In this final week of Spook Month, it’s time to talk about our favorite spooky stories. Gather round the fire and don’t let your eyes stray to what moves in the shadows, lest you become its next victim. Listen as we describe stories where nature itself is terrifying, films that were badly advertised as being more hardcore than they were, and the wholesome tale of walling your enemy up in a wine cellar. Plus, some poetry!
Download Episode 246 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: [in spooky voice] And today, we will tell you some very spooky things.
Oren and Wes: oooOOOOOooo!
Chris: Hey, you both need to know something. I have a green ribbon around my neck. Don’t ask me why I always wear this green ribbon, even when I’m showering. You don’t want to know.
Oren: It’s probably fine. I’m not going to ask questions. I have learned everything will work out and the ribbon is probably harmless and definitely not because it keeps your head on. And if you need the ribbon to keep your head on that’s honestly none of my business.
Chris [laughing]: How refreshing!
Wes [laughing]: Such acceptance. Great.
Chris: So anyway, we’re talking about our favorite spooky stories. That was the first story I want to talk about. I feel like there’s a lot of people who have the same, extremely creepy childhood story in their head that they were scarred by many years ago, called The Green Ribbon. It was meant for very small children apparently. It’s actually a folktale but the version where it’s green was part of the book In a Dark Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, which is by the same person as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but it was a very low reading level, so it was intended for really small children. But apparently the original folk tale The Velvet Ribbon was from the French Revolution, as far as we can tell.
Oren: Well, that is a time when people are known to have had their heads separated from their bodies. So yeah, alright. Cool. Headcanon accepted.
Chris: But like most oral stories, it’s just super iconic: the concrete details like the ribbon, you know, the evocativeness of what happens when you take the ribbon off and her head falls off …
Oren: Don’t do that!
Chris: But in the in the Green Ribbon version, it’s a little bit nicer, because it waits until she’s already dying and then she tells him to take the ribbon off. Whereas apparently in older versions, he’s just an ass who takes the ribbon off when she’s sleeping, because he can’t can’t deal with not knowing and then she yells at him – her head yells at him.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, fair enough.
Chris: That’s pretty justified. I feel like there’s justified anger there.
Oren: I would. All right, well, one of my favorite spooky stories is really obscure and probably most of you haven’t heard of it – it’s called Stranger Things.
Wes: Wha-, what is this?
Chris [enunciating]: Stranger Things?
Oren: Yeah, kind of an odd title because, like, what are the things. Are they stranger? I mean, I don’t know. It’s pretty strange. Yeah, so specifically the first season of Stranger Things, we talked about this before. The second season is not as good, the third season is better, still with problems. But the first season, just from a technical perspective, is so well put together that it left me kind of in awe. It was like they balanced several different groups of characters at different age levels in such a cool way. And back when we didn’t know what the upside down was, it was just so scary and so creepy, right? I was so into it. I wanted to know more and the scene in the house where Joyce puts up the lights and you know, it’s – I love the subversion of the scary thing actually being someone trying to help you. And then they tell you something scary.
Oren: That’s just so cool. And, you know, back before we had like a million Demogorgons now, there’s just one and it’s a boss on its own and I was so into it. It was great.
Wes: Yeah. That was really well done.
Oren: My only beef is that is that Barb died too soon. #JusticeforBarb. But just to be clear, I didn’t mean that I actually wanted characters to go on like a side quest in season 2 to get some government employees fired over Barb’s death. That wasn’t actually what I meant by that.
Wes: Let’s see. A short story that I heartily recommend that is spooky that I read recently for the first time is called The Birds. And if you’re thinking, isn’t that an Alfred Hitchcock movie? Well, yeah, you’re right, but did you know that it is first and foremost a short story by British writer Daphne du Maurier?
Chris: So is the movie based on this short story then?
Wes: I would say, inspired by. Because du Maurier’s story, I think it was published maybe around 1950 or something like that, and you can definitely read it with the fresh framework for the birds kind of representing the air raids that hit London and stuff like that from World War II. But it doesn’t have to stand for that, the birds just represent a menace. You follow this guy Nat Hocken, and he’s got a family and he was in the war and he’s a farmhand, and he’s a really kind of pensive, sympathetic guy who starts noticing odd behavior.
