1. "The Blue Lenses," by Daphne du Maurier
Today, Daphne du Maurier is best known for the novel Rebecca and the short story "The Birds," which formed the basis for a pair of excellent Alfred Hitchcock movies — but a closer look at her decades-spanning career yields plenty of lesser-known masterpieces. The terrifically unnerving "The Blue Lenses" is one such story. A woman emerges from a surgery designed to fix her eyesight, and discovers that the heads of all the people she knows have been replaced with the heads of animals. In the wrong hands, this story would be ludicrous. In du Maurier's, it's horrifying. Here's an excerpt:
She heard Nurse Brand's voice outside, and turned her head to watch the opening door.
"Well... are we happy once more?"
Smiling, she saw the figure dressed in uniform come into the room, bearing a tray, her glass of milk upon it. Yet, absurd, the head with the uniformed cap was not a woman's head at all. The thing bearing down at her was a cow .... a cow on a woman's body. The frilled cap was upon wide horns. The eyes were large and gentle, but cow's eyes, the nostrils broad and humid, and the way she stood there, breathing, was the way a cow stood placidly in pasture, taking the day as it came, content, unmoved.
"Feeling a bit strange?"
The laugh was a woman's laugh, a nurse's laugh, Nurse Brand's laugh, and she put the tray down on the cupboard beside the bed. The patient said nothing. She shut her eyes, then opened them again. The cow in the nurse's uniform was with her still.
2. "The Daemon Lover," by Shirley Jackson
"The Lottery" — which you probably read in high school English class — is such a unique and masterful short story that it has practically eclipsed the rest of Jackson's distinctly gothic output. But in addition to better-known novels like The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson penned well over 100 short stories during her career. Here's one example that's ripe for rediscovery: "The Daemon Lover," which was originally published in Woman's Home Companion in 1949. The cryptic tale follows a woman who awakens on her wedding day to discover that her husband-to-be has disappeared.
She had not slept well; from one-thirty, when Jamie left and she went lingeringly to bed, until seven, when she at last allowed herself to get up and make coffee, she had slept fitfully, stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream. She spent almost an hour over her coffee —they were to have a real breakfast on the way — and then, unless she wanted to dress early, had nothing to do. She washed her coffee cup and made the bed, looking carefully over the clothes she planned to wear, worried unnecessarily, at the window, over whether it would be a fine day. She sat down to read, thought that she might write a letter to her sister instead, and began, in her finest handwriting, "Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn't it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you'll see it's even stranger than that…"
3. "The Boogeyman," by Stephen King
It's not exactly groundbreaking to cite Stephen King as a brilliant writer of horror fiction — but with hundreds of published stories in his oeuvre, where can a new reader begin? "The Boogeyman," from King's 1978 collection Night Shift, is a tight, gripping chiller that will make anyone — but especially new parents — glance over their shoulder as they read.
"I came to you because I want to tell my story," the man on Dr Harper's couch was saying. The man was Lester Billings from Waterbury, Connecticut. According to the history taken from Nurse Vickers, he was twenty-eight, employed by an industrial firm in New York, divorced, and the father of three children. All deceased. "I can't go to a priest because I'm not a Catholic. I can't go to a lawyer because I haven't done anything to consult a lawyer about. All I did was kill my kids. One at a time. Killed them all."
4. "The Bloody Chamber," by Angela Carter
Recently reprinted in a gorgeous new 75th anniversary edition by Penguin, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber inspired an entire generation of fantasy/horror writers (including Kelly Link, who provides an effusive new introduction). The entire collection is well worth your time, but my favorite is the title story — a reimagined rendition of the already bloody "Bluebeard" that embraces the themes of obsession, violence, and sex that were always lurking in the fairy tale's darker corners.
I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon — lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother's apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
And I remember I tenderly imagined how, at this very moment, my mother would be moving slowly about the narrow bedroom I had left behind for ever, folding up and putting away all my little relics, the tumbled garments I would not need any more, the scores for which there had been no room in my trunks, the concert programmes I'd abandoned; she would linger over this torn ribbon and that faded photograph with all the half-joyous, half-sorrowful emotions of a woman on her daughter's wedding day. And, in the midst of my bridal triumph, I felt a pang of loss as if, when he put the gold band on my finger, I had, in some way, ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.
5. "The Red Tower," by Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti got a boost in mainstream recognition when True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto was accused of plagiarizing his distinctive voice for Matthew McConaughey's nihilistic monologues — but his name has long been revered among devotees of weird fiction. "The Red Tower," from his 2006 collection Teatro Grottesco, is as original as it is startlingly strange — a brief monologue about a nightmare place that would be totally inexplicable if the narrator didn't describe it with such straightforward confidence.
The ruined factory stood three stories high in an otherwise featureless landscape. Although somewhat imposing on its own terms, it occupied only the most unobtrusive place within the gray emptiness of its surroundings, its presence serving as a mere accent upon a desolate horizon. No road led to the factory, nor were there any traces of one that might have led to it at some time in the distant past. If there had ever been such a road it would have been rendered useless as soon as it arrived at one of the four, red-bricked sides of the factory, even in the days when the facility was in full operation. The reason for this was simple: no doors had been built into the factory, no loading docks or entranceways allowed penetration of the outer walls of the structure, which was solid brick on all four sides without even a single window below the level of the second floor. The phenomenon of a large factory so closed off from the outside world was a point of extreme fascination to me. It was almost with regret that I ultimately learned about the factory's subterranean access. But of course that revelation in its turn also became a source for my truly degenerate sense of amazement, my decayed fascination.
