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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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Frightful Forests: 13 of the Best Classic Stories of Haunted Woods and Cursed Campers

(Updated from August 2017) 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.

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.

As dear as they may be to us, as much as Wordsworth and Thoreau adored them, and as much as our souls swell at the sight of unfettered Nature, we still recognize the woodlands as our natural enemy. They threaten to harbor wild beasts, to discombobulate our sense of directon, to sever us from our secure communities, and to ensnare us in a world of savage misrule. I personally recommend that everyone spend time in nature – breathe the air under trees and see the sky reflected in a woodland pond – but the next time you go camping, take this book with you. Wait until the shadows have dropped and the light through the overhead branches is purple and dim. Light a fire in front of you and a lantern at your side. Read these classic stories of sylvan dread as the shadows shift around your campfire. I promise that it will deliver a truly rustic camping experience…


In Ralph Adams Cram's masterpiece (he only wrote six horror stories, but each is a poetic work of underrated genius), he tells the story of two Swedish boys who set out for home at twilight with a dog they have just bought at the market town. They wander through the woods but somehow become lost. All of a sudden, their senses are oppressed by a strange feeling of deep dread: they feel their blood flow and sense each step and crunch of grass. The darkness is oppressive and even the dog is terrified. They find themselves standing on the edge of some strange valley, where an ash-colored mist coats the ground, obscuring it. Overwhelmed, they flee, but their dog dies of his terror. Not long after, one of them returns to the woods in the daylight to explore this valley and see what it is all about. He finds a vast stretch of bare, lifeless earth surrounded by gloomy woodland, with a gaunt, skeletal tree breaching out of the middle. The tree's base is piled up with the bones of countless animals (and even one human skull, "grinning slowly"). Overhead a falcon cries out and plunges to the ground, dead, landing in the pile. The boy beats it, but darkness is falling, the ashy mists are rising, and he doesn't have much time left before he, too, will die and rot in the Dead Valley.



While Washington Irving's stories are more typically delicious satires in the vein of Mark Twain than tales of horror a la Poe, most of his best works are of a supernatural nature (or least may be of a supernatural nature), and these are often set in the lonely woodlands of New York and New England. "Rip Van Winkle" is among his most famous (a ghost story in its own right), but it is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- with its ghoul-infested valley, its monstrous haunted tulip tree, and the Headless Horseman prowling its shadowy woods -- which has become a Gothic classic. Ichabod Crane's lonesome trip home (he never made it, of course) through the gloomy woodland of Tarrytown, New York still inspires imaginations.

So does a lesser known, though still popular tale: "The Devil and Tom Walker," a proto-Hawthorne story set in Puritan Boston where a ne'er-do-well miser loiters around the haunted forest where a row of trees are marked with the names of the Devil's servants (and are then chopped down when they die). Satan himself meets him there in the dress of a woodsman, complete with an axe to harvest his souls, and it is there in the dying light of a fall day that Walker offers up his.



Blackwood excelled at the wilderness horror story (these are not the only tales of his that we will feature). He had a gift for conjuring the sense of beauty and sublimity that might draw a man into nature's clutches before the tables turned and the trap was sprung. Both of these stories feature men who venture into the woods out of curiosity and hubris and who (barely) make it back in one piece, but with a much more complicated understanding of nature and their role in it. In "The Valley of Beasts," a jingoistic hunter (suitably named Grimwood) wanders off into a remote valley of the Canadian wilderness which his Indigenous guide warns him against as being a realm where the Great Spirit holds dominion. Grimwood forces his way into the hollow only to be gradually drawn under its spell. He finds himself literally and figuratively disarmed, stripping his clothes and weapons as he encounters oddly peaceful animals living together in harmony. At first he thinks that he has found a new Eden -- and then the bears start looking at him in a very unnerving manner.

In "Ancient Lights," Blackwood argues that even the smallest of clumps of nature can be dangerous: a bicyclist working on surveying a copse of trees in Sussex, in order to grub them up, decides to investigate it for himself. Entering the little wood he gradually becomes disoriented -- seeing, hearing, and feeling things -- and is sure that he has noticed a grinning man in green more than once by the time he decides to escape. But wait a moment: for such a little wood, it would surely not be so hard to find your way out? But of course, he didn't realize that the locals, who called it "the Fairy Wood," had their own reasons for wanting it cut down.


Arthur Machen -- Blackwood's artistic and spiritual peer -- also shared a taste for exploring the euphoric terror of nature. Like Grimwood in "The Valley of the Beasts," the nameless narrator of "The White People" (a teenaged girl whose posthumous journal provides the majority of the plot) finds herself inextricably settled by and attracted to the strange beauty of her local wood. Her eccentric nursemaid told her stories of the "White People" (a euphemism for Celtic supernatural beings) and the mortal witches who met them in the Welsh woods since Roman times. One day she is drawn to go deeper into the forest than ever before and encounters what appears to be an alternate dimension: strange, wine-colored rivers, enormous trees, and boulders carved into leering statues populate this Alice-in-Wonderland realm where she finds herself being secretly and deliberately inducted into a secret society which has hidden itself in the wilderness -- one that transcends space, time, and matter -- one that needs a willing sacrifice.



