You have heard of fantasy football; picking players from NFL teams to forge a strong team of your own to compete on paper. Well, I want to do the same type of thing but in a way horror fiction fans would appreciate. I don’t know if this has ever been attempted, but if it has, it was surely by a horror nerd with too much weed and time on his/her hands.
Compose your own table of contents for what would be your ultimate horror anthology. There are no limits. Choose from any author you want, at any time you want. So here is my fantasy horror anthology, and though the names may be as familiar to you as your own family, you will notice a mix of obscure tales, that I think should be reexamined (I am an admitted B-side lover), and you will also notice selections that are considered staples of the genre by many fans. For time and space constraints, I will pick ten here as my choices. Just remember, it’s my party…
The very first story would be one by a man better known for his science fiction, but a home run hitter in whichever genre he chose to flex his creative muscles. BRIGHT SEGMENT by Theodore Sturgeon would by the first title affixed to this ultimate anthology of mine. Written in 1953, BRIGHT SEGMENT concerns a lonely old man who finds a near-dead prostitute on the streets. He brings her in and nurses her back to health. As she strengthens and threatens to leave his care and this bright segment of his draws to a close, the old man takes measures to extend his newfound happiness. This is an absolutely brilliant tale that inspires revulsion and sympathy with the same tug.
So next we look at the work of Stephen King for inclusion. I am a child of King, in so many ways. But my favorite works of his go back to his older tales. And my first King tale for inclusion would have to be NONA. First published in an anthology in 1978 called Shadows, Nona is either a figment of the narrator’s imagination or a seductive and evil siren of murder who asks repeatedly at the end, “Do you love?”, before she turns into a hideous creature and leaves the narrator alone in a graveyard for the police to find. NONA is Lovecraft-inspired gem and it elicits creepiness from any of us who have ever loved, and maybe found a little madness in our devotion.
We are not done with King, yet. NIGHT SURF was printed in Ubris magazine in 1969. It was the seed from which THE STAND would sprout. It is a post-apocalyptic tale about a group of teens gathered one night at Anson Beach in New Hampshire. They glow and warm near a bonfire, but the fire that lights their night burns with depraved, solemn and desperate purpose. The group burns a man at a pyre to appease the Gods and protect themselves from a disease called A6 (or Captain Trips).
We come now to the works of Clive Barker and his inclusions will not be the expected standouts. There will be two tales selected, half-filling my collection.
IN THE HILLS, IN THE CITIES is my first of the Barker tales. Two gay men try to rekindle their love on a vacation to Yugoslavia. Mick and Judd bear witness to the macabre war between two villages, Popolac and Podujevo. Each town is represented by a mass of thousands joined in uniform and violent purpose. A battle between two giants occurs, and this is one of the most inspired Barker tales you could ever endure. It is breathtaking.
My second Barker contribution would be HELL’S EVENT. It concerns a contest where Hell is given the opportunity to take and rule the Earth. There is a race in London, and a shape-shifting representative of Hell participates. Joel, a human competitor in the race, realizes the stakes he is running for. This is a bloody and humorous piece of Barker fiction.
My next selection would be the classic YOURS TRULY, JACK THE RIPPER from the great Robert Bloch. It was printed in Weird Tales in 1943. It is a very famous tale, and many horror fans have heard the title in relation to highly regarded pieces of horror literature. But let me ask you a question… have you ever actually read it? It is an intense and well-researched imaging of the infamous serial killer as an immortal who must make human sacrifices to continue his bloody existence. It is masterfully crafted by Bloch, whose creative intensity never dulled. The man was a talented craftsman, indeed. He is largely considered a writer’s writer. And he was a member of Lovecraft’s circle.
Poised to terrify at the seventh spot would be I SCREAM MAN by Robert McCammon. In this tale, McCammon takes something as innocuous as a family game of Scrabble and turns it into a triumph of absolute dread. McCammon is a master at taking familiar and safe boundaries and wrapping them around your throat. He is a powerhouse.
SHATTERDAY is the eighth selection, and it is a story by one of the most enduring voices of speculative fiction, Harlan Ellison. Peter Jay Novins calls his own phone by mistake, and he answers it. Soon, it is revealed that an alter ego is planning to take Peter’s miserable life away and replace him. Peter sickens and slowly fades as his former shadow gains substance and lives a more happy and successful version of Peter’s life. Yes, this was an episode of the revival Twilight Zone series, but the story from Ellison’s collection (itself called Shatterday) is an absolutely chilling tale of losing your identity and purpose. It straddles the genre fence, but inspires enough dread to land here on my list.
The next to last of this fun little excursion would find Charles Beaumont’s THE HOWLING MAN. Beaumont would adapt his 1960 short story into a famous episode of Twilight Zone. The Howling Man concerned David Ellington, a man on a walking trip through Europe who shows up, lost and ill, on the doorstep of a hidden castle. There, he discovers that a man is held prisoner by a group of monks. The monks claim their prisoner is the devil himself, and he can only be released by removing the staff of truth from his prison door. Beaumont was one of the most influential authors of the strange and dark, and his work has inspired several in the genre. And he is a name I would proudly include in this make-believe collection.
My tenth spot would feature THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It chronicles a woman’s journey into madness, as she is locked away by her physician husband. The woman is stored away quietly to recuperate from a slight hysterical tendency. The woman slowly begins to have visions in the patterns of the wallpaper in the room that imprisons her. An important and classic tale, which you should seek out if you have not read it, that is also an incredible piece of feminist literature.
So, there would be my top ten. And were this list to continue, you would see tales from Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Hugh B. Cave, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Rex Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, Rod Serling… trust me, the list could easily run into triple digits. The ten I have listed are stories that I hold a particular fondness for. They are stories that have touched me, and left a mark.
If you are inspired to seek any of these tales out, then I have served a purpose here today.