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.

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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!

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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.

Talking Death & Douglas: A Conversation with J.W. Ocker.

 

Hi J, thanks so much for taking the time to hang here at Spooky Middle Grade! Since this site is a community of spooky authors, I figured I’d throw out a broad question first:

What first drew you to the world of horror and the macabre?

I’ve always loved monsters. I feel like they’re the ultimate expression of creativity. You can make a great fictional human character, and that’s fine. Good job. Add them to the massive pile of great fictional human characters. It’s right beside the massive pile of great real-life human characters. But you come up with a new monster? You’ve done something special.

The macabre might’ve gone along with that infatuation. I tell people it’s like having a favorite color. I don’t know why I like dark green. I just do. I don’t know why I think the human skull is the most interesting object on the planet or why I find the ambiance of a 17th century graveyard so appealing. I just do.

You run a very popular blog, ODD THINGS I’VE SEEN (OTIS). Can you tell us a bit about that? How did it come about?

OTIS is an ongoing chronicle of my visits to weird sites and artifacts. I’ve seen thousands of oddities in the 11 years that I’ve been doing OTIS. The project has enriched my life to the point I’m thinking about starting a religion based on it. Especially since the whole project started out of boredom and loneliness and low self-worth and lack of writing projects and other sad things. Gave me a reason to get outside. To see stuff. To exercise my ability to wonder. It also gave me something to write about when I desperately needed it.

Can you give us a few favorite haunts you’ve visited for OTIS?

The Capuchin Crypts in Rome (especially the Pelvis Room!); the Cushing Brain Collection at Yale; the everburning ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; a rest stop full of carnivorous lilies on the coast of Oregon. My favorites change every day.

Your non-fiction books have garnered a lot of attention and critical acclaim. Did the initial ideas spring from your travels for OTIS, or had you always wanted to focus on that specific subject matter?

OTIS started it all, 100%. If it weren’t for that project, I might still be unpublished. It gave me material, it gave me an expertise, it taught me writing discipline, it helped me practice nonfiction, it gave me enough of an audience to support the first book. And the second book. And has probably kept me in the publishing game to this day.

Your first MG novel, DEATH AND DOUGLAS, hit the shelves this past October. Can you talk a bit about your experience delving into the world of MG fiction?

Ha. It’s so different from my nonfiction experience. My nonfiction readers contact me and basically chat shop. They tell me the stuff they’ve seen and we exchange tips and experiences. It’s a really cool author-reader relationship.

Middle grade is a little…boggling. Seeing my book in the kid’s section of a bookstore surrounded by Dr. Seuss art and images of Harry Potter and Disney characters is surreal. Getting invited to give talks at elementary schools feels…not right. My eldest daughter coming home from school to tell me this friend or that friend read Death and Douglas and liked it is not something I know how to react to.

Get this, earlier this year, somebody showed me an Instagram photo of a middle-grade girl (someone I didn’t know) dressed as Douglas for National Book Week at her school. That gets me teary and is completely formidable and is something I’ll remember the rest of my life.

DEATH AND DOUGLAS, deals with some pretty intense subject matter. More so, I’d say, than any middle grade horror I’ve read in a long time. Did you ever struggle with the idea of it being too dark for younger readers? If so, how did you find that balance?

Oh man, thanks for saying that. I wanted to push it as far as I could. I wanted it to seem dangerous. When I was a kid, the books that opened my mind and addicted me to reading me were the ones I thought my parents would disapprove of if they knew what was in the book. They were my first experiences of independence. And I wanted Death and Douglas to seem like that. I wanted it to be a book that kids slid out from beneath their mattresses and read by flashlight under blankets after their parents went to bed. The difficult part was, I also wanted to write it in a way that parents would actually be okay with the story if they read it themselves. Well, the cool parents, anyway.

Plus, I like saying that I wrote a kid’s book about a serial killer.

That said, I gave my wife the first third of my current WIP, and she thinks it’s too scary for kids. I don’t know if she’s a cool parent.

In D&D, The Mortimers are a family of morticians. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with our society’s views on death. Did you set out to write a book set around a funeral home and mortician culture, or did that come later as the initial mystery began to unfurl?

I wanted to write a book about a kid in a morbid setting. That was the impulse. Since Neil Gaiman already wrapped his stupid, talented, bestselling fingers around the graveyard with The Graveyard Book, I looked for a different morbid setting. The funeral home worked out nicely. It gave me the chance to really turn up the morbid  influences on what is otherwise a pretty ordinary kid. And write a scene in which a couple of kids sneaking into an embalming room at midnight.

As a fellow New Englander, I felt you captured the feel of October and Halloween in NE so well. Have you noticed any regional Halloween differences/traditions throughout your travels? Who do you think does it best?

New England does it best. It’s why I moved up here from the DC area ten years ago. As to why Halloween is so rich here, I think it’s the quality of our foliage and the style of our architecture and the age of our tombstones. We’ve hanged witches and disinterred vampires here. It’s the birthplace of King and Poe and Lovecraft. Jackson did most of her best work here. The entire area sprang from colonists who fully believed in a rich world of monsters who all wanted to devour their bodies and souls. It’s just a spooky place. But I also love the Hudson Valley of New York. That place is awe-inspiring during the autumn months, as well.

Sadly, Halloween has passed, but here at Spooky MG, we like to keep the spirit alive year round. What are some of your favorite horror films or television shows? Any recommendations for our readers?

My unholy trinity of horror movies is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, and Pumpkinhead. A movie I’d recommend that came out this year is The Witch in the Window. It’s low-budget film from Vermont that is a sweet and spooky tale of a father and a son and a house. You could watch this with middle-graders. Probably. I tried, but my eight-year-old ran out of the room the first time said witch popped up in said window.

What advice would you give to our audience of aspiring young writers?

Write. Keep writing. Finish what you’re writing. Start something new. Finish that, too. See life through a glowing screen with magically appearing letters. That’s my fiction writer advice, anyway. The nonfiction writer in me would like to politely interject that they also need to go out there and see stuff. Everything. Shove it through the black holes in your irises until your frontal lobes are swollen and hurting and your fingertips are tingling to get every piece of information saved up onto the white screen.

So that’s the advice. Feed both the black holes and the white screen.

Give us one fun fact about yourself

I own one of Ray Bradbury’s jackets

J.W. Ocker is the Lowell Thomas and Edgar Award-winning author of strange travelogues Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe, A Season with the Witch, and the Grimpendium books. He is also the creator of OTIS; Odd Things I’ve Seen (oddthingsiveseen.com) His latest book is a work of children’s fiction, Death and Douglas, a Halloween mystery novel about a boy, his funeral home, and the killer who keeps filling it. Ocker’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe, CNN, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and other places people stick writing. He’s from Maryland but has lived in New Hampshire for a decade. Visit him at oddthingsiveseen.com