“The Specialty of the House” by Stanley Ellin from Mystery Stories (aka Quiet Horror) (Simon and Schuster, 1956.)
I read this story recently, after Steve Berman of Lethe Press posted online that it (quite possibly) is his favorite short story of all time. I admit it; I was beyond curious. I found a copy online and read it in my car during lunch.
It felt very familiar, which is not surprising once you know that both Alfred Hitchcock and Vincent Price adapted the story for television. Those names were staples in our house when I was growing up (as was Rod Serling, and this has a distinct Twilight Zone feel to it). It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that I saw one of the teleplays of this piece.
This is good, old fashioned, edge-of-your-seat horror. It’s not bloody and gory. Suspense raises the hair on the back of your neck, and it’s never stomach-turning (which is funny, all things considered.) There’s a particular detail I won’t disclose, so as not to ruin it for you. In this day and age of “spoiler alert” notifications I‘m tempted to say that figuring that detail out early doesn’t ruin anything for the reader, but I think that’s inaccurate. I think Ellin wanted the reader to figure it out early, because knowing what’s happening and being able to do something about it are two completely different things. Like seeing cars colliding on the freeway ahead of you, there’s not a damned thing you can do to stop it, and you also cannot look away. The dramatic irony quotient here is very high. It’s an excellent lesson in how to do this sort of thing well.