Previously: The Best Spooky Books, October 2016
Did you spend a lot of time as a child reading books under the covers with a flashlight when you were supposed to be asleep? I certainly did — and a lot of those books scared the pants off me when I was a kid. This was… not always a wise decision. Heck, sometimes even reading them while it was still light out wasn’t a wise decision. In the bright light of day, I swore to myself I was fine — but as soon as the lights went out, I had… problems.
Most of them were ghost stories. Some were monster stories. A few were more like folklore. And to be fair, not all of them terrified me — but the ones on this list? These are the ones that really freaked me out when I was eight, nine, 10 years old.
To be fair, just because a spooky book didn’t scare me didn’t mean I didn’t necessarily enjoy it; on the contrary: There are plenty of books I read that may not have terrified me, but which I loved all the same. But since this list holds only the ones that gave me trouble sleeping, you won’t find, say, The Ghost Wore Gray by Bruce Coville or Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe here. They’re both great books that I highly recommend, but only if you’re looking for a slight chill instead of outright terror.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the books that are included here are pretty tame by adult standards. They’re meant for kids, after all. But they do often deal with dark and complex themes, because, well… kids understand more than we often give them credit for.
I still come back to these books periodically, too. Yes, even now, as a fully-grown adult. They might be worth revisiting for you, too — or maybe worth checking out for the first time.
What scared you when you were small?
The Eyes of the Killer Robot by John Bellairs
I’ve spoken briefly before about my first encounter with this book. Although Bellairs’ books are all pretty spooky — they are, after all, gothic literature for children — The Eyes of the Killer Robot affected me in a way none of his other stories did. In Evaristus Sloan, we have a villain who is part mad scientist and part dark wizard; and in his robot, we have both a marvel of science and a perversion of nature — a wondrous mechanical creature which uses as its power source not gasoline or electricity, but human eyes.
The scene that scared me so much I had to put the book away for a considerable amount of time before finishing it can be read here. I still wonder what it was about that scene that frightened me so much; ghosts, I can cope with, so given that the sandy-haired man was an apparition, you’d think I’d simply take it in stride. But the eyes — that, I think, is where the horror came from for me. Body horror gets me like nothing else, and the image of those empty sockets really threw me for a loop.
I wouldn’t have found the robot nearly as terrifying if it had run on, say, a human heart, or even a human brain. Our bodies guard those organs, safely encasing them in bones and flesh and skin. Our eyes, though? Those are perhaps one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body. It doesn’t take much to damage them — or remove them entirely.
Back when I was reading my way through Bellairs’ bibliography for the first time, the prevailing editions were illustrated by Edward Gorey. From what I gather, these editions are no longer in print; if you can get a hold of them, though, I highly recommend picking them up. Gorey’s distinctive style is perfectly suited to Bellairs’ own — they set the tone wonderfully as you begin reading.
The Works of Mary Downing Hahn
I don’t remember how old I was when I started reading Mary Downing Hahn’s wonderful ghost stories; however, I do remember exactly which book I started with, and even where it was located in my local library: Wait Till Helen Comes, in the middle of the shelf all the way on the far side of the children’s room. They say never to judge a book by its cover, but I won’t lie — the cover was a big draw when it came to this one. I can still recall it even now, many decades later: A blue border; a child transfixed by the specter of a ghostly girl; an older girl hiding behind a tree, looking on at the scene before her with horror.
Hahn has more than 30 books to her name covering a wide range of genres, but the ghost stories were always the ones that I gravitated to most strongly. The ones featuring malevolent ghosts freaked me out the most; Wait Till Helen Comes is probably the most notable of these kinds of stories, although Time for Andrew also ranks pretty highly on that list. But not all of the stories are about evil ghosts (or, at the very least, ghosts who act evilly out of fear or anger, even if it ultimately turns out that they’re not in and of themselves evil people); many of them are about grief and guilt, and how we cope with them. There are elements of this theme in Wait Till Helen Comes, of course, but books like The Doll in the Garden really zero in on it. As a result, they’re often more melancholy than frightening — but very effective all the same.
