As part of our regular effort here at Sixoh6 to make sure you have plenty of books to read, lend, or give away, we’ve invited Joseph Michael Sommers to share his favorite spooky books. Dr. Sommers is a Professor of English who teaches and studies children’s and young adult literature, comics, and popular culture at Central Michigan University. Today, he explains why it’s good to read tales of the strange and spooky and shares with us some of his favorite frightening stories. If you’ve read the ones he shares, tell us what you liked (or not) about them, or add your own to our list!
I like spooky reads; I like spooky reads, and I always have.
After the winter holidays, Halloween has always been my jam, and, as I have aged (matured? …no, aged.) into adulthood and fatherhood, that affection for the creepy and kooky, the mysterious and the spooky has aged with me like a fine, fine, bubbling goblet of who only knows what. (Don’t drink it. There’s probably dry ice in there.)
My word choice here is quite specific. While I’m a tremendous fan of thrillers, I have found that work to be relatively few and far between in young adults and children’s literature (YACL). And horror?
TBH—horror bores me as there’s only so much one can do with several five-gallon vats of blood and assorted viscera for the younger set, but spooky? —spooky endures.
And, for me, that comes by definition: “the spooky” works as text that unsettles the otherwise settled, disturbs the undisturbed… generally makes nice clean understandings misunderstood, and upsets the social order. Nature becomes preternatural and not in any sort of delightful double rainbow sort of way.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that (contrary to the last couple years) humanity seems to crave order, fighting the universe’s inclinations towards entropy, and the spooky works contrary to that, lurking about in the miasma of one’s relatively settled psychology with propositions of the fantastic… but perhaps not necessarily desired. And, in YACL, where we frequently find texts that work with more concretized concepts for younger minds, such disorder will often manifest as the spooky. And, let’s face it, the preternaturally fantastic can be a bit upsetting to those trying to moor themselves to a world they don’t as yet completely understand.
And that’s all the spooky really is if you think about it:
Taking an idea or a concept that you recognize as familiar or non-threatening and then strangeing it just a bit, tweaking reality by… oh 10 to 15 degrees, so as to render it a little unsettling or off. Some folks like to call such things liminal fiction, or the bizarre, or the weird (or even the “New Weird” if you enjoy the works of China Miéville.), but, for me, it will always just be the spooky, that place where the boundaries between what we think we know and what we see (or can see because it drags us back to an almost childlike perception of wonder without end brackets) before is break down into that impossibility sitting in our place at the breakfast table, starring us down with button eyes and a healthy contempt for staid realities.
FTR: I see that as a good thing for children and young adults. The spooky opens our minds to different possibilities and myriad seemingly impossibilities in a safe and measured way. Books are powerful, yes, but they close relatively easily as their power is contained between two covers easily shut. Books can be read by children with or by an adult or even in that adult’s lap sitting or within a hand’s breadth of a hug or a squeeze of the hand.
The spooky can open up and stretch the boundaries of the imagination in many ways, but, under the best of circumstances, if some of these suggestions take your little one (or you) a bit too far down the rabbit hole, well, under the best of circumstances, hopefully, there really is someone nearby to remind a little reader that a hug or a the squeeze of a hand can dash away the scariest poltergeist, phantasm, or ghoul.
But, seriously though: if you happen upon the skeleton remains of some nineteenth century manse that has been clearly burnt to the ground several times over and still has fresh police tape and barbed wire surrounding its perimeter… Just pass on exploring it.
That one never turns out well for anyone.
Sommers’ Little List of All Things Spooky to Enjoy this Halloween
Have I mentioned this guy, Neil Gaiman? He’s got a few things you might look at. I’m giving Neil his own little placeholder here because he understands the psychology of the mind and has a pretty good grasp of how to write about it. As a Gaiman scholar (Yes, that’s absolutely a thing!), I can promise you that if you want to read things equally spooky and heart-wrenching, well, here’s a few titles to consider for a few different ages:
- Coraline: At some points, I think all children fear that their parents are out to get them. Sometimes, they’re correct. Other times, it’s just their Other Mother.
- The Graveyard Book: Kipling once conjectured that it takes a jungle to raise a boy; Gaiman placed that boy in a cemetery and let monsters attend to him. That boy came to question who the real monsters in the world are.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane: Narrated, arguably, by Gaiman himself from a moment of his childhood, the unnamed protagonist of Ocean attends a funeral as an adult trigger a series of memories of his childhood perhaps best left repressed.
