Ten Great Horror Stories for Halloween

Halloween is less than two weeks away so now is a good time to stack the old nightstand with some books that are best read with all the lights on—or better yet, during the day. The following list contains a little bit of everything, from classic ghost stories to modern psychological horror to the boy next door who turned out to be a serial killer.

I’m Want Something Old School

Frank

FrankensteinMary Shelley

It doesn’t get much more old school than “Frankenstein.” Shelley wrote this now classic novel as part of a ghost story competition proposed by Lord Byron while she, her husband and a friend were vacationing in Switzerland. At the time, the idea of using electricity to stimulate muscles and other objects was a hot topic. So Shelley imagined what would happen if you used electricity to reanimate a corpse and her famous monster was born. And although the book was written almost two hundred years ago Shelley’s prose feels surprisingly modern. Most people assumed it was written by a man since it was originally published anonymously but Shelley proved that a woman has what it takes to write a great horror story. Another reason to be grateful? If not for Mary Shelly we wouldn’t have one of the funniest comedies of all time, “Young Frankenstein.”

I Just Want Classic Ghost Stories

Turn

The Turn of the ScrewHenry James

“The Turn of the Screw” is the quintessential psychological ghost story. James said he wrote this story as a “trap for the unwary” and it has been described by some frustrated critics as intentionally ambiguous. The story involves a governess who is hired to take care of two young children in an English country house. Soon after she arrives she sees a man and woman wandering around the estate but does not recognize them. The man and woman do not appear to be seen by anyone else and the governess comes to believe they are ghosts. Worse still, she suspects the children may have been corrupted by these ghosts. James skillfully weaves a tale that will have you question the true nature of the mysterious couple and the possibility that the governess is simply going mad.

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Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James

Plenty of lists will steer you to Edgar Allen Poe for some old school ghost stories and Poe certainly has his fair share of classic ghost stories in his oeuvre. But M.R. James is considered by many to be the master of the English ghost story. Most of his stories involve the discovery of an old book or object that results in an unspeakable horror being visited on an unlucky victim. In “Casting the Runes,” for example, the narrator reaches under his pillow for his watch but finds instead “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair” and he realizes this is “not the mouth of a human being.” James (no relation to Henry James) was a dean at Kings College, Cambridge and wrote four volumes of ghost stories. Many of his classics can be found in this collection.

Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

Before “The Woman in Black” was a hit movie starring Daniel Radcliffe it was a wildly popular book and the second longest running play in London. The narrator is a solicitor hired to wrap up the estate of the widow at Eel Marsh House. He travels to the house from London and unwisely decides to spend the night while sorting through the estates’ papers. As he uncovers the story of the woman in black, he begins to see things in the house, including the woman herself who is not at all happy that he his there. Of course, it doesn’t end well.

I Want Something A Little More Modern

Shirley

The Haunting of Hill HouseShirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson wrote “The Haunting of Hill House” in 1959 and although the prose is modern the story has a clear gothic bent. Remember all those stories about a group of people that spend the night in a haunted house to find out if it is really haunted? Well, they all owe a debt to this story. Three people are invited to spend the summer at Hill House by a professor investigating the supernatural. They soon began experiencing all kinds of disturbing events that cannot be explained. Here, the house is the ghost and it preys on each member of the party with the most terrifying punishments being reserved for the psychologically weakest member of the group. A true classic.

 King

The ShiningStephen King

“The Shining” has become so well known and makes so many critics’ top ten lists you might be inclined to think it could be drifting toward kitsch. You would be wrong. The story is simple, almost familiar. Jack Torrance is hired to act as a caretaker of a large hotel that shuts down every winter. He is allowed to bring his family with him but otherwise he will be totally alone. Oh, and did I forget to mention the hotel is haunted? Kings’ chronicle of Torrance’s gradual descent into madness would be terrifying enough if Torrance were alone at the Overlook Hotel. The real power of the horror in the novel, though, is the effect this madness has on his family. Like “The Exorcist,” King works the family dynamic with terrifying results.

I Want Something More Hardcore

Blatty

The ExorcistWilliam Peter Blatty

“The Exorcist” is another book that most people associate with the movie of the same name. And why not? When the movie was released in 1973 there were stories of people fainting in the theaters while others fled before the film was over. No doubt this was due, in part, to the gruesome special effects of the film. But perhaps the real cause was the disturbing nature of the story itself: a twelve-year old girl is possessed by the devil as her mother struggles to understand what is happening to her. The book captures all the terror of this situation and more. A thoroughly modern horror story with the oldest demon around at its heart.

