The best seriously scary stories if you never want to sleep again

Patricia Duncker Author Of The Deadly Space Between: A Novel
By Patricia Duncker

The Books I Picked & Why

The Turn of the Screw

By Henry James

Book cover of The Turn of the Screw

Why this book?

When I first read this famous tale, I was about seventeen and still lived with my parents when I wasn’t at boarding school or hitch-hiking around Europe. I began reading in bed late at night and couldn’t put it down even when I wanted to do so. The story begins at a Christmas gathering around a fire but moves to a large house in the country where a young governess is in charge of two strange children. I have always found children uncanny; they seem to exist at the point where innocence and evil meet. Henry James is a master of ambiguity and truly disturbing dialogue. I finished reading and couldn’t put the light out or go anywhere near the bedroom window. 

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Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad

By M.R. James

Book cover of Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad

Why this book?

Montague Rhodes James, dean and provost of King’s College Cambridge, read this tale at the College Christmas gathering in 1903. James’ ghost stories often involved traditional scholars – confirmed bachelors, rather like himself. The bleak East Anglian landscape plays a significant role and here a Professor takes time off to play golf and get on with some writing at a seaside resort. He finds a strange bronze whistle in a ruined round church site. There is a second bed in the rented room at his boarding house. 

I love the thrill that M.R. James describes as "pleasant terror," but his tales are often much darker. He unveils an uncanny sexual horror in the images that haunt this terrifying story. I still see them when I close my eyes. 

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The Birds and Other Stories

By Daphne du Maurier

Book cover of The Birds and Other Stories

Why this book?

The Birds is a tale of invasion. The rural West country setting appears safe, predictable. But Nat, an ordinary farm labourer, notices at once when the birds begin to mingle "in strange partnership." The description of the mass of gulls, riding the waves, waiting for the tide to turn, is unforgettable, superb. The birds are united against a single enemy, and they have a plan. They don’t care how many of their numbers die as long as they annihilate humanity. 

I love apocalypse tales and this is one of the greatest stories about what happens when nature turns against us.

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The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

Book cover of The Haunting of Hill House

Why this book?

One of my writer friends recommended this American novel and I’m still recovering gently. The scenario is classic: a summer gathering at a haunted house to smoke out and study the supposedly active ghosts. The research team includes a bizarre cast of characters: two disturbed young women, the heir to Hill House, a professor of parapsychology, his dotty wife who meddles with the spirit world, and her boyfriend who carries a gun. Don’t underestimate the house itself. 

What is particularly brilliant is the mixture of sinister terror and pure black comedy. I read this book in two sittings, pausing only to have a very stiff drink. The suspense is almost unbearable at times and the mixture of hilarity and horror truly unsettling.

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The Power of the Dog

By Thomas Savage

Book cover of The Power of the Dog

Why this book?

I read the novel when I saw that Jane Campion had chosen to adapt the book for her latest film. I have nerves of cast iron. But I found this book truly terrifying. The subject is human evil – the sadistic, twisted cruelty of which men are capable, both to animals, and other human beings. The descriptive writing is extraordinary: the ranch, the mountains, and the wild lands of Montana appear before your eyes. The family is almost destroyed by the predatory, violent brother Phil. He is like a Shakespearean villain: magnetic, charismatic, spellbinding, brilliant, and vicious.

Campion softens the edges of the story at every step in her wonderful film. And I can understand why. Had she filmed the book the movie would be banned. Read the book. 

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