Sunday, October 23, 2011

6 Scary Books for Halloween Gift-Giving: A New Tradition Everyone Should Adopt

Last October, writer Neil Gaiman proposed a brilliant new way to celebrate Halloween. Noting on his blog that there ought to be more traditions that involve the giving of books, Gaiman suggested All Hallow’s Read: 
I propose that, on Hallowe'en or during the week of Hallowe'en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they'll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they'll enjoy.

And to that, I (and I imagine most bookish types) say Bravo.

Giving scary books to friends and family doesn’t have to mean giving gory slash-’em-up books. (If you and your friends like gory slash-’em-up books, though, have at it.) These are six books I personally give the Book Dirt seal of approval. They’re moody, broody, atmospheric --and best of all: scary.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

You probably know Jackson for her short story “The Lottery,” a favorite of the public school system and a masterful example of pre-Shyamalan twist endings. What you might not know is that Jackson was also a master of the American Gothic novel. More psychologically spooky than supernatural, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is domestic creepiness at its best and most beautiful, complete with poisoned sugarbowls, books nailed to trees and villagers of the torch and rake-bearing variety. You’ll be riveted as this story unspools.

The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale is an odd bird. The author of tons and tons of books and stories, he penned the novella that the Bruce Campbell movie Bubba Ho-Tep was based on, as well as the Texas-based, street noir Hap and Leonard mysteries (with titles like Bad Chili). Lansdale turned literary with The Bottoms (Random House called it “a thriller with echoes of William Faulkner and Harper Lee"), a depression-era novel that’s alternately folksy and gruesome. It’s hard to say what’s scarier in The Bottoms: the murders or the Southern-style racism? All tie together in a disturbingly effective way.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The key to reading this classic horror story is to forget everything you know about it. Forget that you saw the Looney Tunes spoof or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In other words, forget that you know man and monster are one and the same. The concept is so ingrained in our culture that we use Jekyll & Hyde as an adjective (especially in front of “personality.”) The Victorians who first read Stevenson, though, did so without knowing the two were one. It was a shocker of an ending of Fight Club proportions. Read it with that in mind (or not in mind, really), and you’ll understand what thrilled your ancestors so much.

A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell 

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” That’s the first line of A Judgement in Stone, and it’s one of the best mystery openers I’ve ever encountered. Not only because it demands that you keep reading, but it lays out everything right from the get-go. The rest of the novel is a whydunnit, and knowing what’s in store for the Coverdales drives rather than hinders the telling. 

The House With a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs

Oh, to be ten again and read Bellairs for the first time! There aren’t nearly enough gothic horror novels for pre-teens (what there is gets squeezed off the shelf by sparkly vampires and gossipy girls), and the genre may have peaked in 1973 with Bellairs smart, spooky series. I remember being drawn in by the Edward Gorey line drawings and nifty proper names like Barnavelt and Zebedee. If you know a kid who really loves reading, make this a gift, or if you don’t mind reading young adult fiction yourself, prepare to be chillingly charmed.

Ghost Stories of M.R. James

You can’t have Halloween without some ghosts, and if anyone perfected the ghost story, it was M.R. James. Also known for his work as an antiquary (with Medieval documents, no less), James moved the ghost story out of the dusty Victorian era and into the modern world. James’ ghosts aren’t so much supernatural as they are a part of everyday existence, often summoned through an ancient tome or in a library, which may explain his appeal to bookworm types. Give ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ a try, and you’ll never see an unmade bed in the same way again.

Do you plan on giving books for Halloween? What's the scariest book you've ever read? Post your spookiest selections in the comments section.


  1. HP Lovecraft writes some of the scariest stories I've ever read. It would be a toss up between The Mound and Pickman's Model.

  2. In my teens and early twenties I did the vast majority of my fiction reading before switching almost exclusively to nonfiction. So, this isn’t exactly “my cup of arsenic”, but I did like some of Poe’s stories and, I don’t know if this really qualifies as “horror”, but I’ve always really liked “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce.

    I suppose the spooky stories that affected me the strongest and have stayed with me my whole life are those I first read when I was probably in 6th grade or so. They came from a 1959 (supposedly) nonfiction book by Frank Edwards titled “Stranger Than Science”, and it was the “true stories” nature of the book that likely accounted for the impact it had on me.

