Nightmarish Novels

The year’s most well-publicized witching hour is rapidly approaching, and I haven’t yet talked about anything sinister or spooky. Shame on me! So let’s take a moment, if you don’t mind, to talk about scary books.

I love horror novels. They’re one of my absolute favorite things to read, and they’re the reason that my first published novel was a zombie apocalypse story. I love horror movies and scary video games as well, but there’s just something about a creepy book…especially if you’re curled up under a blanket, all alone, in a room that’s lit just well enough for you to read. The imagination runs wild and you start hearing things, feeling things… If it’s a dark and stormy night you might have an outright panic attack. I love that feeling, as funny as it may seem to some people. I love being scared. So what are some of the novels that have given me the maximum amount of shivers?


Poltergeist

poltergeist_1024x1024I have to come right out and admit that there was a time when I didn’t actually know that there was a book. I’d seen the movie multiple times and loved it, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I actually found out that there was a book written by James Kahn, and until the writing of this post I thought the movie was based on the book, but it turns out it’s actually the other way around. The novelization was adapted from the film’s original screenplay and both expands on scenes and adds new ones. Personally I probably love the movie and the book equally, but I also really love some of the added scenes that are in the book. A few of them gave me some good old fashioned chills, and I feel that Kahn expanded on a lot of stuff that made the book feel more adequately fleshed out than the film.

Coraline

CoralineNo, I’m not joking, and yes, this is a novel that is technically aimed at a younger audience. Neil Gaimen’s tale of the little girl who traverses to another world has a lot of the qualities of a book written for pre-teens, but it’s also exceptionally terrifying. Some of the things that occur in that other world (I don’t want to ruin anything because it is seriously, genuinely an excellent story) are downright horrifying and will give even grown adults nightmares. I’ve personally never been able to look at old-style buttons the same way after reading this novelette. Just trust me on this one, and although the movie is also excellent in its own right, take my advice and read the story first.

Pet Sematary

StephenKingPetSematary

Oh hell, did I pick another one that had a movie? Is that telling? Never mind, it’s unimportant. The point is that this Stephen King story is just as freaky and terrifying in literary form as it is in visual, maybe even more-so. Some of the more horrifying scenes from the movie are actually made more heart-wrenching and nightmare-inducing by the fact that the novel version really gets into the main character’s head and gets us involved in exactly how he is feeling and reacting. My only complaint? Sometimes King jumps between reality and fantasy (dreams and the like) so often that it’s difficult to keep track of what is or isn’t really happening.


Each of these novels has warranted multiple readings for me, especially during the creepiest time of the year, but they’re far from the only chilling tales I’ve enjoyed, and I’m definitely always open to suggestions, so give me what you’ve got! What are some of your favorite scary stories? What gives you the biggest chill? Which ones gave you nightmares? Please share!

The 21 Steps of Death

It may be a difficult thing to remember when you’re older and the genuine fears of the real world are always somewhere in the back of your mind, but it’s been well-studied that humans enjoy being scared. The rush of adrenaline and the ability to laugh about it later (assuming, of course, that the fear wasn’t justified by something horrible happening) is a wonderful rush and is the reason why horror movies/novels/video games/etc are such a big industry. It’s fun to be scared. It’s even more fun to be able to laugh and reminisce about it afterward.

When we’re young it’s even more fun because our imaginations are truly outrageous. As an adult we might get creeped out by a movie about ghosts, but afterward we’re pretty set in our beliefs that ghosts don’t really exist. As kids, we can go for years believing in a particular ghost story because we have amazing faith in the improbable. We’ll even make up stories and convince ourselves that they’re true. My friend and I used to spook ourselves silly with stories about how my house was haunted by the ghost of a previous owner, despite the fact that the house had only ever had one previous owner and he was still very much alive. It’s an amazing (and sometimes hysterical) trait that children have: the ability to completely make something up and then convince yourself that it is absolutely true.

I can remember tons of stories that used to be passed around when I was a kid, but one of the silliest was a tale we referred to as “the 21 Steps of Death”. You see, I grew up right along the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, Canada, and along the shoreline of my hometown are several “barracks” locations…that is, the old stone installments that were used by soldiers during the war. One particular area includes a three-story stone building that has been widely used by graffiti artists:

Photo taken by my father, Daniel G. Clarke. Awesome shot, dad!

