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Gory Stories: Frightening tales for a scholarly spook-tober

Literature. It’s not as bad as high school English class made it seem. Indeed, when you’re not racking your brains trying to figure out how a pair of eyes on a billboard is somehow a symbol for the inevitable madness that results from our passionate, desperate, hopeless pursuits of true love in a hyper-industrialized aristocratic society, reading can actually be quite fun. Especially around Halloween time, a season which has inspired some of the most delightfully frightful tales ever scratched onto paper. If you’re in the market for some phantasmic fiction to pore over this Halloween, here’s a list of spooky stories to check out!

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

“The amount of detail Irving puts into describing the story’s world and the curious characters who inhabit it is a rarity in the horror fiction genre, in which stories often skip over exposition to jumpstart the thrills.”

Much like fine wine and Alan Alda, the best scary stories get better with age. And when it comes to eerie yarns of yore, few have stood the test of time quite like Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Perhaps it’s simply the story’s influence on American literature that is to thank for this longevity. It was one of the first stories officially categorized as a short story, which, along with musical theatre and internet memes, is one of only a few distinguishable art forms argued to have originated in the U.S.

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But there is something that remains especially chilling about “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” even 200 years after its original publication. The amount of detail Irving puts into describing the story’s world and the curious characters who inhabit it is a rarity in the horror fiction genre, in which stories often skip over exposition to jumpstart the thrills. Actual story is often secondary in these tales, save for the cinder block novels of Stephen King, which are often chastised themselves by literary critics for their lengthiness.

But it’s precisely these small, often drab expositional details that bring horror stories to life. Every pages-long description of the lanky Ichabod Crane or the Tarrytown graveyard or the crunchy fall leaves that Irving includes in his tale, no matter how monotonous they may seem to modern audiences, immerses the reader more deeply in the world of Sleepy Hollow, bringing it to life so that the terrors that exist inside of it seem more real. It’s a masterwork of American fiction and an essential addition to any Halloween reading list.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe

Before haunted houses became nothing more than old refurbished warehouses where bored teenagers pay to be chased by rubber-chainsaw-wielding theater school dropouts, there was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

“The Ushers are not simply stalked by strange, invisible things that go ‘bump’ in the night or write notes on their mirrors in blood. Rather, they are haunted by the crushing weight of an aristocratic legacy which has, after many generations, at last been exposed as the hollow and empty fraud that it is.”

While not the first haunted house story, and perhaps not a haunted house story at all given its lack of any actual supernatural phenomena — the Usher family members are not lively spirits who have been robbed of their earthly forms but, rather, earthly forms which have been robbed of their lively spirits — “The Fall of the House of Usher” nonetheless captures what it is that makes haunted houses terrifying better than any other story in the sub-genre’s canon.

The Ushers are not simply stalked by strange, invisible things that go “bump” in the night or write notes on their mirrors in blood. Rather, they are haunted by the crushing weight of an aristocratic legacy which has, after many generations, at last been exposed as the hollow and empty fraud that it is.

And it’s the decay of this social status that haunted houses ultimately symbolize. They are places where people, like the Ushers, who have become indistinguishable — first to themselves and eventually to others — from the massive amounts of artifacts and priceless heirlooms they have acquired throughout their lives, must at long-last face the terrifying existential consequences for their generations of greed and complacency.

It’s a poignant dissection of the blurry line between distinction and isolation, exploring how that which makes us appear distinguished is also that which alienates us and thus must be rooted in something human and eternal if it is going to be of any real value lest it give way to desperation, madness and, eventually, collapse. A brilliant commentary on the futility of wealth and societal distinction, and a truly terrifying tale, “Usher” is a must-read for any haunted house hound.

“Sredni Vashtar” by Saki

Children are terrifying, and not just the ones who show up in hotel corridors asking you to play with them. All children are terrifying. I mean, have you seen “Phineas and Ferb”? Sure, it’s all fun and games when they’re just using their maniacally imaginative kid brains to build roller coasters and rocket ships, but where does it end? A kid who can build a rocket ship could just as easily build a nuclear bomb or an army of killer, laser-shooting robots. And without a fully developed prefrontal cortex to mediate their behavior, who knows what havoc they could wreak on humanity?

Mark my words, World War III will not be a standoff between Russia and the U.S., it will be a civil war between helpless, exhausted parents and the tots from “Superbabies.” And when this war of the wee-uns erupts, we’ll look to Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” as a prophetic text.

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No story captures the inherent insidiousness of youngsters quite like this Edwardian-era tale of angsty pre-adolescent Conradin, and his malicious plan to rid himself of his oppressive guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, by means of his deranged pet ferret. The story is a chilling fable of a naive imagination run amok and a window into the darkness that lurks at the core of even the most innocent among us.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“The terror that lurks at the center of ‘the lottery’ only springs up at the very last moment, yanking the story’s sense of calm, neighborly security right out from under the reader’s feet to create one of the most shocking and gruesome plot twists in literary history.”

Much like Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is made terrifying not by its high-intensity thrills, but rather by its slow, meticulous immersion of the reader into its very peaceful, unassuming setting.

Unlike Irving, however, whose Headless Horseman maintains a distinctly eerie, if understated, presence throughout the entirety of the story, the terror that lurks at the center of “The Lottery” only springs up at the very last moment, yanking the story’s sense of calm, neighborly security right out from under the reader’s feet to create one of the most shocking and gruesome plot twists in literary history. 

While not the most Halloween-y of Jackson’s works, the story still gives off an enigmatic aroma which, while not explicitly supernatural, creates a sense of otherworldly, cultish unease as it progresses and the demented, sociopathic nature of these simple all-American New Englanders rises to the surface. At once a scathing social satire and a scare-your-socks-off horror story, “The Lottery” is the perfect fit for a subversive Hallow’s Eve read.

For something more traditionally ghoulish and gothic, check out her equally hair-stiffening, though too-long-to-be-considered-“short” novels “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”

“The Man in the Black Suit” by Stephen King

Sometimes scary stories derive their terror from the more realistic, more immediate fears of contemporary society, reflecting something that is terrifying about ourselves and the people our culture has shaped us into. Other times, scary stories derive their terror from absolutely nowhere in particular, leaving us wide-eyed and shivering under our covers without ever needing to show us so much as a severed head, ghost or zombie.

“There’s no blood, no guts, no jump scares, just a dark, surreal tableau that suggests something is deeply, deeply wrong.”

These stories instead inspire terror through their vivid painting of an unsettling portrait in the reader’s imagination. And while H.P. Lovecraft deserves a nod for pioneering this enigmatic, atmospheric form, no one has ever painted such an unsettling word–painting as Stephen King did in “The Man in the Black Suit.”

The story is simple: a young boy is stalked by a pale, lanky man in a black suit while he’s out fishing. There’s no blood, no guts, no jump scares, just a dark, surreal tableau that suggests something is deeply, deeply wrong — a sense of wrongness that only grows and intensifies the longer the story goes along. In the end, nothing happens.

Nothing changes. No one gets hurt. And yet you’re left with an incurable feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach. King’s story is a masterclass in how vivid language and precise imagery can be used to target our deepest, most unknowable human fears — and be the perfect preface to a sleepless night.

Scott Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.

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