    Undoubtedly, the line between truth and fiction got blurred at many points in “Stranger Than Science”, and it was probably erased entirely more times than I can even imagine. But some of the stories from that collection (which I still own) that most frightened me or fired up my imagination are these:

    INCREDIBLE CREMATIONS (about spontaneous human combustion)
    ODDEST SPOT ON EARTH (I was very near it on a vacation once but didn’t realize that until after I’d gotten home, and I’m still kicking myself for not visiting it)
    THE INVISIBLE FANGS (which absolutely creeped me out to such a degree I still have trouble sleeping because of it!)

    There was one about a little boy (I want to say his name was Oliver, so I guess I will: His name was Oliver. Olive Larch? Larchmont? Wow! I’m really trying to reach a long ways back into my memory now) who disappeared and may have been abducted by a UFO. But I can’t find the story now; it seems to have disappeared. Disappeared! “Ooh, that’s scary, huh, kids?”

    But here’s one more that has always stuck in my mind, one that you might know something about because it pertains to a famous writer (Charles Dickens) . . .


    What do you know about that? Anything? Because I’ve always been interested in finding out just how much truth there was to it.

    Incidentally, I really enjoy reading your blog.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    ‘Loyal American Underground’

  3. Diane: Lovecraft is great, but so well known I left him off the list. My aim was to point out some great books that might be under the radar for most people. (Have you read any Thomas Ligotti? Very Lovecraftian.)

    Stephen: Oh, to have your memory. I'm not sure what the "double mystery" is, unless you mean the fact that no one is sure who Dickens meant for the killer to be (which is really just one mystery).

  4. KELLY ~
    The following site (see URL at bottom) tells the majority of what is found in the Edwards book "Stranger Than Science".

    Although in STS it also says that James had an education that was equivalent to what we would consider 5th grade, and...

    "yet, somehow James had acquired the sytle and vocabulary and thinking processes of the great Charles Dickens. ... And what of the young printer, Thomas James? He dropped from sight as quickly as he had risen, and died in complete obscurity. In a few libraries there remain copies of what is called the James version of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood . . . a mystery within a mystery."


    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  5. Don't forget Dracula! I read it first when I was 14, I think, and it creeped me out. In fact, I think it's way past time I reread it.

    I don't read a lot of scary novels, but for sheer holy-terrors, a little nonfiction book called The Tell-Tale Lilac Bush is a great one to dip into. It's a collection of oral ghost stories from the southeast, I believe, written down exactly as recounted (rather than rewritten in a more literary style). At the end of the book is a list of folklore themes for scholars. Just reading the list freaks me out, since it's stuff like "Loved one visits after death" and "Coffin moves on its own."

    I've never been able to get into the Bellaires books. I've tried repeatedly but I just don't like the writing. Maybe if I was the right age. :) My mom loves Ruth Rendell, and I adore Shirley Jackson but have yet to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

  6. K.C.: Dracula would be high on my list, but I'm betting just about everyone knows about it.

    Your Mom has good taste. (And the books Rendell writes as Barbara Vine are even better!)

    I'll keep an eye out for the Tell-Tale Lilac Bush.

  7. Apart from Jekyll and Hyde I've not heard of any of these though 'We have always lived at the castle' looks intriguing.

  8. My goal was to feature some lesser-read books, so it appears that I've succeeded. Jackson also wrote "House on Haunted Hill," and it's a worthy read, too. Do give "We Have Always Lived..." a try, and report back if you do!

  9. Haven't read any of these but they sound good. I tend not to read scary books in the sense of supernatural or horror and none that I have read come to mind at the moment. For me the scariest books are the non-fiction offerings that are about the scary things that have happened, are happening, or may happen in the future.

    Tossing It Out

  10. In response to Stephen McCarthys' posting, I too well remember the book "Stranger than Fiction" (think that last word is correct, rather than 'Science' but could be wrong!).

    Indeed my visit to the internet just now is occasioned by the t.v. rendition of 'Edwin Drood' (on screen as I write) that caused me to search for 'The double mystery..'

    I wonder if the book by Frank Edwards is still available? My copy seems to be lost, sadly.

  11. I haven't read any of these list because I'm not really a fan of horror books but I might try to read the first one. hehe =)

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  12. Haven't read any of these before but they sound great. I love to read the get love back by vashikaran astrology books.

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