I grew up in the sixties in Pontypridd, South Wales, relieving the crushing boredom of secondary school byspending my pocket money at the local newsagent’s every Friday on volumes of short stories, seduced by the lurid covers of the Pan Books of Horror Stories, Fontana Ghost Stories and the Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts of Dennis Wheatley. Later, much later, I’d sink into the warm Black Water of Alberto Manguel’s collections (which Amazon now calls “a kaleidoscope from the Magi of the imagination”), consuming countless other paperback anthologies along the way.   
Through these, my love of the genre was undoubtedly unlocked (or unblocked? for it felt like a liberation) by such visionary writers as Poe, whose ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, with its unforgettable opening POV – (much imitated but never surpassed, even by Robert Bloch’s ‘Enoch’) – and M.R. James, with his rising bed sheets, unwanted wetnesses, and deeds best kept buried. 
As time went by, the likes of Angela Carter with her carnivalesque symbolism, Robert Aickman with his “kitchen sink gothic”, J G Ballard with his stark unrealities, and many writers outside the field (Tobias Wolff, Bernard MacLaverty, Richard Ford, James Lee Burke) became as important to me as the old masters I revered (and still do) like Conan Doyle, Machen, and Stevenson. 
I hate any kind of top ten list, or top twelve, but here is a selection of newer discoveries and old favourites I’d like to share. Ones that instruct me how that magical frisson of the uncanny and weird can be achieved. Sparingly. Subtly. Intelligently. Memorably. And remind me that the cause I’m obsessed with as a writer to this day – the creation of nightmares – is a noble and ongoing one. 

‘Even The Cops Didn’t Make Jokes’ by Ralph Robert Moore

‘You have a noticeable bulge in your stomach.’
The old woman looked down at her seated body. At the prominent bulge in her abdomen. Milky eyes, filled with joy. ‘I’m pregnant.’
Claire made a note. ‘Really. Well, congratulations. Looking at your file, I see you’re ninety years old. Is that correct?’
Croaking voice. Smile. Yellow teeth. ‘It is.’

Ralph Robert Moore, who regularly has stories in my alma mater, Black Static magazine, as well as a regular non-fiction column in the same publication, is an unsung hero as far as I’m concerned. His writing has the easy, naturalistic, observational charm of Carver, edging the reader ever so gently into a sense of the downright bizarre without ever succumbing to the crass weapons of the more mainstream proponents of horror. He’ll bring you right up to the dotted line, let you take a peek over, then prod you hard in the back, and you plummet. His unforgettable story ‘Men Wearing Make-Up’ is bone-chilling in a way that the creepy clown of Stephen King’s ‘IT’ can elicit only a disinterested shrug by comparison. ‘Even the Cops…’ begins as a tale about a hapless soul, Claire, a social worker, whose life goes from bad to worse. We don’t know where it’s heading, then – wow, a curve ball. I love stories where the inexplicable borders on the religious, or spiritual (or what we think we understand of the religious or spiritual): in a few spare pages Moore does this, without pushing it a word too far. As often with his tales, you are left wondering if you have been privy to internal madness or whether madness has taken grip of external reality itself. 

First published as ‘Learning not to Smile’ in Nightscript 1 2015; collected in Behind You: 18 Stories and Novelettes, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017

‘Shepherd’s Business’ by Stephen Gallagher

I looked at her case notes. They were only days old, and incomplete. Laughton had written them up in a shaky hand and I found myself wondering whether, in some way, his condition might have been a factor in the outcome. Not by any failing of his own, but Daisy had been thirty-six hours in labour before he was called in. Had the midwife delayed calling him for longer than she should? By the time of his intervention it was a matter of no detectable heartbeat and a forceps delivery. 

Stephen Gallagher, like me, is a screenwriter as well as an author. When we meet we joke that whenever one of us goes to a TV meeting, the seat is probably still warm from the other one’s rear end. His TV dramas include Oktober and Chimera, and his novels Valley of Lights, White Bizango, and The Authentic William James – the latter a historical mystery, one of three featuring Sebastian Becker. I’ve always loved Steve’s precision and economy in crafting a page-turner; hiding exposition and research behind the unshowy style of a masterful storyteller. Gallagher’s interests are a broad church, encompassing thrillers, espionage, suspense, science fiction and horror. I have no hesitation is saying he’s excels at them all. ‘Shepherd’s Business’ pulled the rug from under me like no story has done for many a year, and I had great delight in telling him so.

