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Spooked by a few short stories

“It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” ― Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper

A short story in contrast to a novel has less space and time within which to draw readers. When a short story in a stretch of a few pages, manages to be lucid, sharp and unambiguous, it has the desired effect on readers. Moreover, short fictional stories that specifically spook and frighten readers, to whatever extent, also carry them on a temporary journey to a frightful world. Also, Spook and Short do travel well together, whether they are completely fictive or perhaps even inspired by real-life stories.

The developing plot of any spooky short story impacts readers most when they have no idea of how it is going to unfold in the end. So, it is best to read such stories without any prior knowledge of any associated denouements. The more suspense a reader encounters while they read, the stronger is the story’s influence upon a reader.

There are possibly many unintimidated readers and then there could be several readers who rattle easily; so, before choosing from numerous scary short stories, it is a good idea to know that the lingering influence of some stories could be longstanding. Although numerous stories about ghosts, supernatural entities, horrific events, have scared many readers since time immemorial, some stories that are not entirely about ghosts and ghouls have also similarly spooked readers.

Stories like the Three Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson, are some of the many spooky short stories one can read and be frightened by. The following three short stories, all coincidentally written by women authors, have elements of spook in varying measures and characters one would possibly remember for a long time to come.

The Landing by Anita Desai

A woman has shifted into her newly bought accommodation—a really old house constructed in 1743. Her first day in the house is strange, windows open and close on their own and an eerie feeling grasps the new occupant. She feels that the house breathes and has a life of its own. She feels unwanted in the house as if the house does not wish her to be its owner. She, in particular, notices the landing that is part of the staircase joining the upper and lower floors of the house.

In the night, she senses someone watching her, and she can also hear someone breathing. To see who it is, she switches on one of the electric lanterns—but there is no one there. She follows the presence intuitively to where the landing is. She finds no clue pointing to who or what this presence could be. She thinks she may be hallucinating, getting old, but she knows she couldn’t be imagining everything that was happening to her. She realizes the presence hides somewhere in the landing.

She makes an effort to communicate with it as time passes, but it refuses to respond to her. She can only feel it watching her at night while she sleeps. She deduces that the landing could be a connection to a chamber or a space, which had once been an important part of the house, but now no longer was. To her, it also seems to be a link between the earthly realm that she is a part of and another separate realm the presence disappears to.

Although nothing usurious happens in the story in terms of action or conflict—it still is a quiet spook. The woman has no name in the story and the characters in the story are a few. The premises of the old house and the story associated with the strange entity in the house that wants her gone and makes her feel unwelcome and the landing where it hides, might not instantly shock or completely frighten. But a reader may be left with a feeling of—“what transpired here?”

The author allows the story to subtly unfurl. Whether the narrative toward the end reveals secrets of the house or not is for readers to find out. It is a well-written story, however, on the spook meter, it may not score as highly as other stories, but this story could still unnerve some fragile souls.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The first-person narrative of the story is haunting, especially, when a slightly mentally ill, but sane woman, tumbles into an abyss of strange wallpaper patterns, hallucinations and delusions, because of the drawbacks of a physician husband and the absence of proper stimulus. When mental structuring, already unbalanced and hoisted on weak foundations is subjected to the wrong stimulus and a subsequent attack on the nerves, resulting out of isolation and imaginations of an inherently disturbed mind, it could lead to destruction.

The woman, upon her husband’s insistence, must stay in the nursery on the upper floor of their newly rented house with gardens. She, on the other hand, wants to meet her cousin and also stay in one of the lower rooms that opens out into the piazza with rose bushes. Nevertheless, her husband negates all her suggestions and gently coerces her into living in the nursery for three-months at a stretch because he feels she needs fresh air—and should not mingle with anyone.

The nursery has several windows facing the gardens, the grapevine arbors and paths, leading into the neighbouring bay and in other directions. The narrator likes to write and does so in secret, fearing her husband’s disapproval. Her child is kept in the care of someone else while she rests in the nursery that was once a boys’ room and a gymnasium. However, the wallpaper of the nursery is terrible, and she must endure it, as she is housed there, for three months—for recuperation.

