I don’t click well with a lot of horror movies. Something about everything rushing onto the screen makes it hard for me to build a decent headful of suspense. But horror stories, now—that’s something else. Especially children’s stories.
Take, for instance, the mildly gruesome Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac. Molly’s parents have vanished overnight, and a great-uncle she doesn’t remember has shown up to claim her. The food is strange, and her uncle has a habit of locking her in her room at night and skulking outside the door. But with school authorities, he’s perfectly charming. Her only hope of outwitting her uncle lies in dreams and Native American legends, helped by a supportive teacher. Molly’s suspicion and dawning horror are visceral, and the book’s final conversation is so matter-of-fact that it’s more chilling than any embellishment could have been.
Or Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn, possibly one of my favorite ghost stories. Molly and Michael are not pleased to be uprooted to live in a former church; they’re still adjusting to their new stepfather and his daughter Heather, who’s been troubled ever since her mother died in a fire. Heather’s acting out intensifies when she befriends Helen, a ghost with her age and initials whose parents also died in a fire. When Molly tries to intervene, Heather threatens, “Wait till Helen comes!” and their parents coddle Heather. But Helen has a habit of luring her friends underwater with siren promises of unicorns and mermaids and crystal palaces…right at the age that many girls are fascinated by such things. You can just imagine the pond, and the desolate place… The resolution is haunting and the relationships realistic.
What makes these books so horrifying for me is the undercurrent of disbelief; the sick-swallowing unease of any disorienting situation is amplified when you lack support, and bootstrapping yourself out of it can be at least the real life equivalent of being chased by a skeleton.
What about you?