Tuesday, October 29, 2013


12 Books to Creep Yourself Out With

A non-expert's suggestions for books that are fun to read/reread whenever you want the chills. 

✝ 1 ✝

Steven Millhauser, We Others: New & Selected Stories

This is one of my favorite books, as lucid and eerie as a diorama; as Jonathan Lethem says, Millhauser's style is "coolly feverish, drawing equally on Nabokovian rapture, Borgesian enigma and the plain-spoken white-picket-fence wistfulness of Sherwood Anderson." We Others covers a lot of territory—futurist nightmare, teenage romance with a Bataille-esque hint of sexual horror, Victorian inventors, Escherian funhouses, small-town disappearances and mysteries—but throughout, it's consistently enchanted, and remarkably kind. Here's a bit from the titular ghost story:

We do not like to speak, we others. We inhabit silence as we inhabit darkness—naturally. Even among ourselves, what takes place is a species of silent speech—but more of that later. At the moment I felt a dreary need to answer her. "What I want," I said, and stopped. It was the first time I'd heard myself speak. I heard what sounded like a voice at a great distance—a faint, thin, rippling voice, a voice blown by the wind.

"It's all right," she then said. "Everything's going to be all right." And i was grateful to her for those words, for she had felt my trouble; and I was angry at her for those words, for nothing was ever going to be all right.

✝ 2 ✝

Louis Sachar, Sideways Stories from Wayside School

Sometimes I think that no better books have ever been written than the Wayside School books, which depict that blandly cruel Brechtian funhouse of an institution, in which kids fall out of windows, are punished by being turned into apples, and wind up in basements, interrogated by bald men and asked to choose between "freedom" or "safety." All three books consist of 30 loosely linked stories that operate on the same insane logic: the 19th chapter is always about the 19th floor (a nightmarish limbo controlled by Mrs. Zarves, who may not exist), the 17th chapter runs backwards, and Mrs. Jewls silently racks up names on the DISCIPLINE list.

✝ 3 ✝

Kelly Link, Magic For Beginners

Kelly Link is so good at slipstream, genre-adjacent fiction that remains wholly "literary" in its tight and delicate attention to shape, structure and style. This collection contains "Stone Animals," the story that first turned me onto her after I read it in 2005's extraordinarily good Best American Short Stories; it's about a couple who moves from the city to a country dreamhouse and then begins, slowly, to dissociate. They detach at odd moments, swim through time. One by one, their possessions seem to become "haunted," and then so do they, and then there's something really off with the fauna:

Liz and she are drinking paint. "Have some more paint," Catherine says. "Do you want sugar?"

"Yes, lots," Liz says. "What color are you going to paint the rabbits?"

Catherine passes her the sugar. She hasn't even thought about the rabbits, except which rabbits does Liz mean, the stone rabbits or the real rabbits? How do you make them hold still?

At the end, from Catherine's husband:

His wife is going to have a baby any day now. His daughter will stop walking in her sleep. His son isn't haunted. The moon shines down and paints the world a color he's never seen before. Oh, Catherine, wait till you see this. Shining lawn, shining rabbits, shining world. The rabbits are out on the lawn. They've been waiting for him, all this time, they've been waiting.

✝ 4 ✝

Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead

This is a book about a limitless, shifting shadow-city for the dead, where ten billion people try to enact an eerily normal society (they open bakeries, work in banks, announce prayers from their mosques, drive taxis while constantly redrawing their maps). Slowly we realize that the city's actually for the dead who are still remembered on Earth, and that some mysterious global epidemic is making the city's demographics shift accordingly. ("The entire population of a small Pacific island appeared in the city on a bright windy afternoon, congregated on the top level of a parking garage, and were gone by the end of the day.") Brockmeier's got this plain, phenomenally visual style:

The girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park said that she had died into an ocean the color of dried cherries. For a while, the water had carried her weight, she said, and she lay on her back turning in meaningless circles, singing the choruses of the pop songs she remembered. But then there was a drum of thunder, and the clouds split open, and the ball bearings began to pelt down around her—tens of thousands of them. She had swallowed as many as she could, she said, stroking the cracked trunk of the poplar tree. She didn’t know why. She filled like a lead sack and sank slowly through the layers of the ocean. Shoals of fish brushed past her, their blue and yellow scales the brightest thing in the water. And all around her she heard that sound, the one that everybody heard, the regular pulsing of a giant heart.

That's from Brief History's first chapter, which was published at the New Yorker and is available in full here.