First published in New Fears ed. Mark Morris, Titan  2017. It can be read here

‘Small Animals’ by Alison Moore

‘Who’s Nina?’ Asked Heather.
‘Nina,’ said Marilyn, shattering the nut’s thin shell, catching the pieces in her hand and tidying them back into the bowl, ‘is Kath’s daughter.’ She ran her eyes around the room – the walls, the sideboard, the shelves – looking, thought Heather, for a photo, but not finding one. ‘She’s five,’ said Marilyn. ‘She’s the spit of Kath.’

Alison Moore broke out with her wonderful novel The Lighthouse, an unsettling, minimal exploration of unease and longing, followed by Death and the Seaside, its equally off-beat sibling. It will be no breach of confidence to say she has been shepherded to her success by Nicholas Royle, commissioning editor at Salt, and the mind behind Nightjar Press – himself the king of haunting brevity in his own short stories, collected in such books as Ornithology and Dummy, as well as novels such as Antwerp and First Novel. I see his influence at work, but that is not to denigrate in any way Moore’s innate skill and talent. Her story ‘Late’ (which also appears in The Pre-War House and Other Stories) is perfection; in its febrile interiority it feels, to me, like a mixture of Guy de Maupassant and Joyce Carol Oates, with an ending that’s an emotional gut-punch. But, for all that, her masterwork, for me, is ‘Small Animals’ in which two women visit a child and imperceptibly growing unease rises to a disturbing, head-spinning revelation.

First published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press 2012; collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories, Salt 2013

‘The July Ghost’ by A S Byatt

He was used to her being silent. But this silence went on and on and on. She was just staring into the garden. After a time, she said, in her precise conversational tone, ‘The only thing I want, the only thing I want at all in this world, is to see that boy.

There is something inherently tragic in the plight of the spirit medium – rather, in the situation where one person can see a ghost and the person who longs to see it, can’t. In ‘They’ (1904) Kipling told a tale of a blind woman, Miss Florence, who could see the ghosts of children lost by the parents in the neighbourhood. It is one of his most touching and unsettling stories. I myself was absorbed in the theme as I wrote my television series Afterlife (ITV, 2005-2006) in which a troubled medium formed a fractious relationship with an even more troubled college psychologist whose son had died in a car crash. Both needed the other, both had the potential to mend the other, but the idea of what could not be seen, and what was seen, either by dint of psychic ability or mental illness, was ever present. I hadn’t read Byatt’s story back when I created the series, but I have since, and my memory of it is being remarkably beautiful, tender and poignant. I also liked that my male and female roles were reversed, and the man was the seer. Byatt’s writing is always impeccable, but this dalliance with the alleged paranormal stood out, and I treasure it. Sometimes literary authors can make a fool of themselves stepping into already highly-populated genre waters, but sometimes (as with this, or Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, about a haunted house) they can bring a startling and much-needed freshness to old tropes.

First published in Firebird 1, 1982; collected in Sugar & Other Stories, Chatto & Windus, 1987; The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories 1987; Black Water 2: More Tales of the Fantastic ed. Alberto Manguel, Three Rivers Press 1990, and The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, Penguin, 1991

‘Puppies for Sale’ by Mark Morris

It was Beth who saw the sign.
‘Can we have on, Daddy? Can we? Please! You said we could.’
I glanced at Carol. She had her superior face on – lips pursed, eyebrows raised slightly. ‘Don’t expect any support from me,’ she said. ‘You dug the hole, you climb out of it.’ 

What unites all Mark Morris’s work – be it novels like The Immaculate, novellas like It Sustains, his fantasy books like the Obsidian Heart trilogy, or award-winning audio dramas like Blood on Satan’s Claw – is that all are outstanding examples of their craft, executed with quiet but confident grace. This, however, belies the uniqueness of the author’s approach to the macabre and what puts him, for me, in the upper echelons of today’s practitioners in the field. More than merely prodding your scare buttons, Morris illuminates. However dark we sink, the heart of a human being beats. ‘Puppies for Sale’ is quite simply one of the best horror stories I have ever read, centring as it does on a parent’s fear for his children’s health and wellbeing. Nothing could be more chilling – or horridly convincing – than the slow-drip way that the youngsters in the story are affected by a strange force of malignancy. In the end, as a universal truth, it reminds us vividly that, when all is said and done, we just want our children to be well, and safe. 

