced camper, and an entire list could be written about his camping horror stories.

One of the strangest involves a cocky hunter who decides he doesn’t need the advice of a superstitious guide. This jingoistic Brit has no regard for nature and desires to dominate and master every acre he can. Lead by a nervous aboriginal scout into a valley said to belong to the Algonquian god Ishtot, the hunter eventually tires of his superstition and is glad to see him desert him as they near the holy country. But once he enters the Valley of the Beasts – a kind of Eden where animals reside in paranormal community – he begins to subtly, but steadily devolve. Abandoning gun, clothes, and inhibitions, he finds himself lapping water with deer, wolves, and bears, but if this is Eden, he is no Adam, and the magic wears away long enough for him to realize that he is in mortal danger. The description of his devolution is tremendously hypnotic, and although the tale is more parable than horror story, its increasing tension as human civilization is pulled under the power of Natural whimsy is seriously chilling. A disturbing read, however, for any hunter who enjoys wandering off into the thick of the woods by himself.


Benson had a thing for worms and creepy-crawlies in the same way that Hodgson loathed pigs and M. R. James was creeped out by spiders. His two most famous stories about evil worms – “Caterpillars” and “Negotium Perambulans” – use them as symbols of absolute moral and physical corruption. In the very uncomfortable tale “And No Bird Sings…”, Benson’s protagonist visits a friend’s estate in Surrey, where he enjoys probing his primeval woodlands for birds and the like. The problem is, the woods don’t seem to have any birds. Nothing really seems to live there: it is shadowy, silent, and ominous. Exploring it further, our intrepid hero is disgusted and horrified by what he discovers: the kingly, crawling predator that has eaten or chased away every living thing that it can get its massive, mucousy mouth around.


In one of the earliest examples of cosmic horror, Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" offers up a rare but notable example of his science fiction: a tale that begins with the death of its main character, a woodland hermit named Hugh Morgan, whose mutilated corpse is splayed across a table in his cabin (discreetly covered with a sheet) while a coroner's jury listen to evidence of his death from the sole witness of his final moments and final days. While on a hunting excursion in the woods, Morgan and his friend, Harker, notice the brush shifting and stirring as if some massive creature -- utterly unseen to them -- is passing through it. Morgan bitterly attributes this to "the damned thing" -- an invisible entity which he has been tracking for months after having incrementally noticed it prowling around the woods by his cabin. Later, during another hunt, Morgan unexpectedly fires his gun at some invisible thing that shoves Harker aside and throws its incredible weight on Morgan, before tearing him to ribbons. The jury dismiss Harker's testimony as insane and attribute his death to a mountain lion. But the coroner -- who reads but refuses to share Morgan's diary -- has other opinions...


Another especially strange “ghost story” set in the Canadian wilderness. Blackwood has his protagonist rent a hunting lodge on a shady island in the middle of a lake. The autumn setting is gorgeous and remote – far from any towns or other campers. He is surprised to see two strangers in a canoe off in the distance, but gives it no further notice. Easing into his cozy surroundings, he looks to his hunting gear and prepares to enjoy a lovely vacation, but as the sun sets in the fiery sky, he notices the strange canoe circling his island in ever-tightening circles – slowly, almost imperceptibly. With the fall of night, the lonely cabin seems more like a prison than a getaway, and with no help in sight, he shudders with every sound of the paddles combing through the lake. When the canoe finally makes landfall, distant flickers of lightning reveal the two strangers at his door, crossing through his pitch-black den, and climbing the stairs to the bedroom. But it’s the familiar thing that they lug downstairs – with its scalp peeled back – that makes this a truly shocking story.


What’s more summery than the idea of boy scouts marching through the countryside under a blazing, white sun? A cheery thought, too, unless they have been warned not to explore the copse of trees where the old well still sends up mournful the cries of the man and three women who have been seen lurking around it with bony arms outstretched and lipless teeth chattering smartly. All seems well (heh, heh) until the troop’s notorious rascal defies the warnings and plunges towards the shadowy well. What he doesn’t realize is that even under a blazing summer sky you can walk into a ghoulish ambush. One of James’ creepiest – and most violent – stories, featuring four of his most graphic ghosts.


