ROBERT WEINBERG “Three Steps Back.” First appearance: Dial Your Dreams & Other Nightmares, DarkTales Publications, softcover, August 2001.

   If you were to ask me for an example of a solidly constructed horror story that doesn’t touch upon the mystical, the supernatural, or the weird, Robert Weinberg’s “Three Steps Back” would immediately come to mind. Originally published in Dial Your Dreams, a collection of Weinberg’s short stories, the tale can be found within a sub-section of the collection simply entitled, “Nightmares,” in which Weinberg contends that he “always felt the most frightening horror stories are those that don’t feature any element of the supernatural … The real horrors of the world surround us.”

   Set on a university campus, the plot of “Three Steps Back” revolves around the desire of a graduate student by the name of Jake Edwards to unravel the mystery of the Gray Ghost of Illinois University. But the ghost in question here isn’t a supernatural entity. No, he’s just an older man with an extremely bizarre habit: he doesn’t seem to want anyone to be behind him. It’s as if he fears some sort of presence behind him.

   Soon Jake comes to realize that the Gray Ghost is all-too-human. He’s a veteran named Chet Williams who has a severe case of what we now call PTSD. Williams’s fear of people lurking behind him, as it turns out, stems from a particularly heinous experience in a Viet Cong POW camp.

   But that can’t the extent of the story, now can it? Weinberg skillfully builds the suspense, raising it up a notch until the ultimate revelation. As he so rightly notes in his introduction, horror doesn’t need to be supernatural to be mightily effective.