I have a confession to make–I’m a horror gal. Since the day I discovered a pile of pulp mags under a bed in my grandparents’ house, I’ve been a shameless devotee of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. But I’m most fond of monsters, which is why I love Halloween.
As a kid I always felt a rush of excitement when the Halloween decorations appeared in stores. That’s changed a bit, especially now that the skeletons and costumes show up around the Fourth of July. And each year the trick-or-treaters are fewer in number and most Halloween parties for kids are most likely to be called the “Harvest Festival” or “Corn Maze Party.” Somehow the adults have claimed the night for themselves and stripped it of any real fun for the kids.
But I don’t them ruin my fun. October 31 is All Hallows Eve,the night when the monster hiding under the bed comes out to play. And so in the spirit of Halloween, I offer three creepy tales involving a few of my favorite monsters.
Perhaps the preeminent creature of the night is the vampire, the ultimate seducer who offers eternal life, with a catch. Like most people, I first encountered vampires in the movies. However, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula never did much for me–he looked too much like a waiter.
However, it was only when I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I felt the cold hand of fear. There was always a sexual component to Dracula, who both attracts and repels. I imagine this passage was pretty strong stuff to Stoker’s Victorian readers:
There was a deliberate voluptuousness that was both thrilling and repulsive. As she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal til I could see in the moonlight the moisture that lapped the white, sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited.
The vampire offers sex, but it is debased and bestial, cut off from the human. And I think Stoker touches on the primal fear that animates much of horror–the fear of losing one’s humanity. Nowadays vampires have morphed from bloodsucking monsters into someone’s prom date! For years I despaired of seeing a pair of fangs I could relate to, until I found Enter, Night by Michael Rowe. It’s a briskly told tale of ancient, toothy horrors, with an ending that is both heartbreaking and transcendent. If you’re hungry for a really good vampire story, this one’s for you.
Which brings me to one of the most frightening short stories I’ve even read: Pigeons from Hell by Robert E. Parker. The story’s set in a deserted plantation haunted by ghostly pigeons, and something else. Stephen Kings calls “Pigeons from Hell” to be “one of the finest horror stories of our century. “As usual in matters of horror, King is right.
Susan Hill’s novel is the source for the excellent film of the same name. The narrative’s framed as a Christmas Eve ghost story, much as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Like James, Hill conjures an atmosphere of escalating dread and isolation. The horror rises to a shattering and unexpected conclusion.Ancient and enduring, the first ghost appeared at some primeval campfire when one of our ancestors told the first ghost story. More than other monsters, the ghost is a sturdy literary device and pops up in all sorts of fiction, from Shakespeare to Dickens to David Mitchell.
But a Halloween ghost always means mischief and there is no more malicious spirit than The Woman in Black.
Psychologists like to theorize why people like me love horror. In his theory of archetypes, Carl Jung believed that all humans inherited a set of primordial images that are contained in the collective unconscious, and that horror evokes these archetypes. Maybe, but I read ghost stories and watch horror films because I like them.
So tonight, after the last trick-or-treater has come and gone, I’ll pour a glass of blood-red wine and read one of the old tales, one guaranteed to send a shiver down my spine.