One of the eeriest werewolf (werepanther?) stories I know of, this spooky piece by Ambrose Bierce features a troubled young couple having a conversation at the man’s house in the woods. For years she had turned down his advances because she feared that she had inherited her mother’s insanity. She was conceived after her mother was attacked by a panther in her cabin, and after her birth, the traumatized woman died a lunatic. But her suitor doesn’t worry about her sanity, although they are both spooked when he thinks he spies a panther in the woods. She departs hastily and he returns to his quiet cabin. It isn’t until later, when he notices something coming out the woods and slipping in through his window, coming towards his bed – something huge and black with flaming eyes – that he realizes he may have made a poor match.


The dean of Blackwood stories, and one of H. P. Lovecraft’s absolute favorites is – like most of his tales – based on a real-life experience wherein Blackwood and a friend encountered a rotting corpse as they canoed down the loneliest stretch of the Danube. In this tale, two men follow their route, leaving Budapest and paddling into a swampy, shifting mess of sandbars, islets, and morphing channels dotted by willow bushes (don’t picture the pleasant trees; these are creeping shrubs whose glinting wands grow twenty-feet or less in height). Several omens darken their stay as they land and set up camp on a dry sandbar, including a strange otter (or is it a dead body), a terrified peasant waving them down, and an overwhelming sense that they are being watched and resented by some force that lives in the willows. The two men endure a harrowing night as the shrubs seem to move, murmur, and grow around them, and after the narrator observes the theophany of supernatural beings twining in a column above the willows, the story grows darker and darker. Whatever they are – ghosts, gods, aliens, elementals, or monsters – the willows hate their guests, and are determined to destroy them for trespassing.


In my opinion, this is one of the best horror pieces ever written: not because of literary depth or a slow-burning build of dread – no, it’s just spooky and fun. Bierce visits several rural abodes (mostly run-down derelicts moldering in the woods), reporting their supernatural histories in a journalistic fashion that always makes me more uncomfortable than had he been flowery with it. The entire anthology is worth a read, but the creepiest story is called “The Spook House.” Two stalwart explorers decide to trudge into the woods where they hope to solve the mystery of a house whose family disappeared during the Civil War. The building is shabby and intimidating, hidden in the heart of a twisted wood, but they break in and explore the surroundings. The tension builds as they seem to come closer to discovering what happened to the family, but it culminates when a hidden door swings open – bringing them face to face with the putrid corpses of the former occupants. Frightening enough – but while they explore the death room, the door begins to close…


Another werewolf story (a real wolf, not a panther) – in fact, perhaps THE werewolf story – Bernard Capes’ “The Thing in the Forest” did for the werewolf genre what “Lot No. 249” did for mummies – cementing it as a horror trope just in time for the burgeoning film industry to mold it into movies. The story is set in the dense, prickly pine forests of Hungary, where evergreens blacken the sky and pine needles muffle the footfalls of predators. A newlywed beauty finds herself traversing the murky woods as snow falls between the trunks and covers the ground, quickly moving across the pine needles, aware that she is not alone. When she finally finds herself face to face with the monstrous wolf that has been trailing her, she is terrified by its humanlike qualities, and tries to befriend it. But the true horror lies in its human identity. A dark retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” it represents a hiker’s worst nightmare.


The ultimate camping story, “The Wendigo” follows an untested hunter and his Canadian guide Defago as they break away from their main camp in search of quarry. But Defago is distracted: it is said that the Wendigo has been on the prowl lately, and while he laughs off the legend (in perhaps the most disturbing and frightening passage in the tale), his terror is clear. Wendigoes are the skinwalkers of the north: aboriginal spirits that possess the bodies of people who have committed some terrible atrocity during the lean winter months -- cannibalism and murder usually attract the spirit, which turns the sinner into a ghoulish monster doomed to an eternity of brutal cold and hunger. That night Defago wakens his client with his moaning and crying, and not long after he disappears, leaving horrifyingly long treads in the snow. When the traumatized hunter returns to the party, they head out to recover Defago’s body, only to encounter the now puppet-like figure in what is one of the most eerie and tension-laced episodes in all of horror. The tale highlights the fear of reason, rationality, and civility being overwhelmed by impulse, whimsy, and madness – certainly not a trade-off that one would welcome miles away from food and shelter – and it remains one of the most gripping and shiver-inducing tales in the English language. Not to be read before camping (or to be read if you enjoy a sleepless bivouac).

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