Spine-chilling Tales

This isn’t a Halloween related article – honest.  There will be no mention of pumpkins, witches or (that US import) trick or treating. There will, however, be reference to some of the finest frightening tales ever written and often translated to the big screen.

First, a writer about the supernatural who has achieved classic status, the Cambridge academic M.R.James. It was one of his tales The Casting of the Runes which became Night of the Demon the film featured in Monday’s post (Source Material), and his stories have often made it to the small, if not the big, screen. The BBC made a number of classic adaptations, including Whistle and I’ll Come to You, with Sir Michael Hordern and A Warning to the Curious, with Peter Vaughn. Recently Mark Gatiss adapted The Tractate Middoth, but, over the years there have been many adaptations of James’ stories. They are full of creeping menace, an evil which lurks where one least expects it, just at the edge of one’s vision and which can be invoked by the most innocent action. You don’t have to be bad to draw this terror down upon yourself, just in the wrong place at the right time.

Incidentally, for those who haven’t come across it before, The Tractate Middoth is a manuscript. James’ stories abound with books, ancient engravings, words and phrases rather as antique instruments of torture feature in those by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s protagonists have often transgressed, sometimes killed, like the narrators of The Tale-Tale Heart and The Black Cat and, in this, they differ from MR James’ who are either innocent or only mildly venal. Others try to avoid the inevitable, like Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. My favourite tale is Ligeia, the story of the haunting, or madness, of a man whose first wife dies.  Many of these tales have found their way on to the big screen, most notably the lurid B-movie adaptations directed by Roger Corman in the 1960s which will always, in my mind, sit with those other horror films, from Hammer, which featured late on Friday night UK television in the ’70s and which have been parodied mercilessly since. See Vincent Price in Ligeia right.

Madness, or a haunting, one is never quite sure, is the subject of one of the finest ghost stories ever written, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James (also a favourite of mine, see The Real Thing ). This, in turn, spawned an excellent film The Innocents (1961) and an opera by Benjamin Britten (1954). It is his most famous ‘supernatural’ and unsettling story, though far from the only one. In The Last of the Valerii an aristocratic Roman comes under the influence of an ancient statue of a Goddess and in The Way It Came there is a, possible, visitation of a ghost. The Turn of the Screw is complex and unnerving, however one chooses to interpret it, and is hugely atmospheric.

As is The Little Stranger by Sarah Walters, a more modern tale recently released as a film. I haven’t seen this yet, but I recall scaring myself mightily when reading this by candle light during a power outage. Not to be recommended (though the book most certainly is).

So that’s my selection of scary stories. I could have included many more – there’s no Stephen King, or Shirley Jackson or Edith Wharton, or Dickens here – all of whom have created brilliant tales of terror and suspense. Something to curl up with while, outside, the wind roars in the dark and the ice forms, Halloween or not.

For more posts about books try                                       Books in the Gardens of Spain                         Novels Historical                     Short Stories           London Books

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