I may have outgrown candy corn and those weird caramel apple chews that seem to only exist in October, but I hope I’ll never lose my taste for books that keep me up till midnight, tossing, turning, and worrying about what, exactly, lurks under my bed.
In fourth grade, my whole class was terrified—haunted, even—by Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes. Sure, there was an aspect of performance involved (culminating with a fake swoon from Anna W that I still envy) as we read and re-read the story of a step-family’s fragile happiness threatened by a centuries-old drowned ghost. But there was genuine, satisfying unease along with our posturing: the ghost in question is fueled by loneliness, making Helen my first brush with nuanced evil as opposed to one that simply went bump in the night.
The threats were less fleshed out in RL Stine’s (now revamped for re-release!) Fear Street series, but to my late grade-school/early middle-school self (who read them addictively), this only made them more urgent and proximal. With 20/20 hindsight, what I really feared was my fast-approaching stint as a hormonal high-schooler, but because to the average teenagers of Shadyside, Ohio there was no high school experience devoid of lurking evil, I was able to pretend that was what scared me.
I’ve unabashedly loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca since first discovering it in high school. The intense, atmospheric story of the inexperienced and nameless second Mrs. Maxim de Winter struggling with the legacy of her vivacious, impeccable and aristocratic predecessor never fails to deliver chills. For my first several (yes, several) rereads these came mostly from the seething obsession of the ever-loyal Mrs. Danvers; by the time I reached college I found the distant, enigmatic and (spoiler alert!) murderous Maxim himself far more terrifying.
Speaking of college: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw still gives me nightmares. The plot, in which a governess attempts to shield her young charges from a looming supernatural threat, is deliciously uncanny in its own right, but my night terrors are more the stuff of residual academic anxiety. What was the significance of Peter Quint’s red hair? Was it political? Psycho-sexual? A signifier of entrenched class anxiety? Somewhere on my hard drive a (long ago) term paper claims all of the above.
Terror lurks behind big laughs in Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstor, a riff on the classic strangers-spend-the-night-in-a-haunted-house-in-hopes-of-a-big-payoff tale. The “house” in question is the showroom and warehouse of an Orsk (thinly veiled IKEA) store, the strangers a band of varyingly disgruntled Orsk employees. Since there are few things creepier than corporate brand-speak or uncannier than the curated blandness of an IKEA sales floor, the book (itself laid out very much like an IKEA catalog) is guaranteed to strike a nerve. I’ll be sleeping with the lights on tonight.
And then there’s Lois Ruby’s The Doll Graveyard, which my money’s on for the next generation’s Wait Till Helen Comes. Full disclosure: I speak with absolutely zero authority here. I spied the book at my daughters’ elementary school book fair and was too creeped out by the cover and summary to read a single word. Terrifying porcelain effigies? Isolated house in the woods? Tiny coffins? Thanks, but no. I did, however, post the cover on Facebook so the doll-phobes in my life would know I was thinking of them. Just imagine the goose bumps when the facial recognition software began suggesting I tag the dolls as friends, specifically identifying them as some of my nearest and dearest …