6. "The Pear-Shaped Man," by George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin's name will be forever linked with his masterpiece, Game of Thrones — but if you're tired of waiting for the next book to come out, why not give one of his other stories a try? "The Pear-Shaped Man" is a surreal story about a young woman who comes to fear that the grotesque man who lives in her apartment's basement has developed an obsession with her — a fear that gradually curdles into an obsession with him.
The Pear-shaped Man lives beneath the stairs. His shoulders are narrow and stooped, but his buttocks are impressively large. Or perhaps it is only the clothing he wears; no one has ever admitted to seeing him nude, and no one has ever admitted to wanting to. His trousers are brown polyester double knits, with wide cuffs and a shiny seat; they are always baggy, and they have big, deep, droopy pockets so stuffed with oddments and bric-a-brac that they bulge against his sides. He wears his pants very high, hiked up above the swell of his stomach, and cinches them in place around his chest with a narrow brown leather belt. He wears them so high that his drooping socks show clearly, and often an inch or two of pasty white skin as well.
His shirts are always short-sleeved, most often white or pale blue, and his breast pocket is always full of Bic pens, the cheap throwaway kind that write with blue ink. He has lost the caps or tossed them out, because his shirts are all stained and splotched around the breast pockets. His head is a second pear set atop the first; he has a double chin and wide, full, fleshy cheeks, and the top of his head seems to come almost to a point. His nose is broad and flat, with large, greasy pores; his eyes are small and pale, set close together. His hair is thin, dark, limp, flaky with dandruff; it never looks washed, and there are those who say that he cuts it himself with a bowl and a dull knife. He has a smell, too, the Pear-shaped Man; it is a sweet smell, a sour smell, a rich smell, compounded of old butter and rancid meat and vegetables rotting in the garbage bin. His voice, when he speaks, is high and thin and squeaky; it would be a funny little voice, coming from such a large, ugly man, but there is something unnerving about it, and something even more chilling about his tight, small smile. He never shows any teeth when he smiles, but his lips are broad and wet.
Of course you know him. Everyone knows a Pear-shaped Man.
7. "Click-clack the Rattlebag," by Neil Gaiman
In a literary era that sees the publication of far, far fewer short stories than in previous generations, we can thank Neil Gaiman for doing everything in his power to keep the medium alive. In addition to publishing his own collections, compiling other collections, and hosting live readings, he's a big enough name to get a story published by a major news organization — like The Telegraph, which ran his bump-in-the-night story "Click-clack the Rattlebag" earlier this year:
"Click-clacks,” said the boy, "are the best monsters ever.”
"Are they from television?”
"I don't think so. I don't think any people know where they come from. Mostly they come from the dark.”
"Good place for a monster to come.”
We walked along the upper corridor in the shadows, walking from patch of moonlight to patch of moonlight. It really was a big house. I wished I had a flashlight.
"They come from the dark,” said the boy, holding on to my hand. "I think probably they're made of dark. And they come in when you don't pay attention. That's when they come in. And then they take you back to their… not nests. What's a word that's like nests, but not?”
"No. It's not a house.”
He was silent. Then, "I think that's the word, yes. Lair.” He squeezed my hand. He stopped talking.
8. "Candle Cove," by Kris Straub
One of the most famous entries in the internet urban legend subgenre called "creepypasta," Kris Straub's "Candle Cove" brilliantly mimics the structure of a web forum thread for a story that's truly terrifying. Beginning as one of those mundane "Hey, remember the '90s?"-style posts you can find all over the internet, "Candle Cove" gets increasingly darker and more surreal as more "voices" chime in.
"Candle Cove" is brilliant in its brevity and simplicity, but it's also ripe for expansion, and fans have built up the original story with a mythology so elaborate that it requires its own wiki. There's even a SyFy TV show in the works, bringing the entire story full circle.
Subject: Candle Cove local kid's show?
Does anyone remember this kid's show? It was called Candle Cove and I must have been 6 or 7. I never found reference to it anywhere so I think it was on a local station around 1971 or 1972. I lived in Ironton at the time. I don't remember which station, but I do remember it was on at a weird time, like 4:00 PM.
Subject: Re: Candle Cove local kid's show?
it seems really familiar to me…..i grew up outside of ashland and was 9 yrs old in 72. candle cove…was it about pirates? i remember a pirate marionete at the mouth of a cave talking to a little girl
9. "Bongcheon-Dong Ghost," by HORANG
Already notorious among horror fans on the internet, "Bongcheon-Dong Ghost" is a webcomic so terrifying that it comes with a warning: "Reader discretion is advised for pregnant women, the elderly, and those suffering from serious medical conditions." Call that a gimmick if you like — but if you're skeptical, carve out five minutes of your life to read it. I'm certainly not going to spoil it for you.