It could get creepy this Christmas…

Everyone likes a dark tale and now is the time to enjoy a scary yarn or two. Chase reporter ANTONY CLAY serves up a helping of horror

NOW that the nights are long and dark it seems somehow fitting that ghost stories are traditionally told.

Tales of spectral phastasms, swooping bats in the belfry, unaccountable rap rap rappings and items moved by unseen hands, dark beasties in darker corners and something really really terrible down in the cellar have traditionally been told around an open fire over this season.

Indeed, ghost story writer M R James used to write a spooky tale to tell his students at Christmas and ofcourse Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a main staple of the festive season.

So, here is a guide to what you might like to read to give you a chill down your spine as the wind howls outside and a door somewhere in the house begins to creak.

M R James, as mentioned above, is a great place to start. Personally, I think he is the best writer of ghost stories and supernatural fiction. He also has the distinct advantage of only writing short stories so you can dip in and out of his works without committing long periods of time.

He has the knack of a great horror writer of taking the reader along by the hand, drawing him in and then, pow, knocking the poor soul for six with a sudden action or powerful phrase. M R James is a genius at unnerving.

A rather academic Cambridge don, M R James was probably the most unlikely purveyor of literary terror that you could imagine. He was a believer in the status quo and not delving into those areas beyond our ken, which is exactly what his characters do and come a cropper.

You can buy various collections of his short stories but the tales to go out of your way to read are Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, The Mezzotint, A View from a Hill and A Warning to the Curious.

There are other superb short story writers such as Edith Wharton and Ambrose Bierce that are worth checking out too, as is the distinctly bizarre world of H P Lovecraft, an odd and sometimes controversial writer with a distinct take on the weird.

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is usually told on TV as a cosy story for all ages but it is at its heart a rather bleak tale of cruelty, revenge and redemption which just happens to take place at Christmas. A man haunted by his own guilt, loneliness and greed is a strange person to feel sorry for but Dickens is a master at manipulating his readers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are also popular horror tales. Even though the stories have regularly been told on the silver screen and people think they know them, it is worth reading the books nonetheless. This is particularly so with Frankenstein where the various films starring Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee vary significantly from the actual novel. Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster says nothing but you can hardly shut the one in the novel up. It’s a very different tale in print.

Edgar Allen Poe is also well-known, for his poem The Raven and for tales such as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Masque of the Red Death.

Horror writing has become more niche in recent decades, it seems to me, Perhaps the growth of science has made mysteries almost a thing of the past, although to compensate many modern horror tales have dealt with the terrors unleashed by technology rather than unseen and ungodly forces.

Lots of early literature has mystery and uncontrollable malevolence at its heart. Beowulf, from the seventh century, is basically a horror story and other classics like The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser and Dante’s Inferno feature creatures from beyond our ken. Shakespeare also has his ghosts.

We fear different things these days. Most don’t believe in ghosts or gods, but big government, terrorists, out-of-control technology, disease and the unruly mob scare the wits out of us. Things we can’t control in a world we think we can control. Horror literature has tapped into these changes of percepion since late Victorian times.

It could be argued that George Orwell’s 1984 is a modern horror story, and The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine pit people against evils that tap into more ‘modern’ themes.

There are ofcourse many current horror writers who are worth investigating, the ubiquitous Stephen King being the obvious, and certainly best-selling. He can be a master at slowly ratcheting up the tension and then hitting you between the eyes with something astonishingly shocking. His books can be a weighty commitment but at his best in titles such as Salem’s Lot, The Shining and Pet Sematary he excels. He twists the everyday world into a place of fear. His more recent books like The Institute and Cell explore technical and political paranoias.

Or you could sample the wares of the late British horror writer James Herbert. Even his fans would have to admit that subtlety is not a prominent feature of his style. He avoids the slow build-up of tension in favour of in-your-face gore and action.

The Rats, his first book, has the subtlety of a jack hammer as does his follow-up The Fog which, amongst other things, sees the entire population of Bournemouth committing suicide and a plane flying into the Post Office Tower. He is an imaginative and captivating creator of scary literature. It could perhaps be said that his later works such as The Secret of Crickley Hall and The Ghosts of Sleath are less gorefest in nature.

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is a very readable ghost story and if you like a bit of witchcraft on your bookshelf then track down some of the novels of Dennis Wheatley, more popular in the Sixties and Seventies than now but an enjoyable writer nonetheless. Good examples of his oeuvre would be To The Devil A Daughter and The Devil Rides Out.

For real scares you could get hold of William Blatty’s unnerving The Exorcist, a real classic of its type, and a memorably terrifying film as well. It’s a no-holds-barred book and not for kids (cue all the kids running out to find it now).

A lesser-known writer, undeservedly so, is Shirley Jackson. Her supernatural novels and short stories are some of the best. A collection of her short works called Dark Tales gives a good flavour of her mastery. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House has been filmed a number of times and is praised by none other than Stephen King.

Other writers you could try are Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame), Darren Shan and Robert Bloch (creator of Psycho).

Pop along to the Horror shelf at your local bookshop or library and see what’s there.

So, now is the time to open the book, start reading and let that creeping sense that there’s something behind you build up and up.
But, whatever you do, don’t turn round…

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