✝ 5 ✝

Megan Abbott, Dare Me 

Cheerleader noir! Of these recommendations, this one's the page-turner; it's a murder mystery with a Sleigh Bells/Lana Del Rey aesthetic and a series of twists that genuinely surprised me (admittedly, not the sharpest reader) at the end. From the first chapter, in which the cheerleaders meet their magnetic, mysterious new coach:

There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync. Look at how my eyes shutter open and closed.

[...] Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick our hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators?

✝ 6 ✝

Lois Duncan, Stranger With My Face

Lois Duncan's daughter was murdered in real life, in 1989 (edited to say more accurately that this was after she'd already published dozens of books about girls in danger: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Daughters of Eve and Summer of Fear were all written in the '70s), and the book Who Killed My Daughter? is the nonfiction recounting of Duncan's attempt to solve the case, which still remains a mystery.

Eight years before the murder, Duncan wrote Stranger With My Face, which is the creepiest one of hers that I ever read: this one's about a girl named Laurie who finds out she's got a doppelganger, who turns out to be her twin Lia, a revelation that forces Laurie's mom to admit that she was adopted, and that the other twin, even as an infant, was repellently cold. It turns out that Lia's in a mental hospital for murder, using telepathy (or "astral projection") to hurt the people around Laurie, and eventually possessing Laurie's body herself. And if this description doesn't make you shiver, try the cover.

✝ 7 ✝

J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

The cold horror of hegemony, totally absent of quick thrills! But Coetzee's pale, disturbing allegory makes power seem even more terrible. "Nothing is worse than what we can imagine," says the magistrate, our protagonist in this strange, atemporal universe, suffused with a sort of monochrome realism, a bit of Beckett and a structure of bones and blood.

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

✝ 8 ✝

Franz Kafka, Complete Stories

No one can make you feel crazy quite like Kafka, who writes with that dizzying brutality, that all-encompassing alienation. From "The Penal Colony," a story about an elaborate execution device that leads the condemned from torture to ecstasy to death:

The script can't be a simple one; it's not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval of, on an average, twelve hours… Can you follow it? The harrow is beginning to write; when it finishes the first draft of the inscription on the man's back, the layer of cotton wool begins to roll and slowly turns the body over, to give the Harrow fresh space for writing… But how quiet he grows at just about the sixth hour! Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription… You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one's eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds.

✝ 9 ✝

Madeleine L'Engle, The Young Unicorns

This may be my favorite L'Engle. Loosely an Austin family story, this one's got blind pianist prodigy Emily Gregory as a protagonist, a gang called the Alphabats, a genie, an evil bishop, and an underworld beneath the ominous Cathedral of St. John the Divine (where L'Engle herself was writer-in-residence for years). In the tunnels under the city, the boys in the Alphabats line up to have lasers shot into their brains (an invention of Dr. Austin's gone wrong) and feel like they're in heaven; Emily tries to get to the bottom of it, but she's blind, and it's dark, and everyone's always got another secret. L'Engle's perennial dark undercurrent just blooms into something really singular here; it's a New York City story, with something perverse and redeemable lurking on every corner.

✝ 10 ✝

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories

Feminist, revisionist, deeply sensual Gothic fairytale fiction: what's not to love? Carter, as she says, draws the "latent content from the traditional stories and use[s] it as the beginnings of new stories," and her language is rich and glittering and wild. From the end of "In the Company of Wolves," Carter's story after Little Red Riding Hood:

Every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamion outside the window as she freely gave the kiss she owed him.

What big teeth you have!

She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamor of the forest's Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:

All the better to eat you with.

The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.

✝ 11 ✝

Ovid, Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries translation)

A strange pick, totally, but this book is full of strangeness, and cruelty that's mythic and indivisible. In the first few pages, Apollo, "too young a god to waste his time in coaxing," chases the nymph Daphne:

Love makes me follow,
Unhappy fellow that I am, and fearful
You may fall down, perhaps, or have the briars
Make scratches on those lovely legs, unworthy
To be hurt so, and I would be the reason.
The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.
Or wait a minute: be a little curious
Just who it is you charm. I am no shepherd,
No mountain-dweller, I am not a ploughboy,
Uncouth and stinking of cattle. You foolish girl,
You don't know who it is you run away from,
That must be why you run.

That, right there, is creepy. And then there is of course the constant grotesquerie of Ovid's transformations, which are permanent in a very non-Halloween way; Daphne, of course, turns into a tree, with her hair as leaves, her arms as branches, "everything gone except her grace."

