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Beyond Stephen King and Shirley Jackson: the best scary stories of recent years

Daisy Johnson
·3-min read

It is that time of year again. The tree branches are beginning to show through, the ground is soggy with fallen red and orange leaves, the supermarket shelves are filled with pumpkins. With many of us working from home – or struggling to find work – and unable to see family or friends, small joys become large. This is the time of year to sit in the darkening evenings by a fire and read a book, preferably an unsettling or scary one. Luckily, we are spoilt for choice in this regard and many authors have been turning recently to the weird and the uncanny.

Short stories have always been a brilliant place to go to find horror and revel in the strange. The last 10 years have produced an abundance of collections worthy of visiting. Kelly Link’s astounding Get in Trouble has haunting tales about ghostly spaceships and warehouses filled with sleeping people. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah explores the traumas of racism and consumerism, zombie characters haunting shopping malls on Black Friday, while Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (translated by Megan McDowell) examines political disruption using the supernatural.

Horror writers take our safe spaces and make them frightening. Though Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) is not a traditional horror story, it is perhaps one of the best haunted house novels there is. Showing the changing fortunes of a small house by a lake and the many people who live, and die, there, the book is filled with hidden spaces and the echo of half-buried trauma. From Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle to The Shining by Stephen King, the haunted house is a place we seem to long to go to and yet fear.

For many readers, Jackson is the best of all horror writers, a master of tension and unravelling sanity. In the biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin unravels some of the myths that surrounded the writer and also shows us a picture of a life that in some ways contains many of the things Jackson was writing about. Plagued with a fear of the outside world and an obsessive, panicked need to write, Jackson at times appears as one of her own characters – paranoid, compulsive, afraid.

Related: Book of the Week: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Any number of Helen Oyeyemi’s books would be perfect for this creepy time of the year but my favourite, White Is for Witching, is especially apt. Set in a tall house on the Dover cliffs the novel opens with the disappearance of one of its characters. The house is an unsettled place, the lift stopping between floors, the walls populated by generations of women who lived there before. Probably best read with the lights on.

Written in the form of a diary, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin) is perhaps the scariest work on this list. A couple and their young daughter go to stay in a rural house in Germany. The narrator is attempting to write a book and is not doing very well. The house is odd, time doesn’t seem to behave the way it should. It is, however, the way the text itself begins to break down that is the most frightening aspect of this novella.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy go to delivery charges may apply.