Here at One Book Lane we love Halloween, what better excuse to hide away from the autumn weather and give ourselves the heebie jeebies with a good scary story? So we asked some of our authors for their recommendations for the stories that give them a fright.
At Halloween, I like to carve a pumpkin face, to make sure I’m well stocked up with sweets should any children in the street come visiting. But, when I was young this time of year was all about wood smoke in the air, potatoes in skins and sausages, or waving sparklers while we watched our guys ablaze on bonfires – oh, and watching a spooky film or too.
There is one film that’s stayed with me, the horror and fear I felt back then still lingering across the years whenever I think of The Haunting: the old version from 1963. With its chilling noir atmosphere, with creaking iron staircases, with doors that swell and bulge when locked, and the ominous drum of some monstrous heart, not to mention the character who wakes and reaches out in terror for the friend who sleeps in another bed – only then to realise that the hand that has been gripping hers belongs to a ghost she cannot see – this remains the most chilling ghost story to flicker across my TV screen. Since the night when I first saw it I still keep my hands hidden under the covers whenever I go to bed at night.
Why not try it and give yourself a fright.
I loved The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I’m a huge fan of her intricate plotting, rich characters and attention to detail, all of which lend themselves brilliantly to this spooky story of a deeply unhappy house. Misery and tragedy abound in The Hundred House, and the possible presence of a ghost ramps up the mental instability, drunkeness and fragility of its inhabitants. Yet the ghost is woven in so subtly that you are never quite sure if it is in your own imagination or that of the characters. There are masses of influence to be spotted – Poe, du Maurier, James – but the book is a masterful and heartstoppingly terrifying tale in its own right.
“Some houses are born bad,” says a character in the story – and of course he means Hill House, an isolated Victoria pile with an evil reputation. Nevertheless, four people agree to stay in it, in order to see what will happen. One of them is our heroine, Eleanor: unhappy, perceptive, and totally sympathetic.
The atmosphere of unease builds masterfully, and there’s an unsettling blend of nightmarish unreality and domestic detail. Hill House turns out to be surprisingly comfortable to stay in, and (this being the 1950s) nobody loses a chance to gulp a martini or a brandy. The tension is palpable, and builds – through hauntings that have me holding my breath with dread – to an ending that’s a dramatically satisfying as it is shocking. First published in 1959, this is the definitive haunted house novel. Read it at night, in one sitting. Just don’t expect to sleep much afterwards.
My favourite scary tale has to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There have been many reinterpretations of this story over the years, but sitting down with this classic tale of gothic horror still gives me chills. Infused with science and the “what ifs” that surround new technology, it feels more timely than ever to me.
Keith Lee Morris
I’m not a really big fan of typical horror novels — I was an actor in a bad horror film once upon a time, and I think the experience cured me of being frightened by sadistic killers and zombies and witches pretty much forever. I’m more interested in fiction that’s psychologically and emotionally tense and disturbing. I like stories that bring me closer and closer to a character who I know is imperiled, to a situation that’s dangerous at the most basic levels of identity and perception, that produces an existential dread. Favorite novels of this type would be The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. But one short story of this sort had a distinct influence on my own novel, Travelers Rest, and, since it’s not widely known, I’m happy to be able to recommend it.
The story is Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Conrad Aiken. Aiken was a friend of T.S. Eliot’s and other writers’ in the 1920s and ‘30s, but he’s little remembered now. In terms of plot, virtually nothing happens in this story that would even be noticeable to an observer of the actual situation — a boy escapes further and further into his own mind, imagining landscapes of snow and wintry cold, until he reaches a state of icy catatonia. As the reader senses Paul, the boy, slipping from his parents and the everyday world he inhabits into a seething world of whirling snow, it’s harrowing in the quietest of ways. In the end, the snow speaks to him softly as he withdraws into himself — “Listen,” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story — shut your eyes—it is a very small story—a story that gets smaller and smaller — it comes inward instead of opening like a flower — it is a flower becoming a seed — a little cold seed — do you hear?” Sounds innocent enough, but don’t be fooled — this story will haunt you till next Halloween.