October 31, 2010


 by The Man in Black

Welcome, then, to the World Cup of Horror. A tournament of the uncanny. A wrestling match between wraiths. A gladiatorial gathering of ghoulies! You’ve got front row seats, immediately in front of a really annoying guy with a vuvuzela! You’re trapped, and you can’t escape...

Well, no - you can of course, but we’d like it if you stayed.

We’re looking for no less than the finest horror story ever written in the English language. The rules take in anything shorter than a novel or a novella – which means an early casualty was Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan.

The qualifying rounds have already accounted for some shock departures: Roald Dahl, the great HG Wells, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, E. Nesbit and EF Benson tumbled at the first hurdle, a massive upset for the punters who had money on last-16 finishes for any of those guys. Also missing are real big guns like Bram Stoker, whose “The Squaw” failed to make any impact on the big stage – justifying the feelings of many that “The Judge’s House” was the better bet.

A lot of the young guns of the horror game failed to make it through either – people like David J Schow, Joe R Lansdale and others would have given any of the finalists a good tussle.

But the fright game can be an unforgiving contest.

So, let’s blow the whistle and get started – here’s the draw for the last 16. Remember, this is tournament play... the draw is entirely random, and anything can happen in a one-off encounter between seemingly mis-matched teams. Reputations count for nothing here, and giants can fall...


The Call of Cthulhu: HP Lovecraft vs Taboo: Geoffrey Household

Gabriel-Ernest: Saki vs Lot. No 249: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Carmilla: J Sheridan Le Fanu vs For The Blood Is The Life: F Marion Crawford

The Moonlit Road: Ambrose Bierce vs The Mangler: Stephen King

The Black Cat: Edgar Allan Poe vs Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper: Robert Bloch

The Tower: Marghanita Laski vs The Speciality of the House: Stanley Ellin

The Mezzotint: MR James vs The Signalman: Charles Dickens

The Wind: Ray Bradbury vs The Monkey's Paw: W W Jacobs

Got your ghoulash from the vendor? Sipping your suspiciously iron-rich tomato juice? Sporting your team-colour noose in support of your favourites? Off we go:

Match one: Lovecraft vs Household

This should be something of a formality on paper: Lovecraft is the bookie’s favourite for the title, and his seminal “The Call of Cthulhu” is the one they all have to beat. His tale of a weird cult worshipping a squid-headed demon and a prophecy of its returning to Earth to oppress mankind has real staying power, and it’s influenced just about every major horror writer ever since.

So you have to feel for the underdog, Geoffrey Household’s “Taboo” – the tale of two men out hunting a werewolf in Eastern Europe after some people have disappeared in the woods. This one has a lot of colonial turn-of-the-20th-century charm to it, and there are some creepy scenes as the hunters close in on their seemingly supernatural prey – and a surprising, gruesome, non-supernatural turn of events at the end.

There’s no shame in defeat for Household - it’s going to take a lot of firepower to stop Lovecraft in this tournament, that’s for sure.

WINNER: HP Lovecraft

Match two: Saki vs Conan Doyle

It’s a Victorian-off! And a monster-off, come to think of it. With “Gabriel-Ernest”, Saki, that great fan of the beast within, has crafted a beastly little story concerning a teenage boy found wandering naked in the woods by the narrator. His appearance just happens to coincide with the disappearance of some local children, and the witnessing of a large black wolf on the night of the full moon. I wonder if there’s a link?

Sherlock Holmes creator Conan Doyle wrote a number of tales of unease, notably “The Terror of Blue John Gap” and “The Horror of The Heights”. But his greatest, and certainly his most influential, is “Lot No. 249”. With it, he single-handedly invented the mummy mythology, still seen to greater or lesser effect on the big screen up to the present day. It concerns a nasty university student using ancient rites to animate a hideous mummy. This bandaged horror is employed to get rid of people he doesn’t like on the campus. It’s got some wonderful scare scenes, including a chase in the dark where the mummy launches itself after the narrator.