First published in British Invasion ed. Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon & James A. Moore; collected in Wrapped in Skin 2016, Chizine Publications, 2016

‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’ by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell

He had studied the ten crimes of the tour in detail so that he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never gotten scared—they didn’t affect him at all. That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror. It was definitely him, no doubt about it. He was unmistakable: The large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy. The drab sweater and his low stature, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims. And then there were his enormous ears, pointed and affable. His name was Cayetano Santos Godino, but his nickname was El Petiso Orejudo: the Big-Eared Runt. He was the most famous criminal on the tour, maybe the most famous in Argentine police record. A murderer of children and small animals. A murderer who didn’t know how to read or add, who couldn’t tell you the days of the week, and who kept a box full of dead birds under his bed.

I have no hesitation in recommending the author’s collection Things We Lost in the Fire as one of the most remarkable books of short stories I have ever read. It is a must-read for any writer looking for a gimlet-eyed attention to prose, fastidious structure, and a poetic imagination nevertheless deeply informed by a world where politics is the stuff of life and death. The specificity of culture renders these tales in bold, gestural strokes. Every one is a gem and every page is to be savoured like fine dining. To say that this is ‘magical realism’ is almost an insult, and certainly reductive. It’s more like Aickman. No. It’s better than Aickman. ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’ is not only one of the best titles I have ever come across, but one of the best stories. It involves a murder tour of Buenos Aires, but to tell you more would, again, be an insult.

First published in Spanish in Spain as Las coas que perdimos en el fuego, Editorial Anagrama, 2016, and in English in Things We Lost in the Fire, Portobello Books 2017. It can be read here

‘Sredni Vashtar’ by ‘Saki’ (H. H. Munro)

And Conradin fervently breathed his prayer for the last time. But he knew as he prayed that he did not believe. He knew that the Woman would come out presently with that pursed smile he loathed so well on her face, and that in an hour or two the gardener would carry away his wonderful god, a god no longer, but a simple brown ferret in a hutch. And he knew that the Woman would triumph always as she triumphed now, and that he would grow ever more sickly under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom, till one day nothing would matter much more with him, and the doctor would be proved right. And in the sting and misery of his defeat, he began to chant loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.   
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.   
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.

God is a ferret and the ferret is death. Conradin, a sickly ten-year-old boy, worships the creature and fears the ‘sharp-fanged beast’ Sredni Vashtar in equal measure. But he conjures that fear into substance (as my Mary Shelley conjured up her demon in the screenplay for Ken Russell’s Gothic) and it becomes a weapon against Mrs De Ropp, his domineering cousin and nemesis. Whether she deserves her fate is for us to say. Who has the greater capacity for evil – her, or the boy, who creates, with his imagination, a perversely divine being to whom he prays for revenge? We are told Mrs De Ropp ‘indulged in religion once a week at a church’ while little Conradin engages in rituals to something ungodly. Thus the story taps into the British Empire’s fear of non-Christian deities unknown and unknowable.  Potent also is its use of a child as hero/victim/villain, upturning the Victorian-created belief in childhood as unsullied innocence – instead reflecting the dubious inner lives of the young, their ambiguous motivation so magnificently echoed in Henry James’s spectral masterpiece The Turn of the Screw. The childlike rhyme quoted above inverts the given ‘spiritual’ or ‘improving’ nature of poetry to convey its reverse; profane malevolence. The threat can easily be seen as a heathen force, a pagan god-animal, baring its teeth at the hubris of parents and all authority figures, and we, like children ourselves listening to a fable, enjoy every ounce of its nastiness. 

First published in The Chronicles of Clovis 1912; collected in Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do on TV, Max Reinhardt Ltd 1957; Pan Books 1960. It can be read here

‘You Go Where it Takes You’ by Nathan Ballingrud

He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that little diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end.

