13 scary reads for the Day of the Dead

The Little StrangerOkay, I lied about the 13 part – there’s actually only 5. Because on a night like tonight, nothing is as it seems….*cue creepy music*. Anyway, what this post lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, because this is a carefully curated collection of the best scary stories to get you in the mood for fright night. Best read after dark, in the middle of a thunderstorm, in an old house with creaky floorboards and unpredictable wiring. Spooky satisfaction guaranteed.

1. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – M. R. James.
You can’t talk about ghost stories without talking about M.R. James. The classic Victorian spooky tale is defined here, with the sense that the past is never quite done with, and could return at any moment with murderous intent. Plus these collected short stories are much more accessible than weightier classics like Dracula or Frankenstein. O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad is a great starting point. And if you like The Tractate Middoth, you might want to dig out the rather good BBC adaptation that came out last Christmas. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, light up your pipe* and dive in.

2. The Woman in Black – Susan Hill.
I’ve seen the stage version in the West End no less than three times, and I still get shivers down my spine. They use a minimal set and plentiful sound effects, and let your mind fill in the details of the barren marsh, a crumbling gothic edifice, and a shadowy figure lurking just on the edge of your vision. Except, wait – I’m not sure I imagined her…The Daniel Radcliffe outing for the big screen is also worth a watch, although let down by a ‘blah’ finale. For best results, go back to the source text, and be prepared for a few sleepless nights.

3. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski.
Okay, so Marky Z. has made a name for himself as a dahling of the more pretentious literature lover, and you might be a little tired of his need to reinvent the wheel. But there’s a reason this book made such a splash, and it goes beyond experimental forms and wacky typesetting. The narrative threads can be hard to hang on to at times, but they’ll pull you into their oppressive labyrinth until you feel your sense of reality start to warp around the edges. It’s the only book that can make you afraid to look in your closet in case there’s nothing there.

4. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova.
Alright, you’re over vampires. Everyone’s over vampires – the minute Stephanie Whatsherface and Robert ‘Two Expressions’ Pattison got their fangs into the genre, there was no bringing it back to life. But before vampires were sparkly, back when they were still scary but kind of sexy, this smart book took us on a desperate mission into the dark heart of Eastern Europe to defeat an ancient evil. And there wasn’t a werewolf in sight.

5. The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters.
Disclaimer: this book features no girl-on-girl action whatsoever. Not even a little bit. Because Sarah Waters is so much more than just a ‘writer of lesbian fiction’ or even a ‘lesbian fiction writer’. Her skill was evident in her earlier work, but for me, this book proved without doubt that her talent transcends lazy publishing industry labels. The Little Stranger has the trappings of the conventional ghost story: a big house with a tragic past and a family bound together by unhappiness and secrets, watching their way of life fade into history. But though the supernatural elements will send a shiver down your spine, it’s the human frailties at the heart of it all that are truly disturbing. And the final lines deliver a devastating blow.

*For tobacco, like a proper Victorian gentleman. Obviously. Behave, you lot.

Slowly, but surely: It Follows

It’s that time of the year again. Leaves are in crunchy piles at the side of the road. There’s a chill in the air, which makes my nose run every time I leave the house. And we’re gearing up for one of my favourite holidays; All Hallows’ Eve. Halloween to you and me.

I’m a horror movie obsessive; I’ll watch them all, no matter how potentially awful the trailers make them look. 90% will be disappointing on multiple levels: too ambitious on too little budget, too formulaic, too mindlessly gory. To generate that genuine tingle of fear, that vague unease that makes you look over your shoulder when you pause the movie and get up to go to the bathroom…well, it’s tougher than it looks. You can’t just throw a bucket of blood at the set and hope for the best.

There’s a whole sub-genre devoted to the ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of horror, and I’m not one to frown on a B-movie. I laughed my ass off at Sharknado just like everyone else, and I’ve seen Piranha: 3DD twice. Watching Paris Hilton get skewered with a metal pipe in House of Wax* was pretty much the highlight of that decade for me. But still, I get excited when something comes along that promises a few genuine scares. Something that will stick with you for the next few days, rearing up from the depths of your subconscious when you find yourself alone in the dark.

That’s why I think you should watch It Follows this Halloween. If you’re not going out dressed only in your underwear and a pair of cat ears to get wasted and make out with a zombie, then order yourself some delicious takeout and load this up on Netflix. If you did decide to be sociable, then pop this on November 1st while you curl up and nurse your hangover.

It Follows
You’ll find many of the familiar tropes; a bunch of high school kids, white picket fence neighbourhood of New England cul-de-sacs, parents that don’t seem to be home all that much. But there’s something of a Virgin Suicides vibe, right down to the vintage-y fashions and the washed out colour palette. A girl is found horribly mutilated on a grey, windswept beach, and there are echoes of Hannibal**. Though the technology is up to date, it’s hard to place which decade is in the background; this is timeless suburbia, where nothing ever changes.

Our likeable blonde every-girl has a new love interest, but he’s acting strangely. Probably nothing a little car nookie can’t fix, right? So far so Terror at Make Out Point, but things are about to take a sudden and infinitely more interesting turn. I won’t spoil it, but as in every tragedy since man first put stylus to tablet; sex can get you into trouble.

Many horror films start to fall apart once you see the ‘monster’. The suspense skilfully built over the opening scenes crumbles when the source of all your fears is far less frightening than your imaginings. It’s why shaky-camera classics like Blair Witch and Cloverfield work so well: you never get a good look. The threat of It Follows steps right into the open — it’s more solid than most — but it can still never truly be known. It has the unnerving presence of the shapeshifter and the slow, focused movement of the revenant. It takes a leaf from the Japanese tradition of the vengeful demon, and a haunting that can be passed on like a virus.

All this adds up to something that feels fresh and understated, but nonetheless chilling. And the ending is the perfect dramatic question mark, an ode to the classic ‘Happy Ever After…or is it?’ For a horror fan, it’s thrilling to find a film that so thoroughly understands the framework of the genre, but can elevate it to something more challenging. There’s an ethical dilemma at the heart of the movie that creates just as much tension as the looming menace of a curse. If you’re looking for a slightly smarter kind of scare, then this is for you. Just be careful. You might not be able to shake it off.

*Um…spoiler alert? In case that’s not the only thing you know about this movie.

**The TV version, that is. And if you haven’t seen this, and you love all things Gothic, add it to your list.