1. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820) - "The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head."
This classic tale of superstition gone awry in the Hudson River Valley circa 1790 haunted my entire childhood. Few characters have scared me as much as the Headless Horseman did--not helped in the least by the fact that Sleepy Hollow is a real place. I not only believed in him, I thought he would take time out of his busy schedule to come to New Jersey, hunt me down, and steal my head. This made it all the easier for me to relate to Ichabod Crane, Irving's dubious hero whose masochistic love for ghost stories helps bring about his downfall. Told with wit and vivid imagery, an adult reading of the legend reveals it to be more of an indictment of superstition than an actual ghost story. When Ichabod decides he wants to marry Katrina van Tassel, the local It girl, he incurs the wrath of her brutish suitor Brom Bones--who let's just say probably uses antlers in all of his decorating. Ichabod wears his fear on his sleeve, giving Brom just what he needs to get rid of him. Is the Headless Horseman real? Is the figure Ichabod encounters in the woods man or monster? Irving leaves it up to us to decide, but he definitely has an answer in mind.
2. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962) - "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."
"Be careful what you wish for" has rarely been conveyed as beautifully as in this beloved Ray Bradbury novel. Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show is a demonic traveling carnival that ensnares its victims by promising to grant their deepest desires. Only two boys, best friends Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, suspect something rotten beneath the surface and they set about trying to conquer the evil--before they fall prey to its temptations. The villain Mr. Dark is a scary customer indeed, and the book poses serious, thought-provoking questions about regret, longing, and why we want what we want. Lyrical and genuinely frightening, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a must for Halloween. It even starts on October 24--TODAY! Take that as a sign.
3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962) - "My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance...Everyone else in my family is dead."
I finished this literally last night and I am absolutely in love with it. To my shame, I had never read any of Shirley Jackson's novels before this, but now I want to read everything she wrote. Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood have been outcasts in their small village ever since a sprinkling of arsenic in the sugar bowl killed everybody in their family except the girls and their Uncle Julian. Constance who was accused and acquitted of the murders now leads a mostly agoraphobic existence, while the childlike Merricat wanders the woods with her cat Jonas, dreaming of living on the moon. When their long-lost cousin Charles drops in for a visit and starts filling Constance's head with strange ideas, Merricat knows she must do all she can to protect her sister. I devoured this book in one afternoon. The characters are some of the most wonderful I've ever met and their world is deliciously creepy and quietly disturbing. Shirley Jackson stirred my envy with her subtle clarity and pitch black sense of humor. She is an astonishing writer. I highly recommend spending a few hours with the Blackwood family. I know I won't forget my visit any time soon.
4. The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816) - "Nothing pleased me more than to hear or read tales about spirits, about witches, about dwarfs; but over everything there hovered the Sandman, whom I used to draw with chalk or charcoal on the tables, in the strangest and most horrible shapes."
Fear makes children of all of us, no matter how grown-up and mature we consider ourselves to be. This idea lives at the center of E.T.A. Hoffmann's chilling short story about how childhood fears continue to affect us long after we leave childhood behind. Growing up, Nathaniel had been told stories of the Sandman, a monster who steals the eyes of children who don't go to bed when they're told. Meanwhile, a real monster was loose in his home: his father's business partner who took sadistic delight in frightening Nathaniel. Young Nathaniel came to think of this man as the Sandman, merging fantasy with reality. Years later, as a university student, a chance encounter with a stranger who resembles his "Sandman," resurrects all sorts of disturbing memories, sending Nathaniel down a dark path where the line between fantasy and reality ceases to exist. The German Romantics were all about exploring the uncanny, and few did it better than Hoffmann (who also penned the story that became The Nutcracker Ballet). He tells the story partly through letters and partly from the perspective of an unnamed first person narrator who is not one of the main characters--implying that it may be Hoffmann himself and blurring the line even further. The Sandman does a number on your mind and imagination. By the end, you're not sure what was real, what Nathaniel imagined, and what you imagined. It's a disturbing, fascinating story that reveals new layers with each reading.
