It’s time for scary stories. Not the cute ones, not the ones that give you warm fuzzies. These are stories that made my spine tingle.
But first, if you’re looking for some proper goosebumps, also check out Jezebel’s Scary Stories Contest. People write in their real-life stories of paranormal terror that actually happened. They will keep you up at night. Every year, they never fail to get under my skin.
The Diviners, by Libba Bray
I cannot convoy to you enough how great The Diviners is. Libba Bray created the perfect Halloween read. It is creepy and funny with lovable characters, and at times verging towards wanting to stash the book in the freezer scary, but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to true horror stories.
Set during the Jazz Age, when an obsession with spiritualism brought the creepy. The Diviners starts with an unspeakably terrifying Ouija board session. From there, we meet the sweet and sassy cast of “Diviners,” young people with special gifts. They come together and start ghost hunting, being romantic and sexy with each other as they go. And all the while there is a horrifying evil presence hovering somewhere in Midwest America that makes me think of a scarecrow, and evil scarecrows are one of my biggest phobias. (Is there a name for that phobia?)
As she goes further into the series, Bray delves into what is at the heart of the American dream: so many people hoping for a better life, but in reality, America was created on the back of unspeakable horrors. It wasn’t just old-fashioned values and hard work, but also slavery and genocide.
I’m getting into politics. Before you think the book is all dull and preachy, let me stop you right there, because it is anything but. The Diviners is creepy and FUN, and funny and flirty, and I defy you to not fall in love with the heartfelt characters.
Come for the horror and the fun, stay for the very important social messages on tolerance and acceptance! This book is one of my top recommendations, ever.
The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury
It is probably quite clear at this time that I unabashedly adore Halloween. I love the atmosphere, the costumes, the autumnal foods, the spooky. And a book about the origins of this very ancient holiday is of course going to become a fast favourite of mine, as Bradbury weaves lyrical narrative and poetry together effortlessly.
The story is a child’s tale but a dark one, deals for the soul and all, but maybe in fact it’s perfect for children with its dark enigmas and also glorious fun of Halloween. It certainly stayed with me for a long time.
A group of boys find themselves on a wild ride through time and space – an adventure to save the life of a friend who is sick and fading fast. Under the guidance of cadaverous Mr. Moundshroud, the boys explore the origins of Halloween, but when they must face the reality of the situation, they realize that the night’s journey was not all fun and games. At times spooky, creepy, delightfully fun and informative, I loved every page of this spell-binding book.
And when I speak of Halloween being an ancient holiday, I really do mean ALL the way back ancient. Halloween has existed, in one form or another, since humans have been able to contemplate their own death.
One of the blessings/curses of our ability to shelter in comfort was the leisure to begin turning thoughts over in our heads. And in the autumn, as the leaves fall from the trees and it seems as though the world is dying, what perfect time to stop and reflect on how we, too, will go the way of so many before us, into our own eternal slumber. “Memories, that’s what ghosts are.”
The celebration of Halloween, which has had many different names during the existence of humanity, changes hands from empire to empire – from the pagan druids to the Christian ways of worships, the honour of the dead and our forecoming doom has always been a part of our life.
Bradbury is masterful at creating a spellbinding tale through human history. After watching over Roman hearth fires and delving into Druid rites, Moundshroud explains what witches were and why they were persecuted in middle ages Europe, as they continued to practice the old ways and Christianity was not having any of it.
As their journey continues, the boys must face their greatest fear, and a terrifying bargain is made in order to save their friend. Hardly an innocent caper at last, the night ends with a deal with the devil.
And so, this magical book effectively shows that there is no such thing as monsters or witches, but Halloween lingers in the human spirit and forever will as it is nothing more or less than the manifestation of our understanding of our personal doom. The book is brilliant and poetic, and will be reread every October as a holiday favourite.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House captures the true spirit of psychological terror. And you can tell me about all the jump scares you’ve ever seen in your life, but nothing is as truly terrifying as a story that inhabits your mind. What you can expect from a Shirley Jackson story is one that will follow you through your lifetime, often because they have no resolution. I actually wrote that line before I read The Haunting, and it’s spooky how exactly right this is.
In researching this book, I came upon a definition of the difference between horror and terror, of which I wasn’t aware, which seems like an oversight being a writer. I liked this definition from Wikipedia: “Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually follows a frightening sight, sound, or otherwise experience.” Jackson, of course, delights in terror, and we the reader delight in being terrorized by her.
It creates its own darkness, a book like this. While reading this book, I expected doors to slam behind me and disembodied whispers to follow me. Words are powerful, and if you believe that, then you can believe that books can cause madness. Jackson’s books always toe that line, where not just the narrator but the reader herself questions her sanity.
The house is a living, breathing character, and its dark humour follows nearly every scene in the book. The madness scares us because it happens gradually, insidiously, in a way that we believe it could happen to us too. We attach to Eleanor as the narrative voice, and are chilled when the house gloms on to her as its next victim. Poor little Eleanor, never loved, never loved, she is vulnerable and becomes prey. However, if you see how Eleanor is first introduced in the book, it is to declare that which she hates. She has lived a small life of hate and resentment, and that is why I believe she is the weakest link.
One of the elements of the house I found the absolute creepiest is how every time, after being completely terrorized, the inhabitants find themselves feeling happy, even joyful. Each morning they rose excited and happy for the day, even though they were praying for death the night before. It’s not so much that they forgot what happened, but the relief of not being terrorized right at that moment was euphoric, like in an abusive relationship. When in fact they should be getting the fuck out of that house right now and never coming back. I spent most of this book silently yelling: Get out now!
