In Ghost Stories Part I, I wrote about how the structure of a ghost story can mimic that of a joke, with the final awful dénouement as the punchline. In Part II, I’m going to look at something similar: horror stories in miniature, which work in very much the same way as a joke in that they require the reader to fill in the gaps. And if you have a fevered imagination and you’ve read a lot of ghost stories, you’ll have plenty with which to fill those gaps. When I was an undergraduate in London, many years ago, I spent an evening in the kitchen with a housemate and a bottle of wine, and we told each other every ghost story we knew. After a couple of hours of this, we were feeling jumpy to say the least…so when another housemate returned from the pub and banged loudly on the back door, the two of us in the kitchen screamed uncontrollably. I had to sleep with the light on for a week.
Let’s begin with an old chestnut, a very short tale described as the Shortest Horror Story in the World. I’ve lifted the story and the information which follows from here:
“ ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’ This two-sentence horror tale is presented as a story within a story, right at the start of Fredric Brown’s ‘Knock‘, published in the December 1948 edition of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Brown describes how the horror in this story is all implied…what could be at the door? ‘But,’ he says, ‘it wasn’t horrible, really.’ He then tells the story of Walter Phelan, the last man on Earth after an alien race called the Zan invade and kill everyone apart from Walter Phelan and the last woman alive, Grace Evans.”
Now, any alert reader can work out that if the last ‘man’ on Earth hears a knock at the door, chances are that it’s a woman knocking. But if you change ‘man’ for ‘human being’ and remove the melodramatic ellipsis, it all becomes much scarier:
‘The last human being on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.’
Okay, now this really is scary because you know that whatever it is that’s knocking is not a human being. You also know that it’s intelligent enough, and knows enough about the customs of human beings, to understand the function of knocking at a door. And finally, whatever it is on the other side of the door wants to come in. Who would have the courage to open the door? And yet, what else could you do? A similar predicament faces the person who knows they are alone in the house, and who, groping in the dark for a match, feels the matchbox being placed into their outstretched hand. Who would have the courage to strike a match in this situation? But the alternative is sitting in the dark, wondering what else is in the room with you. The terror would send you mad.
I found the story which follows on the same website, and you can find other short science fiction stories here:
‘Mike ran in, shouting, “Wait!” but once again, Mike had already pushed the button.’
Whoever Mike is, he’s trapped in a time-loop from which he can never escape.
Of the Six Word Stories, still on the same site, I quite enjoyed ‘Rock, paper, scissors. One life jacket’. This next one, however, gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies: ‘Too young to hitchhike. Darkened roadway.’
I like these little tiny horror stories precisely because you can create the rest of the narrative yourself. The same thing is possible with fragments of other stories taken out of context and subsequently reworked. For example, take the following three frames from Robin Barnard’s Whatmen:
Whatmen is a rich, multi-layered text, and it opens itself to many readings, but I like these three frames in particular: together, they could either form a complete narrative on their own, or they could provide the reader with the opening for a whole set of other narratives. There are many questions one could ask, the answers to which would generate a new story; the same is true of the narratives in miniature discussed above. Here, we see an armed man, wearing a garment that could be a dressing-gown, opening his fridge to find nothing but what looks like a jacket of some sort and a note. The man gingerly takes the note and in the final frame he reads the words ‘Behind you’. Fantastic! The narrative potential here is immense. Who or what is behind the man? What happens next? Why is there a jacket in the fridge? Why isn’t there any food in the fridge? Why does the man look so haggard? What has happened to him before now? And what does the strange symmetrical symbol mean at the bottom of the note? So many questions, so many narrative possibilities…
So, the reader has an active part to play in these little stories. There are questions to be asked and gaps to be filled. And the more readers read, the more competent they become: the horror/ghost story genre is extremely well-developed because it has always enjoyed a tremendous popularity, and as a result, regular readers bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to each narrative. In Part III, I’m going to take a closer look at what part the reader plays in a good ghost story.
My thanks to Robin Barnard, who very kindly gave me permission to use his beautifully crafted images here. If you’d like to see more of Robin’s work, you can view his blog at Images Degrading Forever.
The photograph at the top of this post was taken at Portland Bill by my husband Roy, who always has to take a million billion photographs wherever we go. I like this one though. The menacing sky, the mutilated angel, the gravestone tilting to one side as if the occupant of the grave below had been trying to push its way out…oooOOOOOoooo! …I might have to sleep with the light on tonight.
PS. If you like these very short short stories, Rick Mallery’s Power Shorts Daily are also well worth a look!