The Stories that Scared US

Obviously, all of us at Spooky MG love creepy stories. And we love the ones written for young readers with a special fierceness.

But I wanted to know about the books that genuinely terrify us—or that terrified us when we were young and impressionable, and that may have given us writing (or nightmare) material for years to come.

I’ll knew what my own answer would be:

Scary Stories Trilogy

Like pretty much everyone else in my Elder Millennial/Oregon Trail generation, my third grade mind was blown by Alvin Schwartz’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. I was terrified by those collections, and I adored them—probably for the same reasons. My friends and I would read them aloud at sleepovers, poring over Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, scaring ourselves catatonic. On my own, I would turn back to certain stories or images again and again, seeing if they were as frightening as I remembered. They always were.

If I had to pick a few stories that really dug their hooks into me, I might say “The Bride” (Gah, “The Bride”!!), “The Wendigo” (Its frozen, empty eeriness hit this upper Midwesterner hard), or “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” where the protagonist’s dog begins speaking in strange nonsense words, and is answered by a voice that comes from somewhere in the darkness outside his little cottage… The thought of that one still makes me shudder.

I know some grownups who say they were scarred by these books, and who wish they hadn’t read them when they were small. I suppose I was scarred by them too. But I’m weirdly grateful for it. Without them, I’m not sure what dark and terrible things would be missing from my imagination. And now I get to play with those dark and terrible things when I sit down to write creepy stories of my own.

So, what books for young readers scared—or scarred—my fellow Spookies?

 

Ghostly AnimalsSarah Cannon (ODDITY, TWIST)

Before SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK or GOOSEBUMPS, there was an author named Daniel Cohen who used to put out scary story collections, and GHOSTLY ANIMALS in particular scared the pants off me. There was a ghost that was a skunk with a human face, which was so completely out of left field that it blindsided me…it hadn’t even occurred to me to be scared of such a thing before! Also, Phillis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch series (WITCH WATER, WITCH’S SISTER, etc.) scared me half to death, mostly because the villain was a scary old lady neighbor. The adults could *see* her, they just thought the kids were being fanciful. But they weren’t, and the scary incidents that illustrated this were extremely real to me.

 

LionWitchWardrobe CoverSamantha M. Clark (THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST)

The book that terrified me most as a kid was actually THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. I was terrified that the Witch was going to turn me to stone and horrified about all the animals that had been turned to stone. The idea still haunts me to this day. I’ve never been able to look at realistic statues without wondering if a person is trapped inside…

 

 

The_BFG_(Dahl_novel_-_cover_art)Tania del Rio (WARREN THE 13TH series)

So a book that scared me as a kid was The BFG by Roald Dahl, which is funny because it’s not even a scary book, at least not compared to, say, THE WITCHES. And even though BFG literally stands for big FRIENDLY giant, I still used to lay awake at night terrified that an enormous eye would peer into my bedroom window or that a massive hand would reach through and whisk me away. Even the idea of a giant man blowing pleasant dreams through a long horn creeped me out. It didn’t help that I had tall poplar trees in my backyard and at night, their silhouettes looked like giants wearing long cloaks! 😬

 

Janet Fox (THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE)

I hate to say it, but almost nothing I read as a kid scared me. Even the grownup books. Even DRACULA. But put me in front of a mildly scary movie – even today – and I will have nightmares for weeks, months, years. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s the truth. And maybe why I can write scary books today.

 

Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)

In a Dark, Dark Room

Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)

The first scary story that comes to mind is “The Green Ribbon” by Alvin Schwartz from his IN A DARK, DARK ROOM collection. I remember a librarian reading this to my class as kindergarteners – which seems bizarre now because it’s SUCH a scary story, even by today’s standards! We were all sitting on the carpet, huddled together, just listening. I could not stop thinking about it for days afterwards. It definitely gave me nightmares, but it also left me wanting more. I’m sure that read-aloud jump started my love of all things spooky!

