I’ve loved horror stories since I was a child. I can still remember the ones I read when I was ten years old: everything from the POINT HORROR series to Roald Dahl’s TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED and THE OXFORD COLLECTION OF NASTY ENDINGS. I loved the idea of people gathering together to tell scary stories, too: films and TV shows like TALES FROM THE CRYPTKEEPER and ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?, where the idea of introducing a story was important as telling it, fascinated me.
When I first came up with the idea for CHRISTMAS DINNER OF SOULS, I knew I wanted to write my own short horror collection linked by a frame narrative. My first idea was called DEAD ENDS, and was about a scholar touring the country gathering old stories and slowly going mad! I finally settled on the idea of a learned society gathering at night to tell the most scary tales they knew – rather fittingly, looking at my notes I can see that I came up with the idea on Halloween 2013! Before long, I had decided to make it a Christmas gathering.
For me, horror and Christmas work perfectly together. There’s something indescribably creepy about Christmas Eve: for me, it’s the idea of it being so safe and warm inside when it’s so dark out. It’s like we’re all huddling in safety, trying to protect ourselves from something lurking out there in the cold…
Every Christmas Eve I stay up late and read as many horror stories as I can. Here are my top five: some I read when I was a child, some I’ve read recently, and some I would happily have eaten my own arm off to have written myself. Enjoy!
1. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
I remember this so clearly when I was younger. The stories aren’t that scary – they’re short, simple, and creepy, but they’re not going to keep you awake at night. The illustrations, though – MAN OH MAN. How did they get away with this?! The image of the rotting woman’s face has been imprinted on my brain for 20 years, and was one of the key pieces of inspiration for CHRISTMAS DINNER OF SOULS. Perhaps that’s what I imagine when I think of the portrait of Edgar Caverner!
2. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
I read this in one sitting a few Christmas Eves ago and all I can say is I – WAS – TERRIFIED. This is an adult horror story written by the writer of the WOLF BROTHER series: the recollections of a man joining an overwinter expedition in the Arctic wastes in the 1930s. Before long he’s on his own for six long months of freezing darkness, going slowly mad and being stalked by a murderous bear-post (trust me, just read it). It’s the kind of idea that’s so good you cannot believe it hasn’t been done before.
3. The Screaming Skull by Francis Marion Crawford
I found this in a collection of ghost stories about ten years ago: the monologue of an old sea captain who inherits the house of a doctor friend, where he finds a skull in a box in a cupboard. Every time he tries to get rid of it, he hears screaming and the skull reappears. He becomes haunted by the memory of telling the doctor stories he’d heard of men who killed their wives by pouring molten lead in their ear – and is convinced he can hear something rattling in the skull when he shakes it…
The story transfers from a dramatic retelling to a description of events unfolding right then and there – as if the story itself is breaking free of its own retelling, refusing to be stored away like the skull in the box.
4. Mr Lupescu by Anthony Boucher
Now THIS is my kind of story! A young boy called Bobby has an imaginary friend called Mr Lupescu who appears when his parents split up – and who, it turns out, has other plans for Bobby…
I don’t want to say too much about this story, because the way it unfolds is so, so good. It has a fantastically nasty ending (thanks to an undescribed, terrifying monster called Gorgo). If you can forgive the penultimate section – a slightly clunky way to show that there’s still hope for Bobby – then it’s perfect. I would chew my own arm off to have written this story. You can read it for free here: http://www.scaryforkids.com/mr-lupescu/
5. The Landlady by Roald Dahl
I’ve recently gotten back into Roald Dahl’s grim adult stories, and loving them. It’s great to revisit a favourite writer and see him with adult eyes: whether it’s the strange and unimaginably cruel story of The Swan, or The Landlady, a genuinely nauseating and unpleasant story where nothing actually happens. You could read this to a child and they wouldn’t see anything other than a man renting a bedroom: all the menace, terror and realisation is just lightly bubbling under the surface. It is fabulously horrible.
What about you? What are your favourite horror stories – and what could be perfect to read on Christmas Eve?