To my great and ongoing disappointment, Halloween isn’t a big deal here in Australia (at least, not the way it is in the US). There’s no eerie autumn chill in the air, pumpkins aren’t in season and I can count on one hand the number of trick-or-treaters who have ever shown up at my door. Here, Halloween means sad-looking fake spider webs half-heartedly strewn about the confectionery aisle in the supermarket and an excuse to host a dress-up party/scary movie marathon.
With Halloween being on a Monday this year, I’m planning to honour the occasion with a glass or two of wine and Susan Hill’s new short story collection: The Travelling Bag (And Other Ghostly Stories) (Profile Books, 2016):
Eyeing off this gorgeous little hardback on my bookshelf has got me thinking about scary stories. Which I love. I don’t care if they’re Gothic, thriller or horror, I adore them all (although the uncanny is by far my favourite class of the frightening *shivers*). So, in the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together a selection of my all-time favourite scary stories. Stories I guarantee will leave even the most sceptical, unflappable reader looking over their shoulder.
Here they are, in no particular order:
by Marisha Pessl
Creepy, contemporary Gothic. The ending falls a little flat, but it’s genuinely chilling and refreshingly ambitious.
The Turn of the Screw
My all-time favourite Victorian ghost story. Keep all the lights on and the curtains drawn.
The Woman in Black
Hill has fun playing with all the tropes of Victorian Gothic, while delivering plenty of genuine terror.
Susan Hill may be ‘the queen of the traditional ghost story’ (according to The Times), but John Harwood gives her a run for her money. If you enjoyed The Woman in Black, The Seance should be top of your reading pile.
The Haunting of Hill House
Jackson’s known for her unnerving tales (think ‘The Lottery’), and her famous take on the haunted house story is nothing short of chilling.
In a Dark, Dark Wood
Playful and with plenty of winks to the reader, Ware’s debut thriller is as fun as it is frightening.
All Things Cease to Appear
This one’s more sinister than outright scary, with nods to both Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. Brundage also has a fabulous Instagram account that I’m slightly obsessed with.
The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gillman
For those who like their Gothic with a feminist slant. Whenever I see the word ‘creeping’, I think of this story. *Shudders*
A Good Man is Hard to Find (And Other Stories)
When it comes to Southern Gothic, O’Connor is the shiz. I read ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ for a short stories topic in my first year at uni and it’s unnerved me ever since.
The Tramp (also published as The Chosen Vessel)
The Australian landscape opened up new worlds of fear for early European settlers, particularly for colonial women, who were often left alone on isolated homesteads for long periods while their husbands were away working. Baynton’s stories are among the best. Also (if you haven’t already read it) check out Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ (1892).
I have to admit that while I find King’s books thrilling and highly, HIGHLY entertaining, they’re not super scary. But he still wins a spot on my list. Misery is my favourite (so far).
Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)
More sci-fi than horror, this story is deeply twisted and utterly unnerving. Especially the Tower.
Okay, so, while there have been plenty of stories that have left me sleeping with the lights on, there is one book that stands in a class of its own. A book so deeply terrifying that it continues to haunt me years after reading.
That’s right, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). Hands up who got a chill just seeing that cover again? For the uninitiated, the basic premise is that a photojournalist moves his family move into a new house which appears to be larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The photojournalist decides to make a documentary about the phenomenon. The film is never completed and the book itself is a draft of a manuscript for a book about the failed documentary, with footnote commentary from the manuscript’s custodian. The manuscript comprises all manner of notes, photographs and miscellaneous material relating to the house. And like the house itself, the finished book is not what it seems. Strange gaps open up, new stories emerge, the narrative structure twists and flips and spirals in on itself. It’s terrifying on a number of levels: the narrative structure requires the reader to become an active participant in the story (it’s hard to explain, but the thing that’s in the house is also in the book, and what happens to the characters also happens to the reader); everything is distorted and fragmented; there’s no monster, no hidden secret, no big reveal—the horror at the centre of the story is frightening precisely because it can’t be pinned down, or reasoned with, or defeated, and the more you squint at it the harder it becomes to see. Basically, House of Leaves is the fictional equivalent of being sucked into a black hole.
House of Leaves creeped me out way, waaaaay more than any other book. But, like most readers who love a good scare, I’m always seeking that next big fright. And what I want to know from you, my fellow thrill-seekers, is this: can you help me find a book more terrifying than House of Leaves?
Is it possible? Does such a book exist? I have faith that it does, friends. Hit me up with your recommendations!
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