Saturday, October 25, 2003

Top Thirteen Horror Films, Novels and Short Stories, part II

The second list is by my wife Lynda E. Rucker -- novelist, short story writer, and my greatest co-conspirator. Lynda is likewise a full-on Joss Whedon fan. She's also a closet Steven Seagal fan. Well, to be exact, she's been known to watch Seagal's 1990 opus Hard to Kill with glassy-eyed fascination. Is her appreciation of this murder classic ironic? Who knows any longer . . .


These lists. These lists kill me. How can I pick a “best of”? I become panicky, constricted. Surely items will be left off, and the day after this is posted I will be kicking myself for what I forgot to include and what I didn’t say. Every list of this type has a few standard, non-negotiable no-brainer choices, but then the agony kicks in. And then there are the rules: what if it’s a novel I haven’t read in ten years but it was one of my favorites way back when? What if it’s a movie I saw just a few months ago—can I trust my impressions of so recent a viewing to stack up fairly against films that have stayed with me for years and years? Should I limit myself to only once choice per director? What about the fact that my film list is so heavily weighted to movies from the 1960s forward, and my short story list is stacked with old stuff? And yet the allure of the lists is too strong to resist the urge to make them.

In the end I decided to just stop worrying about it. Here they are, my ramshackle lists, reflecting exactly what I was feeling at the moment that I wrote them. Maybe we should call it Lists of Exceptional Books and Movies and Stories You Should Really Check Out If You Have Not Done So Already, rather than “best”, per se.

I’m waffling, aren’t I? Without further ado…

In compiling this list I found I leaned more toward stories I read years ago and consistently go back and re-read, rather than work more recently encountered, if only because those stories for me formed a kind of core for my appreciation of horror fiction. Maybe next Halloween I’ll make two short story lists, one reserved for more contemporary pieces. This list, probably more than any other, clearly reflects my biases and likes (and probably, by omission, my dislikes). I am a big fan of older supernatural fiction, ghost stories, and unease created by suggestion and mood rather than explicit imagery. I limited myself here to one story per writer and am, even as you read these words, agonizing over the absence of such masters as M.R. James, Thomas Ligotti, Terry Lamsley, Ambrose Bierce, Steve Rasnic Tem, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Russell Kirk, and many more.

1. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Though widely (and rightfully) hailed as a feminist masterpiece, this story wouldn’t make my list if it didn’t also work on a purely aesthetic level, and it is a chilling and disturbing tale of either a malevolent haunting or a woman’s frightening mental deterioration. You could ignore the subtext completely and still come away having read a prime example of the best the genre has to offer; however, the oppressive, claustrophobic environment in which the narrator struggles to tell her story makes for a particularly harrowing journey.

2. The White People, by Arthur Machen (1906)
Machen’s bizarre and dreamlike tale of a young girl who is consumed by dark mystical visions is written mostly in the form of her journal, and is rightfully described by T.E.D. Klein in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural as seeming to be “an actual product of such an encounter, an authentic pagan artifact.” Possibly my all-time favorite work of weird fiction.

3. The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood (1907)
Many consider this not only Blackwood’s masterpiece, but one of the finest pieces of supernatural fiction ever written, and with good reason. A chilling story inspired in part by a canoeing trip the author took through Eastern Europe in his youth, this is Blackwood the mystic at his very best as campers are menaced by a kind of indifferent, awe-inspiring cosmic force that tugs at the fabric of reality. Like most of my favorite horror stories, this blends a sense of wonder with its terror.

4. The Beckoning Fair One, by Oliver Onions (1911)
A classic tale of a writer’s obsession with a malevolent spirit in the guise of a beautiful woman, and his psychological disintegration under its spell.

5. The Colour Out of Space, by H.P. Lovecraft (1929)
This was a tough one; it might as easily have been, say, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" or "At the Mountains of Madness" or any number of favorite tales. Unlike a lot of readers who discovered Lovecraft in their teens and then outgrew his purple prose and hysterical narrators, I actually found him a bit turgid and dull when I was younger and with each passing year love his bleak, infernal, and awe-inspiring cosmology more and more. "The Colour Out of Space" is the story of an old farm where a meteorite’s landing precipitates the decay of both the land and the people on it, and while it doesn’t deal directly with the “mythos” (not a term Lovecraft himself used), it has the same feel as those stories in its suggestion of cosmic forces that dwarf mankind’s puny existence.

6. The Summer People, by Shirley Jackson (1950)
There are other Shirley Jackson stories that could also go here, but this is a perfect example of her strengths: a spare, brief story, consisting mainly of just a conversation between a husband and wife which ends on a dreadful note of doom.

7. A Good Man Is Hard To Find, by Flannery O’Connor (1951)
O’Connor is one of my favorite writers of all time, and The Misfit remains one of the most chilling human monsters in fiction. It’s the mundane details, the finely drawn characters, that make this story so nightmarishly effective.

8. Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier (1971)
Daphne Du Maurier’s sad and haunting story of a British couple who have gone to Italy in hopes of healing from the tragic death of their young daughter, only to encounter twin sisters, one a psychic with a enigmatic message, the meaning of which comes clear too late.

9. The Sentinels, by Ramsey Campbell (1973)
I wanted to put a Campbell story in here and I had a terrible time deciding which one; I chose this, about a group of young people who visit some standing stones, because of one very chilling, haunting, and memorable image which has remained with me for years. I am also very fond of Campbell’s erotic horror collection Scared Stiff (which has just been reprinted by TOR) and his early Lovecraft-inspired fiction; his short story collections are numerous and you can’t go far wrong with any of them.

10. Sticks, by Karl Edward Wagner (1974)
I first encountered Wagner’s "Sticks" as a young teenager, before reading any of the older pulp authors this pays homage to. As with so many of the authors on this list, it’s hard to choose a favorite Wagner, but this came first for me and ignited my imagination in untold ways. Some people have speculated that the weird stick bundles in this story were an inspiration for The Blair Witch Project. Karl Edward Wagner’s fiction meant an awful lot to me and his death of the untimeliest sort still breaks my heart.

11. The Mist, by Stephen King (1980)
A siege story (you’ve got me right there) during an apocalypse (if the siege didn’t get me, the apocalypse will) in which Lovecraftian-type monsters rip through a hole in reality and terrorize the world (now I’m in heaven). King is generally at his finest in the short or novella-length form, and this is one of his best works.

12. The Hospice, by Robert Aickman (1981)
One of Robert Aickman’s most enigmatic stories (and that’s saying something), this is hard to describe on the face of it—a man’s car breaks down and he’s forced to take a very strange night’s lodging in a place where things just are not right. Wonderfully, subtly unsettling, like always seeing something horrible just outside your range of vision.

13. The Great God Pan, by M. John Harrison (1988)
One of my favorite horror stories of all time became one of my favorite books ever, the extraordinary (and extraordinarily strange) The Course of the Heart, but first there was this chilling story about the repercussions of youthful “experiments” with the occult and adults trying without success to escape a tainted past.