Spooky Books: one mystery writer’s take

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?



MIss Demeanors


Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries. Her story “Quiche Alain” appears in the Anthony-winning Malice Domestic Anthology, Murder Most Edible.  Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press, she’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Triangle SinC, Mavens of Mayhem SinC, the NC Writers Network, and the International Crime Writers Association.


  1. The scariest book I ever read was Helter Skelter, a horrifying account of the Charles Manson murders. What made it so terrifying to me was that it was real. That human beings could behave so atrociously scared me more than any fiction I’ve read.

  2. The haunting of hill house scared me to death, and just the title alone still makes me uneasy. And yes, Hester Skelter was also horrifying. The Other was terrifying. In general, I hate scary books because they never leave me.

  3. I recently reread The Lottery with my class, and that continues to horrify me. Also Stephen King’s It. I still can’t walk by a drain without thinking about it. Helter Skelter horrified me and also Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. That was terrifying.

  4. The Exorcist. I read when I was about 11 or 12 and I thought it was real and that an evil spirit could possess me at any moment!

  5. The scariest book I ever read was by a well-known author I won’t name. I was so terrified by the pure evil portrayed that I put the book down and have never read another by that author. Just me.

  6. I’ve never been interested in scary books. But there is a type of mystery that scares me. I avoid mysteries where the reader is in the head of a serial killer who is killing women (the majority of them) and torturing them.

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