Friday, 29 October 2010

Hallowe'en Horrors

Hallowe'en encroaches. Lists are made. I thought I would put up a list (which, by pure chance, happens to consist of thirteen books) of the tomes which frightened me the most since I first began to read. Of course, I can't remember all of them: there are one or two which left a lasting impression on me, but which I don't think I'll ever find again: there was a book where a girl went on a journey with a gnome from her mantlepiece (it came alive); she went to a mountain covered in multicoloured snow, some of which was poisonous, and fought with a witch. And there was another, where a girl looked through the wrong end of a telescope and ended up on a strange, savage planet... But they will remain fragments of my memory, alas. So here is the list, in no particular order.

1. The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

This uses suspense to terrifying effect, as inanimate scarecrows encroach upon a house, perhaps possessed by the ghosts of some sinister people. It is also a brilliant psychodrama, and unsparing in its details of adolescent pain. I remember being absolutely gripped by it as a twelve year old; I gave it to a friend; he didn't like it; I thought less of the friend.

2. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

A recent novel, this tale of possession I was not able to read alone. It sent me scurrying into the drawing room in the house where I was staying, panting with fright. In particular I found the idea of a 'beacon' - a soul that stood out from the others because of its propensity for possession - extremely disturbing.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What can I say: pig's head. Flies. The Beast.

4. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

A very successful pastiche, and yet also remarkably original. All the more creepy for its ambivalence.

5 & 6. The Seance by John Harwood, and The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Australian writer Harwood is a master of the ghost story. The first, from different viewpoints, tells a Gothic story of ghostly monks, haunted suits of armour and decaying houses that has much more to it than meets the eye; the second tells of bitter family rivalries and secrets. Heavenly for winter's nights.

7. Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

Blackly broiling with psychological and actual fear, these tales, told from the viewpoint of snobby, cruel Edwardian children, are works of near genius.

8. A short story by Elizabeth Bowen (whose name I cannot remember)

In this tale a man on a bicycle happens upon a house, in which a woman weeps and the sound of a tennis match can be heard. But when he gets back to his friends, everything is thrown into confusion. Not so much terrifying as deeply affecting - and plausible.

9. Chocky by John Wyndham

As a child I found the idea of an alien intelligence infiltrating my head immensely scary - and yet, at the same time, I sort of wanted to be suddenly able to do maths, and paint alien landscapes, as the child in this story does.

10. Metamorphoses by Kafka

When his family throw an apple at the morphed K and it sticks under his carapace I was stiff with terror for weeks.

11. The Vampyre by Tom Holland

Read in one sitting, as a thirteen year old on a ferry from France to England. Pure escapism, and brilliant.

12. Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Doppelganger is also one of the more skin-crawling ideas to have come out of folklore, and Hogg uses it with sinister panache.

13. Albion’s Dream by Roger Norman

A bit of a recherche choice: this was a children's book, a first novel, which was in my school library. I at the time was at an old-fashioned prep school; this was set in a similar place. In it the hero finds himself up against a truly sinister doctor: there's a moment at the end which is almost heart-stopping. Sadly out of print.

*LATE ADDITION* - and thank you to Suzi Feay of the Financial Times for reminding me of this:

14. The Ghost of Thomas Kemp by Penelope Lively

An incredibly eerie tale of a haunting: a ghost who can be capricious, mean and genuinely dangerous. Totally marvellous.

Oh, and while I'm here:

15. The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo

I think this gave me nightmares for years...


  1. Thanks for including me Philip! Elizabeth Bowen is a great writer. Rarely mentioned though. Kafka - big hero of mine. As is John Wyndham. Fascinating list, Philip. Lots of things there I'd forgotten about and wouldn't mind revisiting.

  2. Have you read Bowen's collected short stories? I recommend taking them on a winter holiday.