Scary stories, like fairy tales, play on the fears and insecurities we developed as children.
As we mature, we learn to ignore strange noises we hear in the night, writing them off to prosaic causes: a house settling, pipes gurgling, the HVAC system clunking. We tell ourselves there's nothing under the bed and no monster inside the closet. And if sometimes we awaken panicked, feeling totally, inexplicably alone, we reassure ourselves by reaching for our spouses or checking on the children.
But who can say that they don't still fear the dark, at least a little? Who doesn't worry about being abandoned or having loved ones die? Who doesn't jump in momentary terror when someone leaps out unexpectedly and yells boo?
The best horror writers play on our childhood fears, suppressed but never shed entirely. Some do it by creating child protagonists, forcing us to see again through young eyes. Others take familiar situations and warp them until they're strange and discomfiting, like looking at oneself in a funhouse mirror.
Check out some of these scary titles from past and present. You may want to turn on all the lights first.
“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics, 208 pages, in stores)
The Wall Street Journal once described this book as being “widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written.” It's difficult to argue with that conclusion.
Jackson's much-imitated 1959 novel is a masterpiece of tension. The plot is familiar now, largely because of the movies the book inspired; a paranormal researcher gains access to a famously haunted house and brings a small team with him to investigate. Among the group is a woman who is so in tune with the house that mysterious events happen to and around her.
What makes Jackson's work stand out, aside from its relative originality (it likely owes something to Henry James' “The Turn of the Screw”), is her immense literary talent. Jackson, perhaps best known for “The Lottery,” casts doubt on the events she's describing, leading readers to wonder if these things are really happening or if they're contained within the fractured consciousness of her narrator. Her writing captures the reader from the very first paragraph, which practically drips with foreboding:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury (Avon, 304 pages, in stores)
Bradbury's 1962 novel is both idyllic and shattering, albeit a bit unsatisfying. Most of all, it is the quintessential autumn tale, redolent with the sights, sounds and smells of fall and Halloween.
The story builds slowly. Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are inseparable friends, born two seconds apart and now on the cusp of their 14th birthdays. Will is innocent; Jim is somewhat darker. The boys live in a friendly Midwestern town where everyone knows each other and nobody seems threatening.