It’s good, it’s influential, and it’s Conan Doyle... but you know, Saki has the edge with this one. It’s all the better for its brevity and betrays a nasty wit. Saki’s storytelling guile is more than a match for Conan Doyle’s brute force.


Match three: Le Fanu vs Marion Crawford

Wasn’t that John Wayne’s real name, Marion Crawford? Or was it Elton John’s? Any road up, here’s vampire versus vampire, two absolute classics of the genre. In many ways it’s a shame they had to be drawn together at this early stage; it could well have been the final. As we stand, one of these creatures of the night has to bid us farewell.

Le Fanu’s vampire fable about a young girl who attaches herself to a well-to-do family was almost certainly an influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It features many chilling episodes on the way to the revelation that Carmilla is in fact one of the undead. It also has another, grubbier influence on popular culture in that Carmilla is arguably the first lesbian vampire. It’s a cliché now, but this must have been spicy stuff for the time. In the story’s overtly Sapphic moments we can see the ancestor of many lovingly re-watched dirty bits from the movies – most notably Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers and Tony Scott’s The Hunger.

To digress for a moment, this reminds me of a conversation we once had at work about “ways you’d choose to die”. A senior colleague stopped the chat dead when he said, “I’d pick the old lesbian vampires way out, myself.”

Anyway. Heaving bosoms and naughty nighties aside, Le Fanu’s seminal story has real competition in the form of F Marion Crawford’s “For The Blood Is The Life”. For one thing, it’s one of the all-time great titles. For another, in its evocation of an Italian sunset, and the image of a strange figure seen from a distance by the narrator in his tower, it’s powerfully atmospheric. It features another female vampire, not as iconic as Le Fanu’s and more a victim of human greed and wickedness. Crawford’s creature and Le Fanu’s are easy bedfellows. Our winner may have provided the first shock. It comes down to re-readability here: Le Fanu’s story is timeless, but takes a bit of effort. Marion Crawford’s story is like a visit from an old friend.

WINNER: F Marion Crawford

Match four: Bierce vs King

Two great American bogeymen (oh, alright then, “boogeymen”) face off now, the old hand and the young pretender.

Old Amby is a funny bird; an easy writer to admire, but from the bitterness and lack of kindness in his stories, you sense he wasn’t an easy man to like. “The Moonlit Road” is a typical example, and perhaps the best-known. Told from the perspective of three individuals, it takes into account a wife and mother’s death by strangulation. We start with this couple’s son, who speaks of two tragedies that strike his family. First his mother is strangled by an unknown intruder; then his father vanishes one lonely night. Next, from the perspective of what we understand to be the husband, we find out that he suspected his wife of infidelity. After arriving home unexpectedly early, he sees a dark figure fleeing the scene. Suspecting it was her lover, he batters down her locked door and strangles her in a jealous rage. Later, we hear from the wife’s spirit, channelled through a medium, telling a slightly different story.

There’s a suggestion that the dark figure seen fleeing was a demon of some kind. But who’s telling the truth? Where do the facts lie? At the end of the tale we simply don’t know. A horrible suggestion has imprinted itself on our mind, a nasty tang of distrust and suspicion. Many of Bierce’s stories were the same – messing with our minds, leaving us unsure if anything supernatural has occurred at all, tinged with an unsentimental view of family loyalty and love.

It’s a tall order to match a real American classic – but in Stephen King we have a real contender. “The Mangler” isn’t King’s most atmospheric story: that would be “One For The Road”, his return trip to a little town called Jerusalem’s Lot in the middle of a snowstorm. But “The Mangler” is perhaps his most shocking. An early tale of a police officer investigating a massive industrial folding and ironing machine which spits out a trail of folded and ironed bodies behind it, this tale is outlandish, violent and absolutely unforgettable. If Ambrose Bierce’s best work amounts to having someone sniggering at you behind your back, then King’s is like being soundly slapped by a hulking bully.


