BY KARL PFEIFFER
As I pull out books from the shelves, starting with Straub's American Fantastic Tales anthology and then Palahniuk's Haunted, it's quickly apparent I'll need an energy drink over a glass of wine for this one; I'll be up late tonight, and not solely because it will take a bit of time to reconnect with these old friends. See, before I began I even had to make a round through the house above me under the guise of grabbing my laundry to double check the doors and the windows. Just in case.
That's the thing about scary stories, see? They strike those deep-seated fears within all of us that register something as primal as love or joy. That's why we read horror stories, isn't it? To get in touch with that depth again. To wonder. The true scares, the ones that keep us up at night, question the very world around us and maybe even our own experience of it.
The tales that scare me the most are the ones that could be true.
The best of such stories work because they don't stray far from the very room where you're reading this site. The best stories are the kind that you can't write off as just fiction, because they leave you glancing at the window, at the shadow on the wall, asking: Is there something in the darkness? What of the darkness itself? Where does that darkness come from? How does it grow? And perhaps, scariest of all; could it be in me too?
Are you brave enough to look with me? If so, continue forward to the scariest stories to keep you up at night, and probably during the day. They aren't all paranormal, per se, but they are sure to make a roadmap of shivers all over your spine.
The Man in the Black Suit
By Stephen King
King's story of a man named Gary looking back on a chance encounter with the Devil himself while alone, fishing in the woods, is immediately reminiscent of another timely classic, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," but with a modern feel more immediate and more sinister. If you didn't grow up with stories like these, I can guarantee you've spent time alone in the wilderness and felt that chill follow your spine. If your scream falls in a forest when it's just you and the devil to hear, does it make a sound?
The Thing on the Doorstep
By HP Lovecraft
Though Lovecraft is known, quite famously, in horror circles, it's due in large part to his Cthulu mythologies, which center on a race of god-like alien entities that care as little for us as we do about the ants skittering beneath our feet. Because few of us have come face to face with Cthulu (or any other god himself, for that matter), I find that "The Thing on the Doorstep" better and more subtly communicates Lovecraft's grasp of those things behind the scenes. A tale about a man whose wife may not actually be inhabited by his wife's soul, the "Thing" hint at ideas of witchcraft and body snatching that, when looked at, can drive a man insane at their very suggestion.
By Chuck Palahniuk
A pool, a frisky teenage boy and his Pearl Diving activities. I'm not sure why, in my right mind, I'd ever publicly put this story on a list of recommended tales. Then I remember this is not a list of recommended stories, it's a list of the scariest - and this story is damn scary. It's scary in the way that people like watching the Saw movies for scares; in the way that makes our stomachs do those funny flips when we've just had an unexpected collision with the asphalt and we're assessing ourselves for damages (you know the way you can't stop trembling?). That's this story in a nutshell. It's gross. You might be sick. But you'll love the fact that you're still in one piece after reading it.
Voluntary CommittalBy Joe Hill
Where do people go when they disappear forever? It is those dark folds in the world that get me, the kind that induce the kind of Lovecraftian, House of Leaves horror that keeps me awake in the dark. We all built forts as children, and most of us came out. That may not be the case in this story. And really, is it so strange to think that with the right mind, in the right basement, the right fort could open a door to somewhere else entirely?
Bunny is Good Bread
By Peter Straub
A master at presenting the darkest underbelly of our world, Straub's prose can wrap you into back alleys and daytime matinees and hospice bedrooms, and transpose these places with hell itself. Straub is a writer you read with your gut. Repulsed at humanity? Fair. I'd go so far as to call it transcendent. I don't know about any netherworld bleeding through, but reality itself in his stories seems almost to break down around you while reading. In this one about someone so abused as a child they live life as if in a movie, the reader is reminded that often the most terrifying realizations we come to in life are the ones that change the way we see the world ... and maybe the demons within it.
The Events at Poroth Farm
By T.E.D Klein
A taste of a culture beyond us despite co-existing in our own backyards. A dash of the persistence of nature, crawling. A touch of religious fanaticism just enough to hide a darkness until it breaks and is unleashed ... This famous story touches on a reader much like you who realizes that horrors are not happening only in his scary books, but all around him. Klein knows how to get under your skin (indeed, fittingly so), and wreaks a kind of gradual havoc with your senses so slowly you don't realize your nerves are shredded and you'll never look at the bugs outside your own window - or your neighbors - in quite the same way ever again.
The Fall of the House of Usher
By Edgar Allan Poe
Need I say more? What makes Poe classic is his genre-defining approach to his subject matter, weaving the gothic feel of his stories into every element he describes. Maybe there's nothing supernatural about a thunderstorm, but with his words, there could be. Likewise he puts in your head the idea that maybe it's not entirely unnatural (nor unfitting), given the right storm and the right brooding (sentient, even?) mansion, for all that's dead, alive, creepy, or comforting, to get confused.
By Shirley Jackson
There's no supernatural elements in this story, which make it all the scarier. It's scary in the way mob mentality is scary. The way archaic tradition is scary. The way one day the universe could point its finger and say, "you," and while hundreds look on, you're helpless against it. This classic short story has influenced many great writers and is examines how sometimes you can win and still horribly lose in a small town with cherished traditions. Jackson, time and again, showed us that horror is a dish best served on a bed of nuances, subtleties, foreshadowing and maybe luck of the draw.
The Damned ThingBy Ambrose Bierce
Brief, quick, to the point. Maybe creatures of a certain color exist just out of eyeshot, an ultraviolet color that seems to blend in with the rest of the environment around it, maybe they don't. But the idea that you're being stalked by an invisible beast for two months before it does you in ... well, the local coroner in this story might deem it a mountain lion; I deem it damn scary. Just because you close your eyes doesn't mean the world has gone away.
The Book of Blood
By Clive Barker
For the final story on my list, I felt it fitting to break the rules, to take that fine line between our concrete reality and the other, and to shatter it. In the same way that the parapsychologists and fake medium in the story seek to break boundaries and discover truly what lies beyond in a haunted house, I'll let this last act as a transition, or introduction (as it introduces Barker's most classic and macabre work), from the world of creeping fear and possibility, to outright study of fear itself.
Be brave, enjoy, and if it helps, remember the lies we tell our children while you're awake in bed tonight watching the shadows on your wall; none of it is real anyway.