Thursday, October 31, 2013

Five More Books that Scared Me

The tradition of telling scary stories in the month of November is one that goes back to pre-Christian days in Europe. The ancient Celts believed that at this time of year, before the winter solstice, the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world thinned, making it possible for the evil and the unwary to cross between.

Up in central Maine, it's hard to argue with that theory. Piles of leaves hide living creatures and their dead prey; trees stand skeletal against a sky the color of limbo.

In real life I am scared of mice, permanence, being unwelcome and becoming dependent. I prefer to take my scares on the page, where they seem more manageable, and can usually be defied by simply closing the book. I've been reading scary stories since I could read, pretty much; Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman remains one of the most terrifying and suspenseful books I've ever read. I've already posted one list of five books that scared me, but here are five more.

1. Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (1974). I am happier than I can say that Lizzie Skurnick Books is reintroducing Lois Duncan to a new generation. In eighth grade, I read every one of her titles in the Norfolk Academy library; this one, her only Gothic, remains my favorite. When her mother remarries, Kit Gordy is sent to Blackwood Hall, a boarding school for gifted students — but she has only three schoolmates, and it turns out that their gifts are very strange indeed. Just writing about it makes me want to track this book down for a reread.

2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). The best horror novels repay rereading by changing along with the reader, because they're a sort of mirror in which we find the things that scare us. This book affects me in a much different way now, in middle age, than it did when I first discovered it in high school. Eleanor belongs nowhere; she gets an invitation to be part of a group of psychic investigators at Hill House, because she is special, because someone has noticed her at last. Finally, she thinks, she has found a place where she belongs. And the house, as it turns out, may think so, too.

3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962). My mother told me this book was scarier than Hill House, but when I first read it —at 14, I think — I didn't understand why. Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian live together in an isolated house that has seen terrible tragedy, and Merricat moves tensely among townspeople who think they know too much about her family. As it turns out, the scariest secrets are the ones we keep even from ourselves.

4. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979). Possibly the first book that made me cry from sheer fright. Four old men - the Chowder Society, as they call themselves - are lifelong friends whose friend Edward Wanderley has recently died under mysterious circumstances. When Wanderley's nephew Don comes to town, they invite him into their group, where they comfort themselves with ghost stories - ghost stories, it becomes clear, that have a great deal to do with what's happening to them now.

5. Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973). I read a lot of Thomas Tryon all in a row, and while The Other has its own horrors and Crowned Heads is a pulpy tour-de-force, Harvest Home was the book that gave me nightmares. Ned and Beth Constantine think they've found a new home in the picturesque New England village of Cornwall Coombe; the neighbors, especially the Widow Fortune, are so friendly! If I learned anything from Rosemary's Baby, it's that you can't trust those friendly neighbors.


Unknown said...

I loved Ghost Story. I might have actually read it on your recommendation. I still get chills thinking about it.

YANO said...

I love Harvest Home, and Shirley Jackson ROCKED.

Anonymous said...

Just read Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson (very weird and awesome book) and am in the middle of We Have Always Lived at the Castle.