In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.
The October Country
…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…
— Ray Bradbury
The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
Story and Structure 7th Edition (edited by Laurence Perrine)
“Off there to the right–somewhere–is a large island,” said Whitney. “It’s rather a mystery–“
Few short stories are as effective at mingling high adventure and horror as Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. The premise is simple enough: what if world-renowned hunter grew tired of hunting animals and decided the only challenge left was hunting other human beings (hence the title).
If this sounds like a familiar plot, then it is a testament to the long success and far-reaching influence of Connell’s tightly written masterpiece.
The story opens on a yacht passing the aptly named Ship-Trap Island on a foggy night. Two men stare off into the dense fog, chatting about their eventual destination, Rio and the Amazon jungle. Their talk turns to the hunting they expect to find.
“The best sport in the world,” agreed Rainsford.
“For the hunter,” amended Whitney. “Not for the jaguar.”
“Don’t talk rot, Whitney,” said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”
Rainsford’s words will, of course, come back to haunt him. As they pass Ship-Trap Island in the night, Rainsford hears distant shots from the island. In his effort to peer over the rail to see what’s what, he manages to tumble overboard. The yacht speeds away, and his only hope is to swim towards the shots and the shoreline of the mysterious island.
As he swims through the fog, he hears a howling scream, as if from a wounded animal, and a final pistol shot. He swims towards the shots, and eventually finds himself on a rocky, craggy shore. He collapses on the island and falls asleep.
In the morning, he treks the island in search of the people he knows must be here. He wanders throughout the day, but by nightfall he finds a palatial chateau resting upon a high bluff. He knocks on the door.
Inside the chateau Rainsford meets two men: the massive giant Ivan, and the slender, cool General Zaroof. The General invites Rainsford in, listens to Rainsford’s story, and offers the poor man drinks, dinner and a good night’s rest.
As they dine, the talk turns to (what else?) hunting.
“You have some wonderful heads here,” said Rainsford as he ate a particularly well cooked filet mignon. “That cape buffalo is the largest I ever saw.”
“Oh, that fellow. Yes, he was a monster.”
Rainsford is surprised, however, when the General informs him that here on Ship-Trap, he hunts an entirely different kind of game. The biggest.
Rainsford expressed his surprise. “Is there big game on this island?”
The general nodded. “The biggest.”
“Oh, it isn’t here naturally, of course. I have to stock the island.”
As the conversation rolls on, Rainsford soon becomes aware that what General Zaroff hunts on the island is other people. He is a sporting man. He arms his prey and sends them out into the island, giving them a good, long head start. Then he follows, tracking them with only light weaponry. It is the thrill of the hunt that the General desires, the challenge.
“It’s a game, you see,” pursued the general blandly. “If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game. If I find him”–the general smiled–“he loses.”
“Suppose he refuses to be hunted?”
“Oh,” said the general. “I give him his option, of course…If he does not wish to hunt, I turn him over to Ivan…Invariably, Mr. Rainsford, invariably they chose the hunt.”
Rainsford, still horrified, has a hard time finishing his dinner.
“And now,” said the general. “I want to show you my new collection of heads. Will you come with me to the library.”
It isn’t rocket science seeing where this is going. Rainsford is to be hunted. Lucky for Rainsford, he is himself a big-game hunter. He’s hunted all over the world, and he knows the tricks. But General Zaroff is, without doubt, the better hunter.
The first two days play out with General Zaroff outmaneuvering Rainsford at every turn. Finally, as the chase reaches its climax, Rainsford flings himself off a cliff and into the ocean. General Zaroff, disappointed, returns to his chateau, believing Rainsford dead.
Which would suck if that was where the story ended.
Rainsford, however, isn’t dead. And he scales the cliff walls, entering the chateau unseen. And when General Zaroff comes to bed down for the night, Rainsford is there, sword in hand.
The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid. One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford…”
What makes Connell’s story stand out is its clever balance of action, horror and clear use of theme. The Most Dangerous Game is a truly excellent example of master storytelling. Connell packs into the space of a dozen pages enough material for an entire novel. Indeed, many novels and movies have been made from the same setup, few of them as successful as Connell’s slender tale.
This piece, more than most, fits the bill: a good story, well told.
More October Stories
For the month of October, you can download
Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door
In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.
Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…
Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.
I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?
Except a little sleep…