I see a lot of reading lists offered by readers and writers around Halloween time, which is great, but three quarters of them have different variations of the same works. It’s hard to avoid Stephen King, simply because there are so many terrific short stories you might choose. On the other hand, you also get a tsunami of H. P. Lovecraft, which, for my money, is akin to a fist full of Ambien. To each his own, I suppose. Very often the lists are packed with exciting contemporary horror writers reframing and reinvigorating the scene—Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, Caitlin Kiernan, etc. You get the picture. These are the go-to writers and yet they’re well known by devotees of the field and widely read. All well and good.
But I remember that on Halloween, when my brother and I went trick-or-treating down the mean streets of West Islip, we never counted our night a success unless we’d managed to reach some distant, eerie, tree lined street we’d never seen or heard of before.
There was always a point when, somewhere not long after midnight, exhausted from the meandering trek and having had to run for our scalps away from kids with Nair bombs (balloons full of liquid hair remover), sugar buzzed and teeth aching from one too many Mary Janes, we’d sit on the curb in the dark and silence, leaves falling, streamers of toilet paper in the branches undulating in the now cold breeze like the arms of dream ghosts, and decide we’d come too far. It engendered a cemetery loneliness in the chest, and a creeping sensation that slid, slowly at first, up the spine only to suddenly explode into glorious, full-fledged fright that had us on our feet and running as hard as we could away from where we were nothing, back to where there was someone who knew and loved us. That creepy sensation only to be found on the dark back roads of Halloween was the heart of the holiday for me.
So here, from those dark back streets off the beaten path, are three short stories I rarely encounter on these lists:
“The Wax Divinity” by S. N. Hunt
A week after his wife dies, Lambert Stiles, a retired librarian, wakes in the middle of the night to discover that someone is swimming in his backyard pool. He watches from the window for three nights and on the fourth goes outside with a flashlight to confront the prowler. He shines his beam on a naked woman climbing down the pool ladder. The way the water rolls off her, the translucent nature of her skin, tell him that she’s made of wax. She walks past him and disappears into the bushes at the back of the property.
Before all is said and done with this story, there will be a slow decapitation, and that’s not really giving anything away. Hunt has a clean style and keeps the metaphor to a minimum but still somehow builds a palpable sense of dread. Until things get bloody, he really keeps the lid on it. I saw an on-line interview with him at Spindrift from back in 2004. He said of this story, “The turning point in that one is when the eyeball grows inside Stiles’ eyeball. After that, you know, the wax woman’s wax husband shows up and everything goes to shit.”
Because he’s spent so much time in the library, Stiles decides to try to find if there is, anywhere in a book, a magazine, on-line, in the crumbling micro-fiche any reference to a wax woman. Each day he goes to do his research he finds another small patch of his own flesh turned to wax. Then, two months after the woman disappears in his backyard, he reads of a wax woman washed up after a storm on the beach of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean in 1962. There is a photo accompanying the article, and it is a photo of his wife.
“Mootaugh” by Jen Lee
Lee’s creation, Mootaugh, is a hulking figure that slips through the autumn night in tattered clothes, wearing a full mask like a giant half an egg shell with two cracked holes for the eyes and one larger one for the mouth. The false face is held in place by two strands of macramé cord tied behind the being’s enormous head. One never sees Mootaugh’s face, but it’s easy to tell from the enormous gnarled feet, the broad, lopsided shoulders, the bristled hair sticking out through holes in clothes and from behind the mask, the ripping claws of the arthritic hands, he/she is some kind of human/monster hybrid.
Mootaugh lives in an abandoned apartment building in the poor part of town. The people who live in the neighborhood fear the creature even though it alternates back and forth each night. One night it will leave its den to do good and the next it will come out to do evil. The story takes a turn when the apartment catches fire and Mootaugh disappears for a spell. The neighbors miss the good deeds but not the alternating murders and cannibalism. Then the thing returns and they’ve lost track as to whether it is a night for an act of good or evil. When a man is found dead in the street one morning, obviously savaged by a returned Mootaugh, a young woman sets out to prove that the death of the man was actually an act of good and that her neighbors are mistaken. To do so, she must confront the expressionless mask.
For an idea of Jen Lee’s writing, think Bruno Schultz meets Thomas Ligotti. Smooth, flowing prose, smoother subtle slides into unnerving dislocations, like going to sleep in your bed and waking up on an abandoned train platform. Lee, who is in her 70’s now, is an Uber driver in Hesper P. A. She writes her stories, sitting in the car, waiting for her next customer. Horror insiders who’ve known her for a long time call her “The Venus Fly Trap.” I don’t know why.
“Whispers From the Labyrinth” by Cecil Leach
British writer Cecil Leach, a contemporary of Dickens, was, in his time, a well-known fixture in the pages of the gentleman’s magazines. His normal fare through the year was rather unremarkable, but at Christmas time when the holiday annuals held an abundance of ghost stories, Leach was in hot demand. His ghost stories were bizarre and melancholic and were said to keep readers up into the wee hours of the morning with both a sense of imminent dread and a curiosity to find some understanding as to what they’d just read. Willkie Collins said of “Whispers From the Labyrinth” that it was “a wicked, sharp, gem of a story.”
The labyrinth referred to in the title of the piece is the brain of Mrs. Wilson Fish, a patient at Westminster Hospital in the year 1847. She is brought in off the street dressed in finery, still clutching a parasol, and spouting unintelligible phrases. Her purse is recovered and inside is a card carrying her name and beneath it the word Sinner. It is her physician’s opinion that she’s more than likely been knocked over by a runaway carriage and has suffered a severe concussion, resulting in a swelling of the brain. He consults with colleagues and they all concur that the best course of action to relieve the pressure in her head is trepanation. A hole is drilled in her skull and from within the dark labyrinth issues a voice, a breathy whisper that claims to belong to the devil.
Young Dr. Spies puts off what he hears issuing from the beautiful young woman to his own hysteria at having to perform a procedure he’d never been exposed to in college. The trepanation works, though, and the young woman starts to recover. Meanwhile, Spies goes searching, based on her name and what he’d heard the voice say, in order to ascertain the story of his patient. What he finds is the majority of the tale, a tale that grows increasingly darker as it proceeds. It seems to unfold with great care and be twice as long as it is. Leach was famous for his powers of compression, though, and was said to be able to get a 15-page story into 8 pages with nothing missing. Note, in your reading, the scene where Spies finds the empty coffin on the beach.
Editor’s Note: We’ve asked Mr. Ford for links to where these stories appear online or to places where the anthologies they appeared in might be purchased. He responded with the following message. “To find these pieces, grab a pillow case, give yourself a charcoal beard and put on your most tattered clothes. Wait till dark and then leave the house, heading west. Walk as far, in a meandering manner, as possible, eating a steady diet of candy corn and Twizzlers, until you are exhausted. Sometime after midnight, you will come to an old decrepit house hidden beneath trees shedding orange leaves. Go to the door. Knock twice (the buzzer doesn’t work). The door will open. Hold your pillow case agape, and an arthritic hand with uncut yellowing nails will drop the stories in your bag. Avoid Nair bombs and flying eggs on the journey back.”
Jeffrey Ford is the author of novels including The Physiognomy, The Girl in the Glass, The Cosmology of the Wider World, and The Shadow Year. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, from MAD Magazine to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. His latest novella, The Twilight Pariah, is available from Tor.com Publishing.