All these books revolve around a centralized concern for children: their parents. Parents missing or dead, parents who children don’t believe understand or believe them, …the insidious doppelgängers of parents who just want to tear out children’s eyes, suck out their souls and close those holes with buttons… Gaiman addresses all these fears, and so many more, with a care and concern towards the psychology of the young mind and a language they’ll understand. Oh, and witches. Lots and lots of witches.
I love a good haunted house narrative. Home is where the heart is and sometimes that heart holds mysterious and terrors within its chambers. Sometimes that heart is also a stomach. (Adult readers: do yourself a solid and enjoy The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. You’ll thank me… after you curse my name for recommending it to you.)
- Thornhill by Pam Smy: Deliberately unsettling. A book of words and pictures and narrative spaces that are far more insidious than they might otherwise seem. Dueling narratives from two different little girls in two different time periods converge upon one of those aforementioned dilapidated, burnt-out gothic homes whose barbed wire fencing might be meant to keep things in than visitors out.
- The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier: Another narrative concerning abandoned children who probably should have avoided that English manor house… you can probably trust an author who cites Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and “The Great Hunger” of Ireland as underpinning this text.
- Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand: I distinctly remember writing to STAY OUT OF THE SPOOKY VICTORIAN ORPHANGE. Will Victoria listen? Probably not. But when your only friend, Lawrence goes missing, odds are probably good that Mrs. Cavendish might have something to do with it…
- The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen: I noticed that I haven’t really put much in her for younger children. They liked to be scared too. Differently, of course. The Dark not only offers up one of the spookiest things to a young child, but, in a rare case, it offers to rectify that scare by showing them that the things that are visible in the day are the same things that you can’t see at night. You’re welcome, parents.
I adore a piece of Spooky Short Fiction. A bedtime story to tell just long enough to lull you into a liminal moment between the waking world and the playground of the unconscious where all these little stories can run amok. Malevolent little baby nightmares seeds looking to take root in your dreams…
- The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo: Folk talks, as popularly conceived, really are not meant for children—they were meant for adults to scare their children. But who doesn’t love a quaint morality play? These folk tales arise from Bardugo’s Grishaverse, a world she builds in her longer fiction, but the tales speak to the lives of contemporary children while rooting themselves in the traditions of Yiddish/Russian folklore.
- Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Freud speaks of the Uncanny, and Emily Carroll crafts these short graphic (to say comics!) tales out of that particular sort of wonderment. I’m always at a loss as to whether to suggest being given a visual of something spooky makes it more or less spooky. In this case, I’d going to say more. Much more. For those who wish Edgar Allen Poe wrote graphic novels.
Above, a book stack of creepy tales.
Finally, a work that is less spooky but entirely scary and utterly stunning.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, from an idea by Siobahn Down: Sometimes a work transcends a genre and becomes something far more. That is A Monster Calls. I could place it under haunted houses because sometimes the mind is the only home left. And when the mind becomes haunted, well… that’s when things get really terrifying. This book, like so many others I’ve mentioned, shares the motif of losing one’s parents, but it also serves as a tale of loss and grief as well—one far too familiar and far too close to home for many. It is incredibly difficult to read because while it is liminal, and while it is spooky—it’s also very, very real. It contains a humanity that might be too much for a young reader or even an older one. That makes it masterful. It also makes it legitimately frightening in a way unique to every other book here.
Trigger Warning: This book is about the devastating effects of losing someone to cancer. It is both beautiful and horrifying inequal measure. The tears you may cry won’t be ones of fear so much as loss, love, and thoughts of one’s own mortality.
There are others. Of course there are others. I’m old and stodgy, and I do so love the classics that haunted me as a boy. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the short fictions of Edgar Allen Poe are not going to stop being spooky anytime soon. But, you don’t need me to tell you that.
Go out and scare yourself just a little bit this Halloween.
Author and editor of six books, most recently Conversations with Neil Gaiman (UP Mississippi) and the forthcoming The Artistry of Neil Gaiman (also UPM), Dr. Joseph Michael Sommers is an associate editor for Children’s Literature Quarterly and Editorial Board member of INKS: The Journal of the Comic Studies Society. He’s pretty much the working definition of an academic rogue, scoundrel, or other form of ne’er-do-well (Do people still use the word “cad”?), but his kids like him—so, he’s cool with that.