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“The Summer People,” Shirley Jackson

Available (quite cheaply) at Dramatic Publishing and Amazon.

My introduction to Shirley Jackson was the Platonic ideal of the first-time Jackson experience: at the age of sixteen, in the late afternoon, browsing idly through a used bookstore. I found a copy of We Have Always Lived In The Castle and have never quite slept soundly since.

“The slight framework of the cottage was not strong enough to withstand the city noises, the music and the voices, from the radio, and the Allisons could hear them far off echoing across the lake, the saxophones in the New York dance band wailing over the water, the flat voice of the girl vocalist going inexorably out into the clean country air. Even the announcer, speaking glowingly of the virtues of razor blades, was no more than an inhuman voice sounding out from the Allisons’ cottage and echoing back, as though the lake and the hills and the trees were returning it unwanted.”

“I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison

Available to read online here.

Another story I discovered alone and by accident at sixteen. This was a terrible misfortune; I read it in increasing shock and horror on my family’s computer in the basement late at night and began to cry before I reached the end. I have never come closer to outrunning a light switch than I did pounding up the stairs on my way back to my bedroom that night.

“Really! AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all. I only had to suffer what he visited down on us. All the delusions, all the nightmares, the torments. But those scum, all four of them, they were lined and arrayed against me. If I hadn’t had to stand them off all the time, be on my guard against them all the time, I might have found it easier to combat AM. At which point it passed, and I began crying. Oh, Jesus sweet Jesus, if there ever was a Jesus and if there is a God, please please please let us out of here, or kill us. Because at that moment I think I realized completely, so that I was able to verbalize it: AM was intent on keeping us in his belly forever, twisting and torturing us forever. The machine hated us as no sentient creature had ever hated before. And we were helpless. It also became hideously clear: If there was a sweet Jesus and if there was a God, the God was AM.”

“The Minister’s Black Veil,” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Available to read online here.

For this, I have The Toast’s own Jolie Kerr to thank, as she recommended it one or two Halloweens ago. I have a very hard time with symbolism. I have no idea — not even an educated guess — what the black veil is supposed to be. If pushed, I suppose I would say ‘death,’ because that is usually the right answer. But it haunts me.

“Have patience with me, Elizabeth!” cried he, passionately. “Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil–it is not for eternity! O! you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened, to be alone behind my black veil. Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity forever!”

“Lift the veil but once, and look me in the face,” said she.

“Never! It cannot be!” replied Mr. Hooper.

“Then farewell!” said Elizabeth.

She withdrew her arm from his grasp, and slowly departed, pausing at the door, to give one long shuddering gaze, that seemed almost to penetrate the mystery of the black veil. But, even amid his grief, Mr. Hooper smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors, which it shadowed forth, must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.

“The Things,” Peter Watts

Available to read online here.

The Thing is a perfect movie, and The Things is a perfect short story. Two great tastes that go great together. It also won a Shirley Jackson award, and so the circle remains unbroken.

“At first I only took control when the skins closed their eyes and their searchlights flickered disconcertingly across unreal imagery, patterns that flowed senselessly into one another like hyperactive biomass unable to settle on a single shape. (Dreams, one searchlight told me, and a little later, Nightmares.) During those mysterious periods of dormancy, when the men lay inert and isolated, it was safe to come out.

Soon, though, the dreams dried up. All eyes stayed open all the time, fixed on shadows and each other. Offshoots once dispersed throughout the camp began to draw together, to give up their solitary pursuits in favor of company. At first I thought they might be finding common ground in a common fear. I even hoped that finally, they might shake off their mysterious fossilization and take communion.

But no. They’d just stopped trusting anything they couldn’t see.

They were merely turning against each other.”

“The Horror of the Heights,” Arthur Conan Doyle

Available to read online here.

Speculative horror from the author of Sherlock! A refreshing alternative to those of you who are left cold by H.P. Lovecraft. Also just another reason to never get on a plane.

“The air in front of me had lost its crystal clearness. It was full of long, ragged wisps of something which I can only compare to very fine cigarette-smoke. It hung about in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlight. As the monoplane shot through it, I was aware of a faint taste of oil upon my lips, and there was a greasy scum upon the woodwork of the machine. Some infinitely fine organic matter appeared to be suspended in the atmosphere. There was no life there. It was inchoate and diffuse, extending for many square acres and then fringing off into the void. No, it was not life. But might it not be the remains of life?…

Soon my attention was drawn to a new phenomenon — the serpents of the outer air. These were long, thin, fantastic coils of vapour like material, which turned and twisted with great speed, flying round and round at such a pace that the eyes could hardly follow them. Some of these ghost-like creatures were twenty or thirty feet long, but it was difficult to tell their girth, for their outline was so hazy that it seemed to fade away into the air around them. These air-snakes were of a very light grey or smoke colour, with some darker lines within, which gave the impression of a definite organism. One of them whisked past my very face, and I was conscious of a cold, clammy contact, but their composition was so unsubstantial that I could not connect them with any thought of physical danger, any more than the beautiful bell-like creatures which had preceded them. There was no more solidity in their frames than in the floating spume from a broken wave.

“But a more terrible experience was in store for me. Floating downwards from a great height there came a purplish patch of vapour, small as I saw it first, but rapidly enlarging as it approached me, until it appeared to be hundreds of square feet in size. Though fashioned of some transparent, jelly-like substance, it was none the less of much more definite outline and solid consistence than anything which I had seen before. There were more traces, too, of a physical organisation, especially two vast shadowy, circular plates upon either side, which may have been eyes, and a perfectly solid white projection between them which was as curved and cruel as the beak of a vulture.”

Please offer your own recommendations in the comments, or simply cling to one another.

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