The month when night comes early, sweaters replace T shirts and Halloween is just around the corner. It’s the perfect time to snuggle up and indulge in a spooky book or two. While the horror genre is not my cup of tea, I love a darkly atmospheric story that is creepy without being too graphic. I also enjoy a dash of weirdness and some psychological tension. A compelling plot, interesting characters and strong writing are all that’s required to complete my idea of the perfect spine-tingling book .
Am I asking too much? I think not.
The middle grade books in the list below hit that sweet spot of well-written, strong storylines coupled with atmospheric creepiness. They are also compelling enough to satisfy readers of all ages who want some spookiness in their lives but don’t want to be scared witless by a story.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman. First, let me say that Neil is my go-to author for creepiness. He does it so well! With Coraline, he takes the experiences of moving to a new home and benign parental neglect and turns them into something very sinister. While investigating her new flat (located in an old home divided into several apartments), Coraline discovers a portal to another flat just like the one in which she currently lives. At first, everything in this other flat seems better than her ordinary life, including the parents that reside there. But something is strange about these parents and they want her to stay with them and be their little girl forever. It doesn’t take long for things to go south for Coraline. This book is perfectly creepy and the best way to experience it is by audiobook, which is narrated by Neil Gaimen himself.
Dorp Dead by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by James Spanfeller. Several decades ago Mr. Hoin, my fifth grade teacher, read Dorp Dead to my class after lunch each day; I still remember the feelings of dread I experienced as I listened to him. Dorp Dead is an odd story that falls squarely on the psychologically dark and dreadful side of creepy. It’s about a grieving ten year old boy who is placed in an orphanage after his grandmother dies. He protects himself by hiding his intelligence and withdrawing from the world around him. His behaviors are misunderstood so he is sent to live with a wealthy ladder maker whose obsessive-compulsive behavior hints at something truly dangerous. I can’t say anything more without ruining the story but I recommend this book for readers who enjoy heavy foreboding and psychological tension. It’s a quick read, too, and the illustrations enhance the creepiness.
The Seer of Shadows by Avi. Do not be fooled by the middle grade label of this book. Avi is a masterful storyteller who takes his readers on one hair-raising ride with this tale. It’s an intense and chilling story about a ghost bent on revenge. Early photography plays an important role in the plot and the author enhances the story with rich historical detail. The Seer of Shadows is perfect for anyone who loves a good ghost story or an atmospheric Gothic tale. My kids and I listened to this as a book on tape (that’s how long ago we read it) and I loved it as much as they did.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Take two abandoned siblings and send them to work for an eccentric family living in a crumbling manor house in the middle of a dark forest. Add a witch, a big spooky tree, a strange nighttime visitor, a mystery and a curse. Glue it all together with fantastic writing and main characters a person can really get behind and the result is the Night Gardener. Part fairy tale, part mystery, part spooky story – this book has it all. It is my personal favorite on the list and I highly recommend it.
Small Spaces by Catherine Arden. Small Spaces is the story of Ollie, a girl who has recently lost her mother. She has also recently found a book that tells of a “smiling man” who can grant your dearest wish, for a price (of course). On a field trip to a nearby farm, Ollie and her classmates have a frightening encounter which prompts her and two friends to run into the woods near the cornfield where the bus is parked. When they emerge, they are in an alternate world. A world that contains “the smiling man”. As you can guess, bad things happen. With pumpkins, scarecrows and cornfields sprinkled throughout, the setting of this book is the most Halloweenish of the bunch. It is also suitably dark and nightmarish for the season. For those who are in the mood for listening rather than reading, the audiobook, narrated by Renee Dorian, is very well done.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. At the risk of stating the obvious, October is the perfect month to indulge in some Harry Potter. Dip a toe into a single book or go all out and read the series. The plot, the world building, the characters – everything, actually – perfectly fit my idea of a creepy, atmospheric and imaginative story. The scare factor is real and sometimes intense but it’s balanced by believable human drama, meaningful relationships and humor. If you’ve never read Harry Potter, now is the perfect time to give him a try. Or, consider revisiting his wizarding world if it’s been awhile since you hung out with The Chosen One. You won’t be disappointed.
Happy spooky reading! If you have any suggestions to add to the list, please share in the comments.