It's a shame that it's taken me so long to realise – 5 years, in fact – just how much I love a good short story. On balance, I find that I tend to prefer gothic short stories and novellas to gothic novels, even when written by the same author. I know I’m not alone here, as one of the champions of horror, Stephen King, has a similar love of them, lamenting in his introduction to Skeleton Crew (1985) that “most of [us] have forgotten the real pleasures of the short story”. He goes on to say
“a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. That is not, of course, the same thing as an affair or a marriage, but kisses can be sweet, and their very brevity forms their own attraction.”
Don't agree? Perhaps you're reading the wrong ones. Whether you’re a sceptic or simply at a loss as to where to start, here are 10 excellent and less-known Victorian gothic short stories you can find in the library and read for free:
'Ken’s Mystery', Julian Hawthorne (1888)
“This is November-eve, when, as tradition asserts, the dead arise and walk about, and fairies, goblins, and spiritual beings of all kinds have more freedom and power than on any other day of the year. One can see you’ve never been to Ireland.”
An American artist visits the UK during his travels through Europe, but cuts his trip short after a strange encounter on Halloween in Ireland. Fascinated and amused by Irish folklore, he ignores the local’s warnings and superstitions, thereby falling foul of a centuries-old vampire who seems able to bend the laws of time. His bewitching experience haunts him every Halloween since.
'The Dead and the Countess', Gertrude Atherton (1902)
“All the earth beneath him was filled with lamentation. They wailed for mercy, for peace, for rest; they cursed the foul fiend who had shattered the locks of death”
A concerned priest tends to the deathbed of a local countess, who fears the fate of her soul after a railway is built through the nearby church grounds. After returning to his cemetery to bless those buried there, the priest is shocked to learn that, for the dead in his graveyard, the afterlife is not as peaceful as he imagined.
Although not the scariest I've read, it is a more creative take on a ghost narrative, and there is a melancholy sweetness about this story which stayed with me.
'The White People', Arthur Machen (1904)
“there were other rocks that were like animals, creeping, horrible animals…others like dead people lying on the grass. I went on among them, though they frightened me, and my heart was full of wicked songs that they put into it”
If you love 'The Great God Pan' (1894), then this should be next on your TBR list. An equally horrible and fantastic narrative, 'The White People' describes the diary entries of a young woman introduced to the fae as a baby. Growing up, she witnesses and is taught about various strange, ancient rituals and magical practices, which she relays to the reader in detail. The strange things she sees and beings she meets both haunt and fascinate her throughout her short, surreal life.
I always wondered what Helen Vaughan might have said if we heard her tell her own story – this story feeds that fantasy. Also highly recommended for any fans of the film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
'The Woman in Red' and 'Unmasked', Muriel Campbell Dyar (1899, 1900)
“There was a sharp click, as of a metal catch, and the velvet mask, loosened, fell softly to the ground...There, in the bright white moonlight, he looked full at the face of the Woman in Red and, with a terrible cry of horror, fell like one dead upon the grass.”
The first of this pair features an enchanting masked woman who enraptures the men around her after suddenly arriving at Monte Carlo with no name and only an old woman for company. It’s not long before the men begin to speculate about who the lady might be, and after one succeeds in peering behind the mask, a series of tragedies follow. It’s sequel, 'Unmasked', reveals an excellently chilling twist which makes a rather poignant remark on men’s treatment of women, which still resonates to this day.
'The Giant Wisteria', Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1891)
“He strode heavily across the porch, till the loose planks creaked...his brows fiercely knit above his iron mouth. Overhead the shadows flickered mockingly across a white face among the leaves, with eyes of fire”
You may know her as the author of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (1892), but Gilman also wrote other great short stories. This one kicks off with a teenage girl in the 1600s telling her mother in Ye Olde Pilgrim Tongue exactly where she can shove her judgement, but it quickly turns into a disturbing tale of secrecy and death. Centuries later, a group of holiday-goers in search of a ghost decide to stay in a decrepit house overrun with an unruly wisteria plant, which threads through the bones of the place and eventually reveals its secrets to the unsuspecting guests.
