“‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to the world.“
Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales writes that children work out their fears when being told dark stories of abandonment, death, witches, ghosts, and goblins. Even adults have fears that need dealing with. As Jennifer Smith Miller points out in her blog, “Becoming practiced at dealing with fears means remaining their master, not their servant.” What better way to practice dealing with fear than reading a scary book? This Halloween stay awake–and then pull the covers over your head–with one of these terrifying tales.
- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820). One autumn evening in the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow near the Dutch-settled village of Tarry Town, New York, local schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is terrified by the ghost of a Hessian soldier who rides around on horseback without his head. America’s first ghost story, Sleepy Hollow is still one of the most delightful.
- The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe (1839). The master of the macabre tells the story of Roderick Usher, holed up in his family’s decaying mansion and dying under the spell of a family curse. This Gothic story is regarded as Poe’s finest work.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891). Wishing to remain forever young (who isn’t?), Dorian Gray sells his soul so that his portrait–and not he–ages. Dorian lives a hedonistic, sinful life, his beauty undisturbed, while every sin takes its toll on his painting. Wilde’s only novella is an inspiring departure from his comedic plays.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). This masterpiece of the vampire genre introduces Count Dracula who moves from his castle in Transylvania to England in search of fresh blood. Get out your garlic and crosses when you read this one: Like countless readers for over a century, you’ll be completely captivated by the Count.
- Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James (1904). Book devotee William Ambler writes, “James’s protagonists have an uncanny knack for finding exactly the moldy text or dusty antique that will engender a supernatural manifestation in the nearest drawing room, library, or abandoned abbey.” These spooky stories, among the best ever written, will send chills up your spine.
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939). Ten strangers, all of whom have been involved in the death of someone else, are lured to an island off the coast of England for a holiday. A gramophone record informs them they are on the island to pay for their crimes. There is no way off the island, and one by one they are murdered. Christie’s best mystery unveils the killer in a confessional postscript.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). From the accomplished author of “The Lottery,” this psychological thriller tells the story of four people who have come to an abandoned ruin of a mansion looking for proof of the supernatural. According to the Wall Street Journal, The Haunting of Hill House is the greatest haunted house story ever written.
- The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (1973). Though not published until the 1970s, the stories in this collection were written between 1904 and 1937. Edith Wharton said that she was so afraid of ghosts “till I was twenty-seven or -eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost story.” She overcame her fear and mastered the art of the ghost story. A great read if you enjoy stories set in spooky old New England.
- Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975). Ben Mears returns to his hometown to seek inspiration for his new book. He soon realizes that something sinister is afoot in his old stomping grounds. Stephen King has said that of all his books Salem’s Lot is his favorite.
- Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979). Four elderly men, haunted by a rash act in their youth, discover they cannot escape their past. Before all is said and done they will pay for their past indiscretions. Stephen King says Ghost Story “is the best of the supernatural novels” of the late twentieth century. This is certainly my favorite ghost story.
- The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983). In a small English town the appearance of a veiled apparition signals the death of the town’s children. The Woman in Black is a truly frightening ghost story with a sublimely terrifying ending.
- Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995). Gillian and Sally Owens grew up in an old New England house amid witchcraft and black cats. Watching their aunts concoct love potions for desperate women in love they vow never to be desperate in love themselves. Though they try to escape, fate brings them back with a dead body they need magic to dispose of. I love Alice Hoffman’s charming stories of magic and the supernatural.
- The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan (1997). A spiteful old woman, Kate Batts believed she had been cheated out of her land by John Bell, so after death she haunts him and his family. The Bell Witch is the “true” story of Old Kate, the only documented ghost in America to cause a man’s death.
Leave a comment to share your own favorite spine-tingling stories of the supernatural and have a wonderfully spooky Halloween.
–Judith Barker and Bonnie James
And Then There Were None was the book I read for my ending test when I took my speed reading course decades ago. Still remember it!
Love it; just the short descriptions scare me.