Match five: Poe vs Bloch

Another mis-match, surely. We all know Poe. We know what he’s capable of. This entry could well have been “The Tell-Tale Heart”, but “The Black Cat” just edged it for its sheer pet-related nastiness, and an unfathomably horrible narrator. It’s not hard to see why Poe was thought to be a bit of a banger owing to the ultraviolence the drunken nutcase in the story metes out first to a poor little cat, and then to his woman.

We all know Bloch, too – mostly thanks to that nice Norman Bates character he came up with. You can always tell good breeding by how a young man treats his mother, I always say. But Bloch’s status among horror fans is assured through his short fiction – running through his early years as a correspondent of HP Lovecraft and a major contributor to the Cthulhu Mythos, right up until his death.

“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” follows two men as they hunt Red Jack in 1930s America. One of the men, a “stage Englishman” who walks with a cane, has a theory that the Ripper crossed the Atlantic in order to keep up his bloody work – sacrifices to an ancient moon goddess, no less, which help to keep him young.

It should be Poe all the way. But in tournaments, those tense, one-off encounters, you sometimes get games like this. Poe batters away at Bloch, but Bloch’s story is sly and sweet, not a constant bloody grind like “The Black Cat”. And when it comes to the final revelations in both stories, Bloch’s got the razor edge.

Now that’s what you call a shocker. The bookies’ second favourite, knocked out.


Match six: Laski vs Ellin

Marghanita who? the audience bellows. Certainly “The Tower” isn’t as well known as it should be, even though it has been widely anthologised. It concerns a young woman travelling on her own in Italy, determined to go and see a very curious tower which seems to haunt her every step. Fate seems to be pulling her towards this structure: but who, or what, is waiting there for her?

Stanley Ellin’s tale is a bluff old codger; although he’s a highly decorated American writer, it has a very English atmosphere. It’s the story of a man determined to find out the culinary secret of the mouth-watering Lamb Amirstan from his exclusive private diners’ club, Sbirro’s. It’s a wonderful, sinister tale, and although it’s not an outright shocker it has a lot of staying power. It caused a sensation in its day, won a few awards and has long been considered one of the finest entries ever in the 30-year history of the Pan Book of Horror Stories – no mean accolades, for sure.

But there’s something about Laski’s story. The image of the portrait she sees, that disturbing face. The draw of the tower... this tie surprised some people who felt that Ellin might make it. Truth be told, neither of these look like going much further in the competition, but Laski has the honour of a last-eight finish.


Match seven: James vs Dickens

My God, that’s a marquee match, is it not? Two absolute giants, sure to be a sell-out crowd. Not quite baying for blood, mind: these two very, very English writers are more about chills and atmospherics rather than the red stuff.

But still. We have another tie that could quite easily have been the final itself, and it’s a shame to lose one of them. In Dickens, we have the literary giant, sure; but in the field of ghost stories, MR James answers to no-one.

It’s a classic of its kind, a match that’s really brought this tournament to life. The Signalman has a suggestion of reality or time itself being split, a notion years ahead of its time, as the title character appears to signal his own death from an onrushing train. It’s certainly the best-remembered scary story Dickens ever wrote.

But MR James has an embarrassment of riches to choose from; “The Mezzotint” is his official entry, but picking a tale at random from any of his short story collections could guarantee you a potential winner. From “Lost Hearts” to “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad”, James parades a host of hapless vicars and academics who fall into the clutches of vengeful ghouls and demons. The tales are immortal among their kind. “The Mezzotint” is about an old-style print of a country mansion that appears to have a kind of smudge on it in the shape of a person. And what’s worse, the figure appears to be moving closer to the house every time the characters look at it...

There’s no shame in losing this one – they both give it their all, but MR James brought his A-game.

Do you reckon anyone ever announced him as “Mr James” at dinners and functions for a laugh?