'The White Dog', Fyodor Sologub (1903, translated into English 1915)
“The moon rose clear and full, that very same moon which rose long ago at another place, over the broad desolate steppe...now, as then, glowed eyes sick with longing; and her heart, still wild, not forgetting in town the great spaciousness of the steppe, felt oppressed; her throat was troubled with a tormenting desire to howl like a wild thing.”
Another quieter, melancholy gothic tale. This story follows a young Russian girl living with a secret she soon sees in others around her. However, as she eventually learns, it can be dangerous to embrace your true nature when so many misunderstand your existence. It’s a very brief story, but I found its unusual narrative and depiction of monstrous women (if you can call them that) to be intriguing and rather beautiful.
WITCHES IN SALEM
'Young Goodman Brown', Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
“The cry of grief, rage, and terror...pierc[ed] the night...There was a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky”
Hawthorne claimed to be descended from the notorious John Hathorne, the only Judge overseeing the Salem witch trials who refused to repent his role in the murders of various women.* Whether this is true or false, Hawthorne’s fascination and abhorrence of Salem’s history are rife in 'Young Goodman Brown', which features his rumoured ancestor. The story follows the eponymous character, who ventures out of the comfort of his wife's home in Salem village, and into the woods on an unknown mission with a mysterious companion. The further he progresses into the forest at night, the further we venture into the dark and sinister secrets of the seemingly innocent townspeople he encounters there.
* I've never been entirely clear if this was hearsay perpetuated by Hawthorne to sell his stories, or if it's a proven fact – let me know if you have the answer!
'Dionea', Vernon Lee (1890)
“I saw the storm rush down the valley, a sudden blackness, and then, like a curse, a flash, a tremendous crash, re-echoed by a dozen hills. ‘I told him,’ Dionea said very quietly, when she came to stay with me the next day…‘that if he did not leave me alone Heaven would send him an accident.’”
This tale follows the chaos that ensues in a rural Italian village when, after a terrible storm, a young girl washes up on its shores and is taken in by locals. The only clue to her identity is a piece of parchment with 'Dionea' written on it. As she becomes a woman, Dionea is both admired for her beauty and feared for her strange and unconventional behaviour, with rumours flying about her origins. Eventually, pagan magic seems to resurface within the village, and lust and mischief overwhelm the villagers – young lovers elope, obsessions develop and men meet terrible fates, possessed by a fascination with the bewitching Dionea.
If you love stories with suggestions of witchcraft and pagan lore, give this one a go.
'Curse of the Catafalques', F. Anstey (1882)
“‘It is simply astonishing to me!’ I said, ‘that you can calmly allow this hideous Curse...to have things all its own way up to the present, in the nineteenth century, and not six miles from Charing Cross!’”
Upon arriving in England for the first time, an Australian traveller spontaneously decides to assume a false identity and marry the pitiful but wealthy Chlorine Catafalques. Unfortunately for him, he gradually learns she has a family secret of the satanic variety. Having lost the set of instructions that detail how to vanquish this evil, he struggles to unearth the mystery whilst maintaining both his false identity and his bravado. Eventually, a string of comical misunderstandings lead him to the ultimate question: is it bad etiquette to have your father-in-law's demon arrested?
DISTURBING AND BIZARRE
'The New Mother', Lucy Clifford (1882)
“From beneath the bonnet there flashed a strange bright light…[her] heart sank and her cheeks turned pale, for she knew it was the flashing of two glass eyes…‘it is the new mother! She has come’”
This twisted fantasy follows two sisters' descent into darkness after they meet a mysterious girl toying with a strange box and pear drum in the woods. Wishing to gain her favour, see the box’s contents and listen to her play the instrument, the sisters become increasingly disruptive at home, not heeding their mother’s warning about the consequences of their actions.
Neil Gaiman praised this story in his review of a collection of folk tales, and it has been compared to his similarly eerie work, Coraline.
Have a different opinion of these dark tales or a favourite missed out in this list? Let me know with a comment below, or via Twitter.