Stories of supernatural phenomena haunt our imagination. From classical literature to popular film, the things that go bump in the night provide us with one of our most enduring genres. And, it wouldn't be Halloween without a good old-fashioned spooky tale.
Long before Victorians were obsessed with the after-life, grisly apparitions were part of Native American prophecies and slave narratives. I live in Maine, so will share one of the horrifying legends of the Wabanaki, the “People of the Dawnland.” Tales describe The Chenoo as once having been a human who either committed a terrible crime or became possessed by an evil spirit, causing the gods to trap him in a giant’s body with a heart of ice.
Grim tales based on folklore and real-life horrors have stimulated many imaginations, conjuring up bone-chilling scenarios and page-turning reads. A list of my favorite spooky tales of witches, vampires, werewolves, evil clowns, and houses cursed by ghostly manifestations follows. If you read before bed, any of these may cause a sleepless night of tossing and turning—so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
The most chilling haunted house story ever published, it’s about a house where even the longtime caretakers will not stay after dark. Dr. John Montague, a paranormal activity investigator, recruits four volunteers at random to stay with him at a mysterious mansion—Hill House—to prove the existence of the supernatural. I could not put the book down. It was so well written and so entirely creepy I had to finish it.
The story has been adapted into film more than once, and is the basis of the popular mini-series recently released on Netflix.
Published in 1878, this short novel was the last significant work by Wilkie Collins before he succumbed to opium addiction. The story opens with a distinguished doctor visited by a desperate woman with one question: am I evil or insane? Many years (and pages) later, an ancient Venetian palace has been transformed into a fashionable hotel. However, all of the craftsmanship cannot take away from the fact that room fourteen houses a gruesome secret. Collins has a gift for character and detail to backdrop:
"At long intervals, the warning cry of a belated gondolier was just audible, as he turned the corner of a distant canal, and called to invisible boats which might be approaching him in the darkness. Now and then, the nearer dip of an oar in the water told of the viewless passage of other gondolas bringing guests back to the hotel. Excepting these rare sounds, the mysterious night-silence of Venice was literally the silence of the grave."
Bloodsuckers had been referenced as far back as the 17th century, well before Irish writer Bram Stoker gave birth to the greatest literary vampire in 1897. In this great gothic novel, Count Dracula is an aristocratic creature who sucks the blood of pretty prim females who are not wearing crucifixes or garlic.
My favorite portions of the book are young Jonathan Harker’s journal entries detailing his voyage from Munich to Dracula’s ruined castle in Transylvania. His notes about the meals he eats, which recipes to get for his bride Mina Murray, the passengers he meets, the green hills he passes by, the wolves of the night, Dracula’s study…
The story of Dracula’s attempt to relocate from Transylvania to England is told in an epistolary format, as a series of journal entries, telegrams, newspaper reports, ship entries, and letters. These items interestingly enough are not always in the correct chronological order—as if Stoker wanted the reader to participate more fully in the telling of the story.
I think I am as fascinated by the research Stoker did when writing Dracula as the actual novel. At the time he wrote the book, Stoker was an Irishman living in England where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Surely Stoker was aware of the heinous living conditions of those living in the tenements and the population of street children. The lawlessness and filth of the streets, the grandeur of the rich, the drama in the theatre—this backdrop in the context of the book just wows me.
In the mists and shadows, on the lonely roads, in dreary estates, and on wild moorlands we meet a variety of ghostly protagonists. The standouts from this collection include:
“The Phantom Coach,” by Amelia B. Edwards
“The Judge’s House,” by Bram Stoker
“The Empty House,” by Algernon Blackwood
“Man-Size Marble,” by Edith Nesbit
The master of horror has written so many seriously scary books, but in my opinion these two top the list. It, more than maybe any other King novel, is absolutely iconic. Pennywise, an evil clown, has preyed on the town of Derry, Maine for a long, long time. It embodies every scary thing that goes bump in the night, every terrifying noise in the dark basement. The story goes back and forth between 1957-58 when a group of pre-teen misfits known as the Losers Club come together to battle It, and 27 years later when It resurfaces again and they reunite for the big battle to save themselves and Derry. Absolutely superb.
Salem’s Lot was King’s follow-up to Carrie. Imagine if a vampire moved to a small town in central Maine, slowly turning the town’s populations into bloodsuckers, that is, until a high school teacher and his girlfriend begin fighting back.
A modern legend of this terrible animal, the human bitten by a wolf. Lycanthropes seem literary cousins of the vampire. In this telling, Jake Marlowe is a gorgeous 200-year-old man who transforms into a wolf-man once a month and is being chased both by vampires and the monster world’s equivalent of the FBI—the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena. This is one sexy thriller.
More fun than scary, and I am only recommending the first book in the All Souls Trilogy. A smart rich vampire falls in love with an American witch who is at Oxford University studying alchemical manuscripts in the Bodleian library. Pure fantasy.
About the author: Sharon K. is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She is the host of the Portland, Maine chapter of Silent Book Club. You can follow her on Instagram here.