And what makes it spooky is – even if you’re not somebody who’s interested in birds, I’m kind of interested in birds – the way she portrays the birds’ behavior, which is very not-bird-like, is extra creepy. And sure, it’s creepy when they start coming in the windows, down the chimneys and stuff like that and when they start fully attacking people. But it’s a really tight short story that ends on a note of uncertainty. And I think it’s a master class in showing not telling, for sure.
It’s definitely a more classic prose style, but she really drives it with action, observation and evocative description. There’s a moment earlier in the story where Nat goes outside the front door and he notices all the dead small birds that had thrown themselves against the windows. So he cleans them up and he’s like, okay, I need to do something with these birds’ bodies, and so he decides to go and throw them in the ocean. And then he’s like, oh, the surf’s really up. There’s a lot of white caps. And he realizes that it’s just seagulls, riding the waves, staring at him.[laughing]
Wes: So yeah, it’s a good read. She’s kind of a British Shirley Jackson, you know, kind of a creepy writer and stuff like that. Definitely fun stuff.
Oren: That brings up the basic horror best practice of making something familiar act weirdly, because that’s weird. It’s like, why is that? Now it’s uncanny. And you can use that to build up suspense, because once you unleash the the birds and they’re actually attacking and flying down the chimney and what have you – that’s certainly scary for a couple minutes, right, but after that you’ve kind of hit peak. Peak bird as the case may be. So that can’t be the whole story. You need to build up to that, and it sounds like she did a great job. Another book that does a really good job of making the normal things scary because they are not acting normal is the Southern Reach books by Jeff VanderMeer.
Wes: So good.
Oren: Yeah, the first book is Annihilation, and that’s the best of the three, but I love all of them, even though they have problems, just because VanderMeer is so good at making the Florida Panhandle scary. He keeps calling it a pristine wilderness and it’s like, wow, what is going on here? We’re in a swamp and everything seems fine. But we keep hearing weird stuff and things are being described oddly, and it just slowly builds the sense of dread in the background. And we have these boxes that we don’t know what they do and everything – it’s just great. It’s such a great way of making everything seem creepy and weird.
Chris: I will also say this is a story that actually uses a sometimes unreliable narrator to a horror effect, and it’s a really good use of the unreliable narrator, as opposed to a lot of other stories that people claim to have unreliable narrators, but there’s actually no sign of it. Whereas in this one, there’s disagreements between the point of view character and some of the other characters that are just subtle and creepy, that sort of emphasize that.
Oren: This story actually makes use of the fact that the main character isn’t sure she can trust what she’s seeing, as opposed to most stories, which don’t do that. And then you have people saying afterwards that like, oh, you can’t just assume that what you were told happened happened, maybe it was an unreliable narrator. And it’s like, well, I guess, technically everything could be, but that’s not an interesting perspective, right?
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: So I’m a person who doesn’t really like horror horror, but I love anything that’s just south of horror. I really adore creep, and horror comedy, and there’s a couple of movies that, if they’re not quite horror, sometimes what happens is they’re marketed wrong. Crimson Peak, a Del Toro movie, it’s quite good. It’s not a horror movie. It’s a Gothic romance. So it’s got tons of spook and creep factor, but it’s not actually openly horror. But unfortunately one of the reasons it didn’t do as well as it should have is because the marketers took it – and normally when you’re making a movie trailer, you emphasize tension-inducing elements the most, to get people to go see it.
But if it’s a really creepy story like Crimson Peak where you have ghosts appear and they look creepy, it’s easy by emphasizing that to make it look like it’s horror, right? This is a point where we have to remember that more tension is not technically always better. When you get into super horror category, that’s just a different type of story and some people don’t want to watch horrors. So unfortunately it was just marketed in the wrong way and then if people go see it they’re disappointed because they’re horror fans.
Oren: Right, they were expecting either more blood and guts or more scares.
Chris: And Crimson Peak is not a light movie, it is very creepy and gothic, but it’s there to be kind of romantic. The main character gets married to somebody who’s dark and handsome and he takes her to his creepy mansion, and it’s called Crimson Peak because it’s built on this red clay that looks real bloody. So the ground is all red, but it’s technically the color of the clay. He is there with his sister and the mansion is slowly decaying and falling apart and it’s just a real creepy fun time.
