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Why classic horror stories are still as terrifying as ever

Halloween is upon us, and so it’s time to enjoy all things horror. If you’re a reader, you have a large collection of horror literature to choose from – but where should you look? Do you pick up the newest scary book on the shelf, or do you look back into the past for the greats of horror old? Personally, I’d tend towards the latter every time, because those classic horror stories just chime with me. Hopefully I can convince you to try them out, and scare yourself with a blast from the past this spooky season.

My love of classic horror dates back to primary school, and an anthology collection of some classic stories in our school library. I was fascinated by it, because it was genuinely scary stuff – these were not really age-appropriate tales. I’ve written about ‘The Horla’ before, a story about an invisible creature that still terrifies me to this day. I remember a few other stories from that collection. One was ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, an M.R. James tale about a sceptical professor visited by a spirit after blowing an old whistle. There was a Dickens story, ‘The Signal-Man’, following a railway worker plagued with premonitions of disaster, and I also recall a short about a phantom omnibus that I’ve never found or been able to name since.

This is where the classic authors really excel – they know how to tell us just enough to impact, and not go overboard

I love tales from the 1800s and early 1900s because they tend to be very short and effective. They build up the atmosphere, they terrify the reader and then they finish, often leaving many questions unanswered. This is where the classic authors really excel – they know how to tell us just enough to impact, and not go overboard. Julius Long’s ‘The Pale Man’ is a great example of this. We share the narrator’s confusion and fascination with the figure of the pale man, and his fear when he finally figures it out. But Long trusts the reader enough to let the answers hang in the air – he doesn’t need to lay it all out, and that avoids the exposition dump that derails so many horror stories. I’d recommend it. It’s a ten-minute read at most, and it works perfectly.

There’s a reason that so many of these stories live on as classics, and that’s because they work really well. They have a sense of place, and they evoke that feeling of human fear so perfectly. Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ remains one of the most terrifying depictions of guilt ever committed to the page. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, and the much-parodied ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (W.W. Jacobs, 1902) has lost none of its disturbing power more than a century later. If you fancy a bit of cosmic horror, no-one has ever done it better than H.P. Lovecraft in his Cthulhu stories.

My inclination is always towards those classic stories – they feel so distant in time, yet so familiar, and their scares remain as terrifying as ever

I don’t write this article to dismiss modern horror. There’s a lot of modern stuff I love, and I think authors like Paul Tremblay, Stephen King and Victor LaValle have produced some brilliant horror in recent years. In another Boar article, my pick for a book that should become a film was Dathan Auerbach’s chilling Penpal, a novel that got right under my skin with its depiction of a stalker with monstrous intentions. If an author can find something frightening, mysterious or unknown, and convey it in such a way that it feels fresh and scary, it doesn’t matter when the author is writing. Fear is fear, it’s as simple as that.

But my inclination is always towards those classic stories – they feel so distant in time, yet so familiar, and their scares remain as terrifying as ever. If you’re after a scary story to chill your bones this Halloween, you could do worse than look to the past and to some of the old masters of horror. And, if they keep you up at night, don’t say I didn’t warn you…

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