Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Power of Three - 13th Installment

Well ... for once it isn't that time of the week again, but as I'll be spending the next two days in the capital - at Ladbroke Grove Studios, to be specific - observing at close hand as my latest DR WHO audio is recorded by Big Finish and a cast of thousands (I'll also, hopefully, be shaking hands with yet another of my favourite Doctors), I won't be able to do the usual Friday morning coffee break thing.

So here, two days earlier than normal, but still for your delectation, are three more selections from my unofficial list of the best and scariest horror stories ever written. Again, they were chosen entirely at random. No theme exists other than that they all came out of the hat on the same day.

If you don't already know these, you've just got to go and find them.

Mrs. Jones by Dorothy K. Haynes

Mrs. Jones, an excellent but uncharitable cook, is well known for her prize-winning cakes and biscuits. But when she is rude to a hideous hag who wants a free sample at the village fair, she is whisked off to a terrible and eternal punishment.

There’s only one message to be drawn from this one: don’t insult the fairy folk. Whether that subtext is to be taken seriously or not depends on the reader, but with her usual exquisite prose, Dorothy K. Haynes here delivers a horror story of a unique kind, transforming a race of entities who most of us regard as harmless beings frolicking on the pages of nursery books into an intelligent and baleful lot, who’ll have no hesitation in delivering severe penalties if so deserved. What’s more, it’s all done completely believably. In the hands of a lesser writer, the big twist at the end would probably come over as ludicrous. But it doesn’t here – far from it.

First published in WELSH TALES OF TERROR (pictured), 1973

The Cave by Basil Copper

A hill-walker lost in the Tyrol holes up in a remote village, only to find the locals living in fear of a cave-dwelling something which started out killing goats and cattle, and may soon be killing people.

Basil Copper’s eloquent descriptive style is perfectly suited to this classic monster story, which makes wonderful use of its scenic backdrop, but is also chillingly effective in the way it conjures an unknown but terrifying foe simply by portraying the sounds it makes in the depths of a cave or on the other side of a flimsily bolted farm door. You never actually see the dreadful antagonist, but in true Jamesian style – and this tale is very much a tribute to M.R. James – there is no end to the terror these simple techniques create, or the ultimate violence that results. Extremely frightening.

First published in NOT AFTER NIGHTFALL, 1967.

Loopy by Ruth Rendell

A middle-class mother and son make an odd couple. He likes to dress in a wolf costume and romp around the house. She, who is no stranger to this kind of behaviour herself, indulges him. But what’s going to happen when his girlfriend shows up?

Another perceptive Ruth Rendell study of psycho-sexual repression in Middle England. This one is written in her usual lively style, and with more than a touch of Dahl-esque dark comedy – but the laughter doesn’t last for long. There are several nice jabs in the direction of traditional werewolf stories, though in some ways this is a werewolf story. At the same time we’re invoking that equally traditional horror staple: the mother-inspired serial killer, and yet this is no send-up of the subgenre because it's such an effective tale in its own right. A lot of fun, but very clever and very creepy.

First published in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, 1982.

And now for something completely different. Well ... not totally. I was interviewed this week by those splendid chaps and chapesses at Twisted Tales. So, if anyone is interested in hearing my views on this, that and the other (mainly horror-related, it goes without saying), then check out the following link:


  1. "The Cave" by Basil Copper is one of my favourite stories by Basil Copper, the author who can be safely crowned as a master of macabre. The other two, esp. 'Loopy' has to be unearthed by me, for re-appreciation.

  2. LOOPY won't be hard to find, Riju. It was included in a collection of Ruth Rendell stories which was published quite recently. I can't remember the title, but you should be able to google it.