Scary books, the good kind of scary, are magical—they make us feel things, we read them for hours under the covers at night, unable to stop, and when we finally do are sleepless for hours, tossing and turning in that delicious pleasurable fantasy-fear. Like fans of horror movies, fans of scary books are not really scared, not real-life scared; we're instead enjoying the goosebumps and sense of danger and horror and adventure; the literary "yikes!" the books beget. It's all pretend, and that makes the scariness safe, even as it's terrifying. The best of all the scary books, I think, are the ones we read as kids, those stories that cemented our appetites for thrills and chills and also helped jumpstart our imaginations. Good-scary is different for everyone—for me, Flowers in the Attic was pretty harrowing, in way I couldn't put down, and I loved the creepy vibe of The Girl With the Silver Eyes.
In the lead-up to that scariest of holidays (no, not Thanksgiving with the family), I canvassed some of our favorite authors and writers and book lovers for a trip down Memory OMG I AM SLEEPING WITH ALL THE LIGHTS ON Lane—to find out their favorites in scary, old and new.
Gitty Daneshvari, author of the School of Fear series, confides that fear is in her nature. "If had I been given business cards as a child they would have read 'Gitty Daneshvari—Professional Neurotic: Worrying so that others don’t have to,'" she told me. "Pretty much from the time I can remember I was concerned about everything from being poisoned by Windex to being kidnapped at the health food store (my parents were big proponents of carob chip cookies) to my stuffed animals coming to life to so much more." Her School of Fear books were born when she thought about much easier her life would have been had she gone to a special school that made her face her childhood fears. The four main characters in School of Fear have her greatest childhood phobias—"thanatophobia (fear of death), claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), thalassophobia (fear of the ocean), and entomophobia/arachnophobia (fear of bugs/spiders). Of these four only one remains today," she says, "occasionally prompting me to spray Raid in my hair before bed. With this in mind I choose Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as the scariest book I have ever read."
R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street Series (and more) as well as the new adult horror novel, Red Rain, admitted, "The reading material that scared me the most when I was a kid were the EC Comics books, Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. I had to read them at the barbershop because my mom wouldn't allow them in the house. I got a haircut every Saturday morning so I could read those creepy comics. As an adult, a book that lingers in my mind and I found truly terrifying was Stephen King's Pet Semetary. For me, the premise of that book is brilliantly scary." Stine added, "I think the appeal of horror novels is the surprises. The plots are not linear. There are twists and shocks that jump out at you and keep you guessing."
Aimee Friedman, Scholastic editor and best-selling teen author, offered up the following scary-book favorites: "The House with a Clock in its Walls, by John Bellairs. Gothic, creepy, and rich on atmosphere and mystery. This book haunted me for days—well, more like years—after reading it. The Ghost Wore Gray, by Bruce Coville. Spine-tingling, often funny, and perfectly geared toward 11-year-old girls, this book gave me a sort-of crush on the ghost of the handsome Confederate soldier. And, the entire Y.A. oeuvre of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. Those books were fiendishly clever in the vein of teen slasher flicks—gruesome deaths, cursed cheerleaders, high school pranks that take a terrible turn. And they still hold up today!"
Margot Wood, the creator of the blog The Real Fauxtographer, which features photos inspired by Y.A. novels, said, "It's rare for a book to 'scare' me these days, but there are some I've read recently that did creep me out or at least leave me horribly disturbed. As a teen, a book that scared me was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Shwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell." Wood says, "The stories and illustrations in this anthology were genuinely bizarre and creepy. There's one story about spiders laying eggs into a girl's cheek—and then they hatch. To this day I am beyond terrified of that happening in real life." She also mentioned Stine's Goosebumps books, in particular Night of the Living Dummy (Goosebumps #7) "about a sadistic, ventriloquist dummy that comes to life and tries to kill the family dog. That is disturbing on so many levels." More recent scary reads for her were The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan—for a "slow, pulsing terror that wracks your nerves and destroys any hope you have that the characters will eventually catch a break," leaving you "with disturbing images in your head for days and weeks after finishing." (Photo series shot here.) She added Rotters by Daniel Kraus—"one of the most gross-out, disgusting books that makes you feel like you need to take a never-ending shower afterwards" (it's about grave-robbing) and Anna Dressed in Blood (also in her photo series) by Kendare Blake.
Nicole Cliffe, books editor at the Hairpin and writer of The Awl's Classic Trash series, said the scariest book she read as a kid was a book for adults: "Okay, not to bring the conversation down, but my parents had Gerald Astor's The Last Nazi: The Life and Times of Joseph Mengele, which, I'm sorry, if you're not going to let me watch The Simpsons because 'it's so crude,' maybe I should not have had unfettered bookshelf access? No, I'm actually really pleased to have had unfettered bookshelf access, but I most definitely dressed super-fast after getting out of the bathtub every time because IF I WAS SUDDENLY TAKEN TO A DEATH CAMP, I should be warmly clothed. Seriously, parents? Rachel Shukert has a great essay on this phenomenon in Have You No Shame? which explains how much of our generation may have spent far too much time pondering where we would hide our radios and so forth. And, you know, if the Irish-Canadian children are concerned, the actual Jewish children must have been gibbering with fear."
C. Alexander London, author of the Accidental Adventure series, says, "As a kid I loved the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. Stephen Gammell's original illustrations haunt me still. I also read Stephen King's IT way too young and have forever remained afraid of both clowns and sewers because of it, but the gore and the terror hooked me on reading. Even the parts I didn't understand suggested the lurking terror that comes with growing up. And lastly, the combo of Peter Benchley's Jaws and Christopher Pike's Bury Me Deep, both read in 6th grade, gave me a healthy fear of great white sharks and teenaged SCUBA instructors."
Rita Meade, Brooklyn children's librarian, gave a third shout-out to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. "I LOVED that book when I was a kid. The stories were frightfully fun, but the hauntingly creepy illustrations by Stephen Gammell were the scariest part, I think." Sadly, those illustrations have gotten a revamp—were things just scarier back in the old days?
Beth Kephart, author of Small Damages, mentioned Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. "Deeply disturbing to me when I read it as a young teen, still a source of acute tremble as I grow older (and older)," she says. "There is no possible happy ending in this story. It sheds a bright light on the things we often try not to see—the treatment of people who are different, the sometimes unfair premium we place on 'intelligence.' It was a book that I read wanting desperately to change the outcome, and yet, there could have only been one outcome. Yes, it freaked me out."
Sandie Angulo Chen, who runs the blog Teen Lit Rocks, recommended a more recent book—The Diviners by Libba Bray. "Despite being set in the Roaring Twenties, the mood is most definitely not all flapper dresses and fascinators. It's like the darkness of David Fincher's Seven meets the 'some people are chosen' premise of Heroes. I was viscerally frightened every time the villain was about to kill another victim. It was so spooky I had to set it aside for a bit—which is saying a lot, since it's an un-put-downable read."
Katie J.M. Baker, Jezebel staff writer, says, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is my all-time favorite scary book. I bought it in the kid's section when I was younger because that's where they sold it, but I'm not sure if it's actually supposed to be for children. It's soo deliciously creepy. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike. I love The Girl With the Silver Eyes, by the way. Also: The Witches. Kind of an obvious one?"
Obvious doesn't matter, as long as it's scary. Good scary. Happy Halloween reading.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.