What is the appeal of horror? I remember reading the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe with a friend from junior high years ago. We would sit with a flashlight in the back of a dark closet in my home in Illinois, taking turns reading and scaring ourselves half to death. At night, still terrified, I would bolt under my covers, hiding my head under the blankets while still imagining the horrors from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” You would think that experiences like that would have turned me away from that genre forever. But not so. As others have discovered, it is cathartic to read these books. After all, they deal with the many unanswered questions that humans have grappled with through the ages.
From Greek and Roman myths and the writings of the Bible, to the medieval stories of werewolves and vampires and the Gothic novels of Hugh Walpole (The Castle of Ostranto that Jane Austen skewers in Northanger Abbey), to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, and to all the books that follow, storytellers have pondered such questions as, “What is death?” “Is death final?” “Is there some type of life after death?” “Can people be awakened from death?” “Are demons or monsters real?” There is rich material in this source material for any horror writer. And, after all, it is fun – most of the time – to be scared. Plus, Halloween is the perfect time of year to be frightened of what goes “bump in the night.”
I chose a variety of novels to review in the “haunted house” category because this is my favorite genre. The first is Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco, written in 1973. (Stephen King once commented that it was an influence on his book, The Shining.) Rather dated now, the story revolves around a couple, Ben and Marion, and their son Dave, who live in Queens. They are tired of their hot, cramped apartment, yet they are unable to afford a vacation outside the city. So when Marion finds an ad for a large shabby home in upstate New York for a very affordable rate, they decide to rent it after one visit, And there is room for Aunt Elizabeth, too. There is only one condition: the owners, a brother and sister, have a mother who lives upstairs in a wing of the house. She never leaves her room, but she needs three meals a day, left outside her bedroom. She won’t bother them at all; they will never know she is there. At one point, the owners ask Ben and Marion how many people will be staying in the house. “‘Is it important?’ Marion asked.”
“Not necessarily. It’s just that there are more than thirty rooms here. It can take a heck of a lot of people to make a house this size come alive.” We won’t understand this last comment until the end of the book.
Similar to The Shining, this house also comes to life in a terrifying way as Marion spends most of her time cleaning and polishing the furniture, Ben’s behavior gradually alters dramatically, Aunt Elizabeth grows feeble, and Dave looks on his parents’ behaviors helplessly. By the end of the book, only Marion is left.
I first read Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) in West Virginia, one cold dark winter afternoon in front of a fire. We had lost power, and my then-husband was out shoveling snow. By the time he came back inside, I had thoroughly frightened myself. When I finished the book (I had to finish it), I threw it out – the only time I have ever done that. Of course, I’ve read it again and have seen the Stanley Kubrick movie several times.
What is it about The Shining? In the book, Jack Torrance, who is a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, wants to be a good man, a good husband, and a good father. He agrees to act as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, along with his family, over the winter months when no one else will be there. However, a predisposition to alcohol; his anger that he isn’t getting ahead and taking care of his family the way he should; and the evil underlying the hotel – the hotel that really wants his son, Danny, who has the psychic talent, to “shine” – are too much for him.
The woman in Room 217, the topiary animals in the yard that appear to shift and move, the faint party noises that appear to come from the ballroom, and the growing isolation from the outside world all add to the terror in the book. The monsters, which live both inside Jack and within the hotel, are awakened by the family’s presence.
King himself has said that there are generally three different types of horror: the “gross-out” (the sight of a severed head tumbling down the stairs); “the horror” (when the lights go out and something with claws grabs your arm) and the worst one, “terror” (“It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”). The Haunting of Hill House (1959), for me, is the greatest example of the latter. Its author, Shirley Jackson, did not need blood or gore to frighten her readers. Stephen King wrote that The Haunting of Hill House is – along with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw – one of “the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” while Ramsey Campbell called it “the greatest of all haunted house novels, and arguably the greatest novel of the supernatural.”
Hill House is somewhere in New England, far off the beaten tracks. An “occult scholar,” Dr. John Montague, rents this house with an unhappy past so that he can scientifically explore suspected supernatural activity there. He invites a young man who is heir to the house (a condition of the owners for renting him the house) and two young women who have reportedly had psychic experiences in the past. There is also a caretaker couple who, ominously, tell the group repeatedly that they do not stay at the house overnight.
Of the two women, Eleanor is the naive young one who reportedly once instigated poltergeist activity. The other three persons in the group start to believe that Eleanor is the cause of “Strange noises, unexplained events and writing on the walls…” What happens is left to the reader. Is the house haunted? Is it preying on the susceptible Eleanor? Is it Eleanor who is bringing out the paranormal activity?