 

…and the accompanying underground bunker which is set off to the side of the building. The bunker section of the barracks is visible from the ground only by an open rectangle through which two sets of stairs can be seen. Unless it is high noon, with the sun blaring down on top of you, looking down upon those two sets of stairs shows you only darkness below. A frightening image for a child.

And so there were the tales. Those steps, they said, were haunted by the ghosts of dead soldiers. Whichever staircase you took, there were 21 steps in total, and as soon as your foot touched the 21st step you would be whisked away by the ghosts, deep into the earth, to join them in their eternal watch for enemy ships approaching the Nova Scotian cliffs. Every kid I knew growing up believed in this tale. Many times I can remember standing next to those stairs, looking down with my friends, everyone double-dog-daring each other to go down.

What’s really funny about this story is that the main plot point, the number of steps, was complete and utter nonsense. First off, how did we even come up with that number when no one was willing to try going down? Who decided that the number was 21? I’ll never know, but when we finally became old enough and brave enough to actually try going down the steps, we found that there were…18. 18 steps. Even if you counted the ground at either end of the steps, that would still only be 20, and if you counted both sets of steps it would be 36. So where did the number 21 come from? Who knows. Presumably the first kid who came up with the story thought that 21 sounded spooky, somehow. In the end it doesn’t really matter; the point is that for a while, before we became brave enough to debunk the myth, we had a creepy story to keep us mystified.

A kid’s view of the world can be literary gold, should you only take notice of it (or make the attempt to remember back that far). I can remember so many scary stories we had; stories about dark paths in the woods, stories about monsters on the cliffs, stories about what was buried in the empty lot behind my grandmother’s house. We had a story for every locale, every imagined fear, and every misunderstood circumstance. And that made childhood all the more awesome.

What scary stories did you and your friends have when you were kids? Were they in any way based on truth, or were they the completely made-up insanity of kid brains? If you have kids of your own, what kind of crazy stuff have they come up with? Please share!

The (Family) Cabin in the Woods

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was just starting to get into scary stuff. I had always been a bit of a wuss (it took me about twenty tries to get all the way through Pinocchio because Monstro the Whale scared the bejeezus out of me), but at about this point in my life I was just starting to appreciate the thrill that came with being scared. I was starting to read books like the Goosebumps series, and on Friday nights I would watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? on YTV. Often I would freak myself out, sometimes even giving myself nightmares, but I also loved the feeling of being scared, the giddy thrill.

At this time in my life my grandparents still had their cabin out in the middle of the woods. It was a modest cabin on a nice lot of land, and often our entire family would go out for days on end; we would cram aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends and sometimes even pets into a three-bedroom deal with one toilet and now that I’m thinking of it, was there even a shower in that cabin? It was crowded and half falling apart, and often we would arrive to find that a bat or a small family of mice had taken up residence while we’d been away, but it was awesome and we all loved it.

My grandmother, traveling the old roads with my cousin.
My grandmother, traveling the old roads with my cousin.
Loving the "coat" rack, eh?
Loving the “coat” rack, eh? And my uncle, rockin’ the pink shirt!

To one side of the cabin property there was a small mobile home, an older model with only one bed. It was permanently parked there and sometimes a couple of the adults would use it to create more space when there were too many of us staying at the cabin all at once. As kids, my cousins and I loved this little trailer because there were just enough trees between it and the cabin that we felt like we were in our own area, free from our parents, camping all by ourselves out in the big, bad woods. We would have little adventures in that mobile home, and because I was starting to get into this idea of purposely scaring yourself (see how I brought those two subjects together?), I would often imagine that when we were in there we were surrounded by monsters or wolves or zombies. It gave me a little thrill, even though I knew I was perfectly safe and that my parents or my grandparents or my aunts and uncles were very near by.

Can you tell we were rebels back then? lol
Can you tell we were rebels back then? lol That’s me on the right…cute as a bug.
Lazy summer days...and we had NO TECHNOLOGY OF ANY KIND.
Lazy summer days…and we had NO TECHNOLOGY OF ANY KIND.