Although the house didn’t actually harm anyone physically, it attacked the mind until everyone questioned their sanity. This trope frightens the crap out of me because it seems more present, more real, than say, zombies. We fear losing our minds or our control over our thoughts more than anything, because we perceive it as a reality.
The Magic Toyshop, by Angela Carter
This dark and twisty tale is a deliciously monstrous gothic read, told in the tradition of a Victorian fairytale (or nearly). There are orphans and incest and poverty, and a house that may or may not be haunted. In the creepy confines of the toyshop, it seems a place where fairy tales themselves will come to life. Carter actually references many gothic tales, like Bluebeard and Jane Eyre, so we are meant to be thinking along those lines.
Melanie is fifteen when she realizes she is a woman – and her world falls apart. Her wealthy parents are killed in a plane crash, leaving Melanie and her two younger siblings destitute. They are cast out of their sheltered upper middle-class life into deepest South London, to live with their reclusive uncle, a toymaker and puppeteer. They meet their in-laws, the extremely Irish Jowles family, and eventually join forces with them against their villainous uncle.
Although the book is set in 1960s London, it’s easy to be confused and think that it’s set much earlier. Throughout there is a strange otherworldly feel, hard to ground it in the real world. Also, Uncle Philip runs both his shop and household like a throwback to the good ol’ Victorian days, which is quaintly charming in terms of his shop and avidly not in terms of how he terrorizes his family. This out of joint with reality feeling is also due in part to the Victorian style of the novel: a plucky girl becomes an orphan, miseries befall her, she struggles to find a way to survive in the cold hard world.
The other major aspect of The Magic Toyshop is that this is a coming-of-age novel, in a subtler, more eerie way than other similar novels introduced at that time. We begin the book as Melanie wanders into the family garden wearing her mother’s wedding dress, and there she discovers herself, and discovers the universe, and discovers that she is not ready, entirely, for either of these things.
Her relationship with Finn swings back and forth between it being her worst nightmare, and that which will save her. It takes absolute catastrophe in order to get her there to the other side, to a place where she is ready to play at mother, but at fifteen she still hardly has the maturity to be a matriarch. All her and Finn have in the end is wild surmise, a romantic prospect that I quite liked.
I enjoyed The Magic Toyshop immensely, but I think you need to be in a specific mood for its nebulous, fantastical feel. This is the book for those who love gothic novels and are looking for something a little bit different, with heaps of gorgeous writing.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Mexican Gothic is just so beautiful. I mean, just look at this cover. I’ve always thought it was the loveliest cover …
Beyond that, Morena-Garcia’s creepy tale is both weird and wonderful, a shot of magical horror I didn’t know I needed in my life today. Noemí, a kickass character who grows from socialite to rescuer, goes deep into the country to find her cousin, who had sent out a bizarre plea for help. There, at her cousin’s new husband’s manor, she finds a deeply creepy family where something is very very wrong, although she couldn’t say for sure what.
The dread builds with precision and mastery until you absolutely must know what is lurking behind the walls of the haunted house, although you are sure you don’t want to know. An excellent, if disturbing, read. If gothic is your thing, jump on this!
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This is one of those books that plays with reality and makes you question your sanity – as do all the characters in the book. It is about an evil tree and the people who become obsessed with discovering its secrets. An artist takes up residence in the old house near the tree and discovers the unfinished manuscript of the tree’s most recent victim. She gets sucked into the legend of the tree and desperately tries to unearth its secrets before losing her sanity.
Every step of the way you must question what is real and what is only in the mind, and who is creating what. Not only is this book a trip, but it became extra creepy for me because for some reason I had forgotten to document when I read this book (perhaps I didn’t want to remember because it scared me). All I could remember is it was a book about a red oak, and it didn’t exist in my GoodReads list where I keep track of everything I read (no matter how embarrassing). And when I looked up The Red Oak, the book didn’t exist and I started to think that I made the whole thing up, and was going completely insane just like the characters in the book … but then I found it under The Red Tree so all is well. Read at your own discretion.
Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin
A horror classic, and not to be missed. You’ve probably seen the movie, but did you ever read the book that inspired it? Originally published in the 1960s, Rosemary’s Baby captured the fear of satanism that rocked the nation at that time, and influenced a new surge in horror writing – the golden age of horror.
Rosemary moves into an upscale New York apartment with her husband, and soon discovers she has strange, cult-y neighbours. After she becomes pregnant, she suspects that she is surrounded by a group of devil-worshippers who wish to claim her baby. Or something like that.
One thing I’ve always found interesting is that movies become dated – but books never do. Does anyone have any thoughts on that? Creepy and forward-thinking, Rosemary’s Baby is a must-read for all horror lovers.
The Other, by Thomas Tryon
The slightly less well-known book from the original horror triad of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other, this book is no less masterfully done or essentially creepy as its more famous brethren. (And I would argue that the book itself was as well-received as the other two books, but the fact that the film didn’t go on to become horror canon in the same way means it’s less integral to the horror cultural landscape.)
Set in a small town in Connecticut in the 1930s, the book follows twin brothers who share a very close connection – and several grim secrets. Have you read this book yet? I would love to hear what you thought.
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Looking for other great reads? Here are some book lists I’ve put together for you:
Books I Still Think About Years Later
3 thoughts on “Scary Stories”
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