In honor of the scary, disturbing, creepy, and horror-related content we’re featuring this month we asked some of our favorite editors in the field to name their favorite scary story. Our own scary story contest closes on Wednesday, so be sure to submit while you can. For inspiration, here’s what seven editors consider to be truly scary.
Rob Spillman, Tin House: The Shining by Stephen King
At the beginning of my seventeenth summer a car blitzed through a yield sign on a rural, upstate New York road and hit my car head on while we were both going 60 mph. I walked away from the flaming cars, barely scathed, but with a concussion. I had just finished my first dismal year of college (another, longer story) and with the insurance-bought replacement car drove from Baltimore to Aspen to find work. Back then there was a down season between winter and summer, when businesses boarded up for the dreary spring. When they opened back up I was there, begging for work. I rented a cheap, dreary room in a rundown ski lodge. Most days it was in the 40s and raining, icy at night, and my friends who came out for the summer music festival were yet to arrive. When I wasn’t shuffling around looking for work, I read THE SHINING. Reading about a spooky off-season Colorado hotel while inside of a spooky off-season hotel while still mentally fuzzy from flying through a car window at 60mph was the single most terrifying reading experience I have ever had. “Redrum” still gives me chills.
John Joseph Adams, Lightspeed: “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk
“Guts” is one of those stories that if you dig it, you probably really, really dig it, and once you start reading it, you’re not going to stop. I often say that I don’t believe in horror as a genre—that I see it as only a descriptor you can apply to other genres—i.e., a horrific fantasy, or a horrific science fiction story, or a story of psychological horror—but does not exist independently as a genre unto itself. But reading a story like “Guts” makes me rethink that idea. It’s utterly compelling and COMPLETELY FUCKING HORRIFYING (sorry, you just kind of have to swear when talking about it), and reading it is such a visceral experience that I find myself actually tense and cringing as I read it—even when re-reading it, knowing how it ends! (And once you know how it ends, you’ll NEVER FORGET HOW IT ENDS.) If I can find and publish something like “Guts”—something that effects the reader on such a visceral level, something that is so indelibly memorable, then I feel I’ll have done my job as editor.
Gabriel Blackwell; The Collagist: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I first read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in eighth grade; it was assigned reading. I’m sure we talked about the idea of the unreliable narrator—whether the whole thing was “real” or in the narrator’s head—and if I’m being honest, that’s what I remember best about the story (if you’ve read it, it’s probably what you remember best about it, too). But to find a story scary requires a certain amount of credulity, and I’d rather take the narrator at her word anyway: “Most women do not creep by daylight.” That seems sane, doesn’t it? (Then again, if you’re seeing these women creeping all around you, maybe not so much?) If we trust the narrator, what we have is sort of like The Ring, only with details taken from Daniel Paul Schreber’s account of schizophrenia, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. If that’s what’s inside your head, I guess that’s scary, too.
Joel Hans, Fairy Tale Review
As a child, my mother inadvertently told me a scary story while putting me to bed after a family viewing of E.T.: “Maybe you’ll have an E.T. of your own in your closet someday.” As soon as the story was told, my six-year-old self initiated an era in which I could not sleep with my back to that closet door for fear of some alien’s glowing finger on my shoulder as I slept. This era lasted for years.
A child being afraid of the darkness behind a closet is a cliché, but I’m still fascinated by this story’s effectiveness, despite its brevity. It’s well-known that the most effective scary stories are not particularly explicit—instead, they fit the implicit within an existing context that is primed toward fear or horror. My mother did that effectively—and accidentally—in just a few words.
The more I try to examine the disorienting/discomforting in my own fiction, the more I think about how scary stories are reflective upon our own characteristics—why did that story frighten me when it would have delighted another child, or even an older version of me? The content is important, yes, but what scares us most about any given scary story is how it exhumes the weaknesses we thought we buried deep, or weren’t aware of at all.
And the scary story does continuous work. The threat of E.T. in my current bedroom’s closet would not scare me anymore (at least in the traditional way), which leaves me to wonder not what I have gained in the years since, but rather what I have lost. Some kind of wonder? Curiosity? A belief in the uncanny or the impossible? In overcoming that fear so many years ago—in triumphing over the scary story—I experienced a loss that I am still struggling to inventory.
Dan Piepenbring, The Paris Review: “Mr. Squishy” by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s story “Mister Squishy” (from Oblivion, 2004) has mirrors, masks, and poison—three of horror’s tropes, deployed here to clinical, even banal, effect, which makes them all the more terrifying. The story follows a mid-level advertising executive as he conducts a focus group for a new line of superbly chocolatey snack-cakes; the man is so fed up with his career, and indeed with the trajectory of his whole life, that he’s elected to turn his focus group into act of terrorism against the advertising industry. His methods, as you’ll see if you read the story, are the stuff that our waking existential nightmares are made of. And Wallace’s rendering, with his alert, hyperprecise prose, taps into our deepest fears about society: about the loneliness, estrangement, and resentment produced by corporate culture; about the way that language, in such a culture, functions as an alienating, dissociative tool rather than a way to communicate; and about the sense that under late capitalism we’re all complicit in a kind of hypnotic consumerism, that we’ll never get out from under “the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted.”
Kim Winternheimer, The Masters Review: “The Emissary” by Ray Bradbury
As a kid I loved scary stories. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of my favorites. I loved the feeling that my childhood was on the brink of a dark and terrible disaster. For a long time I harbored a fear that my sister and I would be gruesomely murdered by a serial killer or that our house would slip into an infinity pit of quick sand (obviously). But nothing scared me more than ghosts and the unknown of the afterlife. “The Emissary” tells the story of sick child whose dog runs out into the neighborhood and brings the smell of fall leaves and other autumnal adventures back to his bed-ridden owner. The story turns perfectly Bradbury when the dog brings home something mysterious and unwanted, ending with Bradbury’s visitor climbing the stairs toward the boy’s bedroom. The idea of a stranger climbing the stairs in your house is unnerving, and the suspense of retreating to the upper floor or being stuck there as something sinister pursues you is classic horror-story suspense. We’ve all been home alone at night, watching the door handle in our bedrooms, waiting for the knob to turn and for the killer/ghost to finally announce himself and his evil intentions. As an adult, any startling nighttime noise conjures up this imagery and while I’ve seen it play out in a many scary stories, Bradbury’s is my favorite.
Sadye Teiser, The Masters Review: “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link
In “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link, a family moves into a house in upstate New York. At first, there are strange—though not all-out fantastic—occurrences: the family begins to avoid household objects because they feel off; rabbits congregate in droves on the lawn and appear in the dreams of various family members. These elements progress until the end of the story, which is a flat-out departure from (our) reality. If summarized, it wouldn’t sound scary at all. But it’s a testament to the power of the surreal that, within the world Link has created, the storyline is terrifying. I first read “Stone Animals” when I’d moved into a new place, myself, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d remember images from the story: people with rabbit-like features; a mysterious pair of feet behind a locked door. Perhaps most haunting of all is the fact that, if you review the story, you can find details everywhere that support its bizarre conclusion. This tale terrifies me because it springs from the ordinary. After all, what’s more frightening than realizing that what you thought was familiar isn’t?