I like being scared. The whole process is great–the thrill as suspense builds, the shock, and the residual horror…as long as we can establish that everything is okay now and whatever I thought it was, it was definitely not that. Not a lot scares me (though I have been known to scream if you come up and touch me while I’m wearing headphones–sorry, former student in the library!), as I don’t actually believe a ghost or demon will appear to me. I have a vivid imagination though, and have in the past been 99.9% sure I’ve seen a strange crying child in my old basement, a tall faceless person in black in the hallway, and seen my dolls move. When I read or watch horror, I am asking for the writers to take me to a place where I can be terrified. Some of my favorite horror movies are Insidious, The Babadook, and The Others–all of which linger with you, turning something normal into something creepy.
That’s the same thing these books below have done for me. Even though I haven’t read most of them in years, there are scenes and images that have stuck with me. None, except for the first, are classic horror books, which made them all the more horrifying–I was not prepared for them.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Written in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House pays homage to Victorian Gothic horror while being more blunt than they would have been. It tells the story of four people who go to stay in a supposedly haunted mansion as an experiment. Supernaturalist Dr. John Montague heads the group, trying to encourage everyone to act naturally, while being extremely eager for signs of ghostly unrest. Luke Sanderson is a handsome heir to the old house, and doesn’t take the whole thing seriously at all. Theodora is a flighty and silly artist who is determined to flirt with every living thing. Eleanor Vance, the main character, is a socially awkward spinster who has lived under her demanding family for years and is trying to break free by taking risks. The author builds tension slowly, letting you almost forget it is supposed to be a ghost story, but knows how to go in for it and shake you up. The characters become comfortable as the reader does, and when the horror begins, you feel as disturbed as they do.
In some ways, The Haunting of Hill House reminds me of the 2015 film Crimson Peak, with its slow build-up, but in others it could almost fit in with some of the better episodes of American Horror Story in how the most unexpected things (or people!) become scary.
Creepiest Moment: When the room goes dark and Eleanor clutches Theodora’s hand. A moment later, the light goes on…and Theodora has just turned it on, across the room.
The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren Shan
More commonly known as Cirque du Freak due to the title of the first book, and the weirdness of the author using his own name as the protagonist’s, this series was first published in 2000, right when the goth-vampire phase was hitting teenagers across America. Darren Shan (the character) is a young teen who gets caught up in a strange traveling freak show and is turned into a half-vampire by an old vampire magician. It’s a cheesy beginning, but by the end of the first book, when Darren has to let his family believe he is dead, the story takes a disturbing turn. The first book is more of a set-up to the series, which itself revolves around Darren’s awkward position as a half-vampire/half-human, torn between his allegiances, as well as his empathy for the other non-humans, who don’t have the power vampires have. It’s a young adult series, with little enough sensuality to be geared more towards the younger set, though the violence is definitely R-rated. It’s incredibly gruesome, but the story itself is winsome and hopeful, with an ending that is as bizarre as its beginning.
It’s a good segue from Goosebumps to serious horror. A lot of AHS: Freak Show reminded me of Cirque du Freak. Overall, it is a story of acceptance and about doing the right thing against all odds, with a horror backdrop. It’s a story that will–and should–make you uncomfortable, but it has a lot of honesty and truth in it.
Creepiest Moment: When Darren accidentally lets the freak show’s werewolf loose on a full moon and he finds the monster eating a child while the child is alive.
Remnants by K. A. Applegate
Applegate is known best for her Animorphs series, which Elizabeth Silverstein talked about on her guest post last month, but she also worked on this 14-book series. Remnants never attained the popularity of Animorphs as it lacks the action and fun of that series. This series is far more serious–the world is not invaded by aliens, it is going to be destroyed by an asteroid, and only the wealthiest and most important people have spots on the ship leaving Earth. The first book is mostly about one of the main characters, Jobs, struggling over the fact that he is privileged and many others, including his crush, are not and will die. Earth is destroyed. There is no hope there, setting the tone for the next few books. The chosen survivors are in hibernation for hundreds of years on the ship and when they awake, some are dead and others have suffered strange mutations. As they explore where their ship has landed, they discover that they have been taken into a larger ship of aliens. These aliens have knowledge of Earth and have incorporated Earth elements into the environment. But having no concept of how Earth should be, they have used famous art, such as the work of Hieronymus Bosch, as a pattern. Thus, the world is utterly terrifying, and is only made worse as the humans continue to mutate (turning into worms, becoming a giant mouth, and other messed up stuff). As nothing can be relied on, they begin to turn on each other.
