It isn't specifically to be scared. I'm not the biggest fan of horror as such (despite an early exposure to the Pan horror collections) and I really don't wish to be confronted with any poor protagonist's bloody body parts; it's all a bit too messy for me. I think what I look for is atmosphere, specifically strangeness created from everyday circumstance. The moment a story withdraws into some kind of fantastical universe, where anything can happen with no apparent consequence, is the moment I tune out. I'm quite happy for odd things to happen, but only if there can be some ambiguity about it; did it really happen like that, or was my/the character's perception of the event unreliable? So as it turns out, in a lot of my favourite stories (the ones I frequently go back to), nothing very much frightening happens at all.
So I thought I might share with you some of the scariest stories I have enjoyed recently. That is, they go a little further than strangeness and into the realm of terror. For example, my feeling is that very few Aickman stories fit this bill. I love his work almost because it isn't scary in the conventional sense; he never had to resort to anything like shock tactics. However there are exceptions, and I recall a shiver down my spine when reading particular parts of some of his stories.
1. Laura by Robert Aickman
One of his more conventional (and shorter) stories, from his final collection, Night Voices, in which Andrew recalls the strange ongoing encounters he has experienced since meeting a girl at a party as a young man. The girl left him in the lurch, but promised "I shall always come back". He then fails to make contact with her for some years, until she turns up unexpectedly once more, looking no different. Again she leaves him frustrated, yet saying they will meet in the future. In the mean time, Andrew marries Cecilia, but realises that Laura is his enduring obsession; he may never be satisfied with his own reality: "I am not one of those men who can easily forget the date of his wedding." Years pass again, during which time he divorces Cecilia, and they lose touch. "I believe she's in New South Wales, but I see no reason why she shouldn't be all right."
His final encounter with Laura documented in this story provides the sting in the tail.
They meet at a convention in an hotel in the north of Italy. Andrew is compelled to follow her upstairs, into a dilapidated wing of the building, devoid of windows. "She opened a door to our left. I felt immediately that it might have been any door." When I read the description of that room for the first time, I really felt a chill go up my spine. "'Come in and have a drink with me,' bade Laura. 'Then I can look after you properly." I shudder to think; so should you.
2. Mannequins in Aspects of Terror by Mark Samuels
This is from his collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales. Speaking of chills going up my spine, this story succeeds only too well. This is a delightfully dark tale, set in a modern city landscape where terrible things exist alongside workers going about their everyday business. A junior architect develops an obsession with an apparently deserted office block visible from his office window. When an 'art installation' is opened in the building, by Eleazor Golmi, an architect he admires, he just has to go and experience it. What he discovers is more than unnerving, and a couple of sequences in this story are genuinely frightening even for the seasoned strange story reader; in particular what happens in the stairwell. "When I did hear footsteps climbing up from below, they sounded too awkward to belong to the next visitor." I have re-read this story a number of times, and I can see myself doing so again. Scarily essential reading.
3. The Pennine Tower Restaurant by Simon Kurt Unsworth
This is from Lost Places, the author's excellent collection from 2010. This story is unusual because it is presented, very successfully, as a factual account. Simon is a writer who used to work for the council, and is asked by a previous colleague to investigate some strange and tragic happenings at the eponymous establishment. Unsworth sets out a thoroughly believable background and history for the building, then lists a large number of seemingly linked events, each becoming more bizarre and terrifying. There is a cumulative effect from these descriptions and accounts which thoroughly unnerves the reader, and as Simon's cynicism is overcome by gruesome evidence, the true horror of the situation is summed up in three words: "This is not fiction."
4. Disciple of the Torrent by Lee Battersby
The opening story from Satalyte Publishing's excellent anthology Great Southern Land, this tale was something of a surprise to me. It opens much like an historical tale of exploration on the high seas, then adds some devil worship, mutiny, storms and a shipwreck. Yet only then does the true horror begin. The unfortunate survivors are forced to try to live together on a group of desolate rocks off the coast of Australia. The ensuing cruelty, treachery and butchery combine with Cornelisz's delusions about resurrecting ancient gods to reclaim their earthly realm, and mayhem ensues. This is a strongly atmospheric tale, in which the sense of terror reaches a climax in the most dreadfully predictable of ways. Which doesn't make it any easier to bear!
5. The Whisperer by Brian Lumley
More of a conventional horror story, this is one of those tales that has stuck with me for many years. Frights, edited by Kirby McCauley back in 1976, is an essential collection containing great work by writers such as Gahan Wilson, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell and Russell Kirk. In The Whisperer, Miles Benton is alone in his railway carriage one morning when he is joined by "a little fellow – a very ugly little man" who sits opposite him; filthy and unkempt. To Benton's amazement, the figure whispers something to the ticket collector, who immediately ejects Benton from the carriage, saying it's suddenly "private". The following day, the ticket collector has no recollection of the strange figure or the event. Over the next few months, Benton is increasingly victimised by this creature, who is able to manipulate events with his hypnotic whispering. Eventually Benton becomes obsessed, then usurped; his wife leaves him, his life ruined, and his thoughts turn to violence and revenge. In his quest to hunt down his tormentor, Benton sees his wife with him; and, in a rage, he is knocked down by a taxi and badly injured. The horror of this tale comes when, just as the reader thinks things can get no worse, the whisperer takes away Benton's last desperate hope.