Halloween is nigh upon us, and all around—besides the candy and the costumes and the decorations—are recommendations for scary films to watch on Halloween. The Nerd Element did a similar thing last year with our 31 Days of Halloween list which you can find here.
This year, though, we decided to be a little different. We asked several authors of horror fiction—including a return visit from the Queen of Halloween herself, Lisa Morton—to tell us what stories scared them and why. Here are the answers we received from nine authors whose own work has terrified thousands of readers. Perhaps you’ll find something new to read in the dark, under the covers, with naught but a flashlight to illuminate the page and your teddy bear to protect you. Happy shivering!
Peter Atkins, Author/Screenwriter
Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Big Thunder, Rumours of the Marvellous
If you’re talking about being genuinely SCARED by stories, I’d have to go back to when I was 11 or 12 in the late Sixties and was devouring my way through two paperback series in the UK, The Pan Book of Horror Stories and The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. In one volume of the latter I came across “A Woman Seldom Found” by William Sansom (it had first been published about ten years earlier). In, I believe, the tenth volume of the Pan books I discovered “Magical Mystery Trip” by C. A. Cooper. Between them, those two stories sent my pre-adolescent self screaming from the horror genre to the relative safety of Science Fiction until I found my nerve again a couple of years later.
Seeing as it’s Halloween, though, I’d like to cast my vote for a classic that I’m sure will also have been picked by many others: Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was also something I read when I was 12—probably the perfect age to read it—and, although it certainly had its scary moments, it also offered so much more: mystery, magic, and poignancy. Ray is rightfully regarded primarily as a master of the short story, but of his longer works, this to me is the masterpiece. I was lucky enough to get to become friends with Ray in the last decade of his life and I treasure the first edition of Something Wicked that he inscribed to me. Just wish I could go back in time to show it to my 12-year-old self.
Dennis Etchison, Author
The Dark Country, It Only Comes Out At Night & Other Stories, Fine Cuts
The stories “Master of the Hounds” by Algis Budrys and “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury both frightened me—something that doesn’t happen very often when I’m reading. Ramsey Campbell’s novel Obsession definitely gave me a very real chill (as do so many of his short stories).
Budrys’s “Master of the Hounds” truly frightened me. It won a much-deserved Edgar and a place in my anthology, Masters of Darkness. I don’t really understand why it works so well; it builds to a nightmarish moment (the tunnel into the bedroom) that chilled my blood for reasons I can’t articulate. Likewise Ramsey Campbell’s “The End of a Summer’s Day,” which is a story I’d be very proud to have written. Both involve seemingly irrational ideas that come together in powerfully unexpected and horrifying scenes. Perhaps it has something to do with the intersection between the dream state and reality, which is the uncharted territory I’ve tried so many times to reach in my own work. Of course our reactions to such stories are so subjective it’s difficult to predict how many people will be affected in the same way. But judging by the reactions of so many readers to both stories, I’d say the authors found some very sensitive exposed nerves in the human psyche.
Bradbury’s “Zero Hour” did that for me, too, though I can’t remember if I read it before or after hearing the dramatization on the radio series Suspense…tall, blue, terrible shadows indeed! It scared the hell out of me, as did Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion (the hands coming out of the wall) and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (the first appearance of the color red), so much so that I yelled out loud in the movie theaters where I saw them—something that definitely did NOT happen with a wretched film called To Kill A Clown, which claimed to be based upon the Budrys story. Why? I don’t have any answers. My job is to raise the questions. The rest is up to you.
Read more about Dennis Etchison at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Etchison
Glen Hirshberg, Author
Motherless Child, Good Girls, The Two Sams
For me, the scariest stories are the ones that linger. I’m fairly easy to creep out—mostly because I enjoy that feeling, done right, done well, always have—but hard to imprint upon. The story that has haunted me longest—30 + years and counting since I first read it—and imprinted itself in me most deeply is Ramsey Campbell’s “Mackintosh Willy.”
This is Campbell at the absolute zenith of his powers, for me, with ominous imagery piling up like storm clouds on every page, with language that mutters and hisses as its slips not so much past as in. But in addition, this story just twists together so many things that genuinely frighten me: the seemingly bottomless human capacity for cruelty; our species-wide ability to render the homeless invisible, simply by wanting them to be; homelessness, period; unkempt lakes and crumbling shelters in the centers of neglected urban parks at dusk, in rain; flapping newspapers in a long wind; bottlecaps for eyes.
Janet Joyce Holden, Author
Carousel, The Only Red Is Blood, Origins of Blood vampire series
When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, where my grandfather used to read to me from a pile of old, illustrated books. Tales from the Brothers Grimm are what I remember the most, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” in particular. In adulthood, it’s easy to dismiss them as cautionary tales—“Hey, don’t wander off, kids, it’s dangerous out there!” Yet, it was stories such as these that cracked open an imaginary world of dark forests and monsters that has stayed with me ever since. They told me that my eyes could deceive me, and if I strayed from the path, I might stumble upon a world that is vastly different from my own. As a feast for my imagination they were both terrifying and irresistible.
Outside the confines of my grandparents’ kitchen, other stories abounded. For example, just five miles north of my hometown of Burnley (Lancashire, England) is Pendle Hill, home of the Pendle Witches. A little west of the Pennines, the hill dominates the northern horizon. History tells us that ten people from nearby villages, all accused of witchcraft, went to the gallows in 1612. The hill has been surrounded by witchcraft folklore ever since, and for those with a robust constitution, has become an obligatory ascent every year on Hallowe’en.
