In celebration of Halloween, Reads beat writers share a few of their favorite works that probe at the unsettling and the horrific, with recommendations that range from classic mysteries to thrillers that delve into the darkest parts of the human mind.
Sofia Schlozman, Contributing Writer (sschloz ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”: If you’re looking for a way to experience the characteristic thrill of horror writing despite your busy schedule, this Oates short story is an excellent option. The text centers around a young, pretty girl named Connie who entertains herself by picking up boys at a local restaurant. When she catches the eye of a mysterious young man in a convertible, the story takes a dark turn. Although just a few pages long, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” brilliantly communicates a slow-building and deeply unsettling feeling of wrongness that lingers with the reader far after the story ends. The story is rife with symbolism, relevant to contemporary social issues and ominous in a way that is subtle enough to make it truly scary. And if you’ve got a lot on your plate this week, don’t worry because the whole thing will only take you a few minutes to read.
Olivia Manes, Contributing Writer (omanes ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”: I am a firm believer in the idea that less is more, particularly when it comes to horror. The things that scare me most are precisely the things that I do not see.
“The Haunting of Hill House” perfectly embodies this principle. Hardly your typical haunted house horror, this book delves into the darkest parts of the human psyche. The house is simply the medium through which Jackson explores the things we fear most about ourselves. It’s not a novel about a house; rather, it’s a novel about the people in it. All of the characters in “Hill House” are unsettling in that they are slightly off, and the events that happen in the house seem to reflect their respective anxieties. There is only one true “ghost sighting,”— and it’s unclear whether this sighting is reality or a reflection of the disintegrating mental state of one of the primary characters, Eleanore. Elements of more contemporary psychological terrors, such as “The Shining,” have distinct strains in “Hill House.” It’s clear that in the world of horror, this is a fundamental work.
This Halloween, read some “Hill House” and enjoy the sleepless nights that will inevitably ensue.
Carly Taylor, Contributing Writer (carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Brian Evenson’s “A Collapse of Horses”: I find that the most genuinely terrifying stories involve no supernatural forces, no monsters, no psychopath killers — just the inner workings of the human mind. The short story “A Collapse of Horses” is a deeply subjective first-person narrative that exploits our inescapable fear of the unreliability of our own senses and minds.
After an accident, the narrator finds his world shifting in subtle ways only he perceives. Every day, his house looks a little different. Some days he has three children and some days four. He learns to hide his fear away from his family because honesty will lead only to a mental institution. He can’t stop fixating on a image of four horses lying down, appearing dead, while a farmer fills their trough as though they are alive. Is our narrator the farmer, the only one oblivious to reality? Or is everyone else the farmer and our narrator the only one capable of seeing what’s behind them — death? The narrator’s fear, both of knowing and not knowing what is real and of knowing whether his reality has any correspondence with reality at all, leads him to extreme acts of destruction as he attempts to escape…
The ending, when we find out what he has done and who he is speaking to, is a shock that sends goosebumps down my spine each time I read it. This story is the perfect combination of metaphysical, psychological fear and good old-fashioned suspense and plot twists, making it an ideal read for anyone looking to get spooked this Halloween.
Scott Stevens, Contributing Writer (scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Seven Japanese Tales“: More gruesome than ghouls is human desire. When lust grows and its roots collide with the narrow pot that is arranged marriage, class and tradition, all kinds of preferences will fester. Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Seven Japanese Tales” takes sex and society to their dangerous meeting point, infusing his masterfully crafted short stories with incest, masochism and erotic spider tattoos forcibly pricked onto the backs of geishas. Written across Tanizaki’s career from 1910 to 1959, these stories reflect the violent changes that wracked Japan in the early 20th century.
Tanizaki does not make any overt political statements but rather illustrates how modern mores surrounding money and gender threatened the delicate refinement of the old Japanese upper class during this time period. I cried while reading the first story, “Portrait of Shunkin,” which is about a talented but cruel harpist who, blinded when she was young, is walked to her lessons by a young boy who becomes her apprentice and victim of her unruly but true love. Most delicious in this collection is the careful arrangement of details in plot and character development as well as the moral ambivalence radiating from these stories — elements sure to delight and disturb readers even today.
Mark York, Staff Writer (mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hounds of the Baskervilles”: Reader, let us delve into the depths of your mind. Leave not a single nook of the imagination unturned. Then, answer me this: What could possibly be scarier than the dark?
Specifically, I’m referring to the unknown … the unexplored terrain that could hold the foulest of demons or the most dire of fates. Sure, you’re unlikely to find a boogeyman inside your closet, but you’re never sure — not completely, anyways — until you check.
For this reason, I find a good mystery to be generally spookier than the average killer clown, especially when it embraces the unknown and blurs the line between reality and nightmare. That is why I recommend to you this Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The current heir of the Baskerville Estate has been murdered, and a supernatural, bloodthirsty hound of lore is set up to be the culprit. Now, eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes must uncover the truth while Watson keeps watch over the new heir of the estate.
Perhaps, this is the most generic pick from the “Sherlock Holmes” series, but there is a reason for its popularity! The misty, claustrophobic setting of Devonshire, the unavoidable air of danger, the warping of the psyche of our characters blurring the material from the fantastical … it’s masterfully done. Doyle takes the element of the “unknown” that comes with mystery and highlights how frightening it can be.
You will never look at your poodle the same way again.
Claire Francis, Staff Writer (claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Anne Sexton’s “Transformations“: Y’all know I’m a hoe for Anne Sexton. After reading the wonderfully witchy “Her Kind” in high school (and attempting to emulate it in a not-so-subtly supernatural identity poem/monologue of my own in a creative writing class), I was hooked on Sexton’s slinky, seductive lyricism and her understated grace, both of which are on effortless display in her fairytale-inspired poetry collection, “Transformations.” Re-imagining classic Grimm narratives like “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Snow White” and “Rapunzel” with the gravity and gore that they deserve, Sexton’s tales are sharp-tongued, visceral and stickily compelling, hypnotic in their metaphors and disturbing in their depth. Marrying fragility with potency, Sexton’s piercing poetry is slick, unapologetic and devastating, alternately Freudian and feminist and, as such, a necessary read for any woman in the modern world.
Shana Hadi, Reads Desk Editor (shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu)
Eugie Foster’s “When it Ends, He Catches Her”: In this thought-provoking short story, Foster skillfully subverts the trope of zombies and horror by portraying an undead couple whose graceful duet becomes an expression of their remaining humanity. Though a world-weary survivor in a post-apocalyptic world, Aisa continues to dance ballet, practicing her former profession while in hiding. As she whisks across the stage and recounts the intricate footwork of “The Snowbird’s Lament,” she mourns the loss of her partner, Balege, whom she could trust to catch her each time she leaped. When he suddenly reappears, Aisa starts to realize the truth of her memories and the current nature of their existence, and how her identity has melded into her art.
This story centers around a striking image of “dead flesh” gracefully moving together in an “eternal performance,” which will linger in your mind along with Foster’s enchanting turns of phrase. Aisa and Balege’s multilayered interactions are simply stunning, and their dynamic is as engrossing as the questions they inspire on the power of the language of body and movement when words prove inadequate. As the story softly fades away around their dance, readers are invited into greater contemplation on love after death and how relationships — and art — deepen after great tragedy.