Horror fiction is often at its best when you down it in one shot instead of nursing it like a beer. Short stories are ideal for a genre that benefits from leaving things unsaid. It took Twilight Zone less than thirty minutes to sink a barb. Stephen King didn’t need a thousand pages to freak you out with a story about a laundry machine that eats people, an astonaut who grows eyeballs in his hand, or beer than turns people into a fungus. So in the interest of time, let us recommend for you a couple of our favorite short form masters.
After the jump, this won’t take long
Chris Hornbostel: Cold Hand In Mine, by Robert Aickman
One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes has a subplot where Elaine tries to deal with a bad breaker-upper. Seems as if the guy she’s been set up with is constantly being stabbed, slapped, or having hot coffee thrown in his face, and all because when breaking up with former girlfriends, he knows exactly what to say to truly set them off. British horror writer Robert Aickman is the horror fiction equivalent of the bad breaker-upper. No, you wont want to stab his books or throw them across the room…but you will realize with some alarm that Aickman possesses a unique faculty for getting under your skin. His stories invade your psyche and stir things up. They create a sense of unease and creeping fright that few, if any writers can match. He is easily my favorite writer of short form horror fiction ever.
His collection, Cold Hand In Mine, is Aickman at the height of his powers. It contains some of his very best work, from an award-winning vampire tale (“Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal”) to what are now recognized as two of Aickman’s best and most unsettling stories (“The Same Dog” and “The Hospice”). First published in the mid 1970s, the anthology went out of print shortly before Aickman died at age 66 in 1981. It remained out of print for decades, with paperback editions eventually fetching hundreds of dollars on auction sites. Thanks to being championed by modern horror auteurs like Neil Gaiman and Mark Gatiss, Aickman is enjoying a bit of a rediscovery these days and his anthologies are all once again back in print, including Cold Hand.
To really appreciate Aickman, it’s necessary to understand his understated approach to the horror short story. For starters, he personally seemed ambivalent about the use of the word horror, instead preferring to call his works “strange stories,” a label that fits them well. His writing style feels almost stately, rooted in a very proper 19th century British style, even though most of his works come from the 1960s and ’70s. And, like Thomas Ligotti, Aickman largely eschews Stephen King-like grand-but-tidy endings. Aickman wont hold your hand when he wraps a story up; instead he lays it all out, shrugs and walks away from the campfire, leaving you to work out the horrific implications for yourself.
At their best, the stories in Cold Hand In Mine worm their way into your consciousness and ratchet up the tension almost imperceptibly until they create an almost physical unease. In his deliberate, mannered prose he spins tales here that at times feel like well-earned jump scares. We know, for instance, that something is very wrong at the country inn in “The Hospice”, but what? We dread the appearance of the yellow mongrel in “The Same Dog”, but why? These stories exist as terror-based Twilight Zone episodes where we can see that something scary is coming, but can’t quite work out how until Aickman springs the trap. The endings of these stories are left for the mind of the reader to work out. They’re never open-ended, but rather ask you to stop and consider what it is you’ve just read. Did that really happen? Did that story really mean to go there? And if it did, that means…(and then comes the shudder.)
While the meticulous plotting and ingenious plucking of our sub-conscious fear strings are reasons to read Aickman, what lifts him to the top of the pantheon is his obvious writing skill and devotion to his craft. To be sure, Robert Aickman had the kind of Victorian-era style fixation that can easily drag down the stories of other writers (cough, Lovecraft, cough). But here, Aickman’s clearest influence in style is a more crowd-pleasing author like Dickens. Aickman steers clear of excessively florid prose nonsense in his writing, and most of his stories have a modern setting, unashamed of sensual, even erotic overtones. Think Dickens, then perhaps, but think Dickens living in 1960s swinging London and utterly fascinated by it. You don’t need to be a style aficionado to appreciate Aickman though. His strange stories succeed on much deeper levels. These are wonderfully disquieting, disorienting tales, narratives that take you to a place of fear without you realizing fully how you ended up there.