Oren: Just, you know, real good wholesome creep.[laughing]
Oren: Alright. Well, hey, do you like creeps? But do you hate racism? Then I have a deal for you: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.
Wes: So good.
Oren: Yes, such a great novella. It is a subversion of the Lovecraft story The Red Hook Horror, or the Red Hook Menace, or whatever – the really racist one. Lots of Lovecraft’s stories are racist, but the Red Hook is particularly racist. And so The Ballad of Black Tom is like hey, what if we flipped that script, and then they do. And it’s great. I love it. It’s from the point of view of a young black man living in 1920s New York, who has a side hustle as a sorcerer and is taking money from people, but also trying to keep the really dangerous stuff out of his clients hands. And I just think that’s a cool concept, I like that a lot.
Wes: Plus, how long they draw out any mention of the big name, Lovecraftian horrors and monsters. They tease it for a really long time, like Black Tom’s power and stuff – how does he have this? I feel like LaValle did such a good job in that story. That’s a good one.
Oren: Yeah, it’s very well described and I think it has a very poignant message at the end, which is that this world is so bad to the main character, it treats him so badly that he starts to see the appeal in helping Cthulhu destroy the world. And I just think that that’s a useful message for people to keep in mind, that if you get born in circumstances where for whatever reason you’re treated terribly it’s not hard to see why you would start to think that maybe this world’s not great. Right? I think that that’s a useful thing for us privileged people to keep in mind. And it’s a great story, so you can get all of that together.
Wes: Jackpot! A very short story that’s high on creep factor is W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. If you’ve never read that, it’s for free online. It takes all of 15 minutes to read and it’s creepy. It’s in three parts, and the first part is a family hanging out: Mom, dad and their 17, maybe 19-year-old boy. And a friend, who’s I think a military man, comes in and they’re just talking and playing games. And he basically gives them the monkey’s paw, and talks about how you can make three wishes on it, but the wishes never really quite turn out like you think. So of course the story is the family’s experiences with wishing upon the monkey’s paw and it is kind of tragic. So it is rather sad but it’s creepy, and maybe there’s –
Chris: It’s creepy sad?
Wes: Well, yeah, because there’s an accident and then maybe there’s a zombie and then they need to resolve that.
Chris: Oh, wow.
Wes: It’s also just really tight. In few cases do I want my horror or spookiness to go longer than – a novella, really, is about as long as I want. You can’t do hundreds of pages of sustained creep. That just doesn’t work.
Chris: So I have a question, Wes: Have you read much Poe?
Wes: Oh, I love most Poe actually.
Chris: So do you have a favorite Poe story? Because almost all of his stories are spooky, right?
Wes: Ooh, I do, I do. The best one in my opinion is The Cask of Amontillado.
Chris: That’s a good one.
Wes: I’ve read it so many times. And still to this day when I read it … The guy opens by recounting how he entombed his competitor Fortunato in this wine cellar. You know it’s going to happen, but the way it plays out – he’s chained up Fortunato and he starts laying down the brick and mortar, and right when Fortunato screams, “For the love of God, Montresor!” – every time I read that I get chills. It’s just so well built. I just love it.
Chris: When you know what’s gonna happen, it’s that dread of watching this person carry out his really, really creepy murder that really keeps you going.
Wes: How about you? Do you have a favorite Poe?
Chris: I do like The Fall of the House of Usher.
Wes: That one’s good too.
Chris: I think that’s the romantic in me being like, oh, that old family, watching them fall. It’s fun.
Wes: In that one I think there’s kind of a legit concern: Madeline Usher, they bury her premature, and a lot of people were concerned about that. And I think we all kind of fear that on some level, it’s not great! Yeah, that’s a good story … Tell-Tale Heart is classic, it’s creepy enough, but I think it’s not as creepy as those two we just brought up. I don’t care for The Black Cat. I think that that’s just kind of a needlessly cruel story with little payoff.
