Few things are as scarily satisfying as a good ghost story or a gothic horror tale involving the discovery of some vast, dark secret in a forgotten nook. Most of us know the famous practitioners of this genre. Edgar Allan Poe is celebrated for his stories of murder, death and eerie revenge. Stephen King’s bottomless imagination has given us a haunted resort hotel, a demonic car, a demon clown, and far too many other tales to list here.
But let’s dig a little deeper to find some other excellent writers who deserve their due.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House set a standard for ghost tales in the late 20th century. Her four main characters resolve to stay at the titular home in an attempt to encounter the supernatural. It’s a psychologically intense book that questions whether such hauntings occur from without or within.
Further into the peat bogs of the past, we find Richard Barham Middleton, a British poet who worked as a bank clerk and led a rather short, unhappy life. His short story, The Ghost Ship, is one for the ages, melding classic supernatural imagery with a distinctly British, keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude toward the ever-present spirits of the departed. And you can read Middleton’s excellent On The Brighton Road, filled with dark humor about the ghastliness of waking life, in Famous Ghost Stories, one of our classic anthologies.
The same anthology contains The Phantom Rickshaw, a colonial, Anglo-Indian ghost story about the psychic costs of promiscuity and emotional cruelty. It was written by Rudyard Kipling, celebrated author of The Jungle Book. He, too, carries a wry sense of humor, wondering at one point what the ghost of a wealthy woman would pay her team of spectral servants.
These tales of ghosts and horror imply an orderly supernatural universe concerned with settling the debts of the waking world. But H.P. Lovecraft ripped away all these notions of coherence. Lovecraft is a touchstone among geeks of many disciplines, and his indelible Cthulu mythos has become so pervasive that traces of it made it all the way to Guillermo Del Toro’s big-budget film Hellboy.
The story that introduces this universe, Call of Cthulu, is a tightly constructed ball of horrifying sequences. Beware—a bit of racism tends to ooze at the margins of his breathless descriptions of brutal cult rituals—but Lovecraft eagerly expands the concept of horror beyond notions of morality and punishment to something primal, transdimensional and utterly unknowable.
Of course, with the Internet at our fingertips, these authors are far better-known than they were in the decades immediately after their deaths. Lovecraft is no exception, but his rehabilitation started well before the widespread electronic sharing of Cthulu fan fiction and “Hello Kitty”-themed illustrations of that tentacle-faced elder god. In 1977, 40 years after his death, Lovecraft’s fans pooled their money and bought Lovecraft his own headstone for the family tomb. Considering his fondness in fiction for the worship of long-dead elder creatures, perhaps he would have approved.