On Hallowe’en this writer’s thoughts turn to books that were particularly harrowing as I read them. Stephen King’s The Shining is one many mention, as is Wm Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. But for me, there are three that are foremost when I think of spooky stories that have had a lasting effect since I read them.
There’s no question that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is one that has spawned legions of films, costumes and fans. Originally written in 1816 when a rain and storms kept the young woman and her not-yet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, plus Lord Bryon, his mistress, and another friend confined to the villa they rented in Switzerland one summer, they challenged each other to write a ghost story. Percy Shelley later encouraged Mary to expand her original short story on reanimation, and the novel was published in 1818, the year of their marriage.
The tale of the monster brought back to life was spurred by a dream that Mary herself recounted in the 1831 re-release of the book: “Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
Many have called Frankenstein the first science fiction story, but Mary herself called it a ghost story. It is often noted that just as The Thin Man does not refer to the detective in the first book, Frankenstein is the scientist, not the re-created monster., who is often known by that name.
Shirley Jackson’s horror and mystery writing encompasses more than 200 short stories–“The Lottery” is probably one taught in many schools—but she also wrote six novels and The Haunting of Hill House is the one that I think of when time and time again.
Alternating two timelines, we follow five adult siblings whose paranormal experiences at Hill House continue to haunt them in the present day. Flashbacks depict the events that led to the eventful night when the family fled from their mansion. Fear is the theme here.
It’s a combination of everything fearful and weird, and in contrast to the movie version, does not bring ghosts to the forefront. It still gives me the willies.
And my third choice for scary book would be one perhaps less well-known, that nevertheless left a lasting impression on me: Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon.
Fleeing the big city for his asthmatic daughter to a remote Connecticut country village, Ned Constantine finds a place with Colonial origins where the villagers adhere to what they call “the old ways”, which includes a ritual called Harvest Home and occurs every seven years.
It’s difficult to explain the plot if you haven’t read the book without giving too much away. Suffice it to say, the town of Cornwall Coombe is not what Ned thought he was bringing his family to when they escaped the city…many twists as the book nears its keep the tension high. This is not a great literary book, but rather one that horrifies on many levels.
Tell me, readers, what was one of the scariest books you’ve ever read?