Seeking Scary

My littler tradition of finding a scary story to read before Halloween started a few years ago. I started with classics I hadn’t read before, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and moved on to modern classics of horror, like Stephen King’s Misery. Looking back, I’ve been reflecting on how subjective “scary” is. Some of the books that have terrified me (weirdly, Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge) strike other people as completely un-scary—and vice versa, of course. Finding a scary book, like finding a funny book, is entirely a matter of taste.

I could speculate, like others, about why it is that we seek out scary stories. (My theory is that we relish the relief we feel when it’s all over and we can return to a much less frightening reality.) But better minds than mine have tried and I haven’t really seen a convincing answer to the question. Instead, I think it’s much more interesting and fruitful to look at the variety of things that scare us…because that leads right back to proof that fiction will never run out of stories to tell us and I will never run out of books to read during future Halloweens. Seeing what scares us, whether it’s the old standby fears of “children who came back wrong” and phobias or ghost stories or slasher stories, can tell us so much about ourselves.

As I look back at what I’ve found scary and what I haven’t (Dracula, by Bram Stoker, didn’t scare me at all, probably because I think it would be a great adventure to join in on a vampire hunt), I can see that I get freaked out by stories where society is transformed into something so bleak that I don’t even want to think about living in it (The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood). I also get really creeped out by stories that take entirely human motivations and take them to terrible conclusions (The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue). True crime scares the hell out of me. In the end, you could say, that what really scares me are people.

I had to seek outside help in putting together a list of scary recommended reads to tweet for my library because of the wide range of tastes in horror. The books on the list run a small gamut from “creeps you out a bit” with Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, to one of the scariest books I’ve ever read (and almost had to put in the freezer), Hex, by Thomas Old Heuvelt, to try to appeal to as many readers as possible. Some readers want jump scares, like you’d find in horror movies (which can be hard to do in print). Others, like me, want something that treads the line between supernatural and existential horror, like A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay.

What about you, dear readers? What kinds of stories scare you the most?

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