Sunday, October 28, 2012

Three disturbing stories for Halloween (or any other time you wish to be disturbed)

Title: The Damned Thing
Author: Ambrose Bierce
Where I read it: Fifty Great American Short Stories (ed. Milton Crane)

A creepy little horror piece about a man living alone in the wilderness being stalked by something he can't see. The story begins with the coroner examining his body, so you know how it ends for him. All he's left behind as a clue is his journal, where he describes day by day, with growing dread, the thing stalking him. I first read this story years ago and still remembered some of the details. It gets lodged in your brain like a splinter.


Title: Silent Snow, Secret Snow
Author: Conrad Aiken
Where I read it: Fifty Great American Short Stories (ed. Milton Crane)

If I tell you that this is a terrifying story about snow, you might think it's something like a Jack London story with people getting trapped in log cabins in the dead of winter and eating the frozen remains of their friends. But the snow here exists only in the mind of the protagonist, Paul - it's like a static hissing, building up slowly between himself and the rest of the world.

What makes the story so disturbing isn't only that Paul's life is dimming around him, but that he welcomes it; he craves the secret oblivion of the snow and wants the rest of the world to disappear. Is he going insane? Rejecting outer reality for something inward and alien to others? Maybe. That he's the son of typical middle class parents in Anytown, USA heightens the eeriness (there's a Twilight Zone feel to the story). I love how the author takes what could have been an absurd premise and makes it frightening:

The hiss was now becoming a roar - the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow - but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.


Title: The Tell-Tale Heart
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Where I read it: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (ed. Joyce Carol Oates)

"And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?"

When it comes to deranged narrators, no one beats Edgar Allan Poe. This one isn't the elegant, depraved madman of The Cask of Amontillado, who lures his victim into the catacombs for an elaborate premeditated demise. The narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart is holding onto his sanity by a thread. His actions are clumsy and sad. When the police arrive he tries so hard to seem sane (I love how, even though everything takes place from his POV, we can guess what the officers are thinking as they listen to him try to make polite chit-chat in the room where he's buried the body). As in The Cask of Amontillado, this narrator has us stand alongside him and witness his crime; he wants us to understand him. But he also has a conscience, which surfaces through the madness.


Other stories in Fifty Great American Short Stories include: The Blue-Winged Teal (by Wallace Stegner) and The National Pastime (by John Cheever); along with The Girls in their Summer Dresses (by Irwin Shaw) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman).


Other stories in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories include: The Middle Years (by Henry James) and Sweat (by Zora Neale Hurston).


This post is shared at the The Short Story Initiative at Simple Clockwork.