LOOK BEYOND THE CANDY AND COSTUMES — Halloween is a storyteller’s holiday. We fear the witch, the goblin, the ghost, because of the stories we associate with them. Who doesn’t remember a resonant tale or two from childhood? What gave you a bigger fright: the reveal of the monster from behind the cellar door, or the creak of a floorboard beneath an approaching step? We learned (when we tried to retell the scariest ones) that the telling is as significant as the tale itself. In honor of this unique holiday, we’ve asked a few of our contributors to share some of their favorite terrifying stories. The titles in our Halloween Fiction Roundtable are far-reaching and guaranteed to give chills. So fire up the jack-o'-lantern, grab a fistful of candy, and let the storytelling begin.
Are there any ghosts in “The Beast in the Jungle”? Probably not, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. Like The Ambassadors, with which it shares a theme, and like “The Jolly Corner,” to name just one of James’s arguable ghost stories (I say “arguable” because, well, no one can agree on just how supernatural most of these stories actually are), it involves a man coming face to face with something that isn’t there. Which, in the age of Paranormal Activity as in the age of Wilkie Collins, might seem an awfully tame premise. Especially when the thing in question isn’t the apparition of his own alternate self (as in “The Jolly Corner”) or some scandalous affair between an older woman and a younger man: no, the thing for which John Marcher awaits, the titular beast that is “prodigious and terrible” in anticipation and “huge and hideous” when it arrives — well, if you’ve never read it, I won’t wreck it for you. But no matter how many times I read this story (as with all of James), the less and less settled I become in my understanding of it. “The Beast in the Jungle” is frightening, yes (more so the older I get), but with each read it becomes more bracing, more exhilarating: I align as much with the threat as I do with the victim. This revelation, the effect of Henry James’s unique genius, is the most appalling, the most horrifying, the most bestial thing of all.
As any of my current students and closest friends will tell you, I am obsessed with House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski because it is complex, poetic and, in spite of all this, a page-turner. I say “in spite of” because the endless footnotes, invented “quotes” and sources, parallel story lines and appendices can be confusing and even off-putting to some readers. But the psychological horror story, about a photo-journalist named Navidson and his family and friends vs. a house that continues to grow and expand in terrifying ways, keeps the reader deeply engaged and able to face the challenge of the book’s structure in order to find out what happens next. The sub-plot of Johnny Truant, a bar-hopping Hollywood lost boy, may appear to be slightly less riveting at first, but is ultimately equal...read more