The woman dislikes it at first, and to add to her dislike, she starts seeing images in the patterns of the wallpaper, like bulbous eyes and strange fungous growth. She attaches several other concurrent interpretations to it, including one that the wallpaper patterns are actually caging a woman—and that she must get her out. The narrator also begins to see women creeping out of the wallpaper and then creeping around in the garden. The woman, however, can’t put the entire pattern into perspective.

The wallpaper starts consuming her attention furthermore, as time passes. She decides to decipher the patterns on her own and guards it surreptitiously from her husband and the housekeeper. The two other occupants of the house are not aware of the transition the already mentally unstable woman is going through. The physician husband does not stay at home often. Therefore, the woman is left on her own while her husband continues to attend to more ‘serious patients’ and the housekeeper attends to the house and other responsibilities.

As the three-month time period comes to an end, she asks her husband to take her away from there. However, he coaxes her otherwise once again, only to realize on the last day of their stay in the house that his decision had all along been wrong. His wife has plummeted into a terrible state, having finally escaped the prison of the wallpaper, which she had peeled off earlier, on her last night in the house.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates

A young teenager Connie, feels unappreciated at home, for her mother prefers her simpler elder sister June to her, because Connie has striking looks, unlike her or her daughter June. Connie is constantly reprimanded by her mother because she will not do what June does, work hard, save money, help around the house—and stare less at the mirror. Connie wishes her mother was dead. Although on one hand, she also feels that her mother inwardly prefers her to June.

Connie’s mother, however, allows her to travel to places with her best friend, for June does so too—with her own friends. Connie behaves one way when she is at home and differently when she is outside. One night, Connie meets Eddie, a boy, at a shopping plaza in town while she is out with her best friend. She hangs out with the boy for several hours, but that night she also encounters a man in a jalopy, painted gold, who says, pointing in her direction, “Gonna get you, baby” —Eddie notices none of this.

She feels uneasy for an instant and forgets all about the man when she returns home. One following Sunday when no one is at home except for Connie, who is listening to the radio, the man in the jalopy-painted-gold turns up on her doorstep. There is another man in the car with him and he is wearing earphones. Connie does not know them, but her first reaction to the approaching car is to check her own appearance in the mirror. Given that a screen door separates her and the stranger, she talks to him because he won’t leave unless she does. His name is Arnold Friend and the other man with him is Ellie.

As the dialogues they exchange build up, she realizes the man knows a lot about her including where her parents are. He wants her to go out for a drive with him, but if she does not acquiesce, he threatens to wait until her family return and harm them when they do. He warns her not to call the cops or else he would barge into the house right then. He assures her that he wouldn’t hurt her if she agreed to go out with him. Connie is young and vain, but she is also vulnerable. She takes a sudden decision, based on her own superficial interpretations of the world, and it spirals her into a barren landscape.

This third story has no ghost or any supernatural element, but it is a spine-chilling surreal narrative. It has no scary apparitions or ghosts, but its intent would scare many. This is one story that will just grip a reader from page one. It is not a typical fictional story, but seems real. It has elements of a real-life story intermingling with fiction.

Joyce Carol Oates had dedicated this story to Bob Dylan, for his song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The author wrote the story based on the real life serial killer Charles Schimd, also called the Pied Piper of Tucson. A reader with no idea of where this story is headed may be horrified by the turn of events. Many readers might expect a resolution of some kind, but a solution comes up only toward the end or does it?

Conclusion

A list of such stories that send one temporarily hurtling into a land of fear and dread can be quite exhaustive. Brave readers, while reading such stories might not be outright frightened, however, they may feel its aftereffects. In a dark room, when no one is at home, and the lights go out, some of the characters may continue to linger on in the minds of readers, and shadowy images may blur one’s surroundings. Of course, it’s not real, but what if?

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