Match eight: Bradbury vs Jacobs

The clash of two “people’s champions” sees out the first round proper. Though Bradbury would be the outright favourite for the Sci-fi World Cup, he’s less well known for his horror stories. But the two worlds often merge with memorable results, and “The Wind” brings us the tale of an old man who claims to be haunted by the wind – a sentient, malevolent force. He sounds crazy as he talks to the narrator on the phone... but hasn’t that wind got up outside? What happened to the line? Hello..? Hello!

Jacobs needs no introduction. “The Monkey’s Paw” is a melodrama about a family given the cursed object by a visiting soldier, and told they are allowed three wishes. One by one, they all come true... but at a terrible price. The tale is a pure illustration of the saying, “be careful what you wish for”. Its belting climax has made it a firm favourite of anthologists the world over ever since it was written; even non-horror fans must surely have heard of it.

A big crowd pleaser, Jacobs prevails over Bradbury to become our last quarter-finalist.

WINNER: Jacobs


The Mangler: Stephen King vs The Call of Cthulhu: HP Lovecraft

Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper: Robert Bloch vs The Tower: Marghanita Laski

For The Blood Is The Life: F Marion Crawford vs Gabriel-Ernerst: Saki

The Mezzotint: MR James vs The Monkey’s Paw: WW Jacobs

Match one: King vs Lovecraft

Yes, it’s all business now for our creepy combatants. This tie is classic master-vs-apprentice material: King has always cited his fellow New Englander as perhaps his biggest influence as a writer.

The young pretender’s “The Mangler” has been filmed the once, I think – for a direct-to-DVD movie which I haven’t had the pleasure of watching. I don’t think it lends itself to a film, but it would have made a great Tales From The Darkside or The Twilight Zone episode. What really grips me about this story is that King only shows us the aftermath of the folding machine’s activities to begin with... but like all his best books, he takes things a step further. The episode where the line manager gets his arm trapped, and no amount of emergency-stop button pressing or fuse box bashing can halt the mangler’s appetite for flesh, is truly haunting.

And while you’re recovering from those meaty moments, King still has a memorable climax up his sleeve. I’ve mentioned on another review that King has been soundly lampooned (pun definitely intended) on Family Guy for his ability to make ordinary objects things of fear. It’s funny, but in a way it’s a fitting tribute to his immense skill. By the time you finish “The Mangler”, you won’t be finding the idea of an industrial pressing machine uprooting itself and chasing after you quite so funny as it sounds here.

So King takes an early lead; but there’s a confidence and grace to HP Lovecraft’s play and it suggests that he knows full well that it’s just a matter of time before he scores. “The Call of Cthulhu” sets the template for the best-known work of Lovecraft; there’s madness, references to his fabled unholy book, the Necronomicon, cults disrupted in New Orleans, people going stark, staring mad, a prophecy of a terrible demon returning from an undersea city to take a terrible revenge on the earth... It’s just lovely, lovely stuff. Much like one of his own favourite authors, Arthur Machen, Lovecraft loved to pit hapless, powerless humans against vast supernatural forces and their own lusts and desires. There’s no God in Lovecraft’s world, no saviour – but there are gods, chief among them being Cthulhu, old squid head, the Top Trump card you pray for.

Unusually for Lovecraft, he doesn’t merely hint at his demons... before delivering a pay-off... in No, Cthulhu appears in all his pomp in this tale, building towards what is easily Lovecraft’s greatest story climax. It’s wonderful – I don’t know how many times I’ve read it now, how many times I’ve bought anthologies where this story has appeared.

There are rumours that Lovecraft’s followers have already booked their accommodation ahead of the final. It seems like good sense rather than arrogance at this stage.

WINNER: Lovecraft.

