Although you'll never catch me at a midnight screening of Resident Evil Dead 18: Gremlin vs. Werewolf, occasionally I want to enter that land of terror- on my terms, of course- and dwell for a while with the beings on the other side.
A few years ago, while cleaning out my childhood home, I came across a tightly wrapped bundle of ripped sheets, held together with hardened rubber bands. The mysterious package had been stashed in a remote corner of my older sister's closet, behind rolls of dated wallpaper and a Trivial Pursuit set featuring tidbits about the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
I unwrapped the package, laboriously, as time and small fingers had tightened the many knots into a Gordian creation. Inside, bent slightly from its years in solitary confinement, was a children's paperback novel whose name escapes me now. Let's just say it was in the caliber of R.L. Stein, but from an off-brand publisher.
I actually dropped the book in fear, the presence of this slender tome propelling me backwards through memory to a time when I still dotted the “i” in my name with a paw print. My memory of the plot is vague- and there was no way in hell that I was going to reread it then- but I do vividly remember the novel's climax. The foolish antiquarian, ignoring the warnings of the superstitious locals and his plucky assistant, had transported the mummy from its hallowed resting place in the Valley of the Kings to his British castle, where it had, of course, come alive. I remember the hero (or was it a heroine?) hiding in the topmost tower as the mummy made its lurching progress up the spiral staircase.
I don't even think I finished this book, being too terrified by the progression of events to read further. Instead, I bundled up the book and stashed it in my sister's room. Better that she be haunted by whatever evil spirit clearly resided within its leaves.
Somehow, now that I am past the age of novelty tittles, I want to return to that horror, now and again, although it's been quite some time since I tried to deflect a mummy's curse onto my big sister. I invite you to join me, as the days shorten and we near that frightful day when the boundaries are made permeable between the realms, in a celebration of the macabre.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Nearly 80 years after the publication of Mary Shelley's groundbreaking Frankenstein, Dracula cemented itself in the collective adrenal gland, and is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Gothic literature. The tradition of Gothicism, pioneered by writers like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, grew out of the Romantic artistic movement. Romanticism had opened up art to swelling feelings, natural settings, and the unknowable abyss of the human soul. Gothic artists wrapped these sensibilities in shadowy cobwebs, delighting in rendering feelings of terror and encounters with supernatural beings which often took place within decrepit castles and upon deserted moors.
Bram Stoker, himself an Irish immigrant to England during a period of particular strife between the two nations, combined the tenets of Gothicism with cutting-edge technology and the popular isolationist sentiment that was the natural backlash to the border-expanding colonialism of the Victorian Era. Although Count Dracula is now an oft-reproduced character, if you haven't read the original, you're missing the real deal, perverse enough to spawn a thousand imitations.
Because the tale is so frequently reproduced, I erroneously believed that I knew this story well. However, many of the modern retellings fail to capture some of the most compelling aspects of the story. The book is composed as a literary documentary, containing diary entries, letters, physician's notes, and newly invented telegraphs, as the book's central characters Jonathan, Mina, Lucy, Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing encounter the beast. I've yet to see this storytelling technique replicated with the same level of success. A relic of the medical arts of the day, Stoker depicts the new technique of blood transfusions, as well as the timely fascination with psychosis and mental asylums. These details elevate the story from the simple (although delightful) vampiric tale, adding delicious complexity.
A disclaimer: I am a rational and usually brave woman. While reading this book in college, I was twice too afraid to walk home, and consequently spent uneasy nights sleeping on the library's sofa rather than face the darkness. It's that good.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)
Gaiman, the long-revered master of his particular blend of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, is at his best in his most recent novel, which was selected as last year's book of the year by the British National Book Awards.
Using the framing device of a middle-aged man recalling his childhood, Gaiman's seven-year-old protagonist inhabits a seemingly bucolic English countryside until it is disrupted by a South African lodger's suicide in the family car. This death opens up a rent between a magical world and our own, a boundary which is policed by three generations of Hempstock women who are not quite human.
The bare outlines of the story-- a reclusive, quiet child, somewhat absent parents, an evil nanny-- are familiar, but executed freshly. An internal theme of the story, the cliched childhood stories from mid-century Britain which the protagonist inhales with abandon, is cleverly and subtly mirrored in the external plot of the story.
Much of the magic of this slender novel is found in Gaiman's mastering of his craft. Here, a grotesque removal of a supernatural parasite from the protagonist's foot juxtaposes a killed kitten rendered in tragic, straightforward prose that would be at home in an Erdich novel. This is Gaiman's best technique- the seamless blend of great writing and supernatural elements that's almost evocative of magical realism writing techniques, distinct in the pivotal role the supernatural plays in the story.
The mythology tangible, a nanny's seduction of the father curiously detached as seen through a child's eyes, and a horrific attempted drowning mercilessly rendered, this book is worth the hype and awards that have been lavished upon it.
And more briefly noted:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Although I'd be one to argue that McCarthy's Border Trilogy is just as dark as his foray into post-apocalyptic wasteland, The Road deserves a mention on this list of horrifying reads. Roughly a decade after an undefined apocalyptic event, a man and his son traverse a bleak landscape haunted by their dreams and cannibals alike. McCarthy strips down his already sparse prose, distilling his storytelling into simple, yet powerful, dialogue and narration. Here, paternal love is no match for the horror of anarchy and destruction in the ashy remains of the world.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (written c.1799, published 1817)
The heroine of Austen's first completed but published posthumously novel, Catherine Moreland, delights in two things: romantic intrigues with young men and Gothic novels. (Preference, I'll admit, the two of us share.) The novel follows the young woman from her modest home to the stylish spa town of Bath, where the common focus is forming a prosperous engagement. Fate takes her to the novel's titular location, a sprawling property reminiscent of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolfo, Catherine's absolute favorite book. Northanger Abbey walks the line between admonishing Gothic Romance as a silly genre and celebrating its form and sensibilities. Like much of Austen's work, nuanced sociopolitical, artistic, and cultural critiques are woven throughout the surface-level soap opera.
The Graveyard Book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell (2008)
A second Gaiman inclusion in this list, for no better reason than because this young adult novel is so distinct from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Don't be deceived by the youthful label. This coming of age story begins with grim murder (including the murder of a child), and most of the characters are dead or the distinct category of “not alive.” Told in a series of short stories set two years apart, we follow Nobody Owens from orphaned toddlerhood when he wanders into a graveyard and is adopted by ghosts, through teenager years when he must confront his family's murderer. Peppered with Edward Gorey-esque illustrations, The Graveyard Book sparkles with wit, danger, and darn good adventure writing.
The Witches written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake (1983)
Excepting that awful mummy book that so terrified me as kid, The Witches is maybe the most frightening children't book ever written. Young Luke Eveshim and his grandmother, while on holiday at a seaside hotel, find themselves in the middle of a convention of witches, each more intent on gobbling up small children than the next. Relying on his grandmother's knowledge of folklore to guide him, Luke must navigate this mortal danger. What strikes me, looking back at this book from childhood, is the ending. I won't give anything away, but everything isn't ok at story's close. Roald Dahl was never afraid of dark themes like child abuse, violence, and death, and it's partly this refusal to cater to children's supposed delicate sensibilities that earns his work such respect.