Here we have our first lineup of eerie and altogether moody short stories, each one noteworthy in their own way. For the aspiring writer, reading them is like a flex of the muscles; for an obese writer is he who does not read.
One could read classic literature and all that good stuff, and one still should. Yet horror is often excluded from that category, possibly because horror is, as Stephen King noted, “…like Rock ‘n’ Roll: a quick bop to the head that makes you feel good.” But that hasn’t stopped some of literature’s finest celebrities from sinking to the level of this most irrelevant of genres. Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, and even Roald Dahl let their guard down to have a bit of fun. Poe did it full-time. Scholars hate to admit that he dug Horror, and so they made-up the term Gothic Literature, which is four syllables longer and less convenient to pronounce.
What does the P.D. in the title stand for for, you ask? Public Domain. All of these stories are free to the general public. I have linked each one to their respective text-in-full. But rather than eyeball the stories through your awfully bright screen, I would suggest something less harmful to the eyes, like Dark Room, by doing a simple copy-and-paste. And if you have an iPhone, I recommend importing the stories into a fine app like Stanza.
A routine errand to retrieve documents inside a lonely, derelict house takes an unexpected turn for the errand-runner.
This is a sharp little vignette that, if for no other merits, succeeds in relating what it is like to be irrationally frightened. Or maybe it is entirely rational. We have all felt, at some point, the presence of something beyond the spectrum of human sight. Some call it nerves; others call it ghost.
A newly wed young wife is terrified at the thought of being left alone at night. She married a widowed man whose previous wife succumbed to illness; on her deathbed, she made her husband promise not to fall in love with another woman. Now that promise has been broken.
For those who believe that J-horror evolved out of the film industry, this very brisk tale is a precursor. Less like its deliberate Western counterparts, it is light on pretension and quick to scare.
A man is offered an exotic prize from a friend who has returned from overseas. The prize? A monkey’s paw. While the friend claims that it will grant the user three wishes, he warns that it was created by a shaman who sought to prove that the universe is in perfect balance; thus each wish comes at a tragic price.
This is the classic of horror literature, reiterated and spoofed down the last century or so. It was the inspiration for a segment in The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror and even made it into a fantastic episode in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, albeit in the form of a loosely inspired retelling by Fritz Leiber (in my opinion).
Two middle-aged men meet outside a bar. The story recounts their youth together in medical school, where human dissection is a common assignment. They become entangled in a black market of murdered cadavers and grave robbing. As their acts grow more heinous, it begs the question of when—and how—their grotesque crimes will catch up to them.
Stevenson’s writing is surprisingly contemporary. By that I mean how he deals with the details of the story: these are nasty doings done by nasty people, all leading up to a nasty ending that caught me off guard.
An American couple buys a Victorian mansion in England and jokes with the seller if it has any ghosts, to which the seller replies:
“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.”
“That there’s a ghost, but that nobody knows it’s a ghost?”
“Well — not till afterward, at any rate.”
“Not till long, long afterward…”
And so begins a slow, dreary tale of husband-and-wife that doesn’t seem to go anywhere for half its length. But that’s the point, precisely the point, I tell you. Because you don’t find out till…a long, long time afterward.
An aged professor departs for Assyria. He informs his young apprentice that, since he was a boy, he has had dreams of a stone tablet; and on this tablet was written the true purpose of mankind in the universe. Months pass. In time the professor returns. He tells his apprentice that he had indeed discovered the tablet; that he found out the true purpose of mankind, and that he has been disturbed by it ever since.
No doubt the mystery of the tablet is the seller of this piece. What was inscribed? Mr. Algernon Blackwood, conjurer of earthly dread, withholds it till the very end; then deals with it in such restraint to mirror the most subtle and intellectual of filmmakers.
When a record flood engulfs Vermont, newspapers report sightings of jelly-like forms floating down the currents. Wilmarth is skeptical of the sightings, but he is countered by letters from Ackeley, who lives in a remote Vermont townhouse and swears that the sightings are genuine. Thus begins a correspondence, with Ackeley’s letters indicating a desperate plight: he claims that secretive beings dwell in nearby hills, and that his guard dogs are found dead the morning after, evidence of nightly intruders.
This is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. It is light on Mythos and allocates time to proper plotting: we get the slow-to-burn sensation that this letter after letter affair is going to climax into something unexpected. And it does. Bizarre and altogether disconcerting.
A man awakens from a sweaty dream—something about hearing footsteps in the floor above—and finds himself back inside the abandoned plantation house where he and his friend chose to spend the night for shelter. When his friend arises in the dark, as if in a sleepwalk, and ascends the stairs into darkness, the man is shocked to hear a second set of footsteps from the floor above.
I have only touched the surface of what happens in this story. There’s voodoo, a mystery, and a Hitchcockian “wrong man” scenario all at play here. It is also crisply written. Howard’s taming of language sustains an atmosphere of palpable pulp: the dream sequences are particularly strong. As in real life, the true nightmare lies in the ambiguity of being asleep and not knowing when to pinch yourself.
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So there you have it; eight different stories from eight different writers, some writing decades apart from the other. I doubt each story will be for everybody, the way I doubt “2001: A Space Odyssey” is for everybody. It is not a question of quality—as I consider all of these stories to be worthy of a read—more so than it is a question of preference. And century-old “Gothic Literature” might be pushing it for some folks. So for those who can digest it, more power to you.