Winner of numerous accolades including the Shirley Jackson Award, and a game changer for horror fiction, Ballingrud’s astonishing collection North American Lake Monsters is an achingly real tapestry of the sort of fears, mistakes, regrets and inabilities to change that curse us as human beings. The stories could easily have rested on their laurels as pieces of realism, but instead dare to be expertly seasoned with the downright weird. These stories do not need to be horror, but horror – here’s the thing – elevates them and makes them sing. The prose is breathtaking, but, more importantly, here is someone who knows what horror is for. He sees horror as the only way to express the lives of people, deep down, and reinvigorates genre concepts by using an unflinching eye and consummate control of language. For instance, in ‘Sunbleached’ he describes a vampire as ‘a dancer pretending to be a spider’ and I’m damned if you need any more than that. Vitally, Ballingrud is quoted in a recent interview saying: ‘I believe self-interrogation is a key to strong fiction. You should write about what you are ashamed of. You have to be merciless with yourself. That’s why I like to write about characters so easy to hate. Writing fiction is, in no small part, about practicing empathy: and if there is a noble purpose in literature, it’s (that).’ Exactly the philosophy I aspire to. Horror is there to desolate, yes – but it is there to show humanity, even as, sometimes, it shows inhumanity. Ballingrud also knows that the real game is: ‘What’s the least I can do to make this horror?’

First published on SCIFICTION July 13 2003; collected in North American Lake Monsters, Small Beer Press 2013. The story can be read here

‘The Signal Man’ by Charles Dickens

In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.
Said I when I rose to leave him: ‘You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.’
(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)
‘I believe I used to be so,’ he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; ‘but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.’

I am not unique in being a ghost story writer highly influenced by BBCTV’s Ghost Stories for Christmasseries which was broadcast throughout the 1970s. The best of these were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and the best of those, adapted as it was by Andrew Davies (now notorious for ‘sexing up’ the classics), was The Signal Man (1979), boasting in its cast list Denholm Elliot, whose performance the director has described as “wound up like a coiled spring”. The Dickens story is no less taut or perfectly realised than its small screen cousin. Only a year before its publication, he himself had been involved in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, when his train jumped a gap and plunged off a viaduct, hanging in the void. Dickens had helped in the rescue of passengers, but it is said the experience had a traumatic effect on him – Peter Ackroyd opines it hastened him to his death in 1870 – and it is not hard to see panic disorder and horrific flashbacks pervading the short story that emerged from it. Dickens also knew that the best ghost stories operate not with unequivocal belief but with doubt as their engine. Is it true, or all in the mind? The Signal Man, then, is a struggle between rational thinking and the lure of the supernatural. It is tempting for us  to think of Dickens and M. R. James as writers of cosy, even quaint and innocuous terrors, but we should remind ourselves their times were not antiquarian, dusty and distant when they were writing. Their world was modern and real. A train wasn’t a symbol of nostalgia of a bygone age: to the Victorian imagination it symbolised death, the very real fear of disaster. Dickens was not only using the emblem of his trauma, but a contemporary fear of hurtling, out of control, technology – the same thing that inspires much contemporary fiction today.  

First published as part of the ‘Mugby Junction’ collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round; collected in The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, Wordsworth Classics 1998 It can be read online here

‘The Pike’ by Conrad Williams

There never seemed to be any great stretch between closing his eyes and opening them again. He couldn’t remember his dreams anymore. It was his skin, rather than the alarm clock, that brought him back. Skin so tight and dry it must belong to another body. It itched constantly, no matter how much of the cream he applied, or how often. The doctor wanted him to go for surgery, but Lostock had a thing about scars. Scars changed the way you looked. You became someone else, and he was only just coming to terms with the person that he had been shaped into. But then, maybe, it would be for the best if he did change. To be physically altered, to be at some part removed from the cast of his ancestors. The slightly prominent forehead. The downward slope of the mouth. It would help him to forget that he was the sum of a number of parts that were at best defective.

Conrad Williams’s use of language at the service of works of the uncanny is second to none. I know he has written crime thrillers such as Blonde of a Stick, full of the gnarly linguistic invention I’d expect, but I would hail him as being one of the authors most inspiring to me in terms of pushing the literary boundary of what horror means, or can achieve. His stories always startle as well as sparkle. There is wit in the wounds he inflicts. And rarely is there a story in his magisterial collections, such as Born With Teeth or I Will Surround You that doesn’t take the breath away or stick in the craw of your complacency. Like many of the best writers, he paints a truthful landscape, then leaves the most horrific thing off screen, bidding you to picture it on your own. In the dark. Forever. Yes, he really is that nasty. But I love him for it. More than that, though, he shows that there can be beauty in the agonizing, seeds of survival in the bleakest of places, and gut-twisting terror in the most mundane. As his brilliant novel One shows, every shadowy path can be lit by hope, and in ‘The Pike’ his superbly evocative language records, unerringly, yet again, who we are as human beings, as vulnerable to what is inside our heads as we are to the world around us.

