5 ghostly reads for Halloween
Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn recommends some of her favorite scary books for the dark season.
Seattle Times book editor
What is it about October that conjures up fears of ghosts, spirits and, that ultimate scary monster, Death? Maybe it’s the waning light. The bittersweet beauty of blazing foliage, soon to be snuffed out. The certainty that spring is a very, very long way away.
It’s around this time that I start looking for scary stories to recommend so you, dear reader, can scare yourself witless as well. I don’t like horror much. Better the suggestion of something let loose in the house, disturbed by the living, who open doors much better left alone.
Let’s retire the classics — Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Open Window” by Saki, and anything by Stephen King (though “The Shining” might be the scariest story of all time). Here’s a list:
“Collected Ghost Stories” by M.R. James, edited and with an introduction by Darryl Jones (Oxford World Classics). A renowned classics scholar and professional antiquarian, Monty James was born in 1862. He held several distinguished posts, including dean of King’s College at Cambridge, director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and provost at Eton. To entertain himself and his friends he told ghost stories, frequently on Christmas Eve, and later collected them in several books.
To read through these dense and textured tales is to step back in time — not just James’ time, but even earlier, to a primitive England when it festered with willful and malignant spirits. James’ ancient ghosts are often released by modern disturbance. A cathedral gets a makeover, a garden is restored, a page falls out of an old book ... the portal is pried open, and demons are released. Try out “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Leave the lights on.
“The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill (Vintage). This 1983 classic by Hill, a British writer of crime fiction, so seized the public imagination that it inspired both a play and a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. A young attorney goes to an English seaside town to settle an estate, and encounters a malevolent spirit whose appearance presages the death of children. Why would any sane person spend the night in an abandoned manse called Eel Marsh House? Despite numerous and explicit warnings, Arthur Kipps insists, and a terrible story from the past is revealed.
“The Small Hand and Dolly” by Susan Hill (Vintage). This collection of two novellas, also by Hill, has just been released in this country. Of the two, “The Small Hand,” is by far the scariest. A rare-book dealer is inexplicably drawn to a remote house in the English countryside, and there he feels an invisible, small hand slip into his own: “It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there, and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them.” This is a hand that will not let go.
“Dolly” is a story of an orphaned boy, his damaged cousin and her dolls, rustling in their wrapping, demanding with eerie insistence that their stories be told.
“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics). This 1959 novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. A paranormal investigator and his assistants travel to a remote house to try to gather proof of supernatural doings. One sensitive young woman, Eleanor, seems to see things others don’t — is Eleanor crazy, or is the house beginning to possess her?
Finally, for a groaning feast of ghost stories go to (Vintage), edited by Otto Penzler.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.