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Dear Bibliotherapist


Dear Bibliotherapist,

With the season of spooks approaching, I feel a tingling in my fingers; they itch to find some scary tales to read aloud around a fire on a dark autumnal evening – or to read to myself, enjoying the feeling of my hackles rising. It’s been a long time since I disappeared into a story to scare myself, and I wondered if you could recommend anything.

Dear Halloween Hungry,

Why is it that we so enjoy a scary story round a fire? Because it’s a sign we’re actually safe; our brains and bodies enjoy the adrenalin rush of fear without actually meeting the monster that stimulates fight-or-flight chemistry. We love to give ourselves the Shivers, because we have a warm duvet waiting for us at the end of the story. Just make sure you’ve checked what’s in the shadows at the edge of your vision before you start.

One of the best books to give yourself the Shivers is Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. The title itself, stolen from the witches in Macbeth, is enough to send icy prickles of fear down your back. (Divert here for a moment, to begin your Halloween Fear Fest by reading THAT speech from Macbeth (Act 1V. Scene 1,) aloud:

First Witch:

Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison'd entrails throw.   

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelter'd venom sleeping got, 

Boil thou first i' the charmèd pot.


Double, double toil and trouble;    

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. [...]

Second Witch:

By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes.

Open, locks,

Whoever knocks!  

Enter Macbeth


After that you will be ready for a book that is seriously scary, both in story and how it is told.

Something Wicked begins on an overcast October day  in a small town in Ilinois. A sinister fair comes to town, and two boys – Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, born either side of midnight within minutes of each other and just now turning fourteen – become obsessed by the fair. They are drawn towards it like wasps to candyfloss, and we realise that Mr Dark, the strange leader of Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, means no good. The boys’ father, a thoughtful and introspective librarian, tries to save them from the fate they are tumbling towards; one in which they are tied eternally to the world of the eerie, shape-shifting Carnival.  Terrifying scenes ensue as they hide behind library stacks, under the grille of a drain in the street, and on top of the roof, while Mr Dark searches for them, to claim them for himself. A carousel spins backwards and forwards to gift or steal away years of people’s lives. Old ladies go back in time to become young girls, a teacher gets lost in a mirror house, and Jim and William’s faces appear on the fingers of The Illustrated Man. Fear will delectably dribble down your spine and wrap its tentacles around you right till the end. All your worst childhood fears are brought to life in this magnificent novel.

After this chilling entry into a world of witches and mysterious men, look no further than the newest publication from Philip Pullman. Directly in answer to your needs, this master story-teller has just brought out the wonderful Grimm Tales for Young and Old. These are fifty re-tellings of the original Tales from the Brothers Grimm, brought to life in Pullman’s extraordinary voice. He is one of those authors whose writing is guaranteed to read aloud well, and these stories certainly live up to this test. One of the best tales in the collection is ‘The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers’, which describes a quest undertaken by a supposed complete dolt and good-for-nothing, who is obsessed with finding out what ‘the Shivers’ are. The hopeless lad sets off on his search, and soon spends a night under a collection of hanged men. “You’re sure to get the shivers there!” says a companion who he meets on the road. Our young hero is unmoved, and actually takes the dead men down from their gallows to try and warm them up by the fire. When they catch fire, he hangs them up again. Later he spends a night conversing with various ghosts who do their best to terrify him and give him the Shivers. He remains as cool as a cucumber throughout. I would not divulge his fate, but this story works in a rather brilliant way as it makes all these things (hanged men, ghosts, caves) far less frightening. So, in a way, it becomes an antidote to the Shivers. Other stories in the book, such as ‘Godfather Death’, will have you huddling next to the candle (that I hope lights your reading journey) with renewed shivers.

For more adult-appropriate scary tales, read Agnes Owen’s strange, sparse and deeply unnerving stories from Scotland in her Collected Tales. These tell fundamentally worrying narratives of random and incongruous death in deprived circumstances. The stories are always so unexpected that we are prevented from feeling voyeuristic by the way that she brings us into the story, so that we are there with Arabella as she mixes her ‘cures’ of dog faeces and unnamed herbs, and with the neglected children on the beach on their way to a lighthouse. We are as culpable as the people she holds up to her harsh glass.

Owens’ voice is fabulously spare and lacking in extraneous detail; the events that occur around the bleak Scottish coast and impoverished estates where she spent much of her own childhood are mostly unexplained, enigmatic and disturbing, and will send ricochets of fear around your nervous system for months to come after you put them down. Read them aloud to your friends or partner for a genuinely chilling experience; then go back to Grimm Tales for something more comfortably set in the land of Gambling Hans and the Goose Girl.

Ella Berthoud

Bibliotherapist, The School of Life

Ella, together with author Oliver Burkeman will be leading our Reading Retreat in Devon from 11 to 13 January 2013. If you wish to start your New Year with a different kind of holiday, click here for more information and to book.


Posted by Ella Berthoud on 30 October 2012

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