Monday, 6 August 2018

Reading Challenge Week 31 - A Scary Book

When you think of a "scary book", what comes to mind? The Goosebumps books of your childhood? Best selling authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice or Dean R. Koontz? The old classics like Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley?

Here at the library, our tastes seem to run to the classics. When we saw the Reading Challenge for this week was a "scary book", we all made a bee-line for works from the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Brenda Carter read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.


Although I don’t normally read ‘scary’ literature, I remember feeling horrified yet fascinated by the disturbing plot and ending of The picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (820 WIL 4 PIC LAW).

Although already a popular writer, wit and social celebrity when this novel was written, Wilde’s star rose and fell as a result (in part) of this story’s exploration of aetheticism, sensual pleasure and the dark side of human nature. The premise that Dorian Gray remains forever young and beautiful while his portrait ages and decays in accordance with his amoral life is a powerful one. Hedonism, moral and social duplicity are prevailing themes, so it is no wonder that, despite Wilde’s editor censoring about 500 words before publication, the story was widely criticised in Victorian England for its scandalous content.

The edition by Lawler contains both the original censored serial version and the version amended by Wilde a year later. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition, edited by Nicholas Frankel, was published in 2011 and also contains the material censored by Wilde’s editor. Although written over a century ago, the novel is an easy and engrossing read, largely due to the beauty of Wilde’s prose.



“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die”-Lovecraft

For the scary story challenge I decided to go back a little way, to one of the progenitors of modern horror, H.P Lovecraft has inspired the likes of Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, and HR Giger (creator of the xenomorph in Alien).

Lovecraft blends horror and science fiction to explore the fear of the unknown and unknowable. He writes of a ‘thinness’ between worlds, that what we see is but a veil, concealing horrors that would send one mad to witness. The stories deal with ordinary people being thrust into this world (’Dagon’ and ‘The horror at Red Hook’), and others who pursue it willingly (‘The dream quest of unknown Kardath’ and ‘The statement of Randolph Carter’), 

This collection (which lives at 810 LOV 1B NEC) makes for good sporadic reading as there are short (1-3 pages) stories and poems as well as slightly longer tales. Some of my personal favourites are ‘At the mountains of madness’ where a scientific expedition to Antarctica goes horribly wrong, and ‘The hound’ where a pair of grave robbers get what’s coming to them. 

Throughout the stories common places and names pop-up: the town of Arkham, Massachusetts and its Miskatonic University, and the elder gods Cthulu, Azathoth, and Nyerlathotep and of course the Necronomicon, this volume's namesake. Those of you familiar with The Evil Dead and the Friday the 13th mythos will have heard of this book, with spells and rituals relating to the realm of the dead and the outer/elder gods, elements of which appear in the stories. 

It might not be terribly scary to a modern person, especially one who is a horror fan, but still worth a read…but maybe not aloud…just in case…


Sharon Bryan read Casting the Runes and other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James.

Montague Rhodes James was one of the most celebrated short story writers of his day (late 19th and early 20th centuries) and is considered to be one of the founding greats of the “terror and suspense” genre. You’ll see his stories in anthologies alongside the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Oscar Wilde and H. P. Lovecraft. Having said that, his stories aren’t terribly scary. Or suspenseful. They’re creepy, rather than terrifying. Put it this way: I don’t like scary stories, but I like reading the ghost stories of M. R. James.

I first encountered them in my undergraduate degree, and – while I enjoyed them at the time – I can’t say I remembered any of the details within a couple of years of reading them. There’s a good reason for that. These stories aren’t driven by plot or character; the characters are nondescript, the plots are utterly forgettable. They’re all about the image.

Each story has one central, just-plain-creepy mental image, and the “plot” is a convenient excuse to build up to it. A man working at a desk glances down and notices a hand like a giant hairy spider is next to his, and he realises something inhuman is right behind him. A figure made entirely of crumpled linen rises from an empty bed and starts feeling its way around the room. A face stares directly at you from an empty picture frame. There’s a hollow tree filled with many, many spiders, for some reason.

That last image is from a story that wasn’t in Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (820 JAM 1B CAS), so I'll have to track it down to re-read it. I can’t remember the plot, and I needed help to remember the title, but I remember the tree full of spiders. And that’s what M. R. James’ stories are all about.

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