Cold Hand in Mine is available in digital, physical, and audiobook formats from Amazon.
Tom Chick: Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
One of my favorite short story writers is Thomas Ligotti, who I discovered when True Detective writer Nick Pizzoletto was accused of plagiarizing him. He didn’t, technically, but it was enough to make a fella wonder what sort of Italian opera composer might have inspired True Detective’s homespun nihilism. Because there’s no way you can see the name Ligotti and not assume he’s an opera composer, right? He probably composed some obscure 18th century opera with a name like Il Tutti della Faerie Rezzo.
But, nope, as far as I know, Thomas Ligotti has never composed an opera. He’s a short story writer, and a distinct one at that. Ligotti’s first two collections are published in a single paperback by Penguin Classics. It doesn’t even have its own name. It’s just the name of the two collections: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Which is confusing enough. Are these Grimscribe’s songs, too? Are Grimscribe and Dead Dreamer singing a duet? Maybe he is an opera composer. Looking through the table of contents, you’ll see that Grimscribe is its own section with its own chapters, with their own subchapters. It might even be part two of the book. From the organization of the table of contents, you might think this is a novel, or maybe epic poetry, or some antiquated Elizabethan dramatic structure. Who knows why they’re arranged the way they’re arranged, but surely there’s a reason. Right?
Although Ligotti sometimes dips his toe into a shared universe (paging Dr. Thoss!) and sometimes makes no bones about his Lovecraftian inspiration, these stories are almost entirely self-contained morsels, and part of my fascination with them is how they’re organized. Are they even related? Why are some of them under certain headings? For instance, a section of Dreams for Sleepwalkers, one of the Songs for Dead Dreamers, is called The Nyctalops Trilogy. What does this hierarchy of songs and dreams and a trilogy within them mean? How does it unite these three stories? What is a Nyctalops?
The three stories of this embedded trilogy are all told from the perspective of some sort of psychic socio-psycho-sexual predator, but they’re not the same person. I don’t even think they’re in the same time period (two of the stories are modern, but the second seems to be set in a 19th century ballroom). Each story has the uncomfortable subtext of using women as puppets or vessels. But the language is different in each story. The second story is as florid as a 19th centure ballroom. The first story consists only of the narrator’s dialogue to his victim. Not that she’s silent. She’s talking to him, but her dialogue isn’t part of the story. The text consists only of what he’s saying. It’s as if the narrator feels her comments don’t merit being included.
But then you get through The Nyctalops Trilogy to the last entry in the Dreams for Sleepwalkers section. It’s called Notes on the Writing of Horror. Hmm, like an afterword? Ligotti’s brief equivalent of Stephen King’s On Writing? He starts holding forth about how to write a horror story, but oh, wait, it turns out there’s something else going on entirely. How meta. Why is this closing the Dreams for Sleepwalkers?
The overall sense is that this collection of shrewd stories is arranged by some weird alien intelligence. If you’ll pardon the sacrilege, it’s almost like the reading the Bible. Here is a bunch of ancient mythology, here is a some historical drama, here are some social activists long before their time, here is some poetry with even a secret touch of porn, here’s an over-the-top hagiography, here are these letters passed around among sects in Ancient Rome, here is some dude’s fever dream. Okay, stack ’em up, wrap ’em in a single volume, and roll the presses on the Greatest Stories Ever Told.
Not to say that Ligotti feels scattered or random. There’s too much intelligence here for it to be merely haphazard. He has too distinct a voice. Each story is on firm footing. And speaking of footing, I should tell you they’re not particularly nimble. Ligotti’s prose is like a mouthful of dense word cake. Lots of flavor in there, but halfway through, you might regret cutting off such a big piece. But since kids use Halloween to gorge on sweets, why can’t adults?
Get Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe from Amazon. Do it.
Tomorrow: no genre for old men
Making October Scare Again starts here.