With only three weeks to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…
Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who wants sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.
In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?
If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. Enter Viktor Frankenstein.
Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of the scientist’s monster, after which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness. This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie.’ Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclined to agree.
Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you should let her off given that this story is the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story – there are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there? Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.
Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…
What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.
‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with his work. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? Lovecraft has been credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him.
After reading a few of Lovecraft’s stories, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories. So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, it’s probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!! *ahem* Better safe than sorry.
Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).
Frank occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals, one of which involves the ‘Wasp Factory’ referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine). Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future.
The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.
Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.
Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance, attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. This novel has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?
No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”, no silly garden maze or childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.
The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves he and his family snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.
In this novel, King shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Read the book.
I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.
This is, effectively, my worst nightmare: he human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out. In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.
Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.
Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity. However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take hold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, in some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!
#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker
Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…
All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the beast. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!
Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabilia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…
Beukes’ novel, set in Depression-era Chicago, follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.
The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!
Don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….
Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life, where we learn that the most dangerous desires cannot even be eradicated by death. This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?
(Images: Amazon UK)