My Top 10 Horror Stories by Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones and Neil Gaiman at the Fearie Tales launch at the World Fantasy Convention photo by Peter Coleborn

Stephen Jones, one of Britain’s most acclaimed and prolific anthologists of horror and dark fantasy, has edited the magnificent Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome for Jo Fletcher Books. Over the years he’s read literally tens of thousands of stories from writers both old and new, and so we knew we were setting him a real challenge when we asked him to pick a definitive list of the ten best horror stories of all time.

Once he’d stopping laughing, we agreed to compromise with a list of ten of his own favourite frighteners!

“I suspect like many other writers and editors in my genre, I sometimes lay awake at night constructing the perfect horror anthology in my mind,” admits Steve. “Constructing a good anthology is no easy thing. An editor has to worry not only about which authors and which stories to select, but also how to put the book together so that the stories flow – for example, you don’t want two stories with similar themes next to each other, and you need to vary the word-lengths and styles so that you retain the reader’s interest throughout. Here are ten very different terrors that I would recommend to anyone interested in discovering the diversity of the horror genre . . .”

1. A Warning to the Curious by M.R. James

No horror anthology would be complete without a contribution by M. (Montague) R. (Rhodes) James (1862-1936), that English master of supernatural fiction. The Cambridge Provost invented the modern ghost story as we know it, replacing the Gothic horrors of the previous century with more contemporary settings and subtle terrors. Although his tales have been much imitated, they have never been surpassed, and amongst the very best is ‘A Warning to the Curious’ which, with its cursed object and doomed protagonist, perfectly exemplifies everything that is memorable about the author’s fiction. I was proud to compile Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James, a definitive collection of James’ fiction beautifully illustrated by Les Edwards, for Jo Fletcher Books a couple of years ago.

2. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

Next comes that dean of cosmic horror, H. (Howard) P. (Phillips) Lovecraft (1890-1937). A life-long antiquarian and resident of Providence, Rhode Island, most of his work appeared in the cheaply produced pulp magazines that he despised. He’s best remembered for his creation of the much-imitated Cthulhu Mythos, his tales of ancient and unimaginable creatures seeking to reclaim the Earth; they are as powerful today as when they were first written. The author’s key story in this sequence, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, contains all the elements that set Lovecraft’s half-glimpsed horrors apart from most other contributors to the pulps. I included this and all Lovecraft’s other macabre fiction in the definitive two-volume set Jo and I did of the author’s work for Gollancz, once again illustrated by the incomparable Les Edwards.

3. Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper by Robert Bloch

Best known as the author of the original novel Alfred Hitchcock based his 1960 movie Psycho on, Robert Bloch (1917-94) was equally at home writing supernatural and psychological horror fiction. In his later years he became a much-respected film and TV scriptwriter in Hollywood, but his stories also appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’ skilfully combines both of the author’s fictional styles while casting the historical serial killer as an immortal being. Bloch returned to the ‘Ripper’ theme a number of times, not least for his memorable Star Trek script, ‘Wolf in the Fold’. I recently included ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’ in my Robinson anthology Psycho-Mania!, which also features a previously unpublished Introduction by the author.

4. Sticks by Karl Edward Wagner

Although not a contemporary disciple of Lovecraft’s like Robert Bloch was, big, bearded Southerner Karl Edward Wagner (1945-94) was one of the finest modern writers of horror fiction (as well as heroic fantasy), who died at a ridiculously young age. Also an esteemed critic and editor (with his own Year’s Best Horror anthology series for DAW Books), Wagner’s British Fantasy Award-winning story ‘Sticks’ was a chilling tribute not only to pulp magazine illustrator Lee Brown Coye, but also to the type of cosmic horror that Lovecraft popularised in his own fiction. I collected all Karl’s darker stories and novellas in the two-volume The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner for Centipede Press last year.

5. The Chimney by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell (b. 1946) started his career as a teenager, writing pastiches of Lovecraft, but he soon developed his own style of urban horror based around his home city of Liverpool. Aptly described by the Oxford Companion to English Literature as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer”, Campbell has produced a prolific number of novels and short stories, with most of his work falling into the category of ‘best in genre’. Choosing a favourite would be difficult – there are just so many – so I will go for the World Fantasy Award-winning ‘The Chimney’, one of the creepiest Christmas horror stories I’ve ever read, given an extra poignant twist by the author’s own childhood experiences. I haven’t yet done a Christmas anthology but, if I did, ‘The Chimney’ would definitely be in it!

