Editor’s Note: Hi friends! So Dave actually sent me this post last year 🙃 but I didn’t get it posted prior to surgery, and … well, if you’ve ever recovered from major surgery I think you know basically continuing to breathe takes all your focus and energy. Anyway. Here we are a year later, and with Halloween right here, we’ve got some “scary” book recs for you.
This post is supposed to be about a book. Specifically, a collection of gothic horror. The New York Public Library defines gothic horror as “the battle between humanity and unnatural forces of evil…with an oppressive, inescapable, and bleak landscape.” It’s the stuff of haunted mansions (Shirley Jackson), ghosts (Susan Hill), and supernatural creatures (Bram Stoker). That wasn’t this book.
There was no sense of foreboding or dread. There were no chills or scares. But then I had to ask myself, “Is it me?” Would someone else who isn’t a fan of horror novels, comics, and movies enjoy this more? Perhaps. Or did I not enjoy it because the horrors we’ve faced for the past year and a half are far scarier than anything I could read? Perhaps. It’s for these reasons that I’ll refrain from naming the book.
But it got me thinking what is scary or frightening? What makes me turn on the lamp while reading or even makes me put down the book? It is of course different for every person. I have a friend terrified of clowns, my wife is petrified of snakes, I detest daddy-long-leg spiders aka cellar spiders. Vile long-legged ticks is what they are. But I digress. Whether it’s clowns or snakes or walking ticks we all have that thing that sends chills down our spine.
Here are ten books that might make you stop reading and put on a Hallmark Christmas movie because the book has begun to haunt you and you need a change.
Beloved by Toni Morrison is in parts a book about mother/daughter relationships, in parts about the horrors of slavery and the lasting psychological effects, and in parts a haunted house tale. Sethe, the protagonist of the story, is a mother who becomes more child-like while her daughter Denver takes on the parenting role protecting her mother from Beloved who may or may not be a ghost or demon.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is the definitive haunted house story. Four people stay in a house purported to be haunted but is it or is it the ghosts of their pasts that haunt them and not the house. This is gothic horror at its best because there is a sense of foreboding with a setting that is oppressive and makes the story even more tense.
One Eye Open by K.G. Lewis is a collection of short stories partly influenced, in the best ways, by the shows Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories. From animatronics that come to life to killer children these stories are quite varied but each one is rather chilling.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is another classic story though not his most famous work. This book has all the things that make for a creepy story including a carnival setting, two boys who must save the town, and an evil entity that must be destroyed. Children in danger is always a good way to make the reader anxious and create a sense of impending doom because what can a couple of kids do?
Night in the Lonesome October by Richard Laymon is the tale of things that go bump in the night. After his girlfriends breaks up with him a young man takes to the streets at night. In his wanderings he meets a variety of people/creatures as he tries to find a way to embrace this new world of darkness.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is another gothic tale of a family who keep secrets from the outside world and from each other. It’s a story of isolation and the socialite thrust into this world, of a new bride scared her husband is trying to kill her, and of the twisted reason the family has lived in the house for generations.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was loved and hated upon its release. Patrick Bateman is an investment banker, partier, and serial killer. Or is he? Or perhaps he’s an unreliable narrator who is making everything up or he’s schizophrenic and has come detached from reality. This book is violent and graphic and even led to the author receiving death threats.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is a children’s book not meant for children. It is also another example of gothic horror in that the book takes place in an old house in which Coraline discovers an alternate world with an Other Mother and Other Father. When her parents are kidnapped Coraline must use her wits to outsmart Other Mother and escape back into her own reality while ensuring that Other Mother is no longer a threat to others.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is, in a word, bonkers. It’s the story of a husband and wife who use a variety of substances in order to have children who are born with oddities. It’s about the children battling each other. It’s about a brother impregnating his sister through the telekensis powers of one of the other siblings. It’s about a stripper with a tail. As I said, it’s bonkers and a book that you read and wonder why you’re reading it while feeling disgusted that you’re reading it.
Pet Semetery by Stephen King. Is any list complete if it doesn’t have a King novel on it? While he’s written a number of popular horror novels Pet Cemetery is the creepiest of them all. A dead pet resurrected, a dead child also brought back, and murder and mayhem resorting from it all. This is the stuff of nightmares.
As can be seen from this list, there are certain “tropes” that can elicit scares in nearly every person. The first of these is setting a book in a scary place be it a haunted mansion, a graveyard, or in insane asylum. Scary places immediately set the mood of the book and lets the reader know that something bad is going to happen.
The second universal scare is that of children or pets. This could be either children in danger or, even scarier, the child as killer. Children are supposed to be innocent and naïve so having a child in danger or a child killer makes for a very creepy read. Pets, especially cats and dogs, that turn “evil” are also scary because they go from beloved companion to frightening fanged furballs.
Finally, the last universal scare is that of the “creepy” family. It could be the family that only ventures out at night, a family who invite people over for dinner but the invitee is never seen leaving. Families are scary because it’s a pack of people all with the same goal and that goal is usually the death of the protagonist.
Many of us like to be scared. We like that feeling of reading something and feeling chills or goosebumps or having to turn on a light. Humans are “programmed” with a fight or flight response. By reading a scary book from the safety of our home we know we are safe so we can enjoy the flight response or body sends us without actually having to run away.
Incidentally, author Laura K. Curtis recently wrote a post about what a “Gothic [story]” is and you can read it here.
Have you read any of the books Dave mentioned? What are your thoughts? And do you have any suggestions for scary or spooky Halloween reads?
And … because it’s just what I do, especially around Halloween, here’s the scariest commercial I’ve ever seen in my life. Full disclosure I am an absolute scaredy cat … but also this actually is scary/I’m not joking.