One particular night, some of my cousins and I were playing in the mobile home. As previously mentioned, I was about 8 or 9, which means that Tommy was the same; Leah would have been 11 or 12, and that would make Matthew about 5 or 6. The four of us were hanging out in the mobile home, all piled together on that one bed, and for the life of me I can’t remember what we were doing in there, but we were having a blast. It was getting dark outside and we were just enjoying having our special little place in the middle of the woods.

Then Matthew said something about seeing someone walk past the window above our heads. We completely ignored him because he was the young one, and the young ones never get listened to, am I right? A few minutes later he said the same thing again and I remember we were all like, “Matthew, shut up, geeze. Don’t be a baby.”

We continued on, ignoring the young one, as older ones tend to do, and then suddenly Leah heard something…a scratching noise. If I’m remembering correctly she ignored it the first time, but the second time it happened she shushed us all. And we heard it too. Every couple of seconds, a scritchy-scratchy noise against the side of the trailer. It brought to mind images of something with claws – coyotes were common in that area – pawing at the outer walls, trying to find a way in.

Here’s where nervous denial began to set in, because earlier in the day another of my cousins – Billy, who is the same age as Tommy and I – had gotten mad at us for some reason or another and stormed off. We anxiously assumed that it was him, trying to screw with us. Leah shouted out a couple of times for him to cut it out, that he was being a jerk. There was no response except for further scratching, which was now growing in intensity and seemed to be coming from multiple directions at once. There was no way Billy could be scratching the right side and the left side of the trailer at one time, we reasoned. Now we were getting really nervous.

The childish imagination is an amazing thing. All of a sudden there were a thousand possibilities running through our minds. What was out there? Why was it bothering us? Could it get in? Why did it want to get in? Where the heck was the rest of our family? Surely one of the adults would have noticed if something had approached the mobile home…right?

It seemed like hours passed as my three cousins and I glanced nervously from wall to wall, window to window, from one to another. And then the scratching suddenly…stopped. We glanced at each other, and for whatever reason our gazes all gravitated toward the same thing all at once: the door knob. I’ll never forget the three things that happened next…

Leah nudged Tommy and asked, “Did you lock the door?”

Tommy gulped and replied, “I think so.”

And then the entire trailer shook with an earth-shattering BANG! as if it had been hit by a semi truck.

To say that we reacted poorly might be a bit of an understatement. I have vivid recollections of Leah and I screaming for our grandfather, while Matthew cried for his mother and managed to shimmy his way up on top of my and Leah’s heads, and Tommy turned white as fresh snow and very nearly passed out. The decibel levels in that trailer nearly reached critical mass, and I’m sure each of us came as close as any young child ever comes to having a full-on heart attack.

A moment later the door opened to reveal our grandmother – who was practically in stitches – and our aunt, lamenting that she’d broken one of her nails whilst scratching the trailer. It took my cousins and I half a moment to realize what had happened, and half a week to forgive our relatives for nearly sending us all into coronaries.

But here’s the thing: as mad as we were at the time, and as difficult as it was to calm the panicked racing of our childish hearts, it has been one of our favorite stories to recount for the past decade and a half. The tension was so real, the terror so visceral, that I’ve never had any problem picturing the event just as it happened, even though it was years and years ago. I’ve even occasionally dreamed about that night, complete with the heart-stopping panic that accompanied it. That’s the power of fear, and it’s moments like this particular event that make me want to write horror. I don’t want to gross people out, or give them cheap SUPER-LOUD-NOISE! jump scares like so many of the horror movies of today. I want to scare. I want to make people’s skin crawl. I want to make my readers feel uncomfortable sitting in the dark by themselves. I want to make people feel the way I felt as a little kid, sitting in that trailer in the middle of the night, thinking that god-knows-what was about to break through the walls and steal me or eat me or rip me to shreds. I want to give readers that visceral thrill of pure, cold terror.

I think that’s an important part of an artist’s life: wanting to share your experiences, in whatever way you can. My inner child remembers the wonder of fear, the racing heart and ice-like chills, and I want to share that with the world if I can. If one reader someday tells me that I scared them out of their wits, I’ll feel like I accomplished something great.

Do you have any scary memories that stand out in your mind? Scary tales that you can look back on and laugh at? Did you like scary stuff as a kid? Do you enjoy it as an adult? Please share!