Match two:

Bloch vs Laski

This clash is all about that sad creature, the fish out of water. Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” sees an Englishman obsessed with catching the world’s most famous serial murderer travelling to Chicago to follow a hunch. He shares his suspicions with the narrator, a psychologist, in order to gain entrance to a circle of well-heeled bohemians whom he suspects harbours the almost-supernatural killer. Rather than just a horror tale, this is also a whodunnit – we’re misdirected several times before Jack makes his long-awaited entrance, in the fog, no less. It’s a great chiller, even if the killer’s identity is rather obvious from the start, and makes good use of the foggy scenario.

Laski’s understated story focuses on a wife who’s desperate to experience some high culture for herself, apart from the views of her somewhat smug husband. She drives herself to an old tower which once belonged to a man who dabbled in black magic in 17th century Italy – a man who had a history of mistreating women. From here her experience takes on an uncanny, and terrifying turn. It hinges on a terrible compulsion the poor traveller feels – the Tower draws her in, and by the end we are in no doubt that it’ll never let her go. It is a story that gets better with each reading, and it’s so good that you’ll wonder why it isn’t more famous than it is.

Both stories’ strong points are in the shocking conclusions. “Yours Truly” relies on melodrama – quite literally, murder in the dark. It seems simplistic in comparison to Laski’s elegant, yet somehow more horrifying conclusion, which it would be a sin to spoil. And like I said earlier, if you didn’t see the end of “Yours Truly” coming, well...

There are a few boos from the gallery, complaints of “easy draw”! But Laski has made it to the last four.


Match three: Crawford vs Saki

It’s vampire vs werewolf – one of the major horror tropes of the last decade, and one that we see continuing in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.

Crawford was an American, but there’s a very English, colonial sentiment to his tale of a vampire leeching off her unrequited love. It builds us up very well – its tower is not haunted, but a curious mound of earth viewed from the very top in the moonlight is. The tower’s owner is visited by an artist who feels compelled to view the mound of earth at close quarters, by the light of the moon. The owner, who is also our narrator, then tells us what he sees as the artist goes down to the grave. There’s then a very scary “ghost” moment, which would have served as a chilling short story on its own, before the narrator takes us through the history of the grave. It then becomes a vampire story with a nasty pay-off. It’s a nuanced and atmospheric tale, drawing on the idea of dusk – a beautiful time of the day, especially in southern Italy in the summer, but also a time that marks the changeover from light to darkness, from safety to dread.

Saki’s “a bit of a funny one”, as my dear old auntie Bibby Black would say. Real name HH Munro, he was a fairly open homosexual in a time when it was illegal to be gay. To give you a bit of perspective, some of the punishments meted out to people in England unfortunate enough to have been caught by the law for following their natural inclinations verged on barbarism. A lot of Saki’s stories feature shape-shifting, and have animals, demons and monsters in them. It’s easy to read stories like “Gabriel-Ernest” as open treatises on homosexuality, though you can bet that I totally missed this when I was first thrilled by the tale as a 10-year-old.

It’s all about the beast within; an appetite which must remain hidden, only to reveal itself in the darkness. Something which can have awful consequences. A primal thing that cannot be resisted or fought, but dare not, indeed, speak its name. Although there’s no suggestion of the narrator being stirred by the naked sixteen-year-old boy whom he frantically covers up with newspapers in his parlour, his auntie takes a big shine to the lad immediately. We can see from the off that Gabriel-Ernest is a werewolf, and half the fun is waiting to see when the narrator finally twigs. Although the story ends with an atrocity worthy of a fairy tale, Saki does try to soften the blow with a joke, entirely in keeping with his style. His stories are like the wolf that dresses up as granny; desperate to sit you down beside her and pat your hand... and you wonder about granny’s great big eyes but you don’t see the truth until it’s too late.

Two strong contenders, but the American wins by virtue of not telegraphing what the story’s about, and keeping his discoveries hidden until the very last.

WINNER: Crawford.