Hahn is still publishing, by the way; she’s almost 81 now, but her most recent book came out in 2017. Bless her spooky little soul.
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz
Between 1981 and 1991, Alvin Schwartz published a series of short story collections that become iconic not only for their particular versions of folktales and legends, but also for their presentation: Paired with illustrations by Stephen Gammell, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books are some of the few books that make me feel physically ill just from looking at them.
I mean that as a compliment, by the way.
Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones spooked me the most, mainly because it included the story “The Red Spot.” Like many of the tales in the Scary Stories series, I’d later come to recognize this one as a longstanding urban legend — but to be honest, it wasn’t even really the story that got me. It was Gammell’s accompanying illustration — an inky drawing of a girl’s distorted face with spiders pouring out of her cheek.
Weirdly, the 30th anniversary celebration of these beloved books in 2011 saw Gammell’s work getting exiled from their pages, replaced by new illustrations by Brett Helquist. Although Helquist is also a talented artist, and although his illustrations stand well enough on their own, they weren’t nearly as effective as Gammell’s — and after a great deal of public outcry, the books were once again published with the original illustrations in 2017. Thank goodness.
The Witches by Roald Dahl
A notoriously problematic fave, Roald Dahl nonetheless occupies a special spot in many a bookshelf. Although he frequently wrote about metaphorical monsters (both the Wormwood family and the Trunchbull from Matilda come to mind as some of the most iconic), The Witches marks one of the few occasions on which villains were monsters of a more literal type — actual witches hellbent on turning the children of the world into mice. Weirdly, though, it wasn’t this idea that I — and, no doubt, many others—found to be the most terrifying part of the story; rather, it’s a particular moment in the story: The one in which a woman literally peels off her own face to reveal herself as the Grand High Witch. Dahl was reportedly not a fan of the 1990 film adaptation of the novel, but I do have to say, it nailed that moment — and subsequently made Anjelica Huston an object of great fear to an entire generation of children.
Short & Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales by Robert D. San Souci
Like many of the short story collections on this list, Short & Shivery retold well known folktales and pieces of literature for younger readers. All of them are worth having in your cultural lexicon — but the one I remember the most vividly from this collection is the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle.”
Reading Short & Shivery at the age of eight or nine wasn’t the first time I had encountered the tale; I grew up not only in the town in which Nathaniel Hawthorne spent a good portion of his adult life, but also in and around the houses he occupied while he was living there. These houses are museums now, and, well… let’s just say that when one of your parents is a historian, and you live in a historic town, you tend to spend a lot of time at the sites that make that town so historic. I spent a lot of time at the Old Manse in particular, where Hawthorne wrote most of the stories that would later be published in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse — stories like “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Artist of the Beautiful.”
“Lady Eleanor’s Mantle” is not part of Mosses from an Old Manse; originally published in 1838 in The United States Democratic Review, and then again in the second edition of Twice-Told Tales, it was written several years prior to the Hawthorne family’ arrival in Concord. But one year when I was maybe seven years old — I think I was in second grade — a Halloween event was held at the Old Manse that my entire family participated in as actors. It wasn’t quite a haunted house event, but it was close; instead of the normal house tour, visitors traveling through the Manse during this event would experience a different Hawthorne story, complete with live actors, in each of the rooms. “Lady Eleanor’s Mantle” took up one of the second floor bedrooms, and the reveal of what the allegedly cursed mantle of the story did to the titular lady Eleanor was, uh… let’s call it a memorable experience.
(I may have run out of the room with a yelp, despite the fact that I was supposed to be some sort of ghost child providing ambience and atmosphere.)
The Goosebumps Series by R. L. Stine
As far as kid’s TV horror anthologies went during the 1990s, you pledged your allegiance either to Goosebumps or to Are You Afraid Of The Dark? (If you were truly a dark horse, you pledged to Eerie, Indiana — but that depended on you being lucky enough to catch it during its single season’s original run.) I was an Are You Afraid Of The Dark? girl myself — but I definitely still read the Goosebumps books anyway.