Oren: I haven’t read much Poe. Which is the one where he has a lover that he swore to be faithful to, and then she dies and then he finds a new girlfriend that he wants to be with. Then his previous lover’s ghost appears and is like, “I’ve come back because of the promise I made”, and he’s like, “oh no, you’re gonna smite me”, and she’s like, “no, it’s actually fine, have a good relationship, I just wanted to tell you”, and then she disappears. I don’t remember which Poe story that is, but I swear there’s one of them that’s like that and it’s my favorite.
Wes: I think that’s Ligeia, because I wrote that on my list too, and I’m pretty sure that’s what happens. Fall of the House of Usher also has like a short story, more like a poem story, that they share because like they spend time reading books, and Ligeia also has a short poem in it that the titular character Ligeia composes before her death. It’s called The Conqueror Worm. And I remember 14-year-old me thought that was like the height of poetry. I was like, [changing voice] oh my God, yeah, we’re all gonna die and everything is decaying, this is so intense. [laughing] And I read it today and I’m like, well, alright. Sure.
Speaking of poetry. I do have one poem on my list that I – it’s hard to say that I really like this because I think that the chief emotion that I get from this is one of disgust, like pure disgust. So if you decide to read this, just bear in mind, it’s not pleasant. It’s by Robert Browning, who’s written plenty of stuff; it’s called Porphyria’s Lover, and it’s kind of a vampire-ish poem. There’s basically these two people; and at the turning point where the guy kills her, it replays all the action from the first part, but there’s been like a life exchange and it’s just pretty uncanny and very creepy. I was just trying to cast about for like a poem that filled a spooky niche because there aren’t a lot of them.
Oren: So another one on my list of stories that I love, but that everyone has already heard of, is Get Out.
Wes: Get Out is great.
Oren: I almost put off seeing it because I was worried it would be too scary, because I don’t do well with horror films, but it was just really good in spooky. It doesn’t do any jump-scares, as I recall.
Wes: No, none.
Oren: It didn’t make me feel like I wanted to leave the theater, right? It was just very tense and very like, ooh, yeah, white people are scary. I’m into it, sounds good. It was a very successful film, so the chances of you needing me to tell you to go see it a pretty small, but if you haven’t: go see it, it’s really good.
Chris: So the interesting thing about that one is – I’m trying to think of it, they packaged the alternate ending somewhere, maybe was in the director’s cut – there’s an alternate ending where the protagonist dies.
Wes: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Oren: I could see why that alternate ending would happen. I like the ending they used more, but I can see why an ending where he dies would also fit.
Chris: I think the ending where he dies would have been more powerful if the primary goal is to get across that point. At the same time, you really like the protagonist, you do want him to live. So I think the movie is more fun as it is.
Wes: Yeah, that payback that several of the characters get, the bad guys, is pretty good.
Oren: It’s very cathartic, right?
Wes: Yes. That’s the word I wanted.
Oren: It’s like, yeah, get him.
Wes: I wanted to bring this up when we talk about ballad a black Tom because like Oren rightly pointed out, it’s a good story of, “hey white people, these are horrors that you are causing.” Another good spooky story is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, because if you’re reading that and blissfully unaware of your role as white man in this world, you might think, oh, yeah, that’s a pretty good little ghost story. And if you’re at all aware of inequality or anything, you’re going to realize the horror of this story is the patriarchy and the silliness that even medicine enforces on women’s bodies, right? So it works on like so many layers like that. It’s written epistolary, she’s writing journal entries to herself, even though she’s not allowed to write. We’re watching her having to deal with this rest cure that she’s been prescribed because she basically has postpartum depression. But her husband just thinks that she’s – her husband is also her doctor. So there’s a whole thing.
Chris: Oh, that’s real creepy.
Wes: It’s real creepy. He’s just trying to make sure that the silly little thing doesn’t tire her out, she just needs rest. And it’s very obvious, and she says as much, that she needs air, she needs activity. She’s just stifled and so she slowly loses it and she creates a fantasy world in the wallpaper in her room. It’s spooky and powerful too, to realize that this is kind of built on a real tale that Perkins Gilman herself encountered through rest cures at the time. I definitely recommend that one. It’s short. It’s really powerful.
