All Hallow’s Read: Classic Horror Short Story Recommendations

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In 2011, Neil Gaiman—award-winning fantasy author of American Gods, Coraline, and The Sandman series, among many, many others—proposed a new Halloween tradition, All Hallow’s Read. The idea’s simple: give someone a scary book or story for Halloween. Two years in All Hallow’s Read is gaining traction, particularly online and, of course, among libraries and their staff—any excuse for a good book display or readers’ advisory opportunity.

The official All Hallow’s Read site includes an extensive list of recommendations, for all ages and preferences, pulled from a variety of sources, including Gaiman’s personal list and those from several publishers.

Most of the people I’m hanging out with at the moment are MLIS candidates and, for all that the program choice might imply an undying love of books, we’re coming back from research week and I doubt anyone’s finding they have much time for reading right now. With that in mind, I’m going to offer up some short stories. Some nice, creepy bedtime reading to lull you gently off to sleep—until a floorboard creaks somewhere in your apartment. Now, I love the classics, which is has its advantages and disadvantages; on one hand, ‘classic’ can be shorthand for ‘played out’ and the archaic language isn’t for everyone; on the other hand, hey, generally they survived for a reason and by now they’re in the public domain.

So, a few suggestions, if you’re looking for something brief but chilling, complete with links to a variety of formats you can download:

Edgar Allen Poe
Yes, yes, completely predictable, but there’s a reason Poe’s name is synonymous with horror. He remains the king of the horror short story, and created a truly prodigious body of well-crafted creepy tales and poems. Also, he’s arguably the father of detective fiction and seriously influenced science fiction as a genre, so you know he had it figured out.
Poe writes a really specific sort of fictionalized madness that permeates his texts and often employs a gradually increasing sense of hysteria in tone that’s particularly effective with his first person narration.
Personally, I enjoy ‘The Black Cat,’ a story about a man who commits a crime and is driven mad by his guilt. Like “A Tell-Tale Heart,” but with a cat. You can find it in The Works of Edgar Allen Poe: Volume II. All of his short stories are good fun, though: “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the list goes on and on.

Plus, Jules Verne was a fan.

Image‘Come Dream with Me Tonight’ By Kate Beaton

The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Alan Ryan once introduced this short story as “one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not.” “The Yellow Wallpaper” is defined by the common thread that runs through this collection: descent into madness. It’s the story, told in first person, of a woman who is driven mad by the wallpaper of her sickroom. It’s brilliant, a slow build with a Gothic feel, and also something of a cautionary tale of its time: Gilman published it in 1892, after she had been similarly confined on the orders of her doctor as treatment for her depression. In desperation, she eventually broke her treatment and, realizing how severely the ‘rest cure’ had further deteriorated her mental health, wrote this short story as a kind of protest against 1890′s oppressive psychiatric practices.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is considered a seminal work of American feminist literature, and Gilman’s life and work can readily support such a reading, but whether the context of the misogynist medicinal practices of its time make this work scarier for you or not, it’s still worth the read as a lovely piece of disturbing, psychological creepiness.

ImageOh, Kate Beaton, is there anything you don’t have a comic for?

H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft has a narrower appeal than Poe. I find people’s reactions to him can sometimes be ambivalent, but usually they tend toward extremes, in a kind of ‘you-love-him-or-you-hate-him’ way. But maybe you’ll never be able to decide? Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story in tribute to Lovecraft entitled “There Are More Things” that was published in his collection The Book of Sand, but in the epilogue of the very same book calls him “an involuntary parodist of Poe.” Jeez, Borges, make up your mind. So, all this is a long-winded way of saying that it’s sort of hard to gauge how any one person will like him. Try him out if:

  •  you like the whole ‘descent into madness’ angle (In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear by my earlier recommendations, this is my horror preference)
  • ‘cosmic horror’ sounds interesting: Lovecraft goes big. This doesn’t just mean gigantic monsters—don’t worry, they are plenty of those too—it means that much of the horror of Lovecraft’s stories is based on dealing with forces so far beyond humanity that we’re powerless in their presence—existential horror, essentially. He refers extensively to things beyond the bounds of human understanding. Words like ‘singular’ and ‘nameless’ are often used. People faint a lot.

