Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


OCTOBER 30, 2011 12:22PM

Three classic scary stories (and movies), plus one

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I'm partial to stories about ghosts and the supernatural. Supernatural literature goes back centuries; it's a rich source of themes and ideas for modern entertainment. Here are three of my favorite stories-turned-into-movies.

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth...

M. R. James, "Casting the Runes", in More Ghost Stories (1911)

The opening to "Casting the Runes", quoting three letters of regret to a Mr. Karswell, suggests that it will be an epistolary story, and a great deal of what happens is conveyed in an indirect, old-fashioned style. "This much is in the way of prologue," and "The next scene that does require to be narrated is a conversation..." We discover ourselves in a supernatural murder mystery, a compelling example of Victorian horror. James Hynes, who includes a pastiche of "Casting the Runes" in his collection Publish or Perish, describes James as "author of the the greatest ghost stories in the English language."



James's story became Night of the Demon, or Curse of the Demon, with Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins. The 1957 movie is probably best known for its director, Jacques Tourneur, who directed Cat People in 1942. The story is filmed in a much more direct style, and a few details have been filled in (some to good effect, others less so). The tension in the movie is similar to that of the short story: Will all end happily?

"You were too late," the voice said. "You were a minute too late."

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife (1943)

In Conjure Wife, Norman Saylor is a young sociology professor at a college in the northeast. Early in the story, Norman discovers that his wife Tansy is a witch. Being a modern sort (for the 1940s, at least) he persuades Tansy to give up her witchcraft, not foreseeing the consequences.



Leiber's novel became the movie Night of the Eagle (in the UK, retitled Burn, Witch, Burn! for the U.S. market). The setting was moved to England, which works quite well, in the 1960s, also a good move. The movie simplifies away much of the plot, but it retains the same flavor. Witchcraft is just superstition... isn't it? There's a rational explanation for the odd things that are happening. And what's the worst that could happen if we simply disbelieve?

"Died?" I almost shrieked.

She seemed fairly to square herself, plant herself more firmly to utter the wonder of it. "Yes. Mr. Quint is dead."

Henry James, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898)

"The Turn of the Screw" is one of the most famous literary ghost stories in history, though there's been some debate about whether it really is a ghost story. A governess is hired to care for two young children, Miles and Flora, at their country estate. Unexplained figures come and go across the property; the governess must unravel the mystery as well as she can.



The story became The Innocents (1961), with Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave. (Peter Wyngarde, Norman in Burn, Witch, Burn! plays Peter Quint here.) The Innocents is considered a psychological horror movie; it's also considered one of the best movies of its time.


The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God!

H.P. Lovecraft, "Call of Cthulhu" (1928)

I forgot to mention H.P. Lovecraft's 1928 story "Call of Cthulhu", which in 2005 was turned into a marvelous short film by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society: a black-and-white silent movie, following many of the conventions of 1920 film-making. While Re-Animator, From Beyond, and In the Mouth of Madness are all worth watching, for Lovecraft afficionados, Call of Cthulhu is remarkable, the best of all the adaptations of his work.



It's the season for scary stories. Stay up some night, with just a single light on in the room, and read one. Or turn on a movie.



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M. R. James! He's the best. And Fritz Lieber produced one of the creepiest scenes ever. Whenever I'm at a distance from my house and can see the second floor window, I always get a little nervous. I didn't realize there were movies based on their stories. Time to search netflix. Henry James - meh. I'll take Algernon Blackwood instead.
Algernon Blackwood is really underrated--I've just checked IMDB to find that only Wendigo has been been turned into a full-length movie. The Willows? The Damned? He ought to be as famous as H.P. Lovecraft.
Oh, which Leiber story are you thinking of about the second floor window? (If it's from Conjure Wife, I don't remember the scene. But he's also written other great stuff--Smoke Ghost is sometimes described as being the first example of modern urban horror.)
Our Lady of Darkness - eek!

Totally agree about Blackwood.
Thanks! I don't think I've read it, but I believe it's on my shelf.

