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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.