October 19, 2016, by Erika Jo Brown
I asked several local literary tastemakers for their recommendations of spooky stories and haunting poems, inspired by this month’s Halloween celebration. After all, is there really a way to know that the person in the Ken Bone costume at your next party is not the man himself?
The next time you’d like to get your mind off the horror of this election season, consider grabbing a copy of work by Angela Carter (like “The Bloody Chamber”), Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson (“The Witch,” “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, the Ripliad), Helen Oyeyemi (White is for Witching), Edgar Allen Poe, or any of the below:
Robin Davidson, Houston Poet Laureate
The first story that comes to mind for me is William Butler Yeats’ piece “Red Hanrahan,” a story of Samhain Eve (Gaelic for what we call Hallowe’en but is the evening prior to the Celtic New Year, November 1, when the doors to the other world are open and spirits are said to be a’travellin’) in his collection of Irish/Gaelic folklore called Mythologies. I’ve used the story often with my students as a creative writing prompt at Halloween…
Marissa Gonzalez, Reviews Editor of Glass Mountain
I would recommend Poppy Z. Brite’s Drawing Blood, or any of Brite’s work, to someone who is looking to be immersed in southern settings and the prospect of LGBT characters that take on the roles of being the protags of his tales. Brite’s works are always immensely poetic, and pull you into the settings of the imaginary Missing Mile, North Carolina, and the mind’s eye of the streets of Louisiana. Here’s an example: “Didi lay in the same position Trevor had left him in last night, his head burrowed into the pillow, one small hand curled into a fist near his mouth. The back off Did’s head was like a swamp, a dark mush of splintered bone and thick clotted gore.”
Andrew Karnavas, Houston musician/producer/children’s performer
“The Red Spot” from the book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. I read it in elementary school and I’ll never forget it. It’s about the worst spider bite ever.
Lydia Melby, Event Coordinator at Brazos Bookstore
The short story collection Stay Awake by Dan Chaon doesn’t contain any monsters and no one jumps out at you from the dark, but there’s plenty monstrous lurking here in the background, or more often, in the back of these characters’ minds. The people in these stories float quietly, helplessly in a grey wash of sleepless grief, but something dark is about to bubble up from the depths. Chaon’s dreamlike prose almost masks the raw grief and rage underneath, and though each story is different, they’re linked thematically—here is the sadness of loss, they say, and here is the all of the horror that comes after. Stay Awake was published in 2012, and it’s become a favorite of mine to reread every fall. Chaon’s third novel will be published in March and can be read as a continuation on these themes—look forward to that devastation, too.
Jasminne Mendez, Co-founder of Tintero Projects
The first story that comes to mind when I think of a haunting tale is the short story “The Book of Sand” by fantasy writer Jorge Luis Borges. This is the story of a man who receives a mysterious book from a stranger. The man realizes after many long nights of agonizing over this magical book that it is indeed infinite. He will never get to the end of the book because it just keeps going and going forever. This reality haunts him and nearly drives him mad.
Alexander Parsons, Director of the UH Creative Writing Program
“[Our] fascination of terror is an ancient one—as ancient as the human race. Therein lies its power—stronger than our intellect, stronger even than our fears—going down to the primitive core of our being.”
So says the introduction to my favorite collection of horror stories, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, published back in 1944. I remember leafing through this tome as a kid, flashlight gripped beneath my tented blankets, long after lights-out and no small number of parental threats and imprecations. Even the tome’s table of contents communicated a delightful frisson: Ambrose Bierce (1838-1914?); Arthur Machen (1863- ). Easy to imagine it a book on the supernatural written by undead and mysteriously deceased authors. No matter how badly I needed to pee, I would NOT leave the haven of the bed for the abyssal dark of the bathroom. One thousand and seventy-six pages of gruesomeness from Poe and Hawthorne to Buller-Lytton (he of the “It was a dark and stormy night” fame) and HP Lovecraft. It’s still in print as part of The Modern Library collection. Order it and I’ll bet you, too, will be reading it thirty-five years after you first crack its spine.
Reyes Ramirez, Outreach & Public Engagement Cultivator at DiverseWorks
Have you ever thought of a monster’s story, of how and why they are terrible & unhuman, and identified with it? Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek” tells the story of Cleófilas, a young woman who is married off to an abusive husband who keeps her isolated in a land unknown to her. The horror in this story comes from how Cleófilas could identify with La Llorona, a mythical woman doomed to wander near rivers in misery forever. Isn’t that the greatest of horrors? To know that we can catch ourselves becoming monstrous but perhaps do nothing to stop it?
Analicia Sotelo, Co-organizer of the Poison Pen reading series
Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” continues to frighten me anytime of year. I once played a recording of this poem, at full volume, with no one else around, and felt very much as though I had invited Plath’s ghost right into the room. The poem itself is about physical and psychic decay, and a complicated attraction to death. (Trigger warning: if you’ve never read this, or are revisiting it, this is one of Plath’s most controversial poems, but it’s also one of her strongest.) As a poet, I’ve learned so much from Plath’s ability to vary her intonations as she performs, and I hope you will find it similarly instructive. I also recommend scheduling a Halloween party right after you listen to it so you can experience it like a scary movie and then shake it off with good food and friends. You can listen to it here.