As the big day approaches there are some of you–yeah, I’m looking at you–who still haven’t done anything to celebrate. And while it’s still possible for you to catch a movie or two, time is running short for any literary outings. But fear not! Well, do fear, but only in the Halloween way. I digress. Some of the best horror fiction comes in the short story form. Here are five short stories that are guaranteed to satisfy your need for some thrills and chills this season.
Mourning House by Ronald Malfi: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. I talk about this one all the time. But I can’t help it. I love it. A haunted house story to reinvigorate haunted house stories, Malfi is a master and this is a wonderful introduction to his work. Hard to find these days, but do whatever it takes to track it down.
The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood: A true classic, I was shamefully unaware of this story until very recently, and I put it on the top of my Halloween reading list a few years ago. Magic, unnerving, spooky, “The Wendigo” holds up amazingly well despite being over a hundred years old. Available for free at the link above, I would advise buying the audiobook narrated by Felbrigg Napoleon Herriot. And yes, it’s every bit as good as that name would suggest. Listen to it, and then you too can say that you have seen the Wendigo.
The Statement of Randolph Carter by H.P. Lovecraft: I could have put a dozen or more of Lovecraft’s stories in this space, but I wanted to share with you the one that first hooked me on his writing, and my sentimental favorite of his ever since. There is a purity to this story–of horror, of plot, of the final haunting words–that make it one of Lovecraft’s most evocative stories. Check it out, and then let me know your favorite.
The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers: The story that, as part of a quartet of works mentioning that enigmatic work, The King in Yellow, introduced us all to a world of madness and insanity that continues to inspire artists of every stripe. Read it, but beware the yellow sign!
And a bonus: Nine Yards of Other Cloth by Manly Wade Wellman: The best story by a legend of horror that few know, this story is as melodic as a song and as haunting as the voice of a long lost lover. It introduced me to John the Balladeer and Wellman. Now it’s your turn.
A great first line can make a book, and the inability to come up with one has stopped more than a few writers from every getting on with the rest of the story. Here, I present to you some of my favorites (and some of them are more like first paragraphs). Leave yours in the comments.
So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand’s box that he didn’t hear the great bell begin to ring. — The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. — Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead. — John Dies at the End by David Wong.
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. — I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe. — The Fisherman by John Langan
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. — Carrie by Stephen King
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous. — The Picture in the House by H.P. Lovecraft
A considerable number of hunting parties were out that year without finding so much as a fresh trail; for the moose were uncommonly shy, and the various Nimrods returned to the bosoms of their respective families with the best excuses the facts of their imaginations could suggest. — The Wendigoby Algernon Blackwood
You could argue–as I have more than enough times, as part of my Film History lecture–that, no matter its actual narrative content, every movie is a ghost story. — Experimental Film by Gemma Files
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. — The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Lovecraft has inspired artists for generations, but he’s yet to inspire any truly great films. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sure, there are no big budget blockbusters dedicated to Cthulhu, but if you know where to look, there are some real gems. Here, I’ve brought together four you may or may not have heard of.
OK, you almost certainly have heard about this one. Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator remains the best known, most beloved of the movies inspired by the old gentleman of Providence. More funny than it is scary and with iconic performances by Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting on?
The Call of Cthulhu
It’s crazy to think that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society started off because some guys who loved Lovecraft got together on a whim and started acting out his stories. One of their first great productions was a 1920s style silent version of Lovecraft’s most famous work, and it is great. Even if Hollywood did try, the probably wouldn’t make a better version of Call than this.
The Whisperer in Darkness
The HPLHS didn’t rest on their laurels, though. They continue to churn out high quality products inspired by Lovecraft at a dizzying pace. From radio programs to rock operas to underwear, they have it all. But The Whisperer in Darkness is one of their best. This time, the company went with a full-length feature film. Black and white and set in the thirties, the movie is faithful to the original story and well worth the watch.
Dreams in the Witch House
A few years ago, Showtime gathered some of the greatest horror directors of all time and gave them an hour to do whatever they wanted. The result were some of the greatest short(ish) horror films ever made. John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns and the incomparable Takashi Miike’s Imprint–so disturbing Showtime wouldn’t even run it–were my favorites. But one of the best films was done by Stuart Gordon–Dreams in the Witch House. Witch House is not the best of Lovecraft’s work, but the film version changed my perspective on the underappreciated story. Now, it’s nothing compared to the epic rock opera put out by HPLHS, but it’s a good place to start.
