I am probably one of the world’s biggest scaredy cats. That is a confession I don’t mind making, because I have come to accept it as part of myself that isn’t going to change. Any film with a sniff of a ghost is a no for me. I used to hide in my room when my housemates watched The Walking Dead. I cannot be in a room that has uncovered windows when it is dark outside. I spent that episode of Doctor Who with the gas-mask kid holding my dog so tight that his eyes almost popped out.
I am a wimp, true and proud, and I usually don’t push myself beyond my limits. You can imagine then the inner steel I need to summon when I read a book that scares me. I could avoid them, as I do the films and TV shows, but I can just about cope with books, as long as the lights are on and there is someone around when I am reading it. The books I have listed here are three of the freakiest volumes I have encountered recently; I would say that their strength lies in being psychologically scary, as opposed to the horror movie kind of scary. If that’s your thing, you’d be hard pushed to find something better.
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is a classic novel, by a writer who has a lot of quality to her name. To be honest, if you have time, you should pick up any of du Maurier’s novels, because she really knew how to write a gripping narrative. Most of her books have a certain psychological thrill to them, especially Jamaica Inn, but Rebecca is her crowning achievement. A young woman meets a rich, older widower on her holiday in Monaco and, after a whirlwind romance, he takes her back to his Cornish home as his new bride. She finds that the memory of his first wife, Rebecca, looms large over the household and the people in it, and none of the inhabitants can escape the oppressiveness of the woman’s presence. As the truth of Rebecca’s death begins to unwind and her spectre looms large, the narrator must find not only strength in herself but also provide support for the husband she barely knows.
The Cornish setting, full of dark moors and mist, storms and crashing waves, certainly helps to provide the atmosphere here but the real star of the story is Rebecca, who is somehow more of a character than anyone living. This a book to read when it is raining outside, with a steady supply of tea and a pet you can hug when it all gets a bit too much.
The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing
This is the shortest book on any list I have made so far, but it’s also probably the one that has stuck with me the most. I read it in an afternoon lying on a sofa in the middle of a busy family household and I am glad that I did, because it cushioned the impact a little of what turned out to be a deeply affecting story. It follows a couple in the 1960s, Harriet and David, who meet at an office party and go on to get married and have five children together. The first four children are fine but then, as the title suggests, the fifth child is anything but alright. Harriet’s pregnancy with Ben is painful and then the boy himself is more than your average problematic child.
I am not sure if we are meant to read Ben as a child with profound special needs or if he truly is the monster that his family see, but either way it is not an easy story to read. My sympathies were overwhelmingly with the little boy, and with his mother, who has no way to deal with this child. Her husband is so remarkably unhelpful that at several times I had to stop reading and make tea to avoid throwing the book at the wall. I think what scared me the most about this book is that it could be real, far more so than the others. I work with children with special needs and the more I learn about the world they live in, the more the memory of this book disturbs me.
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
This is one of those books that I talk about at all possible opportunities, whether someone has asked me to talk about it or not. I like most of Waters’ stuff but this is definitely the standout for me. Our narrator is a doctor in the 1940s, who becomes involved with a family living on a crumbling country estate. The family are trying to face up to the reality of their declining fortunes, as well as dealing with events that may or may not be caused by something otherworldly. Of the three books I have recommended, this is the one that is most like your standard ‘ghost story’, although ‘standard’ is most certainly not a word I would use to describe this novel.
I am not going to elaborate any further on the plot because it deserves to be read with all twists and turns intact, but I will invite you to picture me curled up under my duvet at three o’clock in the morning, scared stiff but completely unable to put the thing down until I had finished it, all five hundred pages. I am having to fight the urge just to spill the secrets of this book all over the page, so please go away and read it now, and then come back and we can discuss it, alright? You will definitely need a blanket and, preferably, a friend to sit next to.
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