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 Storm by McKnight Malmar
Story and Sense (edited by Laurence Perrine)
“She inserted her key in the lock and turned the knob.”
The Storm is a little known tale by a little known writer. Lord only knows where Mr. Perrine dug it up to include in his seminal Story and Sense, but good for him, because it’s a damn fine piece of work.
The story opens with a young woman arriving home before her husband. A storm rages outside their empty home. The wife has been visiting her sister and come home early. Her husband, Ben, is on his way from work, unaware that his wife left her sister’s early.
Not much of a setup, to be honest. This is a very simple story, at least on the surface. But what Malmar makes of this quiet, dark, empty house and the raging storm outside, where she takes this story and how she builds tension one paragraph at a time, is truly a wonder to behold.
“The wind hammered at the door and the windows, and the air was full of the sound of water, racing in the gutters, pouring from the leaders, thudding on the roof. Listening, she wished for Ben almost feverishly. She never had felt so alone.”
The wife’s unease builds when she catches a glimpse of something in the window.
“She froze there, not breathing, still half-bent toward the cold fireplace, her hand still extended. The glimmer of white at the window behind the sheeting blur of rain had been–she was sure of it–a human face. There had been eyes. She was certain there had been eyes staring at her.”
Half-frightened, half-certain that she is only imagining things, the wife attempts to call her husband, but the storm has knocked out the phone lines. She decides to make herself as comfortable as possible and wait out her fear. She’ll build a fire and wait for Ben. There was no face in the window. She is sure of it.
She heads to the cellar to get firewood. The outer door to the cellar has come unlatched and swung open in the storm, rain pelting inside.
“Yet the open door increased her panic. It seemed to argue the presence of something less impersonal than the gale. It took her a long minute to nerve herself to go down the steps and reach out into the darkness for the doorknob.”
The door bolted and shut, the wife begins to wonder just how the door came to be open in the first place. But she pushes out those dark thoughts and focuses on the firewood. As she is gathering wood, though, she spots something glimmering in the corner of her eye. The spark of light comes from an open trunk in the cellar.
A trunk she’s certain she’d closed tight.
She investigates the trunk. Flings it open wide. And sees what’s inside.
“For a long moment she stood looking down into the trunk, while each detail of its contents imprinted itself on her brain like an image on film. Each tiny detail was indelibly clear and never to be forgotten.”
Horrified, she runs back upstairs, locks the cellar door, and puts a chair under the handle. There was a dead woman’s body inside the trunk.
“She had not seen the face; the head had been tucked down into the hollow of the shoulder, and a shower of fair hair had fallen over it…One hand had rested near the edge of the trunk, and on its third finger there had been a man’s ring…”
Thoroughly terrified now, the wife waits in fear until Ben finally arrives home. He is soaked through the bone, and after changing clothes he comforts her and tells her he is certain she saw no such thing in the cellar. Why doesn’t she make some coffee, and he’ll check things out. He changes. She makes coffee.
By now, she’s feeling silly. Certain her imagination has simply run away from her, she knows Ben won’t find anything at all in the cellar.
Ben descends into the cellar. Pops open the trunk.
He said, “There’s nothing here but a couple of bundles. Come take a look.”
She comes down into the cellar, relief washing over her. She peers into the trunk. It’s empty aside from some packages she herself had placed there long before.
She is almost convinced, until at the last moment she notices the ring her husband is wearing: the same ring that was on the finger of the dead woman. At the story’s close, the wife flees the house and runs into the shelter of the storm.
There is a good deal of standard horror cliches woven throughout The Storm: the dark night, the storm itself, the face in the window, the dead phone line, the dead body. What Malmar pulls off so skillfully, though, is an intelligent, literary take on these same old standards, the way a talented young vocalist can breathe new life into a classic song.
Furthermore, she undermines the stock ending by leaving the reader wavering about the wife’s mental stability. Is everything the wife saw real? Or was she imagining it? Was there a body? Is Ben a murderer? Or is the wife crazy? Malmar presents the situation and characters is such a way that we are not really sure of anything.
This is a very carefully written story well worth reading and studying for its sharp execution and craft.
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…