A short story that scarred me for life

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The Tunnel Ahead –

The Tunnel Ahead by Alice Glaser, first published in 1961, remains a hidden gem in the realm of eerily terrifying short stories, so much so that it took a multi-day internet deep dive to uncover the title of this mysterious work that which been lingering in back of my mind since I was fourteen. 

A hidden gem in the realm of eerily terrifying short stories

A prime example of mid-twentieth century dystopia, this science fiction story has the fundamental elements that make works such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984  so profoundly unsettling, and has left me with a wariness of tunnels that I still can’t shake. The story concerns Tom, who is returning from a day at the beach with his family, and the twisted way in which their community deals with an overpopulation crisis. As the story itself reveals (and without spoiling too much), it is the community’s game of Russian roulette, and the amusement Tom derives from it, that truly makes this story get under your skin. Perhaps most unsettling, though Glaser purported that her story took place in a (not too) distant future, the story’s principal concern is all the more applicable to today’s world, making “The Tunnel Ahead” a topical and spooky read for this autumn. 

Read The Tunnel Ahead here.

The Tell-Tale Heart –

Though perhaps not your quintessential take on horror, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is an evocative take on possibly the scariest of all topics: human nature. Written from the first person perspective, we are led by the unnamed narrator come murderer in his merciless slaughtering of ‘the Old Man’ alongside his various attempts at self definition as not ‘mad’. The startling ambiguity of both the cause of murder, given only as a particular dislike for the ‘vulture’-like eyes, and the narrator’s own mental capacity, captures a terrifying aspect of mental deterioration. 

Whilst Poe’s tale is highly disturbing on many levels, it is ultimately the completely senseless nature of the murder and the madness that is most haunting. In what has seemed, at points, an almost dystopian 2020 universe, it is the human ability to create catastrophe without reason that is most deeply jarring about the short story. At least we may take slight comfort in the knowledge that the slow knocking of conscience (carefully metaphorized by Poe as the beating of a heart) will at least come for all villains in the end (here’s looking to you, November 3rd)!

‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ –

There are some images from horror movies and particularly disturbing fiction that stick with you, and even though I read Saunders’ acclaimed The Semplica Girl Diaries over three years ago – it’s really the stuff of nightmares. Saunders has built up quite a reputation for his experimental, futuristic, and politically provocative fiction, and his 2013 short story collection ‘Tenth of December’ only added to his acclaim. In his typical playful style, the story is presented to us as brief diary entries, with comic use of shorthand and our speaker’s optimism making the big reveal of the short story all the more disturbing. Our fictive suburban dad is so happy because he can finally afford to buy some “SG’s” for his lawn, this fictionalised America’s ultimate status symbol. The reader is onboard until the penny drops and it is revealed what these “SG’s” really are (I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s chilling). Horrific and unreal at first, but Saunders here is presenting a powerful critique of Western consumerism that refuses to acknowledge exploitation, and creates the perfect haunting image to chill us into compassion and political change. Try getting that ending out of your head.

A powerful critique of Western consumerism

‘The Scythe’ –

A stooping silhouette, stark against a smouldering sky, wielding a scythe with feverish intensity…such is the lasting image from my first encounter with Ray Bradbury’s The Scythe as a child. However, with re-reading, my terror has only been reaffirmed.

The Ericksons, a destitute family, find that “quite suddenly, there was no more road.” This eerie sense of fate pervades the story, beginning with the Eriksons’ inheritance of a fully-fledged farm, and the previous owner’s final words which bestow Drew Erickson with a job and the tool to execute it. “WHO WIELDS ME—WIELDS THE WORLD!” reads the scythe, and Drew accepts, unwittingly assuming the role of the grim reaper.

Initially, my fears were concentrated on death’s personification, and the unsettling diminution of human lives to wheat stalks. Now, my terror derives from the realisation that Drew’s work enables lives to both end and begin, which augments rather than lessens the horror of Drew’s entrapment and descent into madness. The story’s final image haunts me to this day.

Image: Dariusz Sankowski via Unsplash

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