I first found Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me in the library about 30 years ago. At the time I was an avid fan of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series for young readers. I had finished all of those books, so went to the card catalog to track down more Hitchcock, blissfully unaware that the kid’s series had little to do with him. I found this collection, which was edited by Hitchcock, in the grownup section of the library. When I checked the book out, I felt certain the librarian would forbid it, but she was none the wiser.
I read the first story, “Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb, that night. Written in 1913, it’s the earliest work in the collection. It’s a hugely atmospheric story about a remote lake and an outcast. And it gave me nightmares that first night, and then on and off for about five years.
I closed the book and returned it, feeling the librarian should have been more diligent in her duties. But it stuck with me, and nearly three decades later I tracked it down. That first story is still thrilling, but no nightmares this time. Those were saved for “One of the Dead” by William Wood. This story from 1966 is about a haunted house in California, again hugely atmospheric but this time loaded with a 60’s chic feel.
There’s other gems in the collection. “Not with a Bang” by Damon Knight tells of the last man and woman on the planet. “The Cage” by Ray Russell shows clearly how an author can be a sadist with his characters. “Guide to Doom” by Ellis Peters has tremendous characterization in just five pages. “Journey to Death” by Donald E. Westlake makes one happy that planes have since replaced ships for travel. There are two novellas as well. “Out of the Deeps” by John Wyndham details an alien invasion, but at a pace that’s stunningly slow by today’s standards. “It” by Theodore Sturgeon is largely predictable, though notable as it’s by the only author from the book that I knew before reading it. That’s one the biggest pleasures in rediscovering this collection, tracking down these nearly forgotten authors.
The stories date mostly from the 50’s and 60’s, or “the day of the swinger” according to Hitchcock in the introduction. Many of them present avant garde couples surrounded by square, flat houses with minimalist furniture. But there is a subtext: all is not quite so perfect in this world that prides itself on order and cleanliness. The stories harken to a time when one only needed to “remove the receiver” to cut the world off. When newspapers still reigned, and there was time for much rumination before action. Or as the narrator in Wyndham’s novella notes about a newspaper he encounters, but doesn’t much like:
Though it is, I am aware, not without its merits and even well thought of in some circles, it leaves me with an abiding sense that it is more given to expressing its first prejudices than its second thoughts. Perhaps if it were to go to press a day later.
Thirty years in the making, and far from my first prejudice, I highly recommend this collection. It’s long out of print, but was a book club pick so there are a few second hand copies that can be found.