Match four: James vs Jacobs

The clash of the consonants. And another mighty tussle for MR James, so soon after his exhausting ding-dong with Dickens. You could argue that he’s had a terrible draw. What kind of world do we live in where rank outsiders waltz into the semis, whereas big guys like MR James and WW Jacobs have to go home early?

The kind of world where a skull-headed ghostie with a monk’s habit would steal a child, methinks – and reveal the whole ugly thing through the Mezzotint itself. It’s a beautifully paced story of doom and despair, and has that very Jamesian feel of learned men trotting their bookish way towards sticky endings and unpleasantness.

But, just listen to that howling, shrieking, gibbering crowd when WW Jacobs takes the field. They’re like a 12th man. Jacobs’ story is fantastic for two reasons. One is the time it takes to build a picture of a happy family, one which will be shattered by an appalling accident. The second is the way in which Jacobs keeps the stories’ worst horrors hidden, even to the very last. Those dread footsteps behind the door at the end herald the classic unseen monster, such as the shark in Jaws. Our imaginations fill in the blanks at those awful moments, and it’s probably worse than anything the writer could have achieved with the same kind of descriptive relish of Stephen King. It’s hard to call “The Monkey’s Paw” subtle, but its strengths are formidable.

The crowd is loving it – Dubaya Dubaya goes marching on, and only a fool would bet against him. For MR James, there’s always next year.

WINNER: Jacobs.


The Monkey’s Paw: WW Jacobs vs For The Blood Is The Life: F Marion Crawford

The Tower: Marghanita Laski vs The Call of Cthulhu: HP Lovecraft

The lot of the losing semi-finalist is an unhappy one. So close to the big one, the match you’ve waited your whole career for, and yet so far. At least if you lose the final, you’ve had the big day out; there is no consolation for those who fall at the last. But the draw has kept the two big guns – Jacobs and Lovecraft – apart. It’s the final everyone wants to see...

Match one: Jacobs vs Crawford

A tense affair. How do you stop one of the greatest horror stories of all time, one of the most beloved in its field? So far as a horror story can be beloved, of course...

Well, you can do it by seeming fresh. Jacobs’ story has influenced many writers, including Ray Bradbury, who borrowed heavily from it for “The Emissary”, and Stephen King, who did the same with an entire novel, Pet Sematary. But its very chestnuttiness - which so endears it to the crowd here – counts against it. Its one big “eek!” moment is unparalleled, but it seems stale now, and the dynamics of the doomed family can come across as twee. “Yes, father! I’m such a lovely kind hearted and sweet young man, aren’t I? What could go wrong?”

Crawford’s story doesn’t have a big shock in it; but it is by far the more unsettling story. Its blood-sucking demon may be unique; a vampire who becomes one through no fault of her own, who fastens upon the disinherited young man of her desires more for love than thirst, you feel; and when her ending comes, it’s appalling, all without having shown you any violence whatsoever. And in the young man’s nightly visits to the girl’s grave, there’s an uncanny eroticism, too – without the bombast of any number of tawdry vampire fantasies we might see today. When it all stacks up, Dubaya Dubaya comes across as a clown, a favourite uncle. Crawford is the better writer, “For The Blood Is The Life” is the creepier and more accomplished tale, and – to an appropriately funereal silence from a disbelieving crowd – it goes through to take its place in the grand final.

WINNER: Crawford.

Match two:

Laski vs Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s thundering behemoth seems too strong to resist. What hope can the rank outsider have against this almighty titan of terror? And there’s also a seemingly easy final on the cards, too, as an added incentive. Brand recognition can be a disadvantage, as we’ve just seen with Jacobs – but surely not in Lovecraft’s case. Its atmosphere of madness and its epic scope are almost irresistible.

Almost... but not quite. Laski has played to her strengths to get this far; she’s absorbed a lot of punishment from Lovecraft’s overstated, florid style. But Laski’s very English stuffiness helps her to topple the titan: again, she triumphs when it comes to that key question of atmosphere.