Like Machen, Blackwood, and Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne had a taste for using the woods as an ideal setting to explore the metaphor of mankind's latent spiritualism and its dark unconscious. Most famously -- in a tale which prefigure's "The White People" -- he wrote "Young Goodman Brown," about a Puritan man in 17th century Salem who steals away into the woods to meet Satan, who appears to him in the guise of an old man. We never learn what it is that Brown wants, but during the course of their conversation, he is stunned to secretly witness the most upstanding members of Salem society slinking into a twilit clearing to participate in a depraved Black Mass (with implied child sacrifices). At the apex of his horror, he passes out and wakes up alone in the woods. Whether it is a dream or not, it has ruined his faith in humanity and he has (we can infer) received whatever secret knowledge it was he had desired.

In "Roger Malvin's Burial," a macabre tale set during a war with the Native Americans, a young soldier leaves his mortally wounded father-in-law to die alone in the woods with the promise to return when it is safer to decently burry him. As soon as he reaches safety, however, he goes back on his promise and forgets it -- until, years later, when he and his wife and child decide to become settlers and move out into the woods where they build a cabin -- not far from the site of the massive tree where he left his father-in-law to die. The ending is, of course, characteristically bitter and tragic.


A simple, folksy tale set in Eastern Europe, Bernard Capes' "The Thing in the Forest" is, nonetheless, one of the most poetic and chilling werewolf stories in British literature (the French and Quebecois literary canons, however, are scattered with 'em). It is barely two pages long, but its dreamlike description of a beautiful peasant girl rushing through a snow-swept pine forest in hopes of reaching the church before she is devoured by the Thing that she knows is pursuing her from the shadows is strangely difficult to forget. To wit: "The soft drift, the lane of tall, motionless pines, stretched on in a quiet like death. Somewhere the sun, like a dead fire, had fallen into opalescent embers faintly luminous: they were enough only to touch the shadows with a ghastlier pallor. It was so still that the light crunch in the snow of the girl’s own footfalls trod on her heart like a desecration." Solid stuff. The twist identity of the werewolf who has been stalking her makes her final moments that much more cruel.



While Blackwood favored the Canadian wilds, Machen the Welsh hill country, and Irving and Hawthorne the colonial era woodlands of New England, Ambrose Bierce had a taste for the murky tangles of the forests of the American midwest. Many of his stories took place in the gloomy, swampy woods of the Ohio River Valley and the broader Midwest. Among the most notable is "The Boarded Window," which tells, first, of how a hermit was found dead in his cabin, which has always had its sole window boarded up ever since his wife's death. Later, we learn of how she died: he throat torn out by a cougar as her husband listened to it in the darkness, terrified that she was rising from the dead, after having bound what he thought was her corpse and laid her out for burial. Unfortunately, she had merely fallen unconscious from a fever, but later revived -- in the jaws of the cougar.

Other stories such as "The Suitable Surroundings," where a man accepts a bet to read a horror story in a supposedly haunted house in the woods, and "The Eyes of the Panther," wherein a woman whose mother was mauled by a panther shortly before she was born moves out into the woods with her new husband, only to exhibit some rather chillingly feline behavior, have similarly Midwestern settings and darkly ironic endings.


Blackwood's extensive experience as a woodsman made his wilderness stories especially potent and rich with autobiographical detail. In tales (which would have made this list were it twice as long) like "The Camp of the Dog," "A Haunted Island," and "Skeleton Lake," he weaves an experience rich in landscape and sensory detail that generate a chilling degree of authenticity. Both of these stories resulted from experiences of his -- hunting in the Canadian forests and canoeing down the willow-choked Danube, respectively.

The first story is perhaps the ultimate "campfire story" from the classic era of weird fiction. It describes how the narrator and his French Canadian guide journey far from camp on a snowy night, how his guide, Defago, becomes increasingly nervous about the superstitions of the Wendigo (a creature far more cosmic and shapeless than the traditional, Indigenous cryptid which possesses the bodies of those who have engaged in cannibalism). There are signs that the Wendigo -- a sort of "call of the wild" spirit which possesses its victims, causing them to flee society and forever run above the trees on the wings of the wind -- is about, and Defago becomes deeply anxious and depressed as they go to sleep in their tent. The narrator is woken up in the middle of the night by Defago’s 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).

"The Willows" is the pinnacle 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.


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