Tuesday was the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year, so now’s the perfect time to curl up with a creepy book. I’m not talking about horror, but about books that are deliciously creepy—the fun and grotesque rolled into one.
The best strategy is to read them at night in the snowy woods. Alternately, you could be lame like me and tackle the project surrounded by lightbulbs and toasty drinks.
1. A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
There’s been so much hoopla about this book that it’s easy to wonder what all the fuss is about. Believe me, it’s worth it. Gidwitz has taken seven relatively obscure Grimm fairy tales and strung them together into the life story of Hansel and Gretel. The story starts before the kids are born and ends with their triumphant growth into brave, intelligent (indeed, more intelligent than their parents) adults.
When Hansel and Gretel are still young, childhood trauma (ie the parents cut off the kids’ heads) forces the siblings to run away (after their heads have been reattached, no scars). First they try to find better adoptive parents. Then they try to rely on each other. The kids grow up; they go through near-deadly bouts of selfishness and succumb to teenage infatuation (serial killer alert! Oh Gretel, how could you be so dumb…) And finally, they return to face their parents.
The violence is unsparing and full of magnificent fairy tale nonsense (severed heads can be put back together, the moon can have a taste for human flesh). But none of it feels gratuitous. It all fits, because that’s what the original, unsanitized stories are like. As Gidwitz reminds us, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”
2. The Witches by Roald Dahl
What a classic. Bald, square-footed witches turning children into mice! For me, the creepiest bit will always be the grandmother’s missing thumb. We never do find out how she lost it, though we’re not lacking for ideas. As her grandson imagines quite calmly, it possibly got boiled off in the spout of a teapot.
3. Clockwork by Philip Pullman
There is something terrifying about clockwork. Release one little spring, touch a single gear, and the whole mechanism starts moving about, clicking and whirring until there’s no telling when it will stop. Clockwork resembles a machine that’s gotten out of hand (in a good way). It begins with a story-within-a-story: Fritz the novelist is recounting the tale of Prince Otto, a man who went hunting and returned with a heart of metal gears. In the prince’s carriage lies his son, Florian, a little boy made from intricate clockwork, so finely wrought you could swear he was real.
In a way, he is. Florian can walk and talk and grow. But he is still not quite human. This is where Fritz stops talking, having fallen victim to writer’s block.
Meanwhile, Karl the clockmaker’s apprentice is seriously depressed. Tomorrow is the unveiling of his masterpiece, a mechanized figure that will be displayed in the town’s clock tower. People are going wild with anticipation; only Karl knows that he has built nothing at all.
It’s then that Dr. Kalmenius—the creator of Florian—enters, providing both an ending to Fritz’s tale and the answer to Karl’s prayers (a metal, sword-wielding knight built from perfect clockwork). Like Florian, it seems too magical to be real. The only problem is that the knight springs to life whenever you mutter the word “devil”…
4. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
While exploring her family’s new house, Coraline comes upon her Other Mother and Other Father. This lovely couple lives behind a small door and they’re so fun and caring—much more attentive than her real parents, boring people with never a moment to spare.
Everything’s dandy, except for the fact that Other Mother has buttons for eyes. But what’s a bother of anatomical difference between family?
Coraline could join this world. She can choose to stay forever, provided she succumbs to minor surgery in the form of needles, thread and a pair of brand-new buttons…
I’ve always loved books that turn everyday things into the grotesque. Coraline’s Other Family is just slightly off, but the sum of their quirks turns them into monstrosities. And it’s safe to say that I’ve never looked at buttons in the same way again.
5. Skellig by David Almond
Skellig is a miracle, something ancient and new that should never have been. Michael first finds him in a derelict garage, stuffing bluebottles into his mouth. With the help of Mina, a home-schooled girl from down the street, Michael nurses the part-bird, part-human, part-angel back to health. Soon, his revival becomes connected to the fate of Michael’s sick infant sister.
This is one of those books that’s truly impossible to describe. Plot is irrelevant; you have to savor the words as Almond describes life in the dusty darkness. Skellig dances. He flies. He eats live mice. He’s unsettling and never threatening. It’s easy to talk about Skellig as symbolism for friendship or childhood wonder, but what really matters is that anyone who reads the book will reach back and feel for what they hope to find sprouting from their shoulder blades.