Stephen Jones, editor of the new anthology A Book of Horrors, is the multiple-award-winning editor and author of more than one hundred books in the horror and fantasy genres. Here, he gives us his 10 favorite horror stories.
I suspect like many other writers and editors in my genre, I sometimes lay awake at night constructing the perfect horror anthology in my mind.
Constructing a good anthology is not an easy thing—an editor not only has to worry about which authors and their stories to select, but also how to put the book together, so that the stories “flow”. You don’t want to have two stories with similar themes next to each other, and you need to vary the word-lengths and styles so that you retain the reader’s interest throughout.
1. “A Warning to the Curious” by M.R. James - No horror anthology would be complete without a contribution by that English master of supernatural fiction, M. (Montague) R. (Rhodes) James (1862-1936). The Cambridge Provost invented the modern ghost story as we know it, replacing the Gothic horrors of the previous century with more contemporary settings and subtle terrors. Although his tales have been much imitated, they have never been surpassed, and amongst the very best is ‘A Warning to the Curious’ which, with its cursed object and doomed protagonist, perfectly exemplifies everything that is memorable about the author’s fiction.
2. “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft - Next comes that dean of cosmic horror, H. (Howard) P. (Phillips) Lovecraft (1890-1937). A life-long antiquarian and resident of Providence, Rhode Island, most of his work appeared in the cheaply-produced pulp magazines that he despised. Best remembered for his creation of the much-imitated “Cthulhu Mythos”, his tales of ancient and unimaginable creatures that sought to reclaim the Earth are as powerful today as when they were first written. The author’s key story in this sequence, ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ contains all the elements that set Lovecraft’s half-glimpsed horrors apart from most other contributors to the “pulps”.
3. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch - Best known as the author of the original novel that Alfred Hitchcock based his 1960 movie Psycho on, Robert Bloch (1917-94) was equally at home writing supernatural or psychological horror fiction. In his later years he became a much-respected film and TV scriptwriter in Hollywood, but his stories also appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’ skillfully combines both of the author’s fictional styles while casting the historical serial killer as an immortal being. Bloch returned to the “Ripper” theme a number of times, not least for his memorable Star Trek script, ‘Wolf in the Fold’.
4. “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner - Although not a contemporary disciple of Lovecraft’s like Robert Bloch was, big, bearded Southerner Karl Edward Wagner (1945-94) was one of the finest modern writers of horror fiction (as well as heroic fantasy), who died at a ridiculously young age. Also an esteemed critic and editor (with his own Year’s Best Horror anthology series), Wagner’s British Fantasy Award-winning story ‘Sticks’ was a chilling tribute not only to pulp magazine illustrator Lee Brown Coye, but also to the type of cosmic horror that Lovecraft popularized in his own fiction.
5. “The Chimney” by Ramsey Campbell - Ramsey Campbell (b. 1946) started his career as a teenager writing pastiches of Lovecraft, but soon developed his own style of urban horror, based around his home city of Liverpool. Aptly described by the Oxford Companion to English Literature as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer,” Campbell has produced a prolific number of novels and short stories, with most of his work falling into the category of “best in genre”. Choosing a favorite would difficult—there are just so many—but I would go for the World Fantasy Award-winning ‘The Chimney’, one of the creepiest Christmas horror stories I’ve ever read, given an extra poignant twist by the author’s own childhood experiences.
6. “One for the Road” by Stephen King - No list of favorite horror stories would be complete without something by Stephen King (b. 1947), who has arguably been the most successful horror writer of the past four decades. As much as I love his contribution to A Book of Horrors (the final sentence is a killer), I would probably go for his story ‘One for the Road’, a coda-of-sorts to the author’s mega-vampire novel Salem’s Lot. King’s writing style has always been deceptively simple, which allows the horror in his stories to come through loud and clear. Here it is given an extra poignancy by the fate of the family the two old-timers set out to rescue during a blizzard.
7. “The Dark Country” by Dennis Etchison - In my opinion, one of the greatest American short story writers—in any genre—is Californian Dennis Etchison (b. 1943). A lot less prolific than he once was, like King he began publishing in the late 1960s/early 1970s, producing some remarkably lean and disturbing short stories, along with novels and screenplays. Having accompanied him South of the Border on a number of occasions, I would select Etchison’s World Fantasy Award-winning ‘The Dark Country’—not a horror story per se, but one of the best “stranger in strange lands” stories I have ever read. I only wish he would write more these days.
8. “Dance of the Dead” by Richard Matheson - Although widely regarded as a science fiction writer, Richard Matheson (b. 1926) has published in most genres. I have no hesitation in claiming him as a horror author—if only for his novels such as I Am Legend and Hell House, or his quartet of Shock! collections. Like his friend and contemporary Robert Bloch, Matheson also has the ability to add a psychological twist to his darker tales. I guess ‘Dance of the Dead’ is SF due to its futuristic setting, but with its experimental style and grim subject matter, it wouldn’t be out of place in any horror anthology.
9. “The Man Who Drew Cats” by Michael Marshall Smith - A natural successor to both King and Matheson’s lean writing style is British author Michael Marshall Smith (b. 1965), who has gone on to publish a number of successful crime novels under the not-so-secret pseudonym “Michael Marshall.” He won the British Fantasy Award for his first short story, ‘The Man Who Drew Cats,’ which I had the pleasure of originally publishing in an early 1990s anthology. Shamelessly inspired by the author’s love of Stephen King’s work, with its effortless narrative and nasty twist ending the story could easily have come from the imagination of that writer. As it happens, it turned out to be pure Michael Marshall Smith, and he has gone on to become one of the most accomplished short story writers of his generation.
10. “Homecoming” / “The October People” / “Uncle Einar” by Ray Bradbury - Like his friend Richard Matheson, most people probably think of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) as a science fiction writer as well. And they would not be wrong in that assessment. But while, as a young man, Bradbury was cutting his teeth in the SF pulp magazines, he was also contributing an equal number of tales to such periodicals as Weird Tales. To read Bradbury is to read imaginative prose at its very best. His fiction can transport you to other worlds or far futures, or just as easily bring you back to Earth with a shudder and a bump (in the night). I would recommend his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes to any young reader as an introduction to the horror genre, and I adore his stories about the Eternal Family—a sort of literary precursor to The Addams Family and The Munsters. Collected together in From the Dust Returned, these stories are in turns lyrical, poignant and chilling. I would recommend ‘Homecoming,’ or ‘The October People,’ or ‘Uncle Einar’. Take your pick—they are all as wonderful as each other.
So there you have it—perhaps not “perfect”, but ten superb tales by some of the greatest horror writers ever; and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I see now that, coincidentally, four of my choices are also contributors to A Book of Horrors, and that there are no women writers on the list. Of course, in another time or another place, such a selection may be totally different.
And that is the fascination to me of this genre that I have worked in now for around forty years—there are just so many authors and stories to choose from, with modern “classics” being added to the canon every year, that there is always new material for the discerning reader and anthology editor to discover.
So if any of the above writers or stories are new to you, then I hope these short appraisals will help you to go out and discover them for yourself . . .