Get spooked by these scary stories recommended by NPR Books' Petra Mayer
It’s that time of year when a lot of us are looking for a thrill — a good scary story just in time for Halloween.
Petra Mayer of NPR Books shares a few favorites:
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz
Continuing the theme of things that terrified readers of a certain age when they were kids, this is the all-time classic. The stories themselves are pretty standard campfire scares and urban legends (“High Beams,” anyone?), but — and this is crucial — get either the original edition or the 2017 reissue, because what makes “Scary Stories” actually scary are the absolute nightmare fuel illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
They’re blotchy, scratchy black and white, and they look corrupted and rotting and as horrifying as any illustration you’ve ever seen. “Scary Stories” was reissued in 2011 with cutesy illustrations by Brett Helquist, who’s most known for doing the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, and there was such an outcry that the publisher brought back the Gammell illustrations for the new edition.
“Through the Woods” by Emily Carroll
This is an absolutely gorgeous book that will send shivers down your spine. Emily Carroll did a lot of the art in a very limited palette — black and white, blood red and icy blue, sometimes a little yellow just to shock, and just the visuals alone will make you feel like you’re trapped in a little house in the woods, and something terrible is either just outside the door or maybe even already in the house with you.
The stories are original but they have that creaky, arcane feeling that stories have when they’ve been passed down for generations, and you suspect that they did actually happen to somebody way back hundreds of years ago. Sad singing ghosts in the walls, a man who murders his brother only to have the brother appear again all horribly smiling and happy — more than anything, these stories read like a creepy old murder ballad.
“The Monkey’s Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre” by W.W. Jacobs
Lots of people know the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” although they may not know they know it. It’s a common fairy-tale trope: Three wishes gone wrong. Only instead of something more innocuous, like getting a sausage stuck to your nose — which happens in some versions — Jacobs gives us a gnarly mummified monkey’s paw and the wishes it grants are positively murderous.
The story opens with an old couple hosting a friend for dinner; he gives them the paw and warns them that the consequences of using it will be awful — so the old man wishes for the most innocuous thing he can think of, a little money to pay off the last of their mortgage. And of course, it arrives in the form of payment for the death of their son, who’s been killed in a gruesome industrial accident. And things only get worse from there. So that’s “The Monkey’s Paw” — but Jacobs was actually a prolific author of creepy stories and there’s lots more to discover in this book. Not super scary, but good chilling fun.
“Uzumaki” by Junji Ito
Manga, broadly speaking, are Japanese comics, aimed at all ages and printed mostly in black and white. Junji Ito is a master of horror manga and “Uzumaki” is one of his most famous series (it’s also been made into a cartoon). It’s about a fictional Japanese town where everyone is under a strange curse that involves spirals; the townspeople become obsessed and terrified about spirals, they see spirals everywhere, and the spirals are so powerful they can even kill people and bring typhoons and earthquakes.
Eventually all the structures of the town meld into one horrible giant building spiral. A girl and her boyfriend attempt to find the girl’s parents, who’ve fallen victim to the spiral, and it’s through them that you find out what’s really going on. It’s a genius idea for a visual medium! Also, it will entirely make your eyes cross and make you freak out whenever you see a spiral in the real world. This might actually be the scariest book on the list.
“The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle
It’s hard to talk about horror without talking about H.P. Lovecraft, who’s considered one of the foundational authors of modern horror, but you can’t talk about Lovecraft without talking about what a ghastly racist he was. What scared Lovecraft the most wasn’t monsters from beyond the stars, it was Brown people, women and Jews. So in the past few years, we’ve seen a wave of authors taking on Lovecraft’s legacy and Victor LaValle is one of them; he grew up reading Lovecraft but didn’t realize how racist the guy was until he got a lot older.
One of Lovecraft’s most xenophobic stories is called “The Horror of Red Hook” — which is about a neighborhood in Brooklyn where, at the time he was writing, a lot of immigrants lived, and in the story, he calls them “the dregs of humanity.” LaValle takes this story and flips it, sets it in Harlem in 1924 and makes the hero a young hustler who plays guitar sometimes and mostly just wants to take care of his sick father — and then he gets involved in some seriously creepy stuff involving a magic book and a white occultist. This is a great read, vibrant and scary and full of blues music and a deep love of New York.
Looking for more horror reads? Check out the 2018 NPR readers’ poll.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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