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 equally terrifying and compelling as Johnny becomes obsessed with and almost destroyed by the story of the house. The reader is pulled along with the characters as they suffer through abandonment, addiction, insanity, accidents, and the death of loved ones. But what is even more fascinating about this book is how it has captured the minds of so many people who continue to puzzle over its intricate story line. Endless chats are dedicated to understanding House of Leaves. For example, there are many interpretations of the theme of Danielewski’s book. For me, as much as it is a horror story, House of Leaves is a love story. It gave me chills but at the end I was grateful for the cathartic tears it evoked. After all, isn’t the best, sexiest part of being scared getting to melt those goose bumps with the person (or book) you love?
Never been a fan of Halloween, never had the urge to seek out frights; our world already feels too overcrowded with grotesques, too overheated with illusion. Compared to those blinking, blanched faces we see grimacing and seething on Fox & Friends, how scary can fiction even be? Whose imagination could beat the horrors of the fracking and the drone attacks in our ever-warming atmosphere? But maybe I’m just too sensitive. Come to think of it, I’m definitely too sensitive. For me, the moments when I first held the book were always the most terrifying part, that potent potential even before the first page. When I was young, standing amid the long, quiet library rows, simply fingering the spine of The Shining or The Dead Zone was a formidable experience.
The genre never even mattered; terror lay in every volume. The teacher stroking Holden’s hair in Catcher in the Rye freaked me out; the bleak lives of the townspeople in The Last Picture Show were far worse than any zombie attacks. The dissolving landscape in Cheever’s “The Swimmer” filled me with a breathless anxiety. Then there are the dark, venal visions of America spewed across Hunter S. Thompson’s work. Funny, yes, but since comedy, technically, is the overcoming of adversity, that in turn involves a kind of horror. Sedaris even titled a book When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I think P.G. Wodehouse is the only thing that doesn’t scare me — but, come to think of it, I’m sure you could see Jeeves in a sinister light. He does loom and move in mysterious ways.
Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird is not only the scariest book I’ve ever read, it’s also the best war novel I know. The experiences of a young child trying to stay alive in Eastern Europe during World War II are horrifying; they’ll stay with you and emerge with uncanny force in your most vulnerable moments. The unnamed boy hides from ever-changing armies and aggressors and ends up in war-infested provinces, where superstition, fear, and centuries-old hatred have warped bodies and souls. A man takes one of his captured birds and paints its feathers in different colors. When he releases the bird to join the flock, it is attacked by its kin and killed. It is the “other” the villages despise; the “other” has to be tortured and killed for the community’s sake. Take off civilization’s flimsy cloak, and underneath you will find demons, nightmares, gnarled hands reaching to tear out the one thing that you hold dear; you will find yourself tearing up any shred of hope it could be otherwise. And yet, despite the atrocities, Kosinski’s language is the one thing that makes what we encounter bearable. It doesn’t soothe, it never looks away, and yet, whenever I re-read the book, I can’t help but feel a strange kind of solace. If a writer can be so open-eyed and merciless, and yet find the true words for the meanest and lowest acts, maybe there is hope after all.
The scariest stories I ever read were in Alfred Hitchcock's collections for young readers — and what the heck were they doing, publishing "The Birds" for kids like me? I was seven when someone gave me this book; the stories terrified me, and I read them over and over. I learned to be afraid of crows (which are everywhere in Southern California), with their beaks like black ice picks that could pierce my skull. I learned to fear men after reading "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," which gave me nightmares about walking at night, about alleys, and about fog. I learned that rich people might hunt, trap, and kill (in elaborate and tortuous fashion) poorer people in "The Most Dangerous Game," and subsequently feared anyone dressed in safari clothing or hats (even Marlon Perkins who hosted the television show “Wild Kingdom”). And worst of all, I became terrified of bathtubs. Hitchcock’s stories often featured men who died underwater after being secretly poisoned, or women who were yanked up by their feet and drowned. We had no shower at my house, and my four siblings and I all took baths. I kept my eye on everyone. My siblings and parents thought I was nuts. I still have that book. The cover is still eerie. And I still read the stories, now and then, and eye the crows warily when they nest in the palm trees along my sidewalk.