I remember, as a child, visiting a farm surrounded by very tall trees that seemed to sweep up into the sky and blend into the darkening clouds. It was an ominous family visit, an uncle was terminally ill and children were expected to mind their own business out of sight. So we did. And so I made a friend during that visit, who was intrigued and horrified when I confessed, as we trudged along the heath, that I love weird and scary stories. I suppose back then, being a little girl with a fondness for being spooked was probably a novelty. It’s certainly an attraction I suspect my mother hoped I would soon shed, while she selected the creepiest children’s books for me at our small-town library, at the same time reprimanding that I had better not leave them out for all to see when we had visitors. I never did. Although I’m much more selective in my reading choices as an adult, and I have to be in just the right mood, my love of tales that creep into your subconscious with a deliciously subtle chill has remained. I recently read two such stories – very different, but equally frightening.
The first, Susan Hill’s The Small Hand. A few years ago I read her The Woman in Black (lights on, of course, it really was that scary), but this I thought much more elegant and spooky. Adam Snow, an antiquarian bookseller (dream job, if there ever was one) tells of his encounter in the garden of “The White House” – a now decrepit house surrounded by once sprawling gardens and with a tragic history. Adam finds the house by accident after getting lost during a business trip, and while exploring the rundown property, he experiences the strangest sensation: a little childlike hand suddenly grasps his own. A haunted house and a ghostly child? Yes, please! As Adam researches the house and its past and tries to solve the mystery of the small hand – an apparition that steals into his everyday life with troubling frequency even after he has left the property itself – he makes an unsettling discovery. This is a slim little book, I finished it in a single sitting, but, if you love the traditional ghost story, it’s a must-read.
Strange in a whole different way, is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I’ve been reading a lot about this author, a biography on her life having been released recently, and this is her most famous (infamous?) short story. It was published for the first time in The New Yorker in the ‘40s and led to an outrage among the magazine’s readers. Not that difficult to see why, really. It is a bizarre and skin-crawling account of a ritual “lottery” practised in a small town. It starts off seemingly ordinary – on a sunny day the townsfolk gather to attend an annual event, there’s a jitter of excitement, whispers of anticipation. But there’s also a sense of dread, an undercurrent of anxiety. And as the sunny day draws to a very, very dark conclusion, it’s easy to see why those 1940s knickers were in a knot. There are no ghosts and ghouls here, but also no explanation for what exactly the lottery is, or why it takes place at all. Eerie and dreadful and terrifying on a deeply psychological level. I think I’ll most certainly be spending many more uneasy hours with Ms Jackson’s tales.