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Horror for Scaredy Cats

by John Charles

*This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of RA News.*

For some readers, the horror genre can be a truly terrifying place. If you aren’t trying to stay one step ahead of brain-hungry zombies desperate for a little snack, you find yourself trying to elude blood-thirsty vampires who just want one little sip. With so many scary monsters lurking in the dark corners of horror fiction, it is no wonder that timid readers opt to give the genre a pass. Yet in doing so, these same readers are missing out on some terrific books. The question then becomes: is it possible to experience the delicious frisson of fear the horror genre offers without having to wade through a visceral sea of gore or deal with an abundance of graphic violence?

The answer, rather surprisingly, is yes. The degree of violence and gore within the horror genre varies greatly. Some books offer readers just a tantalizing hint of spookiness while other novels treat readers to an all-out slaughter fest. The readers’ advisory challenge in introducing horror to timid readers is finding titles that skew to the lighter side of the genre. With the careful selection of titles, even the most easily terrified of readers can enjoy the spooky thrills of horror fiction without having to deal with months’ worth of nightmares.

"The readers' advisory challenge in introducing horror to timid readers is finding titles that skew to the lighter side of the genre."

When starting out in horror fiction, you can really never go wrong with a classic such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Written more than one hundred years ago, Stoker’s atmospheric tale of the undead count from Transylvania still evokes plenty of shivers today. Written in epistolary style, the novel opens with English solicitor Jonathan Harker traveling to Dracula’s castle in the Carpathian mountains and ends in England with a battle to the death between Dracula and a team headed up by professor Abraham Van Helsing. Dracula established many of the legendary vampire tropes still used by authors today, and the book has the remarkable ability to draw readers slowly into the world Stoker created. What is even more extraordinary is that Stoker generates maximum chills from a minimum of violent thrills. Dracula is all about the subtle, suggestive power of the horror genre.

Readers who have fallen under Dracula’s mesmerizing spell will find there is a plethora of authors who have borrowed the charismatic count as a character in their own works. Two novels in particular featuring the legendary vampire make excellent suggestions for readers fearful of encountering bloodier knockoffs of Stoker’s masterpiece. In Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, the protagonist discovers a mysterious book one day while exploring her father’s library. While researching the book, the heroine not only discovers a family tie to Vlad the Impaler that goes back decades but also the knowledge that Dracula may still be alive and well. Kostova brilliantly recreates the deliciously creepy atmosphere of Stoker’s novel as well as the slowly impending sense of terror, and readers who reveled in the nuanced horror of Stoker’s novel will definitely find The Historian to their literary taste.

Stoker’s Manuscript by Royce Prouty is a more recent addition to the Dracula canon, but it also offers plenty of subtle, spine-tingling chills for reluctant horror readers. The novel’s protagonist is Chicago-based rare book expert Joseph Barkeley, who is hired to authenticate and purchase the original draft of Dracula along with Stoker’s notes for the book by a mysterious European collector. After delivering the manuscript to its new owner in Romania, Barkeley discovers he isn’t finished. His new “employer” wants him to decipher the cryptic notes in the manuscript and to locate the tombs of certain members of the Dracul family. Prouty excels at echoing the tone and style of Stoker’s original vampire novel while cleverly incorporating many of the established historical facts about Dracula into his story. There are one or two scenes that might have squeamish readers quickly flipping pages (well, there is a reason why Dracula is also known as Vlad the Impaler), but for the most part Prouty focuses on hinting at the horror rather than presenting a detailed list of bloody deeds.

Another way of successfully introducing novice horror readers to the genre is by giving them a book that blends a dash of terror into another genre which the reader many already enjoy. Barbara Michaels, the literary alter ego of author Elizabeth Peters, wrote a number of satisfyingly spooky books that neatly combine romance and suspense with a soupçon of the supernatural. Ammie, Come Home is perhaps Michaels’ most famous merger of love and ghost stories, and despite being written more than forty years ago, the novel still has the power to raise serious goose bumps. In this book, after inheriting a historic Georgetown house Ruth Bennett and her niece Sara move into it, only to discover someone is still living there: the ghost of Amanda Campbell. Writing with her trademark wry sense of wit, Michaels deftly mingles romance and suspense while all along making even the most skeptical of readers believe ghosts might really exist. Several others of Michaels’ novels also provide excellent literary gateways into the horror genre, including Someone in the HouseThe Dark on the Other Side, and House of Many Shadows.

"Less is more when it comes to scaring readers..."

Simone St. James is a more recent addition to the literary scene, but she demonstrates a remarkable flair for mingling genres -- including horror. Her first book, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, is a spellbinding tale of history, mystery, romance, and ghosts. Set in 1920s England, the book’s protagonist, Sarah Piper, is hired by author and ghost hunter Alistair Gellis and his assistant Matthew Ryder to help investigate a barn haunted by the vengeful ghost of a servant girl. St. James' second novel, An Inquiry into Love and Death, follows a similar pattern when Oxford student Jillian Leigh travels to the small village of Rothwell to pack up the belongings of her deceased uncle Toby and encounters an angry spirit living in his house. Ghosts are very much a real presence in both of St. James' books, but the inclusion of a strong romance, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of fascinating historical details make these novels an excellent segue into horror fiction for easily frightened readers.

Less is more when it comes to scaring readers, and the perfect example of this is the classic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1959. The spine-tingling tale of four individuals who arrive at Hill House hoping to find proof of ghosts, Jackson’s novel will scare the bejeebers out of most readers with nary a whisper of graphic violence or gore in the plot. Jackson intuitively understood that simply hinting at horrors was much scarier than providing the reader with a detailed listing of scary events, since the horrors most readers can conjure up in their imagination are far more terrifying than anything conceived of by a writer.

With books such as these, even the most easily scared of readers can enjoy a shivery good read without having to resort to sleeping with all the lights on!

John Charles is an Adult Services Librarian for the Scottsdale (AZ) Public Library. In addition to reviewing for Library Journal and Booklist, Charles is the co-author of The Readers ' Advisory Guide to Mystery 2nd Ed. (ALA, 2012), The Complete Idiot 's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List (Alpha Books, 2007), and Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers (Greenwood, 2006).