 

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

The Children of Green Knowe

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

I have to admit that I was a Nancy Drew addict—these creepy, spooky, mysterious books always appealed to me. Plus, I enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle, and they were easily accessible at the small local libraries where I lived when I was an MG reader. But I also remember how creepy and chilling the GREEN KNOWE books by Lucy M. Boston were. Loved them! And often I would ready spooky Clyde Robert Bulla books like THE GHOST OF WINDY HILL. First and foremost in monstrous books for me were fairy tales and folklore stories, which were again easily accessible and often taught at school.

 

Kim Ventrella (THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM, THE SKELETON TREE, etc.)

As a kid, I always found myself yearning for stories that both transported me and reflected my experiences, and those experiences weren’t always roses and rainbows. Books that tackled tough topics or delved into the scary or macabre, rather than frightening me, made me feel accepted and understood. They validated my experience and gave me courage. I especially loved SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, mostly thanks to the disturbing, ethereal imagery. Unlike other scary books for kids, that collection didn’t sugar-coat things. I remember being in fifth grade and getting super upset when I read a book (that shall remain unnamed :P) where the ‘monster’ turned out to be some big misunderstanding, basically a Scooby Doo ending. I wanted the monsters to be real, so that I could see kids overcoming true evil. I longed for that catharsis. The funny thing is that now, as an adult, my books with ’spooky’ themes are all about finding light, whimsy and wonder in the midst of darkness. The spooky elements are there partly to lessen the blow of the real-life tough topics I address, like loss and grief. But I think the two needs are connected, i.e. the need I had as a young reader to see kids overcoming true evil, and the recognition that, as an adult, real life is much more terrifying than any kind of fantasy monster.

 


Jacqueline West is the author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, THE COLLECTORS, and DIGGING UP DANGER, as well as the YA horror novel LAST THINGS. Visit her at http://www.jacquelinewest.com, or find her at jacqueline.west.writes (Instagram) or @JacquelineMWest (Twitter).

Writing Tool: The Pandemic Attic Notebook

Anyone else having a little trouble concentrating these days?

Ugh.

In all honesty, I was having a bit of trouble concentrating on writing even before this global pandemic began. After turning in the draft of my next MG novel (a creepy book-within-a-book about sisters and stories and a haunted library, tentatively titled LONG LOST and coming out sometime in 2021—woohoo!), I found myself wavering between four other gestating projects, with a new baby and a just-turned-five-year-old occupying most of my attention, and then…

…Well, you know.

Suddenly, with no preschool or family help, most of my writing time was gone. But not writing at all was making me feel immeasurably worse, like it always does.

So I started something new. (I suppose I officially started it just over a year ago, during a between-books patch, and dropped it when my schedule got crazy again. But we don’t need to talk about that.) It’s called the Attic Notebook. I first heard about it from Laini Taylor, but many writer friends have pointed out similar exercises, like the “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way.

Here are the basics:

– Write in a designated notebook for 10 – 15 minutes each day, using simple prompts to get started, never stopping to revise or look back.

– Write in any form or style: poetry, essays, short or long fiction, whatever comes.

– Once you’ve filled the notebook, hide it away for at least six weeks.

– When you take it out again, imagine that you found the notebook at the bottom of an old trunk in someone else’s attic. Not only will you see the writing with fresh eyes, but it should feel a little like buried treasure.

lamp Attic Notebook

Each morning, before anyone else in my house gets up, I’ve been creeping downstairs to scribble in my Attic Notebook. I try not to think about why I’m writing, about what each  piece is for, about if it will ever turn into anything publishable or finish-able or worthwhile at all. I just pick a prompt and write. I’ve filled one notebook already, and I’m putting off the reading part for as long as I can stand it. Maybe I’ll run out of patience soon and sit down and dive in. But it’s been a great reminder that process matters more than product. And it’s helping me step outside of my anxieties for a little while each day, and that’s been sanity-saving.

