GRANTOWN goes to the dark side for Hallowe’en with the Bookmark bookshop’s second mini-crime and thriller festival, Dark Nights, Dark Deeds, featuring some of Scotland’s top crime writing talent.
But what scares the writers whose job is to thrill us?
Authors Russel McLean and Lesley McDowell share their creepiest reads for Hallowe’en.
While I know that some TV channels will be running late night horror marathons all through October, sometimes there’s nothing better than letting an old fashioned book curdle your blood. I love horror fiction almost as much as crime, so here are five of my favourite chillers to help you find that perfect Halloween read:
1) Dracula by Bram Stoker
The horror novel that set the standard for all that was to follow. Told in a series of letters and journal entries, its detailing of Jonathan Harker’s journey into the twilight world of vampires remains utterly chilling even over a century later.
2) Bad Men by John Connolly
A group of criminals on a remote island encounter the terrifying ghost of a little girl in the woods. Connolly’s mix of crime novel and supernatural terror is terrifying and absolutely gripping, and the perfect introduction to the work of this supremely talented author.
3) It by Stephen King
King’s finest novel — and he’s written some brilliant books — is at once a brilliant evocation of childhood and also a petrifying journey into the the heart of darkness that sleeps in the sewers beneath a small American town. "...they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too."
4) The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
One of those books overshadowed by a movie adaptation, The Exorcist remains — in book form — a true horror classic and utterly, utterly unsettling, giving us even more of a sense of the terror that arises when a normal family is visited by a terrifying and ancient demon that possesses the young daughter, Regan.
5) Psycho by Robert Bloch
A short, sharp novel that is, amazingly, even more terrifying than the famous movie adaptation. Bloch lets us into the mind of Norman Bates, a man with some terrible mother issues, and what we find there is enough to give any reader nightmares of the most chilling and thrilling kind.
• Russel McLean’s latest book, the fourth in his series about Dundee private eye J. McNee, is Mothers of The Disappeared. Book five, Cry Uncle, will be published in late November.
My two favourite horror stories are ones I’ve read over and over again, and wish I’d written them myself.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
First published in 1898 in serial form, this was the inspiration behind my own Gothic "horror", Unfashioned Creatures. The central question the novel asks is whether the narrator, a governess employed to look after two young children in a large and isolated house, is mad or is really seeing ghosts. Is she psychologically disturbed and so a real danger to her charges, or have two past employees come back to haunt them and lead them all to evil? James plays on all our fears of the unknown and unknowable and his gift for ambiguity makes this tale relentlessly creepy.
What underpins horror is that notion of evil being so close at hand, and one reason the ‘isolated house’ is so frightening is because it reminds us that evil can be found within our own homes. But the house is also symbolic of the mind, a psychological state.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My second favourite horror is another psychological tale, with another "unreliable narrator". This appeared 64 years after James’ classic, and is now a classic in its own right. Again, another young woman narrates her tale of living in a large house on the edge of town. Merricat is 18 and cares for her sister, Constance, whom everyone believes accidentally poisoned their parents and brother by lacing sugar in a pie she baked with arsenic. Like The Turn of the Screw, it asks what is the nature of evil? If we cannot trust the evidence of our own eyes, what can we trust?
But my most frightening character in fiction appeared in a book that wouldn’t be classed as horror at all — Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield.
The "ever-umble" Heep stretching his creepy fingers out to make a prisoner of the vulnerable Agnes, "writing and undulating" like a snake, haunted my dreams for years. He is the precursor to all the creepy, psychologically disturbed villains we truly fear, from The Penguin to Norman Bates.
• Lesley McDowell’s latest book is Unfashioned Creatures, a novel inspired by the true story of a friend of Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley. ("Yes, Frankenstein should be on (my list) really, but it’s never scared me!" McDowell admitted.)
Lesley McDowell joins fellow writers Lin Anderson, Alexandra Sokoloff, Caro Ramsay and Catriona McPherson for an evening of spooky readings at the Garth Hotel, Grantown on Hallowe’en at 7pm.
On Saturday at 3.30pm, Russel McLean, Craig Robertson and Neil Broadfoot join other crime writers in discussing the various merits of police, private eye and other heroes.
For details of these and other Dark Nights, Dark Deeds events, contact The Bookmark bookshop, Grantown, on 01479 873433 www.thebookmark.co.uk