We are officially in the last week of October, and Halloween is swiftly approaching us. Have you stocked up on your scary stories for the week? I have, so I’ll be spending this week posting about the best ones I’ve encountered, in various media.
Before we begin, I should probably include a disclaimer: I like scary stories, but I won’t read or watch horror. To me, there’s a difference. A horror story is one in which the characters, plot, etc. are merely a device to bring you as much gore and as many jump scares as possible, which is why the characters in those stories tend to be so idiotic and one-dimensional. I don’t have time for that nonsense. On the whole, I prefer stories with well-rounded characters and intelligent plots, and a dose of the uncanny can make those stories even better. All the more terrifying opportunities for the hero (and the viewer, to an extent) to show what he/she is made of.
Anyway, let’s start with books. In no particular order:
1. World War Z by Max Brooks
I would probably have gone through my whole life hating zombies if my freshman literature teacher hadn’t made me read this book. (Thanks, Dr. Rubin!) It’s an oral history of the zombie apocalypse, as told by survivors around the world. Picture a journalism project along the lines of Humans of New York, but with lots more blood. And as it traces the fictional apocalypse from its mysterious beginnings in China to the construction of a new world order, it offers some rather profound insight into real-life politics, consumer culture, military strategy, and more. Plus it’s really funny at times, and it’s the first and only book that has legitimately given me nightmares. If you read only one zombie book and/or only one alternate history in your life, make it this one.
Not to be confused with the completely different Brad Pitt movie of the same title. That one kinda sucked.
2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
This is a nice, short read about the “dual nature” of mankind and the consequences of giving in to our darker impulses. Everybody knows the story of the mild-mannered scientist who makes a potion to transform into his bad self, but you really have to read the book to understand why it’s such an icon of Western culture. It manages to be atmospherically creepy without giving many of the gory details. It’s philosophical and moral, but not heavy-handed. I like Stevenson’s writing in general, but I think this is his true masterpiece. And I know it takes place in London, but ever since I visited Edinburgh, Stevenson’s awesomely Gothic birthplace, I like to think of it all happening there.
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
It’s a classic for a reason. And again, it’s a reason you won’t find in any of the adaptations, parodies, or unauthorised sequels people have been endlessly churning out ever since the first edition came off the presses. What appears to be a story about a naive scientist accidentally creating a monster is actually a complicated tragedy about the neglect and oppression certain members of society (particularly women) experienced in Shelley’s time. (Yeah, this is another one I had to read for lit class. Three different lit classes, actually…) It’s as poetic and beautiful as it is scary. It was also one of the earliest sci-fi books – certainly among the first of the “mad scientist” variety. And an 18-year-old came up with the idea. Just in case you needed a guilt trip today.
4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Okay, I admit it – when it comes to scary books, my tastes run decidedly Gothic. This is another good one, though. And perhaps “scary” isn’t the right word, even though it does start out with a very creepy ghost sighting, and more ghosts appear later on. “Severely messed-up and disturbing” might be better terminology. This is a romance novel in the same sense that Twilight is a romance, except the author of Wuthering Heights didn’t try to pretend there was anything healthy about Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship. Their incredibly self-centred, morbid fascination with each other ends up destroying two generations of their families – and somehow it’s very enjoyable to read about. Each of the characters are twisted and flawed in their own special way, and each one gets a unique comeuppance. There’s something starkly beautiful in that.
5. Irish Ghost Stories edited by David Stuart Davies
This is a lovely little book I picked up in an Oxford bookstore. It’s a collection of short, creepy stories written by the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, WB Yeats, and other giants of Irish literature. There’s just something about the ancient castles and bleak, rocky landscapes of Ireland that seems to inspire the very best ghost stories. My favourites include: “Squire Toby’s Will,” “The Curse,” and especially “The Judge’s House” (Bram Stoker is at his best when he’s not writing Dracula).
What are your favourite scary books?
My next post will tackle spooky films, so stay tuned!