Chris: Going to something that’s much sillier –
Wes: Yes, please.
Chris: One of my favorite spooky movies is the Ninth Gate. It’s probably one of my favorite movies that has the lowest critic rating. This is the one starring Johnny Depp.
Oren: Oh, it’s a Johnny Depp movie, okay.
Chris: Yes, a Johnny Depp movie. Although it’s funny, because this is Johnny Depp enough time ago that he was younger, but he is he’s made up to look older. So he looks like he’s middle-aged at least when he’s really a young man in the movie. It’s kind of hokey sometimes, but it it’s about this creepy satanic book, and he’s a rare book dealer who’s really underhanded and kind of amoral. He has this benefactor who wants has this satanic book collection and is trying to get a hold of this book because the book supposedly will be used to summon the devil. So he’s sent out on this quest through Europe. Basically the idea is that there’s three copies left of this book, but his benefactor is convinced that only one of them is authentic and so he’s out to find the other two copies of the book and compare them to find out which one is the real one. And the book details this quest a character goes on in seeking the devil, with creepy pictures and stuff, and he basically goes through the quest as he is trying to look at these books. We also have a fun demonic love interest –[laughing]
Wes: Of course.
Chris: Gotta have a sexy hot lady demon –
Oren: Like you do.
Chris: But again, people who are looking for horror will just be bored by this movie, it’s not very thrilling. It has a few action scenes. It just has a lot of slower scenes with creepy music and looking at these demonic pictures. Anyway, it’s one of my favorites.
Oren: Speaking of movies, if we have a minute we can maybe talk about the differences between Annihilation the book and the movie.
Chris: Yeah. There’s a lot of differences.
Oren: Yeah. They made some choices there that I find fascinating. Other than the whitewashing of two of the main characters, which is just gross, putting that aside – the biggest change that they made that is very interesting is that in the in the book the area X is very normal looking at first, right? It looks like a wilderness. It looks like being in an undisturbed National Park or what have you. And the author then uses uncanny description to make that scary. In the movie, they went with much more like obvious alien stuff. Like there’s deer that glow and like plants growing in weird ways and a bear that screams, and things like that. And I think that that was the right choice just because it would have been hard to try to do visually the same things that the book did with the description in text. So I think that was a good choice and still, you know, Annihilation is not a straight-up horror movie, but it’s definitely spooky.
Chris: Yeah, it’s definitely interesting to see what happens when we do an adaptation from a book and we want to leverage a visual medium, and that includes having really awesome visuals to look at. Whereas in books, you can’t see it anyway, so it’s the effect that matters. Trying to paint a picture is not important.
The thing that always makes me think about this is actually Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This is when we start establishing that Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix, instead of just apparating and disapparating they become these vaporous white and dark light that like flies around. It doesn’t really make that much sense, especially in context of the book, why these these ones look like black smoke and these ones look like white smoke – but it looks really cool. The book isn’t designed to show off visual effects, but the movie put them in any way because it’s a visual medium and to make the most of it we want it to happen. And that’s what it felt very much like in Annihilation. The main things that a movie has are creepy music and creepy visuals. And so we want to make this creepiness more overt. We don’t have an unreliable narrator to set creep factor, instead we want to have creepy visuals to set the tone.
Oren: We have time for one more, Chris, if you’d like to do one.
Chris: Well, let’s see. A lot of the ones I have here are kind of classics we’ve talked about a lot at Mythcreants. Again, if you want Lovecraftian stuff, Maplecroft.
Oren: Oh, yeah, I do like Maplecroft.
Chris: This is a great epistolary novel. It’s also a really good example of multiple viewpoints that don’t fracture a story, which we talked about recently. We have three main people writing letters and that kind of builds up to our Lovecraftian horror monster threat, which is real neat. Also, big fan of Locke and Key, the graphic novel series. That one’s very, very cool and very, very creepy. There’s a house called Keyhouse that has a really long history and all of these different keys which have different magical effects when you use them, and that’s just really cool, the visuals are great and the story really builds up.
Oren: All right. Well, that’s a good recommendation to end this podcast on, I think. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a Professor of Political Theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We will talk to you next week.[closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?