✝ 12 ✝

Roald Dahl, Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Roald Dahl had a lot of darkness underpinning his whimsy; this shows up to varying degrees in his non-Wonka children's books (how mournful was Danny? How barely reined in, The BFG?) and even more in his adult short stories (see "Man From the South," the tale of a party trick involving amputation). Dahl didn't write this collection, we should note, and the 14 ghost stories he compiled here (Edith Wharton's is great, and so is Robert Aickman's "Ringing the Changes") are more subtle than you might expect from the editor's history. But I read this book ten years ago and still think about it, and here's a bit from an A.M. Burrage story in it, called "Playmates":

"Children!" he whispered. "Children!"

He closed his eyes and stretched out his hands. Still they were shy and held aloof, but he fancied that they came a little nearer.

"Don't be afraid," he whispered. "I'm only a very lonely man. Be near me after Monica is gone."

He paused, waiting. Then as he turned away he was aware of little caressing hands upon his arm. He looked around at once, but the time had not yet come for him to see. He saw only the barred window, the shadows on either wall, and the flag of moonlight.

So, my fellow witches, what have I missed? Any recommendations?

Photo via Josh Hawley/flickr

65 Comments / Post A Comment


Wow, I didn't know that about Lois Duncan's daughter. I read tons of her books as a kid-- I think Gallows Hill was my favorite. It was about reincarnated Salem witches. Louis Sachar is the best, though.




Did somebody say Jonathan Lethem? I am there!

This is a great list!

Derbel McDillet

I really liked Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. I remember hearing a great piece on NPR about it before I picked it up. Also, The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell for some nice, forest-centered horror.


@Derbel McDillet Her Fearful Symmetry, yes. I had mixed feelings while I read it, but it never ever left me.


@Derbel McDillet i definitely want to read this. can't lie about the fact that i really, really loved time traveler's wife as a high school student so hmmm *orders book* thank you for reminding me

Derbel McDillet

@j-i-a I actually haven't read Time Traveler's Wife, so I was going in fresh! And I definitely agree with @redridinghoodrat, it maybe didn't seem so great as I was reading it, but several years later the imagery and the general creepiness of it stuck.


Excuse me, there's no Shirley Jackson on this list. Your argument is invalid.

Also, I was always creeped out by Dahl's "The Witches." The little boy stays a mouse at the end! He isn't saved! That's horrifying to me.


@peculiarity I finally read the Haunting of Hill House this month. I gasped and screaming into my palm at least a dozen times. The holding hands bit was my favorite part.


@peculiarity DAMMIT I had this feeling I'd left out something major you are so righttt

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose



@redridinghoodrat oh god, the HAND HOLDING. That freaked me out so bad.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose Yeah, she never escapes the painting, just grows out and disappears/dies. That small part has haunted me nearly my entire life.


@redridinghoodrat Journeys end in lovers meeting!

Did anyone else think that Theodora and the young dink guy were carrying on at night? Although Theodora's preference may not have been men...!


@testingwithfire Theodora's preference was definitely not men. Her real preference was anyone that would let her be the center of attention all the places all the time.

Ugh. So much to say about this book. I am really lucky that I have an older brother that has read EVERY BOOK EVER, and any time he hears I am reading something he is fond of, he calls me up so he can excitedly discuss it with me. So tender.

Speaking of tender: Anyone read Tenderness by Robert Cormier??? Maybe not spooky, but definitely upsetting.


@testingwithfire all I know is that I will be sorely disappointed if there's not some Theodora/Eleanor fic floating around the internet. I have not looked, but I'm sure it's out there. RIGHT?)


I just followed the link and read Roald Dahl's "Man From The South."



@jenergy DUDE I KNOW I LOVE IT his full short story collection is stuffed with more of the same if you were into that


my classmate's step-mother makes $66/hour on the laptop. She has been out of a job for five months but last month her pay check was $19647 just working on the laptop for a few hours. website link<<>><<>>....www.max38.com

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@EllaPDow That. Is. Horrifying.


@EllaPDow I'm pretty sure working on a laptop and earning a paycheck that is nearly my annual income means she is not out of a job. But by providing such specific details, how can this be a lie?



@iknowright I dunno, $19,647 a month at $66/hr works out to 75 hours a week, and that's even assuming no taxes. That sounds really scary.