A few miles further, in all directions, the countryside is scattered with remains—Roman roads, ancient forts, ruined abbeys, and old battlefields. Their attendant ghosts are everywhere, drifting in the fog that clings to the hills, or buried beneath the windswept pasture, all of them wrapped in folklore of their own, waiting to be brought back to life.
Kate Jonez, Author; Chief Editor at Omnium Gatherum
Ceremony of Flies and Candy House
I love scaring and disturbing readers more than just about anything else, which is why I get excited when I discover another writer who feels the same. I found one of my new favorite writers on the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award short list. Alison Littlewood’s The Unquiet House is a tale about dreary and dark Mire House and the young woman who, upon unexpectedly inheriting it, moves in to begin a new life. Like another recent favorite of mine, The Winter’s Bone by Jennifer McMahon, Littlewood weaves through time to reveal the history of the house’s occupants. The weight of history builds, creating a sense of menace and dread that makes what might have been an ordinary haunted house story fresh and new.
Vince A. Liaguno, Author, Editor/Anthologist, and Arts Critic
The Literary Six, Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet, Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film
One of the books that had the most profound influence on my genre initiation—and the one that kept me awake at night growing up—was Jack Ketchum’s contemporary classic of cannibal carnage, Off Season. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of five friends who rent a hillside cabin off the Maine coast—off season, of course—and run afoul of a family of cannibals living nearby. On the surface, it’s a deceptively simple framework but, in Ketchum’s immensely capable hands, Off Season is as biting a commentary on the savagery of modern society as it is a balls-to-the-wall horror novel.
What stays with me all these years later is the unrelenting ferocity of Off Season. Ketchum, even here in his first novel, demonstrates an expertise at pacing and building a steady escalation in narrative rhythm. He takes the time to create characters, both likeable and less likable, who are then pushed beyond the boundaries of human endurance in what they witness and experience at the hands of savages who see them as nothing more than a food source. For me, the horror in Off Season is in the juxtaposition of the five friends–all with identities, personalities, dreams, and an interconnection with the complicated, larger world—against the cannibal clan, pack-like, detached emotionally and devoid of discernible identities, and whose sole purpose is to kill and consume within their primitive microcosm. Two divergent groups of human beings, co-existing until their worlds collide. Through that collision, Ketchum shows us with unyielding clarity the depths of human depravity.
Off Season is a bleak novel; there are no truly happy endings or cozy denouements where Ketchum reveals some hopeful truth about the human condition. An overriding sense of doom permeates each successive page as societal constraints crumble and the characters are pushed to the limits—and then beyond. And then, just to hammer home the message, a little beyond that. Suffice to say that survival of the events in Off Season isn’t painted with rainbows and unicorns. For the reader, Ketchum props literary toothpicks beneath the eyelids forcing us to watch when we’d rather look away. Therein lies the unforgettable horror of Off Season – its merciless propulsion toward a foreseen end, with no way to get off the ride.
Kate Maruyama, Author
Harrowgate, Phantasma: Stories (forthcoming)
I’ve just re-read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. That book creeps up on you. From the first, gorgeous paragraph, you know the characters are going into a house with an evil reputation, so your “Don’t go in there!” voice is working in the early pages and builds to a steady thrum, despite the time it takes for something supernatural to happen. Her genius is getting you inside the thought processes of the characters as they try to logic away what’s happening to them: “That was just a noise,” “I just have a chill,” and that slow, creeping realization that the “nothing” is really something. Jackson takes these moments, builds them to high horror and then turns them on their heads with a final reveal, my favorite example of which being the line, “God God—whose hand was I holding?” The book sneaks up on you, scares you, and then sticks around for a little while after in noises in your own house or the occasional shudder of memory. That end result from a reader is something to strive for as a writer.
Rena Mason, Author/Screenwriter
The Evolutionist, East End Girls
“The Old Nurse’s Story” written by Elizabeth Gaskell, first published in Household Words in 1852, is one of my favorite scary short works. The story was requested from her by Charles Dickens for the Christmas edition of his publication, which makes me admire her even more that she’d write such a story for it.
Gaskell is most known for relaying her political points of view and perspectives on the changing times of the Victorian Era through literary novels such as North and South, Cranford, and Wives and Daughters (also favorites of mine). So when I discovered that she also wrote short stories of mystery and the macabre, my respect for her body of work grew even more.
I suppose the title of the story is what first caught my eye. Since I’m also an R.N., I was immediately partial, and what a lovely surprise for me to find out that it is also a classic, Gothic ghost story. The setting and mood—a cold dark mansion with long halls, creaky floors and doors in winter, that hide secrets—really creates the scene. Then add a ghostly girl child trying to get into the house, playing against the living characters inside. It was an instant hit the first time I read it, and I read it every year for the winter holiday. It still gives me the chills. Even at the end of this story, Gaskell throws in a bit of her view on how something that was “done in youth can never be undone in age!” and will come back to haunt you.
Here’s a free link to the story: https://www.d.umn.edu/~csigler/PDF%20files/Gaskell.pdf. I also think this would make an awesome Guillermo Del Toro movie.
Lisa Morton, Author, Halloween expert
Ghosts: A Haunted History, The Halloween Encyclopedia, Malediction
I’m going to go with a short story by Dennis Etchison, “The Dog Park.” The story is a little masterpiece of horror because of the way it builds dread, but it also does something that I wish more horror tales did: it bases its darkness in part on class, with a sort of unnamed terror emanating from the very rich. And it doesn’t hurt for me, a native Angeleno, that it also perfectly nails the L.A. canyon milieu. It’s one of the Etchison stories that really fueled my own desire to write horror fiction.
All photos used with permission of the author and/or photographer