Whether or not you choose to celebrate Halloween, it’s hard not to be swept up by the seasonal spirit. If you or the children around you relish the festivities, you can become fully immersed in the atmosphere by dipping into stories of ghouls and hauntings. We’ve scoured writings from the 20th and 21st centuries to create a list that shows a variety of approaches to the ghost story genre, from well-known names to more obscure authors, whose work continues to shock and surprise.
Halloween choice 1: The Casting of the Runes by M.R. James (1911)
Many fans of turn of the century horror will be familiar with James’ classic stories, including Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. But ‘The Casting of the Runes’, which is published in Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, is something of an outlier. The ghostly presence is only thinly alluded to as a murderous prop by the story’s real villain, an occultist called Karswell.
After receiving some harsh rejections for his academic paper on alchemy, Karswell curses the men he holds responsible to die in freak accidents, apparently provoked by a supernatural presence that he controls. Realising he’s in danger, a doomed man strives to overturn the curse, making this one of the few James stories where the protagonist has a chance to escape their frightful fate. A thrilling mix of mystery and horror that draws on the antics of real-life occultist Aleister Crowley, it was adapted for film as the excellent Night of the Demon in 1957.
Halloween choice 2: The Wandering Train by Stefan Grabinski (1919)
Grabinski is a Polish writer often discovered by English readers, but not yet part of our popular consciousness. His tales drip with Gothic sensibility, but also focus on the horrors of modern life and technology. ‘The Wandering Train’, a tale from his The Dark Domain short story collection is perhaps the best example. Rumours begin to grow among train conductors of a strange, phantasmal engine that appears every now and then on the tracks. Its appearances are always fleeting but grow in regularity so that the conductors become terrified of an inevitable collision with a passenger engine.
Grabinski’s horror stories are all worth chasing down, as they explore human fears in reaction to the advancing world, where people are surrounded by technology that is man-made but as unstable as Frankenstein’s monster. (For a different take on the ghost-train genre, we would also recommend N.K. Jemisin’s ‘The You Train’, which was published online by Strange Horizons and explores a more intimate, almost meditative haunting.)
Halloween choice 3: With and Without Buttons by Mary Butts (1938)
Among the English authors that emerged during the Modernist period, Mary Butts is sadly often forgotten. Her writing combines a staggered, experimental style with fully fleshed out narratives, such as her ‘With and Without Buttons’ tale from The Complete Stories which creates an idiosyncratic and unsettling mood. Two sisters decide to trick their neighbour with a display of witchy power and plant kid gloves in random spots around his house. The siblings grow increasingly alarmed, however, when gloves start appearing which neither can remember having placed.
Butts often plays with contemporary perceptions of femininity, turning something as seemingly domestic and banal as fabric into a totem of frightening malevolence. Butts transforms the every day into a repository for fear and uncertainty, inviting us to question those things in life we take most for granted.
Halloween choice 4: The Daemon Lover by Shirley Jackson (1949)
Jackson’s name is synonymous with tales of horror, her work only growing in popularity with time (as can be seen by the recent Netflix adaptation of her novel The Haunting of Hill House). Her ‘The Daemon Lover’ short story, published in Dark Tales, is rarely included in discussions of her most popular work but demands attention as a terrifying study of powerlessness and panic. The protagonist is going about her morning routine on the day she’s meant to be getting married, nervously filling the time while she waits for her fiancé to return.
When she begins asking neighbours and shopkeepers if they’ve seen him around, their total ignorance of the man’s existence stokes a growing sense of dread. The ghost of the story is the absent lover, and the simplicity of Jackson’s premise captures a universal primal fear of being abandoned without a chance of knowing why. The longer the bride-to-be searches, the more unbearable the story becomes, reaching true horror without needing to resort to the overtly supernatural.
Halloween choice 5: Minus One by J.G. Ballard (1963)
Though Ballard is more often associated with sci-fi, this is a ghost tale where the focus isn’t the ghost at all. Patient James Hinton of Green Hill asylum has suddenly gone missing, causing panic to break out among the staff who are trying to find him on the grounds without alerting the police. As the hours go by, the doctors grow increasingly frightened – more for their careers than anything else – until they realise their problems could simply vanish if they decided to claim that Hinton never existed in the first place.
Published in The Disaster Area, ‘Minus One’ includes the satirical tone and mistrust of authority that characterises many of Ballard’s tales and retains its power to alarm right up to the final twist. The mystery of the ‘ghost’ may never be answered, but the corruption and brutality of supposedly normal people aren’t left in doubt.
Halloween choice 6: Alice’s Last Adventure by Thomas Ligotti (1985)
Ligotti’s rare ability to draw terror from the dreamlike makes his tale, ‘Alice’s Last Adventure’, published as part of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, a stand-out in the genre. The protagonist is an alcoholic author of children’s stories revolving around the mischievous and supernatural figure, Preston. She becomes haunted by her own creation and experiences the borders between reality and fiction slipping away.
The trope of a writer confronting their own imagination is well worn, but the latent creepiness of children’s stories is executed here with vigour, provoking questions about the way authors adapt people’s lives for fiction and whether any of us can escape the shadows of the past. Ligotti shows his ability to write about madness and human frailty in the face of things we can’t understand.
Halloween choice 7: Säcken by China Miéville (2014)
Miéville’s approach to genre is usually to destabilise the rules of the world he’s writing about – sci-fi or a detective mystery – from the inside, using the reader’s knowledge of familiar tropes as a weapon. In ‘Säcken’, however, he adheres closely to the familiar structure of old-fashioned ghost stories. We have an academic and her girlfriend visiting a remote cabin near a lake. Mysterious noises in the night. Local legends. A disappearance. Finally, an encounter between human and spirit.
The choice of apparition – unlike anything else in horror fiction – sets ‘Säcken’ apart. Using a historical punishment enacted upon people accused of witchcraft, Miéville creates a monster so alarming as a concept that we don’t want to spoil it here. We wholeheartedly recommend you find a copy of the anthology Three Moments of an Explosion if you’re ready to be disturbed!
Halloween choice 8: Cuisine des Mémoires by N.K. Jemisin (2018)
Readers looking for a ghost story more bittersweet than horrifying might want to check out ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ from How Long ’til Black Future Month? A fancy New Orleans restaurant provides a unique officer to its patrons – any meal from the past, even one they ate decades ago, can be prepared exactly as they remembered it. One customer is nearly brought to tears by his dish, an exact replica of one cooked by his partner when they were still together. Determined to find out how the process works, he sneaks into the kitchens and finds out the restaurant is staffed by unusual and ethereal chefs.
Jemisin’s ghost story is one where the people who were once in our lives continue to linger on – not necessarily to frighten us, but as a manifestation of nostalgia. It’s a powerful look at memory and the way it stays with us – but like all ghosts, even these positive sensations need to be exorcised for us to continue living in the present.
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