@themegnapkin Good point. Perhaps my poor math skills are why I make so little!


@iknowright this thread is the best thread


I feel the need to add "Haunted" by Chuck Palahniuk. Made up of 23 creepy as fuck stories told by participants in a horror writing clinic interspersed by the eerie account of their three month stint in an abandoned theater.


@ebgb how do we feel about chuck p generally? LULLABY creeped me out forever but i am so put off by so many things about his writing style and choices - always wanted to read haunted tho


@j-i-a Haunted is actually the first Palahniuk book I've read. I know he wrote Fight Club, but haven't ventured into his other writing. Although, I'm definitely going to look into Lullaby. I'd definitely recommend Haunted. The overarching story isn't the strongest, but damn, the short stories are creepy. Also adding to the not being able to fall asleep factors is that the book cover art is a scary face that glows in the dark and stares at you all night long.


Is Stranger With My Face the one that involved a male love interest who had lost an arm and has one side of his face burned? And she gets better and better at projecting, but then her sister is trying to take over her body?

If so, that book is what made me try to learn how to do astral projection, until I read a book on it that said not only long-lost-twin-siblings will try to take over your body, but DEAD PEOPLE who haven't "gone to the other side" will as well. Terrifying.


@iknowright This is my foremost fear about astral projection. What if someone jumps in, and I get stuck outside???


@redridinghoodrat Don't watch Insidious, then.


@redridinghoodrat Don't watch Insidious, then.

de Pizan

I reread Stranger with My Face a few years ago, and it's held up surprisingly well.
One that always freaked me out as a kid was the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz. The illustrations were the worst.


@de Pizan OH GOD THOSE ILLUSTRATIONS. They're emblazoned on my memory.


de Pizan

@greyeminence Hello nightmares. Apparently the books are some of the most top challenged/banned books in school libraries, largely because of the illustrations. I'm not sure the illustrator realized there's a line between a fun scare, and therapy material.

de Pizan

@greyeminence Hello nightmares. Apparently the books are some of the most top challenged/banned books in school libraries, largely because of the illustrations. I'm not sure the illustrator realized there's a line between a fun scare, and therapy material.


So excited by this list! I picked up We Others at the library a little while ago because of its beautiful cover and went in completely cold; it was such a great chance discovery! Everything on this list that I've actually read, I completely love. Everything I haven't read, I'm ready to completely love. THANKS!


^^^^ whoa actually I could tell the exact same "story" (looooose use of the word) for the angela carter one. give your books beautiful covers if you want 'em read! or amazingly bad ones.


JOHN BELLAIRS. Everything by him, ever. Deeply creepy and a note-perfect New England atmosphere throughout.

Also, Lois Duncan! I was obsessed with her as a kid. Daughters Of Eve should be mandatory Hairpin reading material, too.


@stonefruit I revisit Bellairs' "The Figure In The Shadows" every so often. I have a copy from the seventies complete with Edward Gorey cover. It's one of just a couple kiddie books I saved when I had to clear out my mom's condo a couple years back. That and "The Finches' Fabulous Furnace."

The Louis Barnavelt books are actually set in 1940's small-town Michigan. Bellairs himself was born in Michigan but moved to Haverhill, MA at some point. There's definitely an Arkham feel to the books, though.


@testingwithfire You know something, I had completely forgotten that the Lewis books are set in New Zebedee! I'm going to attribute my New England memory to (a) growing up there, and (b) Edward Gorey illustrations --> automatic trigger of New England-ness :)


@stonefruit Duncan's Down a Dark Hall (sinister boarding school where students inexplicably pump out masterpieces) and Locked in Time (can't describe b/c spoilers) are amazing, too.


@themegnapkin Yeah I definitely did not just request like a dozen Lois Duncan books from my public library. DEFINITELY NOT.


@stonefruit yesssssssssssss

Mariah Mantis@twitter

@stonefruit I did a ctrl-F on Bellairs to make sure someone else had said it. Creepy shit, all of it. Although that is what kicked off my love affair for Edward Gorey, so I appreciate that, but I still have weird dark dreams (not quite nightmares) that can directly be tied to, say, the Curse of the Blue Figurine.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@stonefruit : Have you ever read Bellairs's (one?) novel for adults, "The Face in the Frost"? It's equal parts whimsy and flesh-creeping nightmare, and really excellent.


Excellent, some new additions to my to-read list. Just a note to anyone who was taken by that Ovid excerpt though, the edition being linked to appears to be a different translation than is quoted. I don't know how different they are, but if you were attracted to the language (I was surprised how modern it sounded), this is the one you want.


