Tonight is the first night of Passover—the Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. The story is one of triumph and celebration, but in some ways it’s also one of the darkest tales in the Jewish tradition. You know the story: Moses is called upon by God to free the Israelites, so he approaches the pharaoh with the demand, “Let my people go!” Each time that the pharaoh refuses, God afflicts the Egyptians with a new plague intended to terrify them into releasing their slaves. The ten plagues are the stuff of nightmares—both realistic dangers, like disease and infestations, and supernatural terrors, like rivers of blood and unnatural darkness. Whether you are celebrating Passover this week or not, enjoy these ten short stories to go along with each plague inflicted upon the Egyptians:
- Blood: “The Book of Blood” by Clive Barker
In the Passover story, the first plague is the plague of blood. Moses touches his staff to the water and changes the Nile into a river of blood, killing the fish and horrifying the Egyptian people. Of course, the first scene from horror fiction that this plague made me think of was the scene in Stephen King’s The Shining when blood rushes out of the elevators and down the hotel hallways. But if you want a short horror story that’s all about blood, there’s “The Book of Blood” by Clive Barker. This tale is the first in Barker’s multi-volume horror collection, Books of Blood, and serves as the frame story for the rest of the tales. In it, a fraudulent medium investigates a haunted house, intending to fake some visions and go home with some extra cash. But he soon finds himself face to face with real ghosts who carve words into his skin, writing the rest of the stories in the collection in a literal book of blood.
- Frogs: “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H. P. Lovecraft
For the second plague, Moses afflicts the Egyptians with an excessive amount of frogs. Frogs aren’t usually creatures that inspire terror on their own, but they can be slimy and gross and especially off-putting en masse. Even more so when the frogs start coming “into your bedchamber and on your bed, and into the houses of your servants and of your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls” as they do in the Exodus story (Ex: 8:3). But for some truly frightening frog fiction, I encourage you to turn to the father of modern horror, H. P. Lovecraft. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is one of Lovecraft’s better known stories. A traveler decides to stop in the Massachusetts town of Innsmouth, despite warnings from the neighboring locals. At Innsmouth, the traveler hears tales of the mysterious fish-frog men who came from the sea and reproduced with the local population. When he sees some of these frog men in person, the narrator faints in terror, and after he discovers disturbing information about his own genealogy, he is driven slowly into madness.
- Lice: “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka
After the frogs, Moses next sends bugs to itch and irritate the Egyptians. The dust of the earth is transformed into a horde of insects, alternately translated as lice, gnats, or fleas. When you think horror and insects, one of the first stories to come to mind is Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” In this German surrealist classic, a traveling salesman wakes up to find that he has transformed during the night into a horrendous giant insect. His family is terrified and disgusted by him, and though they try to feed and care for him, cannot bear the sight of him. The salesman tries to come to terms with his new form, but ultimately the story does not have a happy ending.
- Wild Beasts: “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
This plague is interpreted differently depending on which translation you’re reading. The word used can either mean “mixture” or “swarm,” so in some versions, the Egyptians are attacked by a mixture of wild animals, while in others they face a swarm of flies. If we’re going with the wild beasts interpretation, Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” is just the thing. Bradbury is best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, but he also wrote quite a bit of science fiction and horror. In “The Veldt,” a wealthy family moves into a high-tech automated house which has a virtual reality nursery room for the two young children. The kids are fascinated by the room, which depicts the scenery of an African veldt, or open grassland, on the walls. In the distance, a couple of lions can be seen gnawing on an unidentifiable carcass. But when the parents threaten to take the kids away from the nursery, they learn that the beasts in the veldt may not be as distant as they appear.
- Pestilence: “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe
Now, in the Biblical version, the fifth plague is a pestilence that strikes the Egyptians’ livestock. But I decided to go with pestilence in general, and of course the most iconic horror story in this vein is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” In this story, a group of aristocrats led by Prince Prospero try to escape the plague that is ravaging the local population by shutting themselves up in Prospero’s abbey. They decide to host a masquerade ball to pass the time, but the plague itself shows up as an uninvited guest.
- Boils: Mold by Junjo Ito
With this next plague, Moses causes the Egyptians and their animals to break out in “festering boils.” Going with the general theme of horrible skin afflictions, I chose a story by Japanese horror manga artist, Junjo Ito. In Mold, a man returns to Japan after spending some time overseas to find that his new house is covered in a strange mold. The mold spreads to the people that come into contact with it, and the story ends with the protagonist tearing at his skin repeating “Itchy…itchy….itchy.”
- Hail: “Rainy Season” by Stephen King
The last few plagues are when things really start to get deadly. For the seventh plague, God causes a hail storm so severe that it kills any man or animal that does not find shelter. Stephen King’s “Rainy Season” features a storm of a different sort. I could have put this one under frogs, but I felt that its deadly nature made it more suitable to hail. In the story, a young couple rents a house in Willow, Maine. They stay despite warnings from the locals, and soon fall victim to the “rain” which consists of giant carnivorous frogs with needle-sharp teeth that fall from the sky.
- Locusts: “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson
The next plague represents an actual phenomenon that sometimes endangered these desert populations. A swarm of locusts covers the land and devours every last plant and crop that still remained after the hail. “Leiningen Versus the Ants” is a classic short story originally published in German and released later in English in Esquire magazine. In the story, a massive swarm of deadly and highly organized soldier ants is plaguing the countryside, but one plantation owner named Leiningen refuses to flee. He tries to fortify his plantation with moats and other defenses, but the ants continue to push through. Leinengen ultimately manages to drown the ants and make it out alive, but it’s a very close call.
- Darkness: Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
For the penultimate plague, God causes and unnatural darkness to fall over Egypt for three days. The Egyptians were unable to leave their homes, and one can only imagine how terrifying the total darkness would have been. “Nightfall” was originally a novelette published by Isaac Asimov in 1941 and was later expanded into a full-length novel with additions by Robert Silverberg. The story is somewhat more sci-fi than horror, but it has a bit of a Lovecraftian feel and deals with this innate fear of darkness. The story takes place on the fictional planet Lagash, which has six suns and is therefore continually illuminated by daylight. About once every two thousand years, however, the celestial alignments combined with an eclipse cause the planet to experience a temporary night. Scientists have discovered evidence that past civilizations have entirely destroyed themselves in their fear and panic after the darkness fell, so they try to prepare themselves for the coming eclipse. But though they brace themselves for the darkness, they could not prepare themselves for the stars, and with them the sudden knowledge that the universe is bigger than they could have ever imagined.
- Death of the Firstborn: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The final plague is the death of the firstborn. The holiday of Passover gets its name from the fact that the Israelites marked their homes with lamb’s blood so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” them. The firstborn of the Egyptians, however, are struck dead by divine forces. Grieving the death of his firstborn, Pharaoh finally releases the Israelites from slavery. Though I’ve been trying to pick stories on the shorter side, for this plague I have to go with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables. In this story, the Pyncheon family is plagued with a death curse after Colonel Pyncheon has Matthew Maule executed for witchcraft in order to seize the property on which to build the house. Throughout the subsequent generations, various Pyncheon men spontaneously drop dead until the wrong is eventually righted.
Happy Passover to those celebrating, and I hope you all found this post fun and interesting! What other stories would you suggest to go with the plagues? What other holidays do you want me to try to relate to gothic fiction? Let me know in the comments!