And, to be blunt, Laski’s tale is scarier. Her quick impression of a portrait of the man who, we think, awaits her in “The Tower” has a very unsettling way of staying in your head. I couldn’t help but think of the image of the demonic white face glimpsed in quick flashes in The Exorcist movie. The description is very close – although “The Tower” was written 20 years ahead of William Peter Blatty’s ultimate scary book. While “The Call of Cthulhu” relies on grandstanding scenes and sometimes clunky hyperbole, “The Tower’s” ghastly pull towards an evil fate works almost subliminally, on the level of a nightmare. It is an unsettling, chilly read, and it nimbly allows Lovecraft’s bloated storytelling to work against itself.

The second almighty shock of the semi-finals – who would have bet on this at the start of the tournament?

WINNER: Laski.

Third place play-off:

Lovecraft vs Jacobs

Often the third-place play-off is a very entertaining tie, with the pressure off, and this one’s no exception. There’s little left to be said about either competitor. Although both sides show fatigue and, perhaps, a little depression at having fallen short of expectations, HP Lovecraft recovers his icy composure to secure a well-merited third place. Both the losing semi-finalists take part in a lap of honour, although it’s rather awkward seeing as Cthulhu is a tad bigger than poor Dubya Dubya’s shuffling revenant.

WINNER: Lovecraft


The Tower: Marghanita Laski vs For The Blood Is The Life: F Marion Crawford

It’s all about the scares, ultimately. Both stories share uncanny similarities; they both take as their central motif a tower. There’s nothing for the psychoanalysts to hang their hats on here, before you ask; they just happen to be very spooky locales, both situated in Italy as it happens. And they both concern that moment when the beauty of dusk gives way to the uncertainty of night. Remind me not to go out after dark the next time I’m wandering in Calabria.

“For The Blood Is The Life” is a beautifully-composed tale. It’s unhurried, it’s creepy, and although we’re in no doubt that the vampire menace has ended, there’s still a ghost issue to be resolved at the end. But all told, things are tied off very nicely. The narrator and his guest survive to take a drink in the dark at the end, unharmed.

But it does, indeed come down to the scares. It quickly becomes apparent that “The Tower” has the edge. There’s the subliminal face I spoke of earlier, sure... but there’s also raw fear as poor Caroline edges her way up that seemingly endless turret. She counts the steps as she does so – this is important – telling herself that she’s just imagining things in the dark. This story is also about vertigo, never moreso than in its gentle insistence that there’s no way down from “The Tower”, except for the quickest, surest one.

It’s brilliant; and only now, as Ms Laski lifts the coveted Golden Skull trophy, do the doubters fully appreciate that she has written the greatest horror story of all time.



For novices and connossieurs alike, here’s a list of places you can find all the tales above – and feel free to tell me how horribly wrong I’ve got it below!

Many of the stories are out of copyright, and can be found online for free.

Ghost Stories of MR James – MR James

Night Shift by Stephen King

Necronomicon: The Collected Weird Tales of HP Lovecraft

Children of the Night: Classic Vampire Stories (Ed. David Stuart Davies)

The Werewolf Pack (Ed. Mark Valentine)

Terror By Night by Ambrose Bierce

Complete Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (Ed. Michael Cox and RA Gilbert)

The Witch of Prague and Other Stories by F Marion Crawford

Complete Tales and Poems and Selected Essays by Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete Short Stories of Robert Bloch

The Penguin Book of Horror Stories and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories (Both Ed. JA Cuddon)

Tales of Unease by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dark Voices: The Best of The Pan Book of Horror Stories (Ed. Stephen Jones and Clarence Paget)

**Geoffrey Household’s “Taboo” appears to be quite hard to get hold of: I’ve got a version in an old anthology called Best Horror Stories from Octopus Press, but it’s long out of print. It also appears in The Second Pan Book of Horror Stories, which can be picked up second hand online. If anyone knows of a more up-to-date book which contains “Taboo”, do let us know.

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