The series is similar in some ways to The 100, not merely in its post-apocalyptic storyline, but in the mainly teenaged cast being the ones who have to deal with the consequences of the adults’ choices and surviving in a new world. It also reminded me (when I first read it back in the early 2000s) of the original Planet of the Apes, when not all of them survive the hibernation journey. Remnants is science fiction, but with a delightful horror twist–a little like Cabin in the Woods, and though it overdoes it a little on the creepy story elements, it makes it new each time, never giving you a chance to relax.
Creepiest Moment: This is a toss-up, and tough because it’s been over a decade since I read these. It would have to be either the baby that grows in one survivor’s womb for five centuries and comes out a terrifying mind-controlling monster that demands human sacrifice or the teenaged boy whom the aliens skin and treat with a clear covering over his muscles and insides so he will look more like them.
Raven’s Point by Melinda Metz
Metz was also the mind behind Roswell High series, and wrote some Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics and Animorphs books (coincidentally), but this stand-alone novel she wrote in 2004 was what stuck with me. The island town of Raven’s Point is cursed, and there is a mysterious evil that must be stopped. The plot itself is a little convoluted, but it is in the details where Metz’s storytelling abilities really shine. The citizens begin to go a little insane and it’s up to a group of teenagers to resist and save the town, which is under some kind of curse due to long-ago witch trials. The main characters are otherwise normal teens dealing with difficult issues like eating disorders, internal racism, sexual awakening, and abuse, all of which tie into the evil that pervades Raven’s Point.
The book has that creepy small-town feel of Twin Peaks or Stranger Things, and may be a good hold-over till that far-away Twin Peaks revival and whenever we get Season 2 of Stranger Things. It also deals with actual real-life teen issues in a way that not all genre fiction bothers with.
Creepiest Moment: Again a toss-up: the mom who cuts off her own arm with a bone-cutter saw or the black boy who decides the answers to his problems is to be white and tries to soak himself in bleach.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding
Wooding wrote this steampunk alt-history gothic Victorian novel in 2001 years before steampunk became mainstream and right before goths became cool in that precious first decade of the 21st century. The Haunting of Alizabel Cray takes place in an alternative history version of Victorian London, where magic and demons exist. The city is over-run with wych-kin, demonic creatures that can only be killed by trained wych-hunters, as well as human killers like Stitch-Face, a serial killer who wears a stitched mask and targets women as his victims. The main protagonist, Thaniel, is a young but experienced wych-hunter who has special abilities from being attached by wych-kin as a child. When he encounters Alaizabel Cray, a possessed young woman, he becomes fixated on and freeing her from the watch-kin inside her. As he tries to unravel what happened to Alaizabel, he begins to see a larger conspiracy that threatens the whole world.
The Victorian gothic feel of The Haunting of Alizabel Cray is definitely something fans of Penny Dreadful might enjoy, except The Haunting is actually well-written. The world of this novel is as fascinating as the characters, and draws you right in. It’s a dark story, and might also appeal to fans of Underworld and The Crow, both of which I was really into at the time.
Creepiest Moment: Not the demons or even the Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer or the fortune-teller with his eyes stitched shut who goes by the name of Devil Boy (my favorite character, needless to say). There is a scene where a woman is walking on the city streets at night (like I often do) and hears footsteps just behind her. She looks back, and there’s nothing, so she keeps on going, but then she hears it again. Same thing as before. The third time she looks, it’s Rawhead and Bloodybones, monsters from American folklore, and they kill her. I think about them appearing the third time you look pretty much every time I have walked home at night for the past ten years. (Thanks, Chris Wooding.)
A good horror story is a form of escapism–just as much as a romantic comedy. It isn’t real, and it stirs you up to imagine the worst, and then you get to go back to the real world and think it isn’t so bad. But the very best horror stories don’t just scare you, they leave you with the knowledge that even in the worst world imaginable, there is hope. That is where The Haunting of Hill House falls short–it will not satisfy that need for hope. But the others on this list, even as they scare my grown self a decade-plus after I read them, still remind me of the hope that existed as nobody in the story gave up. That’s a lesson we can take into real life even more than the paranoia of a scare.
What are your favorite horror stories–books, film, TV, or even legends? What stories stuck with you and creeped you out? Have you read any on this list?
And more importantly, what dark fictional books give you hope in dire situations?
Brittany Ann Zayas