6. One for the Road by Stephen King

Stephen KingNo list of favourite horror stories would be complete without something by Stephen King (b. 1947), who has been the most successful horror writer of the past four decades. As much as I love so many of his short stories, I would probably go for his tale ‘One for the Road’, a coda-of-sorts to the author’s mega-vampire novel Salem’s Lot. King’s writing style has always been deceptively simple, which allows the horror in his stories to come through loud and clear. Here it is given an extra poignancy by the fate of the family the two old-timers set out to rescue during a blizzard. PS Publishing recently issued a beautifully illustrated limited hardcover edition of this story.

7. The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison

In my opinion, one of the greatest American short story writers – in any genre – is Californian Dennis Etchison (b. 1943). Though a lot less prolific than he once was, like King he began publishing in the late 1960s/early ’70s, producing some remarkably lean and disturbing short stories, along with novels and screenplays. Having accompanied him South of the Border on a number of occasions, I would select Etchison’s World Fantasy Award-winning ‘The Dark Country’ – not a horror story per se, but one of the best ‘stranger in strange lands’ stories I have ever read. I only wish he would write more. I first published this story in Fantasy Tales, the small press magazine I did with David A. Sutton, and I’ve since reprinted it in my ‘holiday horror’ anthology Summer Chills.

8. Dance of the Dead by Richard Matheson

Although widely regarded as a science fiction writer, Richard Matheson (1926-2013) was published in most genres during his lifetime. I have no hesitation in claiming him as a horror author – if only for his novels I Am Legend and Hell House, or his quartet of Shock! collections. Like his friend and contemporary Robert Bloch, Matheson also had the ability to add a psychological twist to his darker tales. I guess its futuristic setting makes ‘Dance of the Dead’ SF, but with its experimental style and grim subject matter, it wouldn’t be out of place in any horror anthology. In fact, I included it in Don’t Turn Out the Light, which I edited for PS Publishing.

9. The Man Who Drew Cats by Michael Marshall Smith

A natural successor to both King and Matheson, in part thanks to his lean writing style, is British author Michael Marshall Smith (b. 1965), who has gone on to publish a number of successful crime novels under the not-so-subtle pseudonym ‘Michael Marshall’. He won the British Fantasy Award for his first short story ‘The Man Who Drew Cats’, which I had the pleasure of originally publishing when David Sutton and I co-edited Dark Voices: The Pan Book of Horror. I used it again in the second volume of Best New Horror. Shamelessly inspired by the author’s love of Stephen King’s work, with its effortless narrative and nasty twist ending, the story could easily have come from the imagination of that writer. As it happens, it turned out to be pure Michael Marshall Smith, and he has gone on to become one of the most accomplished short story writers of his generation.

10.  ‘Homecoming’ / ‘The October People’ / ‘Uncle Einar’ by Ray Bradbury

Ray BradburyLike his friend Richard Matheson, most people probably think of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) as a science fiction writer, and they would not be wrong in that assessment. But while as a young man Bradbury was cutting his teeth in the SF pulp magazines, he was also contributing an equal number of tales to such periodicals as Weird Tales. To read Bradbury is to read imaginative prose at its very best. His fiction can transport you to other worlds or far futures, or just as easily bring you back to Earth with a shudder and a bump (in the night). I would recommend his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes to any young reader as an introduction to the horror genre, and I adore his stories about the Eternal Family – a sort of literary precursor to The Addams Family and The Munsters. Collected together in From the Dust Returned, these stories are in turns lyrical, poignant and chilling. This final entry is a bit of a cheat, as I would choose ‘Homecoming’ or ‘The October People’ or ‘Uncle Einar’ – take your pick: they are all as wonderful as each other.

“So there you are, ten of the very best in my opinion, and taken together a wonderful introduction to some of the best short fiction that the horror genre has to offer. And if some enterprising publisher wanted to offer me the opportunity to put them all together in a volume entitled 10 Top Tales of Terror, or something similar, then you know where to find me . . .”

Stephen Jones and Neil Gaiman at the Fearie Tales launch at the WFC photo by Peter Coleborn

Stephen Jones lives in London, England. He is the winner of three World Fantasy Awards, four Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards and three International Horror Guild Awards, as well as being a multiple recipient of the British Fantasy Award and a Hugo Award nominee. A former television producer/director and genre movie publicist and consultant (the first three Hellraiser movies, Nightbreed, Split Second etc.), he has written and edited more than 125 books, including A Book of Horrors, Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Horror: 100 Best Books and Horror: Another 100 Best Books (both with Kim Newman) and the Dark Terrors, Dark Voices and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series. A Guest of Honour at the 2002 World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the 2004 World Horror Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, he has been a guest lecturer at UCLA in California and London’s Kingston University and St. Mary’s University College.

Visit the Stephen Jones website.

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  1. As a published horror writer myself, I admire Stephen’s work in the genre very much. Will have to get round to reading all those stories in this list that I missed.

  2. Some very good choices there.

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