The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs is a masterpiece of brevity, suspense and sheer dread. It’s about ten pages long depending on type-size (quite small in most compendiums, which is where you’re likely to find it). In a way it’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein boiled down to that story’s essentials. In another it’s the perfect justification of the saying, Be Careful What You Wish For. It’s one of the great horror stories, hasn’t aged a day and is essential reading if you like your scares reaching clammily for you from beyond the grave.
This is a festive round-up and you can’t really celebrate Christmas in literary terms without a contribution from the man who more or less invented our classic Christmas traditions, Charles Dickens. The Signal-Man is very short fiction by his standards and given how loquacious he could be, very economically written. It’s atmospheric, tense and genuinely creepy. The railway was still a bit of a novelty in Dickens’ lifetime and its use here is therefore ingenious and modern and his telling of the tale is almost cinematic. This story has been effectively filmed numerous times. Highly recommended.
You can’t recommend ghost stories very comprehensively and leave out M.R. James, the absolute master of short-form terror. He was consistently brilliant at bringing discomfort and unease to his readers. It’s the scholarly detail that makes his hauntings and apparitions so convincing, but he was also a master of character and atmosphere. His cast of austere academics bumble and fumble their way into trouble. You can feel that chilly fog raising goose-bumps on your skin. Here, I’m going for Casting the Runes, which I think is among the very best two or three uncanny tales he ever penned.
Still with short stories, I’m recommending Daphne du Maurier’s The Apple Tree. Obviously, she is more celebrated for Rebecca, her great novel of romantic suspense. But she was a very capable short-form writer and this is a ghost story that stays with the reader long after the final sentence has been digested. Du Maurier pays proper attention to creating rounded characters. No one in her stories is a stereotype or mere cipher. This story is concise and original and has an impact wholly out of proportion to it’s length. This one will haunt you (in a good way) for quite a while. There. You’ve been given fair warning.
If you’re going to go long, you might as well go epic, which is a characteristic of the American novelist Dan Simmons. His novel The Terror skilfully combines authentic historical events involving real people, with Inuit mythology, in a very effective way. His writing isn’t particularly economical, but here the word volume works to the tale’s advantage because the sheer accumulation of detail makes the story all the more convincing. And he makes you genuinely sympathetic to the bleak and gruesome plight of his characters. This has just been made into a Ridley Scott produced TV series. Watch that, but read the book first.
Also at novel length, I’d strongly recommend Syd Moore’s Witch Hunt, which is set in the present day and has an Essex-Girl heroine with a fondness for white wine. She’s winningly fallible and thoroughly modern. It’s difficult to scare readers without a few period trappings, because the supernatural is more convincing in the past that the present. A haunted abbey or castle is always going to be scarier than a haunted bungalow. Syd Moore rises to the challenge with panache, producing a story here with humour, tension and some genuine scares. And she takes the trouble to create a central character you care about.
Finally and immodestly I’m going to recommend a novella of my own – because this is the season of giving and if you go to fgcottam.com you can download this one for free. The Going and the Rise is the story of a dream home that becomes a nightmare for its creator. It is set on present-day Wight and features an old secret, an elderly spectre and an incipient case of possession. It also marks the debut in my fiction of the female character central to my most recently completed novel, to be published in May of next year. If you like her, you’ll like that. Merry Christmas!
We hope you’ve enjoyed our 2017 Christmas Round-Up. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all, and we’ll see you in 2018.