Although the Goosebumps books often took their cues from well-known stories — Say Cheese and Die! is similar to the Twilight Zone episode “A Most Unusual Camera,” for example, while The Phantom of the Auditorium is an obvious nod to the French gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera — they weren’t retellings of pieces of folklore or urban legends, which sets them apart from a lot of the other books included on this list. They were also, as R.L. Stine has noted, intended to be scary, but not too scary; as he put it to the Washington Post in 2012, “I have some rules. No one ever dies in a Goosebumps book. If there happen to be ghosts and they are dead, it happened before the book starts. And I don’t do any real serious problems. Kids have to know this is a creepy fantasy and it couldn’t really happen.”
But many of them did still have endings that… aren’t exactly happy. The way My Hairiest Adventure wraps up, for instance, may not be a bad ending, per se; however, it definitely doesn’t return is characters to their pre-story states. That was the thing about Goosebumps: You couldn’t always guarantee that the characters would be safe at the end. And for that reason, they freaked me out a little more than I was usually willing to admit.
The original run was published between 1992 and 1997, but Stine has continued to write and publish various series under the larger Goosebumps banner over the past several decades; as of 2018, more than 230 Goosebumps books have been published.
This Pair Of Spooky Dollhouse Books
Not unlike dolls themselves, dollhouses are considered by many to be inherently spooky — so it’s no surprise that they factor prominently in many a ghost story. In considering the ones that loomed large in my childhood, two books in particular come to mind: The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, originally published in 1983, and Time Windows by Kathryn Reiss, first published in 1991.
As Are You There, Youth? It’s Me, Nikki observed back in 2010, The Dollhouse Murders — despite its, uh, violent title — is ultimately more of a family drama with some supernatural elements than a full-on horror story; despite it being somewhat more simplistic than Time Windows, though, the idea of the dolls moving on their own to recreate the scene of the titular murder was enough to make my overactive imagination have a little trouble sleeping for a while — particularly knowing that I had my own dollhouse tucked away in the corner of my room.
Time Windows, meanwhile, is… a lot of things. It’s a mystery; it’s a ghost story; and in some ways, it’s even a time travel tale. Its scariest moments come when main character Miranda’s mother essentially gets possessed — but the fear, I would argue, isn’t really about the possession. It’s about someone you know to be kind suddenly behaving in an uncharacteristically cruel manner without having any idea why.
In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
This collection by Alvin Schwartz was actually meant for even younger readers than the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series was — even though some of the stories in In A Dark, Dark Room were even more gruesome than the Scary Stories were.
“The Green Ribbon” has gained a reputation in recent years for being the tale from the collection that traumatized everyone who read it. You remember it, right? It tells the story of Jenny, the girl who goes through life wearing a green ribbon tied around her neck — and on her deathbed, reveals to her husband, who was also her childhood sweetheart, that the reason she wore that green ribbon all the time is because it was keeping her head attached to her neck.
Like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, though, this one really landed because of the illustrations. Dirk Zimmer was one of the go-to artists for children’s horror stories during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s his work that graces the pages of In a Dark, Dark Room. While not quite as grotesque as Stephen Gammell’s work, Zimmer’s illustrations are unsettling all the same; to me, they read almost as a cross between Edward Gorey’s and Maurice Sendak’s styles — and when you use that style to depict a girl with her head actually falling off her shoulders, it’s a recipe for nightmare fuel.
Short & Shivery also contains a version of this story, by the way; there, it’s an adaptation of “The Adventure of the German Student,” a short story by Washington Irving of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame. Indeed, the theme of a girl or woman wearing a ribbon or choker around her neck as a way to disguise the fact that she’s actually dead runs through a number of tales and legends; sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s black, and sometimes it’s made of velvet, but the story always ends with it getting removed — and the girl or woman’s head falling off as a result.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make a trip to the library…
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[Photo via Suzy Hazelwood/Pexels]