If you’re interested, you could start with “The Colour Out of Space,” in which the narrator is chasing down the story about a local region where a meteorite crashed—bringing with it something that devastates the landscape and people around it. Lovecraft created an overarching mythos that informed a lot of his short stories, but you don’t need to know any of it for this story.

(& for MLIS candidates and librarians—“The Dunwich Horror,” one of the core stories of Lovecraft’s mythos, features an unusually heroic librarian.)

* BE AWARE that Lovecraft, as with many writers, should to be read critically—in this case, specifically because he was crazy racist and classist. This doesn’t affect all his stories, but it comes across in many of them in small ways. Avoid “The Street,” and expect undertones/instances in “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “Reanimator,” among others.

ImageH.P. Lovecraft by Mike Mignola
Apparently there is something Kate Beaton doesn’t have a comic about. Betrayed!

One final thing:
Not a scary read, but on the subject of Gaiman and Lovecraft. For anyone who appreciates Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Lovecraft’s mythos, Neil Gaiman wrote a clever short story combining the two, called “A Study in Emerald.” It won the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story along with a couple other awards, and is available for free on his website, in the format of a fictionalized Victorian newspaper.

Yes, I know my list looks like a compilation of cliché horror literature, but these babies are the original clichés, the wellsprings from which tired old horror conventions and tropes originally emerged. Exciting stuff. Honestly, I’m woefully out of touch with contemporary horror lit. I’m lucky there’s such an abundance of recommendations this time of year, especially as its now spurred on by All Hallow’s Read. Anyone got any suggestions for me?

Interested in children/youth programming or creative book displays?

Update, 26/01/2014: Unfortunately Rachel Moani’s blog was hacked, but you can still find her displays and information on her library’s programming on her ‘My Library, Programs, and Displays‘ pinterest board. The links in this post are currently dead, though I’ll leave them up with the hope that the site will be resurrected.

If so, you definitely need to check out the blog of Rachel Moani who works in the youth services department of a public library in Washington state. The blog’s personal and professional, so you’ll get posts about her life and sketchbooks as well as posts about library life. You might recognize this display that made the rounds online during this year’s banned books weeks:

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“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

A quote from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. A book which, incidentally, took 130 years to be published in its full, uncensored form.

I’ve been ruminating on the topic of challenged books in the wake of this year’s Banned Books Week. In the Graduate Resource Center at Western’s Faculty of Information & Media Studies there is a collection of books which had been banned or challenged. I took the time to look them over and was unsurprised by most of the content; I knew of the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ and the inclusion of novels like Warren Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’ was hardly shocking. (For the record, I disliked Ellis’ book, but that just means I put it down without finishing it, not that I decided I should ‘protect’ others from being exposed to it)

ImageThe banned books shelf in the GRC

What struck me most was the prevalence of children’s or young adult fiction in the lists of banned books. Of the top ten challenged books in 2012, 6 were books for children or young adults; in 2011, it was 8 of 10. There’s a clear ‘save the children’ mentality present here.

But the books that I recognize on this shelf are the books that I loved most as a child, that I remember most vividly. I loved them because they challenged me. It was exciting and, yes, scary, to read something that was slightly beyond me, that made me think seriously. Children are capable of engaging with morally complex literature, and capable of growing from the experience. If someone is worried about their children consuming certain kinds of media then that is a discussion that they need to have with their children, not a excuse for censorship.

So, in celebration of Banned Books Week, even if it’s a little belated, here a few of my childhood favourites from the banned books shelf, along with the reasons they were challenged:

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Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, (1962) – offensive language; undermining religious beliefs; promoting witchcraft, crystal balls, and demons

Lois Lowry’s The Giver, (1993) – offensive language; themes of suicide, infanticide and euthanasia

Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, (1995) – religious viewpoint, political viewpoint

What about you? Do you recognize any books you enjoyed on our shelf or on the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books?