When Being Scared is Good for You

Very often I find I need something to just blow the cobwebs out of my brain–whoosh! Sometimes comedy will do it: a good, hard laugh is excellent medicine.

But sometimes a stiff scare will do it, too. I don’t mean being scared by something real–I mean, what could be scarier than the knowledge that we have you-know-who in the White House? No, I mean a good, hearty, imaginary scare, administered by a work of fiction. One that gets you all cranked up and then–ta-da!–it’s over. And don’t you feel great because it wasn’t real?

Here are a few of the books I’ve found to really do the trick.

1. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James. These are in a class by themselves. No one, but no one, ever wrote better ghost stories than M. R. James. Wait’ll you read, for the first time, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad–positively guaranteed to freak you out. But if that one doesn’t get you, The Ash Tree or Casting the Runes surely will. A lot of these stories have been anthologized to death; but if you haven’t read them before–oh, baby!

2. The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft is a novelette, really. However, it packs a wallop. Its combination of claustrophobia (if you could just get out of Innsmouth!) and paranoia (who’s that trying to sneak into my hotel room in the middle of the night?) is mighty potent.

3. The Haunting by Shirley Jackson goes on scaring readers long after gaudier, gorier haunted-house stories lose their power. By understating and soft-pedaling the special effects, Shirley Jackson gets under your skin and gives you a fine case of the willies.

4. Dracula by Bram Stoker has always scared me–the older I get, the scarier this story gets. I realize opinions are divided; some readers think Dracula is hokey. But I’ve never read anything scarier than poor Jonathan Harker trying to find his way out of Dracula’s castle before night falls again, and the harder he tries, the more lost he gets–until he winds up in the very heart of the place, where you definitely don’t want to be…

5. The Horror from the Hills by Frank Belknap Long was inspired by a nightmare experienced by H.P. Lovecraft, according to Long himself. Wow, that must’ve been some dream! No wonder Lovecraft was so weird. This isn’t a full-length novel, but if you’re looking for padding, go to Stephen King. The long and the short of it is, an ancient, obscene idol comes to life (but wasn’t it alive all the time, and just pretending to be an idol?) and wreaks havoc in New York: and it ain’t gonna be easy to get rid of it.

The great thing about this kind of horror is, you close the book, and you’ve escaped. The real world is full of imaginary horrors–e.g. Global Warming, the War on Women, Income Inequality–that are even worse because they are imaginary; and one is hard-put to escape them.

If only those shambling creatures from Innsmouth would chase down Al Gore…



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