ARTICLE (May 2018)
SCARIEST STORY EVER
THE FEATHER PILLOW by HORACIO QUIROGA
NOMINATED by JON GOWER
Following Horla’s recent interview with Carmen Maria Machado (see elsewhere within these pages) in which the Cuban-American horror writer discussed her childhood fondness for the stories of Alvin Schwartz and named Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Tooth’ as her favourite tale we’ve decided to institute an occasional series in which Horla contributors and other writers disclose what is for them the scariest story… ever.
Here, to launch our series, Jon Gower nominates ‘The Feather Pillow’ by the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (left) (1878-1937). Do you agree with Gower? Write to us at Horla (see Letters tab).
JON GOWER writes: Tell someone a ghost story around a picnic table and it’s suddenly an anodyne affair: repeat it after dark, in a Gothic old room full of shadow-snakes and it’s a different thing altogether.
Context is all. During the time of the Peter Sutcliffe murders in Yorkshire, England, a story apparently started making the rounds. A young woman offers a lift to a hitchhiker and they chat pleasantly enough. When they reach his destination he gets out and she notices that his wrists are very hairy. He has forgotten his case on the back seat and inside is a pair of silver scissors.
This is an urban myth or legend – think of the vanishing hitchhiker, or of the one who gets a lift only for the driver to be later told that there’s a killer on the loose from the asylum – relocated to an area that was scared.
Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper murdered 13 women and attempted to murder another seven over two decades, after God ‘s voice had told him to kill prostitutes.
The urban legend which made the rounds in a frightened Leeds and Bradford in the 1960s and 1970s (or did it?) also has dark tinges of the bonkers 19th century German rhymes for children in Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpelter (“shock-headed Peter”). Maybe Hoffmann had the dark murderer Peter William Sutcliffe in mind. In the tabloid photos of him he does have a shock of black hair.
And context is all when it comes to the scariest story I’ve ever read. Written by the Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga – who wrote bizarre and unsettling stories set in the jungle – before taking his own life, ‘The Feather Pillow’ is a lightweight little thing, a short, short story about a young woman who gets married and begins to fade away. There are hints or clues of vampirism, sending the reader down cul-de-sacs but the ending, well, I have to leave that cloaked in mystery. Not even a spoiler alert. It is, however, as befits the story’s title, a tale best read in bed. It’s my nomination for the scariest story ever. You can find it in Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: An Anthology of Fantastic Literature. In bed I tell you. You won’t be disappointed. Or sleep well.