Harris

The Red DragonThomas Harris

“The Silence of the Lambs” gets all the love but this is the better book. A serial killer is murdering entire families, seemingly at random, and the F.B.I is called in to investigate. They discover a pattern of ritualistic killings in which the victims are bitten and cut with broken mirrors. “The Red Dragon” introduces us to Hannibal Lecter, one of the most disturbing fictional characters in recent years, and Jack Crawford, his F.B.I. counter-part. Originally published in 1981, “The Red Dragon” was one of the progenitors of the serial killer genre and is certainly one of the best books in that class.

Hill

Heart-Shaped BoxJoe Hill

For those who like their horror with a rock and roll flavor, there is Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” the story of aging rock star Jude Coyne. Coyne, like many rock stars, has left a trail of pain, broken relationships and heartbreak over the course of his career. He also has a taste for the macabre and after buying a suit that belonged to a dead man he discovers that the dead man’s ghost has followed him home Haunted Mansion style. Contains plenty of scares but also manages to reflect on the pain caused by our mistakes.

I Want a Challenge

Leaves

House of LeavesMark Z. Danielewski

At over 700 pages, you may still be reading this one next Halloween. Not because of its’ length but because of how the novel is constructed. A multitude of annotations, the liberal use of different typefaces, pages containing only a single word and multiple narrators all make this book a challenge to read. It has been described as both a horror story and a love story, although the plot is simple and familiar: a family moves into a house and soon discovers something is not right. In this case, the problem is that the house is bigger on the inside than the outside. They find huge staircases, extra bedrooms, numerous hallways and the periodic growl of some unknown creature. A cult classic.

Before Banksy, Philippe Petit’s Famous Walk Between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center

Deep in Colum McCann’s epic saga, Let the Great World Spin, just past the mid-way point of the book, McCann unleashes his fantastic description of Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It is breathtaking and comical and unbelievable. Indeed, after reading this section I immediately wondered how much literary license McCann had taken with his blow by blow description of Petit’s feat. The answer: not much.

If you are unfamiliar with Petit’s remarkable performance you might understand my initial skepticism. After all, this is a man who strung a steel wire less than an inch thick between the two tallest buildings in New York, some 1,350 in the air and then proceeded to walk between these buildings eight times. And he didn’t just walk on this wire: he danced, he hopped, he knelt down on one knee and saluted the crowd below and, at one jaw-dropping moment, he laid down and stared up into the sky. The entire act took him 45 minutes and he did it all while holding a 26 foot long, 55 pound pole for balance.

Of course, thank god, there are pictures.

Here is Petite getting ready to start his walk.

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Taking his first steps.

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Fully committed now.

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And here he is lying down.

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Even by today’s standards, this remains an epic achievement. And for someone who gets woozy standing on a ladder while changing a light bulb, this is an incomprehensible act to me; it simply isn’t something in my arsenal of crazy. Which raises the question of why he did it. Petit’s explanation: “To me, it’s really so simple: life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.” Whether you consider it brave or stupid, Petit’s fearless artistic expression is something any writer can admire.

There have been many books and movies made about Petite’s famous walk, including the Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) and the recently released Robert Zemeckis film, The Walk, which is in theaters now.

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Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

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So I just finished reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin as part of my “Does it Hold Up Over Time” reading series. I remember reading this book for the first time in the 8th grade and feeling a little bewildered. I had already read The Lord of the Rings so I felt confident about tackling more serious science fiction and fantasy books. I was, however, unprepared for the mature themes and the depth of the social issues that run throughout this book.  Re-reading the novel today I can see why it is considered a classic of the science fiction genre.  The writing is superb– something I sensed as a middle school reader but can now more fully appreciate.  The real power of this book though is the way it addresses the complex issues of xenophobia and the importance of bridging cultural divides.  It is a testament to Le Guin’s skill in conveying the difficulties inherent in dealing with such issues that I often felt uncomfortable as the protagonist, Gently Ai, interacted with a culture that was sometimes similar but often very different than his own.  Can you say “androgynous aliens?” The Left Hand of Darkness has definitely stood the test of time and is worth checking out even if you’ve never cracked open a science fiction book. The BBC seems to agree as they recently aired a BBC Radio Play of the book.