Monday, November 20, 2023

T.E.D. Klein’s list of “The 13 Most Terrifying Horror Stories”

Forty years ago, in two issues of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine dated May-June and July-August 1983, editor T.E.D. Klein published a series of ten lists under the overall title “The Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf.” The lists were by “three unusually erudite scholars (with unusually strong opinions),” including Thomas M. Disch (two lists), R. S. Hadji (four lists), Karl Edward Wagner (three lists), plus one by T.E.D. Klein.

Klein, Hadji and Disch played the game seriously, while Wagner took a more oblique approach, listing real rarities of dubious quality that quickly brought an often undeserved cachet for the Wagner-listed titles on the rare book market. This trend has only worsened over the years, and as they have been reprinted (often ignoring their still-in-copyright status), they have been over-promoted with nonsensical claims of being lost masterpieces. 

Thus the three “Wagner lists” have a disproportionate reputation over that of the other lists. Here I’d like to remedy that, and in a series of four posts, consider the ten lists by each of the four authors. 

First, I’d like to discuss the single list by editor T.E.D. Klein, “The 13 Most Terrifying Horror Stories.” Klein starts with four undisputed classics:

1. “Casting the Runes” (1911) by M.R. James
2. “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895) by Arthur Machen
3. “The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood
4. “The Dunwich Horror” (1929) by H.P. Lovecraft

A number of Klein’s other selections are lesser-known stories, but often by well-known writers:

5. “Bird of Prey” (1941) by John Collier
6. “Who Goes There?” (1938) by “Don A. Stuart” (John W. Campbell)—
     this story is better-known as the basis for John Carpenter’s film
     The Thing (1982).
10. “First Anniversary” (1960) by Richard Matheson
11. “The Autopsy” (1980) by Michael Shea
12. “The Trick” (1980) by Ramsey Campbell

Klein’s final selection is, as he says, “natural rather than supernatural horror.” It’s a fine tale, but (to me, though it has been some decades since I read it) one more of suspense than of horror:

13. “To Build a Fire” (1908) by Jack London

Three stories are rather more obscure:

7. “They Bite” (1943) by Anthony Boucher
8. “ Stay Off the Moon!” (1962) by Raymond F. Jones
9. “Ottmar Balleau X 2” (1961) by George Bamber 

The Boucher story is well-written, but minor; it involves a man in the desert encountering the fact behind a strange legend. The George Bamber story presents one side of an epistolary story written by a madman. It is cliched and over-the-top. “Stay Off the Moon!” is a novelette, dated and silly in its basic premise. It would have made for a typical D-grade sci-fi movie in the 1950s, and one must have a similar dislocation of the intellect to read this novelette as one needs to watch such films.  

Klein closes with a handful of honorable mentions, three short stories and two short novels:

“Fritzchen” (1953) by Charles Beaumont
“Mimic” (1942) by Donald A. Wollheim  
“A Bit of the Dark World” (1962) by Fritz Leiber
Ringstones, by “Sarban” (John William Wall)
The House on the Borderland (1908), by William Hope Hodgson

The two short novels are both superb. “Mimic” is more of a short sketch than a story; its kernel idea was expanded with a plot to make the 1997 film Mimic. “Fritzchen” is an interesting tale about the discovery of a new (malevolent) creature. "A Bit of the Dark World" is a gem-- a meditation on perception, cosmicism, and the universe.  It is the best thing by Leiber that I have read (and I've read several books by him). Wow!

All in all, fairly worthy selections, though I think the Raymond F. Jones and George Bamber stories can be skipped.

Klein’s list, with all his annotations, is reprinted in his Providence After Dark and Other Writings (2019).



  1. Very interesting list by Klein. I'm looking forward to the other lists. I have a set of Twilight Zone magazines somewhere. I'll have to dig them up.

  2. Doug,
    Many thanks for this new project. People do love lists, so it's no surprise that the Twilight Zone selections have had such influence. But with the passage of time, it's obvious--as you make clear--that some of these stories and novels were over-praised. Also, what terrifies you may not terrify me--people are disturbed by differing scenarios. For me, "The Beckoning Fair One" is truly horrific and upsetting, while all of M.R. James--whose work I love--feels more or less cozy. I can happily reread James again and again, but I'd have to steel myself to reread the Onions. --md

  3. Disappointed by his Lovecraft selection; I always thought the "academics waving their hands around to magically vanquish the beast" was one of Lovecraft's weakest endings (after a great buildup) and rather at odds with his other more effective stories. Most of these selections are great; glad to see Sarban and also House on the Borderland included.
    -Jeff Matthews
    -Jeff Matthews

  4. "The Beckoning Fair One", seconded! I've never thought "The Dunwich Horror " one of HPL's best. You aren't ever going to beat "The Colour Out of Space". For Machen I would substitute "The Inmost Light". How about Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", a 20th century urban nightmare. No Shirley Jackson, or Thomas Ligotti? For Jackson, "The Summer People". For Ligotti, "Teatro Grottesco" or "The Bungalow House".

    1. Remember, Klein's list was published in 1983, so that was before the Ligotti stories were published.

  5. A welcome post, Doug! I have the utmost respect for Mr. Klein as a writer of fiction and criticism, but everyone's list of the most (fill in the blank) is going to vary to some degree. I enjoy most of the stories on his list, and particularly appreciate his inclusion of Jack London's "To Build a Fire", but like you cannot understand his praise for these particular stories by Raymond F. Jones and George Bamber. I recall finding the Jones interesting while I was reading it, but was disappointed by the conclusion and now have no memory of it whatsoever. The George Bamber tale is another case entirely, I have now read it three times, suspecting that I had perhaps overlooked something on my previous traversals, but it still fails to impress. It reminds me a little of L. P. Hartley's excellent "W.S.", with the cleverness dial "turned to 11" and minus all but a faint echo of Hartley's precision or clarity.

    1. P.S. Klein has written perceptively about Machen on several occasions, and It therefore surprises me that he chose "The Novel of the Black Seal" over "The White People", which I find as insidiously terrifying as Le Fanu's "Green Tea" (which, alas, did not make his list).

  6. Two classic tales that have always given me the heebies and the jeebies; H.R. Wakefield's "The Red Lodge" and Rhoda Broughton's "The Man With the Nose".