"TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?" Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" hooks the reader from its first sentence and is a perennial contender for the most frightening short story ever written.
Unlike nearly all forms of fiction, however, the initial words aren't always the most crucial to scary short stories. Frequently the last line provides the killing stroke. A truly enduring, haunting tale should end on a note that feels like a trapdoor opening up beneath its readers, leaving them off-balance and breathless. Sudden endings are a plus, like the way "The Tell-Tale Heart" ends with the nameless, murderous narrator, convinced he hears his victim's heart beating, snaps and admits his crime:
Villains! I shrieked, dissemble no more! I admit the deed!tear up the planks! here, here!It is the beating of his hideous heart!
It's like a film that ends with a smash-cut, not a slow fade to black. (And for all we know, the heart really was beating.) That focus on a powerful final moment is what, for me, separates scary short stories from longer ones. A horror novel can even have a happy ending, but a short story? Please.
Incidentally, for a wildly imaginative dramatization of "The Tell-Tale Heart," check out The Center for Puppetry Arts' Tales of Edgar Allen Poe in February of 2010, a remount of a splendidly eerie show by Bobby Box. Connoisseurs of spooky fiction seem to populate the Center, where the annual Halloween show The Ghastly Dreadfuls offers delightfully effective adaptations of classic tales by such authors as Mark Twain and W.W. Jacobs (best-known for another runner-up for scariest tale, "The Monkey's Paw").
The one that haunts me the most, however, comes from H.P. Lovecraft, whose work includes one of my favorite ooga-booga monter stories, "The Dunwich Horror" "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Call of Cthulhu." Incidentally, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company performs a live version of the latter this weekend. About 10 years ago, another Atlanta theatre, the New American Shakespeare Tavern, did monologue versions of two Lovecraft classics: "Pickman's Model" and my pick, "The Statement of Randolph Carter," which to me reads like a short, sharp shock.
Incidentally, you can suggest a scarier one, you'll get a no-prize if you can link to the complete text on line.
Photo courtesy of the Center for Puppetry Arts
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