The following was first published in Dark Discoveries magazine.
Let’s set the scene. Archaeologists, stumbling through an unknown jungle, come upon a lost city of great antiquity. It’s complexity and size seems beyond the capability of the local peoples, and carved into its sides are ancient glyphs. Their meaning cannot be precisely discerned, but they seem to hint at gods who descended from the stars and built the city. Not only that, but they left a promise to return one day, when the time is right.
Now the question: H.P. Lovecraft story? Or an episode of the History Channel’s hit show, Ancient Aliens? Not an easy question, is it?
If you’re not sure of the answer, don’t feel too bad. The similarities between the Cthulhu mythos and the Ancient Astronaut Theory are so strong as to defy mere coincidence.
That’s the position taken at least by Jason Colavito in his scholarly work, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. Colavito offers an engrossing, if thoroughly skeptical, history of what has come to be known as the Ancient Alien or Ancient Astronaut Theory. For those unfamiliar with the cable program and the works of theorists like Erich Anton Paul von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin, the Ancient Alien Theory posits that deep in the shrouded mist of our planet’s distant past, Earth was visited by extraterrestrials. The details can vary depending on who’s telling the story, but these ETs played a significant role in mankind’s development. Some adherents claim that human beings are a creation of an advanced race whose mastery of genetic engineering allowed them to create homo sapiens out of some lower form of life. Essentially, it’s Intelligent Design with aliens instead of God, or the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That’s the most extreme view. The slightly less all-encompassing—but still pretty extreme in of itself—tack is that these creatures found primitive man at some very early stage of civilization. Following the maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic, these primitive peoples took alien visitors for gods, basing all of the world’s mythologies on their visitations. As a corollary, the aliens acted in the role of Prometheus, giving unto early man knowledge that should have taken centuries or even thousands of years to develop. In this way, aliens were directly responsible for the construction of many of the world’s wonders. And when they left, they promised that one day they would return.
That’s the Ancient Alien Theory in a nutshell, and Colavito’s recitation of it adds little to what we already know. But Colavito goes well beyond simply describing the views of others. Instead, he digs beneath those views to find their underpinnings, developing a fascinating theory of his own, particularly for any fan of weird fiction. The Ancient Alien Theory isn’t grounded in archaeological anomalies or seemingly impossible cities or monuments. For Colavito, the entire Ancient Alien craze has none other than H.P. Lovecraft to thank for its creation.
I’ll let you read Colavito’s book and examine the evidence, but I’ll tell you that it is quite convincing. Nevertheless, his is a bold claim, and an ironic one, too. Lovecraft was, if nothing else, a dedicated materialist and rationalist. The kind of pseudoscience that the Ancient Alien Theory relies on would have struck him as nothing less than silly. Mystical dream quests, ancient beings from the stars, and tomes of magical incantations were useful plot devices for fiction, but to believe they could be real? Not Lovecraft.
But while Lovecraft might have scoffed at the claims of Giorgio Tsoukalos, were he alive today, we can be sure that they would find their way into his fiction. Whatever the truth of Colavito’s thesis and whatever one believes about the truth or absurdity of the Ancient Alien Theory, there can be little doubt that Lovecraft and weird fiction in general have long capitalized on the notion that there is something beyond our world and that at some point we have been visited by creatures from beyond the stars. One of the most famous passages from Lovecraft’s seminal “The Call of Cthulhu” so perfectly encapsulates the Ancient Astronaut Theory that it is little wonder Colavito and others trace that theory back to Lovecraft.
Old Castro remembered bits of hideous legend that paled the speculations of theosophists and made man and the world seem recent and transient indeed. There had been aeons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them, he said the deathless Chinamen had told him, were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific. They all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought Their images with Them.
Lovecraft goes on to speak of great Cthulhu himself, explaining that he had also come from the stars, to rule the earth. But at some point in the distant past, things went wrong. Lovecraft never explains how or why the Great Old Ones lost dominion over the earth, but lose it they did. Locked in the dark places of this world, on the highest mountains and in the deepest canyons, or simply far beneath the waves, they await the moment of their return.
This is the central idea at the heart of all of Lovecraft’s best and most sophisticated stories. Not only ancient visits, but something left behind. Something that could invade the dreams of men, that defied the settled expectations of life, the truth of which would drive men mad were it known. He revisits this motif again and again, from “The Nameless City” to “The Shadow out of Time.” Something has been here before. And always the promise of return.