One of the scarier parts of the book for me was the night that Eleanor and Theo, terrified, are sharing Eleanor’s room in the dark, listening to a voice “going on and on, never ceasing, and she (Eleanor) hung desperately to Theodora’s hand and felt an answering weight in her own hand….It is a child, she thought with disbelief, a child is crying somewhere….This is monstrous, this is cruel, they have been hurting a child….Now, Eleanor thought, perceiving that she was lying sideways on the bed in the black darkness, holding with both hands to Theodora’s hand…I will not endure this. “STOP IT,” she shouted, and then the lights were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled. “What, Nell? What?” “God, God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God. God, whose hand was I holding?”
Shirley Jackson ends the book by writing “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against the hills, holding its darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more…and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) isn’t a clear-cut haunted house story at first. The time is 1947, and there is no National Health Service as yet. General practitioner Dr. Faraday is sent out one evening to Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire in the absence of his partner, when the young servant girl Betty says she is ill. However, she is actually afraid of the old gloomy house and wants some type of excuse to leave, so that she can work in a factory instead, like her other young friends. The doctor gradually becomes involved with the family and their lonely way of life – plus, he covets the Hall. Dr. Faraday is not a social equal to the Ayres family, and his mother was once actually a servant there to the family. The current master of the Hall has returned from war service in the RAF with a nervous condition. His mother still acts as though the house, falling apart, is the elegant home it had once been, and Rod’s sister Caroline, a homely young woman, attempts to keep the house together with one servant.
Mrs. Ayres, Rod and Caroline’s mother, believes that her first daughter, Susan, who died of diptheria at age 8, is trying to contact her. Susan appears to harm Mrs. Ayres and also Rod. However, only Betty, sleeping alone in the basement, seems to truly sense the creepiness and general ghastliness of the house. Faraday sees only rational explanations for what is going on in the house, as the reader becomes more and more frightened for the family as inexplicable events occur. Is Susan the “little stranger” who haunts the family? Is there a rational explanation, as Dr. Faraday believes? By the end of the book, only Faraday is left to wander the house alone. “Hundreds was consumed by some dark germ, some ravenous shadow-creature, some ‘little stranger,’ spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself. […] If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed – realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.”
The House Next Door (1978), by Anne Rivers Siddons, is that rarity, a modern haunted house. Colquitt and Walter Kennedy live in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, on a cul-de-sac adjacent to a strangely shaped piece of land that hasn’t been developed yet. They love their quiet lives, their jobs, their neighbors, and they know that they are lucky people. Then, young architect Kim Dougherty arrives. He has just the right plans for a contemporary home to fit into that plot next door, and just the right rich young couple to pay him to build it. The construction begins, Colquitt and Walter enjoy Kim’s growing friendship, and all seems to go well, until the night of the housewarming party the young couple throws when the house is completed.
Tragedy strikes, the young couple moves out, and two more families move in and out, one after the other. Colquitt thinks the house is haunted – but how? No one else believes her, the architect is blocked and can’t seem to plan other homes, and the rest of her neighbors gradually cut her off. Only when the problems next door come too close to home does her husband believe her. They try to publicize what has happened in the house to no avail. When Kim returns after a trip to Europe with his girlfriend and declares that they will move into the house themselves, if only to prove that the Kennedys are wrong about the house, Walter and Colquitt know they need to move quickly before any other tragedies happen.
Stephen King has written that The House Next Door is “a contemporary ghost story with Southern Gothic roots and one of the best genre novels of the 20th century.” There is no ghost in this book; the house itself is haunted and loves to prey on the weaknesses of the people who live there, or even visit it, as its power grows.
Finally, for those who want to explore the horror/comedy genre, Horrorstor (2014) by Grady Hendrix may be for you. This book is set in ORSK, a store very similar to IKEA, that has been experiencing supernatural activities. (ORSK had been built on land that had previously been the site of a prison that was closed due to cruel treatment of prisoners.) If this book sounds appealing, this is what the author wrote about it:
“I wrote Horrorstor to be simultaneously funny and scary, while paying tribute to the retail warriors who staff our big box stores….I couldn’t be more excited about taking an audience and trapping them overnight with me in the flatpack hell that is ORSK — the ultimate haunted house, full of Infinite aisles, murderous ghosts, and incomprehensible faux-Scandinavian names.”
To summarize, why DO people continue to read scary books? For Stephen King, the answer is that “horror fiction serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.” Also, everyone is afraid of something, whether it is clowns, vampires, enclosed spaces, demons or – that most basic fear, perhaps – the dark. With a book, you can control that fear and close it when it gets to be too much. We’ll let King have the last word: “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
Lucinda “Cindy” Knox, raised in Illinois, is a retired social worker who also worked as an English teacher and a legal assistant. A member of OLLI-USF since 2007, Cindy has taken numerous courses in literature, writing, theater, poetry, science, humanities, history and politics. She is a regular Great Books course participant.