5. The Witches by Roald Dahl (1983) - "In fairy tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES."
Think you know how to spot a witch--a REAL witch? Well, here's the perfect guide. My love for the work of Roald Dahl has been a topic of discussion here before, and this is one of my favorites. Dahl takes a page out of Hoffmann's book by blurring the line between fact and fantasy. He drew on elements from his own childhood to create his young (also unnamed) narrator and his cigar-chomping, witch-wary Norwegian grandmamma. For all I knew, the scene where a witch, snake-in-hand, approaches Our Hero in his treehouse could have been based on Dahl's own experiences! This gives you a good impression of where my mind was as a kid. The story is fantastic, Our Hero is a true hero, and as always, Dahl's sly, slightly sadistic sense of humor shines through. Quentin Blake's illustrations capture the childlike wildness of the book. My favorite line: "For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now...she might even--and this will make you jump--she might even be your lovely schoolteacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment." You can almost hear Dahl muahaha-ing in the background.
6. Sharp Objects (2006) and/or Dark Places (2010) by Gillian Flynn -
"My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly." -Sharp Objects
"I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ." -Dark Places
Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors writing today. She has two novels out now and both of them are excellent, so much so I was up well past my already obscenely late bedtime reading them. And then I was too scared to go to sleep. They are brutal, unforgiving books that grab you by the throat and force you to follow them. Not that you'll put up much resistance, I guarantee. Sharp Objects concerns Camille Preaker, a journalist who is forced to confront the demons of her childhood when she returns to her Missouri hometown to cover the murder of a pair of local girls. Dark Places is about Libby Day, who at seven years old delivered the testimony that put her 15-year-old brother Ben away for the murders of their mother and two sisters. Years later, as a bitter, depressed adult, she gets a call from an organization called the Kill Club that claims they can prove why Ben is innocent. Neither book is easy to read content-wise, but Flynn has such a strong voice (the kind you can hear in your head) and creates such vivid, true-to-life characters, it's impossible to look away. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach), these books are perfect for a chilly fall evening. But beware--you might be afraid of your own shadow by the time you're done.
7. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) - "If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?"
I devoted an entire entry to this novella last year around this time so I won't delve too deep, but since I reread it every Halloween, I couldn't exclude it in good conscience. A naive young woman gets a job caring for two children, a boy and a girl, in an isolated manor belonging to their handsome uncle. After strange things start happening around the house, she begins to suspect that the ghosts of two former servants have possessed the children. Are the ghosts real or the crazy result of a paranoid, sexually repressed mind? And just who is the object of the governess's affections in this so-called "love story"? The Turn of the Screw has been analyzed and debated for decades and there are no answers except the ones you come up with. Disturbing, frightening, and utterly absorbing, this is the ultimate ghost story...or is it?
8. Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann (1845) "Anything to me is sweeter / than to see Struwwelpeter!"
The subtitle for Struwwelpeter (which is usually translated as Slovenly Peter or Shock-headed Peter) claims it's a book of "Happy Tales and Funny Pictures." Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a horrifying book. Written by the author as a CHRISTMAS PRESENT FOR HIS SON, it's a book of cautionary tales, explaining (in rhyme no less) what happens to children who misbehave. For example: ignore proper hygiene and you will become an ugly, downright frightening looking outcast deserving of your isolation and destined to one day be on the cover of a horrifying children's book. Also: Playing with matches is dangerous. If you play with matches, you will set yourself on fire and die and your cats will weep for you. Think of your cats, children! And best of all: Do not suck your thumb. If you suck your thumb, the Long, Red-Legged Scissorman will BREAK INTO YOUR HOUSE and CUT OFF YOUR THUMBS!!! Yup. I have had nightmares about the Long, Red-Legged Scissorman and I never sucked my thumb. And I was in college when I discovered this book. So there you go. It's awful, but I would lying if I said I didn't LOVE Struwwelpeter in all its morbid glory. Apparently, every German child knows these poems by heart (as my German professor demonstrated for me--they're even scarier in German). It was featured on an episode of The Office, courtesy of Dwight, of course. There's even a Struwwelpeter museum in Frankfurt which is AWESOME. I had the good fortune to be there alongside a class trip of six-year-olds who were adorable and not at all put off by all the pictures of bleeding and dying children adorning the walls. Good stuff.
And just for fun...
Whew. And that, my dears, is all. If one of these books sends the proverbial chill down your spine, I have done my job. Happy Reading!