The casual observer might think that it is on this point of “return” where Lovecraft and the Ancient Alien Theorists would go their separate ways. After all, the former believe extraterrestrials to be benevolent beings, while the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft care nothing for mankind and will likely wipe us from the face of the earth as an afterthought. This view is widely accepted dogma by Lovecraft aficionados, but interestingly, that’s not exactly how Lovecraft paints it. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” he writes of the Great Old Ones return,
That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom. Meanwhile the cult, by appropriate rites, must keep alive the memory of those ancient ways and shadow forth the prophecy of their return.
That’s actually not all that different from what Ancient Alien Theorists claim will happen when the extraterrestrials return. It’s darker and more violent—Lovecraft was a horror writer after all—but let’s break down the basic components. The ETs won’t return until mankind becomes like them, perhaps achieving a technological level where they would be viewed as simply more advanced rather than gods. They will then teach mankind new things that heretofore could not have been imagined, ushering in a new age.
Call it fact or accept it as fiction, but it’s hard not to see the connections. And one wonders why mankind is so drawn to this notion of an outside power, meddling in our affairs, bringing us towards the light, or threatening our destruction.
Maybe Lovecraft was more right than he ever could have known.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times–we are living in the golden age of horror. And as we leave the teens behind and enter the 20s (yeah, it’s weird that decades start on the 1), what better time than now to take a look back on five of the very best movies of the 2010s.
In no particular order…
It Follows (2014)
Horror movies have often had something to say about our society’s sexual mores, but its rare to have a full on allegory for sexually transmitted disease. But that’s what we get in It Follows. Though it’s far more compelling than I just made it sound, promise.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
It’s likely you’ve never heard of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s time to remedy that. The only movie on this list you’ll have to read to watch, Girl tells the story of an Iranian vampire trying to make it in the modern world. Every scene is brilliant and beautiful all at once.
The Babadook (2014)
What can I say? 2014 was a good year. Now that I have a child of my own, the true horror of The Babadookhits me with its full force. The movie is frightening, regardless of your place in life, with the kind of rising, creeping horror that I’ve always loved. But the true horror is in raising your kids, in seeing your own youth fade away, in hoping that you are doing right by them, and feeling every day that you are failing. Bleak man, I know.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
When you go meta, you never know if it’s going to work out. Loving references and homages can slip into parody in an unskilled hand, but there’s nothing to worry about here. Cabin in the Woodsis a near perfect movie, with innumerable references to classic horror. It never drifts into parody, and it is always loving in its treatment of the genre. Is it a little bleak? Yes, yes it it. Do we end up rooting for the world to end? Yes, yes we do. But 2011 was a dark time. Fortunately, everything is better now.
Get Out (2017)
I say no particular order, but Get Outmay be my favorite movie of the last ten years. The best horror films often have a message, and Get Out is no different, skewering race relations in America in a way that will make you squirm, no matter what your political persuasion. But this is not a movie that preaches at you while you roll your eyes and wait for something horrific to happen. Get Out is creepy from the word go, and it never lets up. Not just one of the best horror movies of the decade. One of the best horror movies ever made.
The eternal fight between vampires and werewolves, played out across bad movies, tween books, and graphic novels. We had a day dedicated to the best songs about vampires. Now let’s hear it for the werewolves.
A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard by Jeremy Messersmith
I’m probably cheating a little bit here, as “A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard” isn’t really about werewolves, but the video is. And it’s a great song anyway, so check it out.
Wolf Like Me by TV on the Radio/Lera Lynn
More on point is “Wolf Like Me.” Not only is the song about werewolves, the video is a veritable short film on the subject. And also a bonus video of the cover by Lera Lynn. Less creepy but way more sexy, it’s like listening to a completely different song.
Little Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
Not as obviously about werewolves, but a talking wolf that eats little girls in red coats? Sounds like one to me.
Friends, it’s been a rough year, both the longest and the shortest of our lives. But if you’re reading this, we made it. October is here. Who knows how the lingering COVID-19 pandemic will affect us. Maybe there will be fewer parties, less candy, and a subdued Halloween. Maybe we’ll be stuck inside all month, watching horror movies and reading scary books, which doesn’t sound half bad. But whatever happens, we are in this together. Every day this month, I’ll be offering up horrific treats for you, my loyal readers. Some old, some new, all spooky. So gather around and join in. But whatever you do, stay inside the light.