Plus, a few spine-tingling tales to try-- if you dare!
While a real-life bump in the middle of the night would terrify many of us, reading about ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural creatures can be a delightful fright!
I love all things autumn, and I love Halloween, but my feelings about the horror genre are a bit more mixed. I'm not a fan of scary movies (too much gore), and I've never read a single Stephen King novel. However, I think a creepy ghost story can be just frightening enough to be fun and still let me sleep at night. I well remember telling ghostly tales at slumber parties with friends and being perfectly petrified by members of the Midnight Society who appeared each week on the Nickelodeon show Are You Afraid of the Dark? in the early '90s. Now as an adult, I still like to read a few ghost stories every October just to get into the "spirit" of the Halloween season.
But why do we like ghost stories? Why are they a mainstay of literature across cultures and generations? The answer, it seems, is both science and myth. Whenever we dive into a book, of any genre, we engage in what the writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed the "suspension of disbelief." Even though we know we are just reading words on a page, we allow ourselves to accept that the story is truly happening so that we can enjoy the experience. This is how we can get lost in a story or transported to another place and time just by reading a book. We can engage in suspension of disbelief whenever we read fiction, but it's particularly important when reading ghost tales or other supernatural stories. This feature of our minds lets us temporarily accept what we're reading as true without asking too many critical or logical questions that might otherwise spoil the frightful fun.
As for why we're so willing to feel fear, that's all in our heads as well. As explained in this article from the University of Southern California, a scare with a quick reassurance of safety releases endorphins and dopamine in our bodies, so being petrified feels pleasurable. We can get that feeling over and over with each new fright and without ever risking any real harm.
Ghost stories also play a role in shaping and reflecting culture. Some stories serve as cautionary tales, instilling moral codes or standards of behavior. Get out of line, and the monster will get you! However, ghosts and otherworldly creatures are also symbols of our collective and cultural fears. They are specters of society's anxieties and unspoken terror. In his article for the New York Times (read it here), Parul Sehgal beautifully describes ghost stories as "social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs."
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If you're ready to set your nerves on edge, I have a few recommendations.
A beloved teacher introduced me to the work of Edgar Allan Poe when I was in 9th grade. I had never read anything like his poetry and short stories and was immediately captivated. Poe was a troubled man to be sure; he was also a master of his craft who transformed the horror genre in his day. Every October, I like to pull out a volume of Poe's collected works and immerse myself in his dark tales and poems. "The Raven" is, of course, one of my many favorites. You may be familiar with his stories like "Black Cat" or "The Tell-Tale Heart." Those are great, but I'd also suggest Poe's "Ligeia" and "A Descent into the Maelstrom."
A recent retelling of one of Poe's most famous works brought new life to a classic terror tale. What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher expands on Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher." In this version, readers meet Alex Easton, a retired soldier and childhood friend of the ailing Madeline Usher. When they race to the Usher estate, they quickly discover that far more than a simple illness is sweeping through the decaying home-- and may consume them all. I reveled in some deliciously creepy scenes in this short novella.
I'm a big fan of the 2019 children's horror fiction Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker, illustrated by Junyi Wu. This award-winning book is about two young fox kits who are separated from their litters and must fight for survival against dangers and evils of all kinds. The story comes alive through a collection of intertwined short stories told campfire-style to a dwindling number of fox kits. I found this book to be a surprisingly sophisticated middle grade novel! The rich, descriptive, and spooky language captivated me. You'll find danger, adventure, action, and horror in the pages alongside kindness, humor, friendship and resilience. This book is imaginatively told through the perspective of its fox characters, adding to its unique storytelling. Be aware, however, there are incidents of bullying, violence, and death so be prepared. If you enjoy this one, you may also want to read its companion book, Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City, which came out in 2021.
I'm still shivering from reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. This masterpiece of gothic horror truly terrified! The 1959 novel is considered one of the best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century. Four people arrive at the reportedly haunted house, planning to investigate the supernatural claims. But the house itself seems to have plans of its own for those who dared to enter within its walls. This book was delightfully spooky... so much so that I had to put it down a couple of times and regroup after some particularly intense scenes. Still, I would absolutely read this one again!
You can now return to Hill House for the first time with the brand new novel A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand. Shirley Jackson's estate authorized Hand's new novel which takes us back inside the gothic mansion with a new cast of characters. A struggling playwright, her girlfriend, and a troupe of actors retreat to Hill House to rehearse a new play. Soon... strange sounds echo, strange creatures appear, and the house itself seems to be following its own script. This book is jumping to the top of my TBR list!
There's also the classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This old novella (about a hundred pages) got new life and attention because of the Netflix loose adaptation "The Haunting of Bly Manor." This gothic ghost story is about a governess caring for two children who comes to believe the estate is haunted. Creepy house? Check. Creepy children? Yep. A narrator who may or may not have her wits about her? You bet.
Canadian author L.M. Montgomery is best known for writing the Anne of Green Gables series, but the irrepressible Anne might feel lost walking Among the Shadows: Tales from the Darker Side. This is a collection of 19 short stories written by Montgomery. Some are ghost stories, and some deal with vices and crimes found in the real world. I very much enjoy these stories. This collection shows some of Montgomery's range and depth and is worth exploring, especially if you only know the author from her sunnier works.
Finally, if you're looking for something just a bit different, let me suggest another book where a ghost plays a pivotal role in the life of a troubled family. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a 2017 National Book Award winner by Jesmyn Ward. A family is haunted by the past and scared of the uncertainty of the future-- and then the ghost appears. It's not a typical ghost story. This book deals with issues of race, poverty, injustice, addiction, and love. Told mostly through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, I thought Sing, Unburied, Sing was a well-written story of the struggle to overcome the limits placed on you by society, the past, and your own choices. It's haunting in an entirely different way.
Do you like ghost stories? How will you be scaring yourself with a suspension of disbelief this October? Tell me in the comments! Or if you prefer a scare-free read for your family, check out my top fall picks for kids here.
Best wishes for further reading!
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