Shortening days, a nip in the air and wind that promises to find a way to chill your bones: oh yes, it’s time to hunker down in the dark, quiet night with a good ghost story and hope the creaks and rustles you hear are the usual sounds that always happen when night falls and the house settles. Yes, you better hope for that. And shut your eyes tight when you think you see a shadow pass your door because it’s probably the headlights of a car driving by or the stupid cat creeping around. Yes, you better hope for that too.
A good ghost story has a delicate way of easing a reader into a terrified state. It is a subtle art that raises the pulse and sends chills down the spine. A good ghost story makes the reader leave the light on long after the book is closed, moved off the night table and thrown into another room. A good ghost story stays with the reader for a long time and quite often begs to be re-read despite the lost sleep.
I usually dig out a book of ghost stories when the leaves begin to change. Halloween is my favorite time of year, I love to be scared – not terrified, just scared in a fun way that I know it’s going to end. Unfortunately, many of these ghost stories don’t exactly end when the story is over. They do linger and pop into my head at the most unfortunate times, like when I’m throwing laundry into the dryer late at night and I suddenly have to run up the stairs because something was there.
I am always on the look out for great ghost stories. I’ve read a lot of horror, terror and slash-and-kill stories, all of which never have the same chilling effect. These stories and collections are by far the best I’ve read.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin, 1959)
Hill House, an eighty year old mansion, has been rented by Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator who hopes to confirm the existence of the supernatural. He brings along three “assistants:” Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. They were chosen by Dr. Montague because they have all had previous paranormal experiences.
Hill House is the protagonist in Jackson’s slightly dated but extremely well-written novel. It is eerie and cold, awake and watchful from its blank windows, “a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, nor a fit place for people, for love or for hope.” It is full of odd angles and sudden cold spots as well as mysterious noises. As the characters settle in, the house begins to play upon their fears. None of the characters experience the same fright, which makes each terror a singular event with the other characters wondering what is happening.
Jackson masterfully plays upon the psychological terror of the unknown. The eeriness of the novel crept up on me. While there is never a clear, defined event to confirm the presence of ghosts or the paranormal, the hints and individual interpretations of phenomena are by far more scary. It is a chilling novel despite the occasional stilted dialogue, one that I was certain wasn’t frightening in the least when I started out reading it on a cold night but soon decided it was best read during the daylight hours.
The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James (Penguin Classics, 1898)
Henry James wrote one scary novella in The Turn of the Screw. Instead of blatant ghoulies and ghosties, this is another eerie tale of psychological terror and is well worth the concentration it will take to get the hang of Henry James’s style of writing.
A governess agrees to take charge of two orphaned children and moves to the countryside from London to find herself with two charming but odd children and a surly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who readily gives over the children. The governess is also most entirely alone with her charges and has been instructed by the children’s uncle that he is not to be bothered.
The tension begins when the governess starts seeing a young couple around the property. They appear at random times and seem to cause no interest or concern in any other occupants of the house. The governess becomes convinced they are the ghosts of the former governess, Miss Janse, and her illicit lover, both of whom, she learns from Mrs. Grose, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Things get a bit creepier when the governess becomes convinced that the children are seeing the ghosts as well.
This is Gothic writing at its best. Fear and tension build in the governess’s evolving awareness of the of the evil surroundings she has found herself. James is masterful in the implication of doubt: is the governess overreacting or are these frightening things really happening?
The Aspern Papers, though not a ghost story by any means, is the story of an obsession and a very quick read. It is well-written and very readable and I highly recommend it as a nice follow up if you want to get the eeriness of The Turn of the Screw out of your head.
SPOOKY New England: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore by S. E. Schlosser, illustrated by Paul G. Hoffman (Globe Piquot, 2003)
This is a collection of strange happenings, weird tales and ghost stories gathered from towns and places all over New England. Some are very old and familiar, some are obscure and quite chilling. Schlosser has a simple style and an easy way of drawing the reader into the stories. It is something of a travel book as well, especially if you are interested in ghost hunting. I have several, creepy favorites: “The Man Who Could Send Rats,” “The Black Dog Of Hanging Hills,” and “The Lady in Black.” The wood cut illustrations are clever and well done. Schlosser has created a regional series of spooky stories which has an appeal for those in the areas of which he gathers his tales.
Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by August Derleth. (Ballentine, 1987)
H.P. Lovecraft, the Über master of modern horror, earned that reputation for a very good reason. His stories are legend for their psychological thriller elements. His protagonists are rational, normal human beings who are placed in the incomprehensible and inconceivable and his stories are disturbing, weird and unsettling. Edgar Allen Poe was an obvious influence. He loves to play with the unknown, which I believe is one of the most terrifying elements in a scary story. This compilation is an excellent grouping of his “bests,” although read through in one sitting they can become formulaic and predictable.
A few of my favorites from this collection of short stories and novellas are:
- “The Rats in the Walls”: an inherited ancestral mansion has walls filled with scurrying rats.
- “The Picture in the House”: a house of refuge in a rainstorm has a disturbing picture on the wall.
- “In the Vault”: a grave digger has to dig himself out of a crypt.
- “The Whisperer in Darkness”: a scientist goes to Vermont to disprove the existence of fairies.
- “The Haunter of the Dark”: a writer creates a horrible being that can only live in the dark.
Lovecraft, practically unknown in his lifetime, set the stage, tone and a very high watermark for today’s horror writers.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (Bantam 1962)
This was my first horror novel and boy, did it do a number on me as a kid! Not only did it fill me with ideas regarding the significance of dates and hours of birth but I developed a belief in the powers of inanimate objects and it forever changed the way I feel about carnivals, carny folk and tattoos.
The story takes place in a small town that is preparing for the arrival of a carnival with fliers advertising “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.” The two heroes, best friends Jim and Will, who were born two minutes apart on either side of Halloween, discover this is no ordinary carnival when they sneak out in the middle of the night to watch it set up. When they begin investigating during the daylight, they notice very strange things about the rides and the effect it is having on the townspeople.
Bradbury’s carnies are perfect, creepy, sleezy, dark and skeevy. There’s G. M. Dark, the tattooed freak, and his evil partner, J. C. Cooger. The carnival is also populated with The Dust Witch, a blind fortune teller, The Skeleton and Tom Fury, the dwarf. These are the carnival people you can’t resist but who fill you with terror and dread if you find yourself alone in their presence. A merry-go-round and a house of mirrors will never be the same after you read this novel.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, a classic tale of good and evil, is well written and the Gothic horror theme works well in its small-town setting, proving that even wholesome places are vulnerable to evil forces.
My, my, my how the cold winter nights will fly as you settle down with these stories and hope for spring.