 

(Voila: My Pand-Attic Notebooks! If you want to keep one with me during this era, I suppose you could call it a “Shelter-in-the-Attic Notebook,” or a “Quarantine Notebook,” especially if you want to get literal and let yourself read it after exactly 40 days…)

Here are some of the prompts I’ve come up with. Feel free to use them, to add your own, to find others–whatever works for you. And if you want to share any of your process, you can tag me on FB or Instagram (jacqueline.west.writes). It’s nice to remember that we aren’t really alone these days — even while we’re scribbling in the dark all by ourselves.

Prompts:
– Come in from the cold
– Capture the flag
– Paw print
– Lost button
– Shadow caster
– Last rites
– Switched at birth
– Freak show
– Winding road
– To be honest
– Since when
– Hour of beasts
– Hide and seek
– Choked with vines
– Paralyzed
– Survival of the fairest
– Beware
– Monarch
– Pomegranate seeds
– Poison field
– Pan pipes
– Courage
– Locked drawer
– Morning glory
– Sea of storms

 

 

Horror for the Holidays

There’s one holiday that most of us associate with scary stories—and it doesn’t fall in December. In the US, at least, Halloween is the season for everything dark and strange and spooky. Meanwhile, the December holidays are all about coziness and comfort and light, whether that light comes from a row of burning candles or a twinkling tree.

And that’s our loss. After all, what could be cozier than sitting around a crackling fireplace while the wind howls outside, shivering over a great ghost story?

Early storytellers got this. The tradition of telling scary tales in winter goes back centuries, to ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. On the longest, darkest nights of the year, the divide between the realms of the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. Clans gathered around Yule fires to share strange tales, letting light and warmth keep the icy dark at bay. (You can’t have firelight—or strings of glowing fairy lights stapled all over your house—without darkness, after all!)

The tradition survived through Shakespeare’s time—“A sad tale’s best for winter,” he wrote in The Winter’s Tale. “I have one. Of sprites and goblins.”—and had a boom in Victorian England, when writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Algernon Blackwood penned wintery ghost tales, and Charles Dickens published what might be the most famous ghost story of all: A Christmas Carol.


(“The Last of the Spirits,” by Harry Furniss)

So for everyone who’s ever listened to the lyrics of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow… There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”) and thought: Wait. What?—yes, the winter holidays are a perfect time for scary stories. Maybe it’s time for all of us creepy book lovers to bring the tradition back.

Want an eerie, wintery MG read to spark your own Yule celebration? Here are some options:

Crowfield Capture

The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh (2010). Set in a chilly medieval abbey and its surrounding woods, this tale of goblins, buried secrets, and dark magic is rich with historical details and unsettling mystery—plus, Walsh captures the cold of winter so vividly, you’ll want to read it beneath a thick blanket. Or two.

Dead Voices

Dead Voices, by Katherine Arden (2019). The follow-up to Arden’s popular Small Spaces moves from autumn into wintertime, featuring a snowbound ski lodge and the ghosts that haunt it. Pour yourself some cocoa and dive in.

200px-p_wolves_of_willoughby_chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken (1962). The godmother of all gothic MG fiction. An isolated manor in the snowy British countryside? Cruel, conniving servants and mistreated but resourceful children? Packs of howling wolves everywhere? What’s not to love?

greenglass-house-large

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford (2014). This Edgar Award-winning mystery is a bit like a game of Clue set in a remote inn during a brutal snowstorm, but with richer characters and greater depths.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Ghosts of Christmas Past, edited by Tim Martin (2018). While not strictly a middle grade book, this collection features short stories by many authors who are well-known to MG and YA audiences (Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, Kelly Link, etc.), and has a little something for everyone, from short and darkly funny pieces to classic, truly haunting tales.

Happy holidays, and happy reading!

JacquelineWest2017cropped
Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT-bestselling dark fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere, the MG mystery Digging Up Danger, and the Schneider Family Honor-winning MG fantasy The Collectors and its sequel, A Storm of Wishes. She loves creepy stories, warm fires, and hot coffee, and at this time of year, you can probably find her enjoying all three at once. Visit her at www.jacquelinewest.com.