First published in the collection Born With Teeth, PS Publishing 2012; can be read online at Nightmare (Issue 72) Sept 2018. It can be read online here

‘Playing With Fire’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It was John Moir (the well-known senior partner of Moir, Moir, and Sanderson) who had originally turned our attention to occult subjects. He had, like many very hard and practical men of business, a mystic side to his nature, which had led him to the examination, and eventually to the acceptance, of those elusive phenomena which are grouped together with much that is foolish, and much that is fraudulent, under the common heading of spiritualism. His researches, which had begun with an open mind, ended unhappily in dogma, and he became as positive and fanatical as any other bigot. He represented in our little group the body of men who have turned these singular phenomena into a new religion.

I’m a sucker for a séance scenes. I admit it. I’ve written them as often as John Ford filmed gunfights, and this story is the culprit, I think. The theatricality of it. The absurdity of it. The deep emotion of what is at stake, contrasting with the naff nature of the human contraption purporting the deliver the miraculous. I love those contradictions. Comic, tragic, unbelievable – but at the same time aching to be believed. I saw a televised version of ‘Playing with Fire’ way back in 1967, part of the Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle series, directed by Piers Haggard and adapted by John Hawkesworth, a steady hand on the Sherlock Holmes tiller. Of course, Holmes had been the supreme rationalist, dismissing Sussex vampires and phantom hounds in his casebook. Doyle himself proved not so dismissive. He became embroiled in the Cottingly Fairies fiasco, insisting fairies really did exist, opening himself to accusations of gullibility (and worse) ever since. In the 1920s he toured the USA as an evangelist for Spiritualism, even converting his fictional character Professor Challenger, of Lost World fame, to the cause. But before that he was keenly interested in occult fiction, and it is interesting to see, given his later faith, that in this story, from 1900, he is wise enough to employ scepticism as an element. Believers and non-believers gather in an artist’s studio to sit with a medium. A spirit is contact and unearthly energy made manifest, with catastrophic and shocking results. It’s notable that Doyle, at the end of the tale, chooses to give us the opportunity to wonder if what happened was real, rather than accepting it as fact. It’s a fascinating glimpse not only into the séance room he knew so well but also into his avid interest in the hidden mysteries of science, nature and, in this case, the creative process – how the imagination, his own imagination, makes a thing, a thing in the mind’s eye, real and tangible.

First published in The Strand magazine March 1900; collected in The Conan Doyle Stories, John Murray 1929) It can be read online here

‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs

“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, “just to look round a bit, you know.”
“Better where you are,” said the sergeant-major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass, and sighing softly, shook it again.
“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “What was that you started telling me the other day about a monkey’s paw or something, Morris?”
“Nothing,” said the soldier, hastily. “Leastways nothing worth hearing.”
“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White, curiously.
“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps,” said the sergeant-major, offhandedly.
His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him.

Like Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Occurrence at Own Creek Bridge’, Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’, Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, and Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is, in a way that eradicates naysayers, simply a perfect story. However there is nothing simple about it. It contains multitudes. My friend the writer Steve Lockley does a talk to students about its many layers, and tells me it easily lasts two hours, sometimes three, as discussion can spin off in so many different directions, from fairy tales to numerology, from possessed objects to Darwin, from Freud’s return of the repressed, to Tales from the Crypt. The story’s plot is well known. Deceptively anecdotal. The three wishes format sits solidly its core, the magical paw a symbol of desire and greed, appealing to our human compulsion to selfishly grasp what is unattainable, what is wrong in the natural order, and the consequence therein. It could be a Biblical parable, and would not be out of place set in the Holy Land. The genius is that Lazarus, mangled, unspeakable, voiceless, remains out of shot, making it the most cinematic of short stories, and one of the most contained. It begins on a dark and stormy night with that supremely rational pastime, a game of chess. But after a tale of far off lands takes grip by the fireside, reversals from elation to shock, hope to desolation, keep us on our toes. Nothing is more brutal than the phrase ‘Caught in the machinery’. And, according to William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, nothing more scary than ‘a slow tracking shot towards a closed door’ – which this classic story, in fictional terms, proves, to a tee.

First published in The Lady of the Barge 1902; collected in Antologia de la Literatura Fantástica, ed. Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Argentina 1940, English edition revised and expanded as The Book of Fantasy, published in Great Britain by Xanadu Publications Ltd 1988. It can be read online here