@Urwelt yes!! thank you - i just changed the link. i'd gone on about rolfe humphries in a previous edit of this post but deleted it because it was stupid - but isn't his version beautiful?? it's like the robert fitzgerald aeneid - i cannot read those books in other translations, i can be a really bad reader, but i just eat them up in this clean modern verse


@j-i-a I can also be a real lazy reader, especially of poetry (I have to be in JUST the right mood, and I can't take too much of it). I've never attempted an epic, but I really did like the excerpt. Clearly the solution here is for the Hairpin to serialize Metamorphoses.


Oh, yay, I love creepy books. Two of my favorites are In the Woods (Tana French - Irish murder mystery) and The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters - period ghost story), neither of which I have at my apartment right now, of course, now that I want to reread them both!

Miss Kitty Fantastico

@sandwiches IN THE WOODS. yes. Have you read any of her other stuff? Also fantastic. Especially her second book - The Likeness. I liked it even better than In the Woods and would highly, highly recommend her other books as well.

ETA: In the Woods is sitting on my desk at work right now :-)


@Madeline Shoes I loved all of her books (and for each one, I stayed up until like 2 or 3 am to finish!), but the most recent one was probably my least favorite. Broken Harbor, I think? The Likeness was so wonderful, though, and I loved Faithful Place as well, so perhaps it was inevitable.


@sandwiches IN THE WOODS YES


@stonefruit I ended up loving all of them, even Broken Harbor, at the beginning of which i was like, "... you chose HIM to be your next protagonist?"

Faithful place was my least favorite just in terms of frustration. Fraaaaaaank.


@Madeline Shoes YES! I love her books and am planning to reward myself with rereading all of them once I finish this semester. I think The Likeness is actually my favorite as well, just because of that lingering sadness/wistfulness (ugh, that whole last longing paragraph!), whereas In the Woods would be my favorite(& is definitely the creepiest of them all for me), but I'm too frustrated by the unanswered question(s?).


@sandwiches I loved In the Woods! I wasn't as enamored with The Likeness, but really enjoyed Faithful Place.


Oooh, also, The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox.


oh, loooved the young unicorns. the darker l'engles are so wonderful. I wanted to add a rec for Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Not a ghost story, though very very creepy, and not so much a murder mystery as a murder memoir...but heartbreaking, funny, weird, deeply felt and straight up horrifying. The goodreads quote section should be enough to pique an interest http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1170873-cruddy-an-illustrated-"when what is scaring you is already jesus, who are you supposed to pray to?"


If we're going for "creepy" rather than outright "horror", then I nominate almost anything by Algernon Blackwood. He wrote a lot about the dark, menacing side of the natural world. Remember the healing, unifying garden in "The Secret Garden"? Well, this is the exact opposite of that...the garden would house a lurking, unknowable evil and would probably steal your soul or drive you insane. I'm particularly fond of this story, "The Transfer", which I originally came across in a collection of vampire stories. It's about a 'dead patch' in a garden where nothing will grow. It's not a vampire story in a traditional sense at all, so don't let that turn you off if "Twilight" has made you wary of the word.


Full disclosure: I have a particular preference for all manner of genteel, old-timey British ghost stories. Your mileage may vary.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

Robert Aickman! He's a bit undeservedly obscure these days, but his compilations of short stories ("Cold Hand in Mine", particularly) are very easy to get hold of, and oh man was he good. He never really descends into outright horror, just a slow slide into wrongness, like dream-logic invading the everyday.

Neil Gaiman (!) compared his stories to a sleight-of-hand where a magician not only makes a key vanish from his hand, but you can't be sure he had a key in his hand in the first place. That's about right ... he was extraordinarily subtle and unsettling.


While I love Kelly Link (and I do, I do) I think that you're better off reading her creepy to the point of sleeplessness "The Specialist's Hat" as it is one of her best stories every. And creepy as all get out. Here's a link: http://www.kellylink.net/fiction/link-specialist.htm

Felix Wilson@facebook

Your style of writing a blog, at first I thought it’s going to be boring, but it’s not. Great Going, keep up the good work.Leather Jacket.Fr

Viola Sheen

A lot of Stephen King's books creep me out as well. And also you should mention Flowers in the Attic by V C Andrews

Rose Mary

You can get lots of free romance books at emmaroseromance.com just join the newsletter

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