I've added an update for Lovecraft, who's an interesting figure in horror--a really terrible writer (imho) with really interesting ideas.
omg - my feelings exactly about Lovecraft. He was dreadful, but he was also brilliant. I love and hate his stuff simultaneously, which I don't think I can say about any other writer I've read. I only wish I could get away with using the word "eldritch."
That's the word that always comes to my mind, too. :-)

I've recently discovered that the term "Elder Gods", which I really like, is one of August Derleth's creations, not Lovecraft's.
I am somewhat abashed to admit I've always thought August Derleth was a Lovecraft alter. I am not at the top of the horror-story class, obviously.
I really don't know the history, either, except that Derleth tried to get Lovecraft's work published after his death (collections of previously published short stories, I think). He founded Arkham House, which is still publishing today. I like some of the "posthumous" collaborations, in which Derleth completed Lovecraft's unfinished stories, though true fans tend not to.
Oh, that's why I thought August Derleth was a Lovecraft alter. We're having a horror-nerd conversation here, aren't we? Which is fun. I don't know anyone else who cares about this stuff. I miss Scoubidou.
We are. I don't know if you caught a flow chart I constructed last year, explaining how to know what horror movie you're in, but if not, you might find it entertaining.
OK, my favourite supernatural short story of all time begins:

"A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff." (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge)

Love Bierce's stories, and I'll always wonder what happened to him in Mexico. Or wherever....
Everybody knows Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, but he really should be just as famous for his short stories. That's one of my favorites, too.

I'm also reminded of E.F. Benson, who is known for his Mapp and Lucia stories, but who also wrote great ghost stories.
I love scary stories, and I always have. Thanks for sharing these. I think the book that scared me the most was Stephen King's Salem's Lot. I read it in college over the course of about 24 hours, mainly because I was too scared to stop reading and go to bed.
I read a lot of Stephen King in high school and college, and I thought 'Salem's Lot was the best of the movies of his work for a long time. Scary! The Shining was an early exception, but that was more Kubrick than King, and the rest were hit or miss.
The" Innocent"was one of the best movies I have seen,ever.
D.K was an outstanding actress.Her eyes were special.She gave the impression to always look behind the veil.The story is supernatural.People who have never seen a movie like this,better make sure they watch it in company.
Another good movie is"Wait until dark",starring Audrey Hepburn.It's a crimi.
Kerr was great in many movies; it was good to see her talent in The Innocents.

Wait until Dark is a nice suspense film. It's been ages since I've seen it, but I remember Hepburn being pretty convincing as a blind woman and Alan Arkin being pretty convincing as a psycho.
Wow, I can't believe I haven't seen any of these films. Thanks for the post.
I get frightened really easily, and then can't sleep. So I tend to avoid these stories. But when I was a teenager, I read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and that was the most horror-filled novel I've ever read. Made me afraid to sleep in my own room for a long time--I kept asking my little sister to come sleep with me! Ha!

Will found The Innocents at one of his dubious websites. Also, it's at Youtube, if you don't mind that the soundtrack is in another language! I think I'll try reading the Henry James original first, then see if I can control my terror to watch!
Happy watching, ChillerPop!

Snippy, thanks for reminding me of The Haunting of Hill House. (How could I not have mentioned it?) It's one of the scariest novels I've read. I still get shivers when I read the end of Eleanor and Theodora's shared ordeal. The Haunting captured a lot of it.
If you want a major case of the creeps courtesy of our own Mumbletypeg, go read her account of the haunted school in Vermont.
The Haunting of Hill House...sold
There is a movie which I saw long ago.I think the title was

"The edge of knife". It's a story about a psychopath.
Good grief! I had no idea that horror could be so sophisticated! I can see that I’ve some catching up to do.....

For me, horror stories and movies are just kind of fun. There is some depth, I think, in the sense that any genre can show flashes of brilliance.

You know what I find funny and a little bit pathetic, though? Blurbs on graphic novels (serious comic books) and science fiction novels that favorably compare a genre author, who might possibly be quite good, to Shakespeare. (And it's always Shakespeare. Never So-and-so is is a modern Homer, or Boccaccio, or Cervantes, or Austen.) Give me a break.
I remember very well "the Curse of the Demon" and how the horror was masterfully created. The trick was frequently to create the expectation of horror with no necessary horror revealed. One scene of a long hallway with may closed doors made one very jumpy by letting the audience expect something but nothing actually appeared.

The 1945 British horror film was also quite frightening with an evil ventriloquist dummy in one of the sequences stealing the soul of the ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave.

I read the original story by Fritz Leiber "Conjure Wife" in the pulp magazine "Unknown Worlds" but never saw the film.

I also found three other films noteworthy.
"The Body Snatchers" with Donald Southern
"The Thing" done by John Carpenter which followed closely the original story by John Campbell "Who Goes There?"
Sorry. The 1945 British horror classic was titled "Dead of Night" and was very memorable. See
Cool! Thanks for the recommendations, Jan. I like all of the movies you mentioned (I like them quite a lot, actually), except for "Dead of Night", which I haven't seen. I'll have to check it out.