It’s October, and thoughts often turn to skeletons, ghosts, zombies, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night. To prepare, I’ve been reading (or re-reading) some of the creepiest books out there, and I’m sharing some of my favorites with you.
Scary stories have been around for a long time. The 19th century was a period rich in horror writers, including such classics as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and the wonderfully sinister stories of Edgar Allan Poe. For my money, these are still some of the best and creepiest stories around. A more modern tale in this vein is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
I will confess up front that I’m not easily scared — in fact, a couple of years ago I was trying to find “a book that scares you” for a Reading Bingo program, and I read four or five horror novels before I finally found one that was kinda creepy for me. But horror stories are very much alive and well today. Here are a few to consider.
Of my recent reading, the book I found most frightening was Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver. Pepper is just an average guy, a little hot-headed, but never in trouble with the law until the night he unwittingly gets in a fight with 3 out-of-uniform cops. They’re at the end of their shift, so instead of plowing through lots of police paperwork, they dump him in the psych ward of the nearby hospital as an involuntary admit. Still, how bad can that be? He’ll make his phone call and get out of there in a few hours, right? Oh, how very wrong you are. His life descends into a hellish nightmare. For my money, that’s the true horror of this story. This could happen to anyone. Add in a demonic creature that terrorizes the ward and a hospital administration whose sole interest is profits, and there should be something to scare pretty much any reader. LaValle has crafted a great story, peopled with well-developed characters, and perhaps the most remarkable thing is that even the ‘bad guys’ are likable and sympathetic.
Stephen King is a great name in horror writing, and no list of creepy stories would be complete without him. But I must confess the King novels I’ve read haven’t frightened me. I recently read Carrie and found the title character to be more sad than anything else. A fanatical mother makes her life an endless misery, she has no friends, and her power of telekinesis — well, with her life, can you really blame her for what she did? I can only find sorrow in my heart for such a suffering human being.
William March’s The Bad Seed is the story of another misfit. But 8-year-old Rhoda is a very clever little sociopath. If you like psychological thrillers, this classic from 1954 is still a great read. It all seems so idyllic at first. But as the story unfolds, the sinister nature of Rhoda overwhelms the story, just as it overwhelms Rhoda’s mother. Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child tells of another happy family — happy, that is, until the birth of their fifth child. Ben turns out to be severely dysfunctional, violent and almost malevolent, and the toll on the entire family is extreme. Not a thriller, but definitely a creepy psychological tale.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved won the Pulitzer in 1988, and thirty years later it still packs quite a punch. Though it is far more than a ghost story, it does indeed have a ghost, a marvelous, malevolent, spiteful ghost that inhabits the house of Sethe, a former slave. The incredible depth of this novel lies in the pain and suffering of the entire cast of characters, born slaves and trying to come to terms with the atrocities of their past. The pain goes so deep that many are unable to face their ‘rememories,’ and thus are unable to remake themselves as free humans. The ghost of Beloved, who takes human form, tries to destroy Sethe, but eventually she (albeit unwittingly) assists Sethe and others in confronting some of their rememories and thus remaking themselves. If you haven’t read Beloved or haven’t re-read it recently, put it on your list.
The Hunger is a novel that blurs the lines between historical fiction and the supernatural in a fascinating way. Author Alma Katsu takes the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, and peoples it with evil forces that propel the entire wagon train towards disaster and doom. It’s a fresh take on history, and an Oregon Trail story unlike any you’ve ever read.
Ray Bradbury was an amazingly versatile author. In addition to creating remarkable science fiction, he wrote in other veins as well. Something Wicked This Way Comes blends the cozy small-town Midwest of his own youth with fantastical, sinister elements to create a wonderfully creepy tale, perfect for this time of year. When the carnival comes to town, all the kids, and the adults too, are eager to take in its novelties. But this year the carnival has a dark side, an evil side. And the young boys who discover what’s going on — well, it’s definitely more thrills and chills than they bargained for.
Young adult fiction has no shortage of horror stories. Zombies and vampires abound. And though Twilight might not make the shortlist for most adult readers, there are some amazing YA horror novels, worthy of the most sophisticated adult’s attention.
My personal favorite (so far) is My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick. Set in the early 17th century in Eastern Europe, it tells the story of woodcutter Peter who moves to a small isolated village with his father. When gypsies arrive and turn out to be vampire slayers, the story gets very interesting indeed. The writing is top-notch, characterizations are vivid, and the whole story is compelling. A masterful piece of storytelling.
Perhaps the first young adult vampire novel was The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause. In it, Zoe is brooding over the impending death of her mother when she meets Simon. She is strongly drawn to him, as he understands the pain and sorrow she’s experiencing like no one else she’s ever met. What she doesn’t know in the beginning is that Simon is a vampire who has been searching for over 300 years to avenge the death of his mother. A compelling, well-written tale.
Some of the best creepy stories, for me at least, are in the Juvenile Fiction section of the library. When I was searching for that elusive “book that scares you” I finally found a great creepy tale in Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. Molly and Michael move to a dark old house with their new stepfather and stepsister Heather. All that change is bad enough, but when bratty Heather befriends a malevolent ghost child, who tries to lure Heather to her death, the story turns very scary indeed!
Watch Hollow by Gregory Funaro is another delightfully-scary children’s novel. A house set in dark, enchanted woods. A gigantic cuckoo clock that powers the house itself. There’s a monster in the woods, and the woods themselves creep closer to the house every day. Can two children hope to overcome all this? You’ll have to read it to find out. And there’s a sequel coming out next February, so stay tuned for even more scares.
Katherine Arden has written a pair of excellent scary novels for children in the past couple of years. The first, Small Spaces, is a field-trip-turned-horror-story, when a fall trip to a farm ends up with the entire class captured and enchanted by . . . scarecrows? Yep, you read that right. It may sound silly in a synopsis, but Arden does a masterful job of ramping up the suspense. This is one book you won’t want to put down before the final page. Dead Voices is a second creepy tale featuring the same main characters, this time encountering malevolent forces at an isolated ski chalet. Again, the suspense writing is masterful and the story is worth reading by adults as well as children.
Once again Ray Bradbury enters the scene with The Halloween Tree. This time he’s written a story aimed more at children, though it’s a great read for adults as well. It’s Halloween night, and eight boys set out to trick-or-treat. But when they try to meet up with their friend Pipkin, they encounter instead the monstrous Mr. Mountshroud, who whisks them through time and space, searching through the past for their missing friend. Ultimately they must choose to sacrifice of themselves in order to save Pipkin. It’s a quick read, and perfect for this time of year. And what list would be complete without Neil Gaiman? Coraline is a perfectly-creepy read for younger readers, or for anyone who loves a good scare.
For the youngest readers, creepy stories are less about being actually scary and more about the possibility of being scary. Vampire kids go trick-or-treating like other kids, and ghosts turn out to be kids wearing costumes. Still, it’s fun to be just a little bit scared, right? Three great entries in the just-a-little-bit-scary-picture-book category are Creepy Carrots, in which a rabbit’s continued pilfering from the carrot patch leads to dire consequences; Wolf’s Coming, in which all the animals are scurrying for cover as the big bad Wolf approaches; and Samurai Scarecrow, in which a young ninja discovers that the imaginary creature he invented to scare his little sister night not be so imaginary after all.
I still have a stack of potentially-scary books to try out, including Koji Suzui’s Ring, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, and Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char. Can I possibly get them all read before Halloween?