What to Read: The Halloween Edition, 2020

It’s almost time for that most deliciously dark night of the year, though I’ve personally been celebrating since September. (As in, that’s when the decorations went up).

My mantle, of which I’m sorta proud.

To commemorate this terrible, wonderful time, I thought I’d share my picks for things to read and things to watch for Halloween. Today is the “what to read” post, so here we go with six of my favorite scary books:

BOOK PICK ONE: World War Z, by Max Brooks. (Fun fact, apropos to nothing: He’s the son of Mel Brooks and the late, great Ann Bancroft. So he’s extra cool.)

I know, I know–a zombie book? Really. I swear, it’s amazing. Not only is it gripping in subject and detail, but the narrative structure is fantastic–unconventional, to be sure, but man, it WORKS. I’ve read this book three times now, and every time I’m blown away by how good it is. (By the way, if you saw the movie version, PLEASE don’t let it sully your reading of the book. Because of the narrative structure I mentioned, this book should never have been made into a film. NEVER. It doesn’t work! I’ll let the folks at “Honest Trailers” shift you away from the movie, but do read the book.)

“Brad Pitt Zombie Movie”

BOOK PICK TWO: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson is my spirit animal, let’s just get that out of the way right now. I adore her writing–she can shift from hilarious (her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which featured her sardonic views on motherhood, had me crying with laughter) to chilly terror in nothing to ninety flat.

This book was SCARY, boys and girls. At first, I kept thinking, “It’s just a creepy old house where things aren’t set right. Is that it?” I didn’t know at first how to feel about the characters–while Jackson has a charming way of including sparkling, clever dialogue in her books, I felt that it was sometimes forced and false, especially when dealing with the protagonist, Eleanor. She went from a suppressed, downtrodden, fearful 32-year-old woman to someone who talked and capered like a young teenage girl once she was in the house. The instant camaraderie between Theodora and herself seemed weird and unrealistic to me–they were all SO jolly–but that is the slyness of Shirley Jackson. She creeps up and slips a hook in you while you’re not looking, just a jab really, a tiny pin-prick while you’re distracted–and then she goes to work, tying you into her web. Suddenly the story was genuinely spooky and I was constantly on edge, trying to figure out what was real and what was not–and praying that no one would ever, EVER be foolish enough to open the door.

Pay attention: Jackson starts and ends the novel with the same words about the house, and those words are fantastic: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Stunning and perfect.

(Side note: The Netflix version of the book, while taking huge liberties with the material, was not too bad.)

If you decide you need more Shirley in your life and in more manageable, bite-sized pieces, Dark Tales is a great collection of her short stories that will blow your mind. I use “The Possibility of Evil” in my English II class, and my students really dig it.

BOOK PICK THREE: The Stand, by Stephen King.

I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Stephen King, starting when I was in around 7th grade in boarding school in Kenya. A friend lent me Salem’s Lot (my mother would never allow such “trash” in the house), and I spent the next year wearing a cross around my neck, terrified of the vampires I just knew would come to get me. I’ve read many, many of King’s books since–some great, some pretty awful–but The Stand is the one I return to over and over. It never ceases to amaze me with its depth, its almost prophetic vision of the world we live in now. (I’ve been calling COVID “Captain Trips” since March, though thankfully it turned out not to be a captain at all. Really, not even a first-mate. Possibly a tourist?)

I first read the original, edited version, then the uncut, and then the edited again, and I can confidently say that there was a reason the editor got rid of so much the first time. The first run of the book reads far better than the unedited version, so if you can get your hands on that one, do it. I think you can find it on ebay–I got mine at a used bookstore.

(And skip the made-for-tv version of the movie with Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, and Gary Sinise–pee-yew. What a stinker!)

BOOK PICK FOUR: The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey.

Yes, another zombie book, and still well-written and engaging. It’s fun and scary, just like Halloween.

The movie for it was meh. Not anything to write home about, but not bad. Read the book first, though. Always.

BOOK PICK FIVE: Something Wicked this Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury.

Fantastic book–scary as heck, and Bradbury’s way with words knocks me at the knees and makes me tumble right over. I had to stop and read several lines aloud just because they tasted so delicious in my mouth. In the book, Dad’s great truths about human nature was less interesting to me, but still he was a great character, and Mr. Dark was fabulous in his evil. By the pricking of my thumb . . .

And finally, BOOK SIX OF BECKY’S SPOOKY READS, 2020: Swan Song, by Robert R. McCammon.

I begin by echoing the reviewers who compare this book with The Stand. The subject is obviously similar–an apocalyptic event that leaves the few humans who survive scrambling to figure out how to go on, two factions of good vs. evil marching towards each other in an inevitable show-down, a spiritual undercurrent that drives everything. HOWEVER: The story was different enough that it still felt like an original story. McCammon is gifted in character and plot development (important considering the massive size of this book). I preferred his less crass style (swearing was a minimum, as was descriptions of sex) to King’s, and as others have noted, his ending is much more developed and just BETTER than the ending in The Stand. Margaret Atwood noted once that most stories come from ancient tales, and I think rather than a knock-off of King’s tale, McCammon just drank from the same story well. I’m glad he did.

So there you have it–books to make your blood cold and your breath catch. Tomorrow I’ll share my favorite Halloween picks. Until then, stay spooky.

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