Our reviews of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. For this year’s Halloween week column, we offer a selection of haunted house stories. (The first story is admittedly pushing the boundaries of that classification, but it was too good to leave out.)
“The Man in the Woods” by Shirley Jackson (published 2014, free in The New Yorker)
Christopher, a college student, leaves school one day for reasons he can’t even articulate to himself, and walks for days through towns and fields, eventually making his way into a forest. The trees ominously press in on him, but a cat has joined him on his journey through the forest, giving him some companionship and comfort. Christopher and the cat eventually come across a stone house in the forest. He’s invited in by the two odd women who live there, Phyllis and Aunt Cissy (who insists her name is actually Circe), and given some dinner. An older man, Mr. Oakes, joins them as well. Christopher is bewildered, though grateful for the food and shelter, but the three inhabitants of the stone house seem to have some particular plan in mind for him.
“The Man in the Woods” is one of several Shirley Jackson stories unearthed by her children long after Jackson’s death in 1965, and was published in 2014 in the New Yorker magazine. There are several fascinating bits of symbolism in the story: Christopher, the scholar whose name may symbolize Christ or Christianity. Oakes in his green robe, showing Christopher around the house, including a room filled with old written records (“They are of great value,” Mr. Oakes said sadly. “I have never known how to use them, of course.”). Circe cooking over the stove. The forest eagerly pressing in, “crowding up and embracing the little stone house in horrid possession.”
These and other symbols swirl around impressively but are rather fragmented, not really coalescing into a coherent whole. A battle for supremacy is clearly pending at the end of the story, but the outcome is left unclear. Jackson’s son Laurence Jackson Hyman gave an interview to the New Yorker and offered some insights and thoughts on this story, including his opinion on the “inevitable” outcome of the battle. Given the last paragraph of the story, I’m not nearly as sanguine about the outcome. Read it and let me know what you think!
A mysterious and ambiguous story that invites further pondering.
Sixty-one year old Agnes Swithin jogs past the abandoned, burned-out house that has been a blight on the neighborhood for years.
The house had neither been condemned nor selected for restoration; it simply was. Yet over those decades it could not be said to have deteriorated further, not in any significant sense. The roof ought to be gone, the walls collapsed, the house reduced to a pile of boards over its long years of neglect, and it was not. A gutter might have unhinged itself, a pilaster might have crumbled, but overall it aged with an enviable and impossible grace, apparently ticking along in its very own timestream.
This time Agnes sees something unusual: a young girl in a white dress ― or maybe a nightgown ― emerges from the house and invites her in for some coffee. Agnes considers that the girl might be a ghost, then talks herself out of it (the girl’s Georgia twang is not ghostly at all). When the girl takes her hand, though, Agnes knows that she’s touching a ghost. Still, Agnes goes into the burned house with the girl, for reasons she can’t entirely explain to herself.
Lynda E. Rucker builds a feeling of dread through this story, bolstered by the periodic quotes from an old jump rope rhyme that Agnes dimly recalls from her childhood: A rhyme that would keep you safe if you could recite it without an error. But the poem, naturally, builds tension rather than a feeling of security, along with the flashbacks to Agnes’s childhood and to discussions with her brother. The story gets a bit murky at the end, but I thought the buildup was excellent.
Susan, who is sixteen, lives alone with her father in a house that seems to be watching them and talking to them. They’re both disturbed people (for good reason, as we find out eventually); Susan has started cutting herself and her father, an accountant, has stopped going to work at all. And now they feel the house spiders watching them and hear them chattering.
For a soul to be born to a house, almost too many things have to happen. Three or more families have to have lived there. Someone has to die in the house. Blood has to be spilled. And something, even if it’s just an idea, has to be born in the house. You can always tell when a house has a soul because of the small spiders. They’re everywhere, non-obtrusive, and ever watchful. The small spiders are the eyes of the house, watching those who live in it much like a great beast would observe its own fleas.
A pair of Seventh Day Adventists disappears at the spiders’ behest. And then a handsome teenager named Del comes to their door and introduces himself to Susan, explaining that he just moved in across the street. Susan is interested in Del, but the spiders are screaming in her mind …
“House of Small Spiders” is atmospheric and well-written. I liked the underlying concept of how a house gains a soul (i.e., becomes haunted), and there were some great unexpected twists to the tale. It’s a very gruesome and violent story, though; too much so for my own personal taste. If you appreciate horror stories that are more than a little reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, give this one a read.
In this darkly humorous story, Tanya and Nathan are a married couple looking to buy an older house in Vermont with some money that Tanya has inherited, to set up as a bed-and-breakfast inn. But Tanya has something specific in mind: she wants a haunted home, convinced that will be a major draw for visitors. When they find an old Victorian home, it’s perfect in every way, except that it doesn’t have a ghostly tradition. The realtor reluctantly admits, however, that a kid once murdered his family in this house in the seventies. When Tanya meets a mysterious old woman outside that warns her of “Horrors. Blasphemies. Murders. Foul murders,” that’s good enough for Tanya. Sold! But then after they buy the home, Nathan starts acting very strange, staring into space, listening to seventies music and sharpening knives, giving Tanya unpleasant recollections of The Shining movie.
“A Haunted House of Her Own” seems to be taking a well-worn, traditional path for a haunted house story, but has a surprise up its sleeve. Despite its dark subject matter, the plot is handled with a lighter touch than the other haunted house stories reviewed in this column. It lacks the depth of the other stories, but it’s somewhat amusing and an easy, quick read.