Halloween is just around the corner, and though we’re heading into the dead hot days of summer rather than the cold, dark nights of winter like our friends in the northern hemisphere, there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy the chills and atmosphere of this old seasonal celebration. Try some of these spooky, eerie, witchy, ghosty stories (all available from your local Cockburn library – just click the links), and think twice before you turn off the lights…
- The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill
This chilling horror novel is bite-sized, but packs a creepy punch far beyond its page count. The death of a reclusive old woman in Victorian England brings a London solicitor to her crumbling house that is slowly sinking into a marsh. Expecting a quiet week of sorting papers, the solicitor begins to suspect that all is not right when he starts hearing noises inside the house, and children crying in the fog that descends outside. A classic gothic horror with a devastating ending.
- Slade House, by David Mitchell
The newest offering from the author of Cloud Atlas sounds spooky, ghostly, and fascinating. Every nine years, on the last Saturday in October, twins Norah and Jonah Grayer invite one person into their home. Once you enter Slade House, you’ll find that you don’t quite want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t…
- The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
Jackson was the master of the atmosphere of claustrophobic dread, and things are certainly not what they seem in this slim volume of horror and madness. A young woman escapes the confines of her controlling family to spend a month in a haunted house, because no one really believes in ghosts, do they? What follows is a tense descent into madness, a psychological horror that leaves the reader wondering just who, if anyone, is sane in the world.
- The Terror, by Dan Simmons
All the best horror stories are historical – after all, what’s more terrifying than knowing that nothing can be done? Based on the true story of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition, 126 men are trapped on their ships in ice that hasn’t thawed for two years, suffering from extreme cold, poisoned food, and something else that lurks out on the ice…
- The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
A classic of bloodless terror, the sense of unease and creeping dread pervades this turn-of-the-century ghost story. A young, inexperienced governess is charged with the care of Miles and Flora, two small children abandoned by their uncles at his grand country house. She sees the figure of an unknown man on the tower and his face at the window. It is Peter Quint, the master’s dissolute valet, and he has come for little Miles. But Peter Quint is dead.
- The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson
Another small book that drips with the visceral imagery of horror, as much for the danger of being an independently wealthy, godless woman in 17th-century England as for the actual supernatural elements that appear. Alice Nutter, landowner, atheist, and defender of the poor, has struck a bargain with the Dark Gentleman. She stays young while folks around her age, and she does not see the harm in the fact that thirteen poor and starving women meet on nearby Pendle Hill and call themselves a coven. A cold and sparsely-told true story about the English witch trials.
- The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman
Don’t be confused by the word ‘comics’ – the Sandman graphic novels are anything but funny. Over ten dark, intense volumes Gaiman and a series of artists explores the myths and legends that drive modern fantasy and horror fiction: gods from every pantheon, mass-murderers old and new, normal people who refuse to die, quite a lot of Shakespeare, and watching over it all, the brooding, omniscient figures of Dream and Death. Start with Volume One: Preludes & Noctures.
- Hallowe’en Party, by Agatha Christie
The queen of murder mysteries was no stranger to the lands of terror and despair – after all, spending that much time inside the minds of cold-blooded killers must have some effect. At a Hallowe’en party, Joyce – a hostile thirteen-year-old – boasts that she once witnessed a murder. When no-one believes her, she storms off home. But within hours her body is found, still in the house, drowned in an apple-bobbing tub.
- The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy
You won’t find much horror in this much-adored precursor to Harry Potter, but you will find a delightfully well-realised world of witches, cauldrons, familiars and hob-nailed boots. Mildred Hubble is a trainee witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy, and she’s making an awful mess of it. She’s always getting her spells wrong and she can’t even ride a broomstick without crashing it. Will she ever make a real witch?
- Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier was a master of the atmosphere of dread; her stories ooze despair and gothic horror. Mary Yellon, sent by her dying mother to live with family in the isolated Jamaica Inn on the Cornwall coast, discovers that her domineering uncle is terrorising more than just her aunt. A gothic tale of smuggling set in the early 19th century.
- The Shining, by Stephen King
I’m sure you don’t need a recommendation to read Stephen King, but even if you’re a horror wimp (like me) you can still appreciate the truly unsettling vibe of the empty, isolated hotel story. Danny Torrance’s father moves the family to the Overlook Hotel to take care of it over winter. But if the hotel was meant to be empty, who was the lady in Room 217, and who were the masked guests going up and down in the elevator? And why did the hedges shaped like animals seem so alive?
- The Ghost Stories of M.R. James
A frequent addition to collections of ghost stories, Montague Rhodes James was one of the best, switching effortlessly between horrifying creature stories to bone-chilling hauntings and adventure tales with truly terrifying endings. James edges out the more popular classic horror choices (Poe, Lovecraft) for me because his writing is easily readable, he gets straight to the point, and he has a horrible, glorious way of getting under your skin with imagery – a man puts his hand beneath his pillow and feels a hairy face and teeth there, the sole browser of a dusty library shelf turns to reveal eye sockets covered with cobwebs, and you could have sworn the man in that picture was further away yesterday…
- Through the Woods, by Emily Carroll
If Sandman didn’t convince you that graphic novels can leave you looking over your shoulder, Emily Carroll will do the trick. This collection of five dark fairy-tales and nightmare reminiscences are illustrated with eerie innocence by the author, and they’ll leave you with the lingering suspicion that there really might be something under your bed…
For me, Halloween scares are all about the looming dread, the threat of something otherworldly, rather than straight up horror and gore – but that could just be my own unfortunate childhood experiences with horror movies! What are some of your favourite Halloween reads?