Childhood is the best time to discover horror, before cynicism sets in, when everything is just a bit more possible and plausible and you haven’t seen it all before. So it’s not surprising many of us remember our first taste of fictional fear vividly.
The Den Of Geek team has unearthed childhood trauma to dredge up memories of the first books that ever properly messed us up, and invited our writers to share theirs. We’ve deliberately not researched exactly what actually happened in these tales of terror/monkeys/shopping malls/Daniel Radcliffe dressed as a seal, so what you’re getting here is our visceral, not necessarily accurate, memories.
Grab your torch, hide under a blanket and re-live with us the books that properly freaked us out when we were small.
A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter
I can’t remember where my copy came from, but I can tell you where it is right now: it’s upstairs at the far end of the big bookcase, placed so I can see exactly where it is without having to search for it, or get another look at the cover. That cover has long terrified me, as has the story of a handsome man who washes up on the shore of the island of Black Ness and begins to charm a local teenage girl into marriage, while her brother suspects dark plans, terrible plans. Mythology and magic combine to a conclusion that scared me so badly as a child that I’ve had to keep that book where I can find it ever since, so it can’t sneak up on me somehow.
Grinny by Nicholas Fisk
When Great Aunt Emma, or ‘Grinny’ – as she’s nicknamed for her permanent eerie smile – turns up at the Carpenter house out of the blue, she’s welcomed in by Timothy and Beth’s parents. It’s the kids who notice that she isn’t what she seems. Grinny has no smell, for a start. She fails to grasp basic English idioms. She seems to be scared of electricity. And there’s the small matter of her glowing in her sleep …
Looking back now, it must have been the powerlessness of its young heroes that made Nicholas Fisk’s 1973 sci-fi so unsettling to read as a child. Brother and sister Timothy and Beth know instantly that there’s something off about their so-called relative, but their mum and dad won’t believe a word of it. (In the parents’ defence, they are under the mind-control spell of a malevolent extra-terrestrial so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly.)
Fisk (real name David Higginbottom) followed up Grinny with You Remember Me, another chilling sci-fi that continued the kids’ story, this time involving a glamorous TV personality with the power to make her viewers carry out her bidding. Well, not all viewers – just the stupid adults, of course. Both are disquieting stories that once read, never quite leave you.
A Legacy of Ghosts by Colin Dann
Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood had already left a whole generation of kids traumatised by the time I came across A Legacy of Ghosts in my school library. The title’s mention of ghosts, coupled with the freaky looking cat on the cover, had me intrigued but on edge almost immediately. Even when I started reading it, I remember keeping the book face-down at all times to avoid catching sight of that cover. The story centred on Ben and Richard, two boys who learn about the death of a wealthy neighbour and decide to go snooping around his house. Things take a turn for the sinister when the boys start hearing strange footsteps and, in one particularly harrowing section, see a sinister dark face looking out from a window of the vacant property. The book stayed in my memory for years after though it did at least put me off similar delinquent antics.
Shades Of Dark compiled by Aidan Chambers
This was the first really scary book I ever remember reading and it kicked off a life-long passion for horror. The book was published in 1986 and I would have been about 9 when I read it. By that point, I was what was called a ‘free reader’ (oh the joy of becoming a free reader!), which meant I was allowed to choose books from the school library by myself rather than having to read what I was told. I mainly remember the library being full of Captain Pugwash and Bobby Brewster books but somehow this anthology of ghost stories for children made it in. Seeing the cover again I swear I can still smell the plasticine and sweat of that library carpet.
I only remember one story from the collection. It was called ‘Mandy Kiss Mommy’ and it scared the crap out of me. It was about a little girl who had this doll that used to say “Mandy kiss mommy”. The girl and her mum fall out – possibly over the doll – and the doll gets thrown in the trash. But the girl retrieves it and now the doll is saying ‘Mandy KILL mommy!”. And I believe at the end there is the implication that the little girl has killed her mum, and the doll’s voice has returned to normal. It was a lot scarier than that sounds, and I remember feeling like I’d read something slightly elicit and not suitable for me. And I loved it. Cursory internet detective skills inform me that there were also stories by Jan Mark, George Mackay Brown and Jan Needle in there, among others, but I don’t remember a word of those, sorry guys.
The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
“This time, she did not feel a thing when the Headmaster stuck the pin into her arm…”
I read The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross when I was 7 or 8 years old, shortly before the second series of the CBBC version began. While I doubt it’s the scariest entry on this list, I was mostly only consuming age-appropriate stuff and the idea of being hypnotised and losing control of yourself gave me the wiggins.
It didn’t help that the Penguin Books cover illustration by Mark Longworth looked (to a young me anyway) like my own primary school headteacher, an avuncular, silver-haired New Zealander who hadn’t showed any ambitions of world domination up to that point. Still, he looked nothing like Terrence Hardiman from the TV version. He was a marvellous man and it was the best school I’ve ever been to – uh oh.
Hamlyn publishers’ Treasury Of Literature For Children
Hamlyn’s Treasury Of Literature For Children was a fantastic book. It was a collection of short stories, poems and extracts from longer novels that made sense on their own, introducing children to a huge range of classic authors. I absolutely loved it.
But like all children’s books, it was lavishly illustrated, and the illustrations are where the terror lay! Don’t let the cute picture from Winnie The Pooh on the front cover fool you – there was some scary stuff in here. The story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was one of my favourites, but the pictures of Nag and Nagini the hooded cobras were the stuff of nightmares. The double-page illustration of Hercules in battle with the Amazons was so scary I never even read that story. But scariest of all was Hansel And Gretel – the evil hook-nosed witch was bad enough, but somehow the image of Gretal pushing her into her own oven was what really drove me over the edge and into night terrors!
The Twits by Roald Dahl
Every Roald Dahl book is disturbing in its own wonderful way, but The Twits always gave me a very special kind of terror. There are no ghosts, no supernatural horrors, no monsters – just two really horrible people.
Mr and Mrs Twit are an old couple who hate everything and everyone, including each other. When we are first introduced to them, they do nothing more harmful than playing stupid pranks on each other. But as the book reminds us: “We can’t go on for ever watching these two disgusting people doing disgusting things to each other”, and soon we’re introduced to the monkeys, whose existences are a living hell thanks to the Twits.
Mr and Mrs Twit keep a family of four monkeys in a tiny cage in the garden. Having worked as circus monkey trainers in the past, their ambition is to own the world’s first ‘upside-down monkey circus’. To achieve this, they force the monkeys to stand on their heads all day, every day. They had to do everything upside down – eating, drinking, sleeping – and if they didn’t, Mrs Twit would beat them with a stick.
I could never stop thinking about those poor monkeys; every time I read the book I’d have nightmares about being trapped upside down in a cage. Deep down, I think this was an innate fear of being arrested and put in prison – when I was three, my parents got a policeman to come over and threaten to take me away if I didn’t “behave myself”. Thanks rozzers.
Even without this experience, The Twits would have remained a deeply disturbing book (spoiler alert: the monkeys escape in the end, and they also get their own glorious revenge on the Twits); the monkeys may have had a happy ending, but they were still trapped there for god knows how many years before they managed to escape. And I always wondered how many monkeys had come and gone before them.
The Haunted Doll’s House by M R James
Marks and Spencers, that cozy old lady of the British High Street. Fluffy socks wool cardigans – and a run of book compilations in the late 70s and early 80s that could scare the pyjamas off you. There was St Michael’s 65 Great Tales of the Supernatural (1979), St Michael’s 65 Great Tales of Horror (1981) and St Michael’s Ghost Stories (1982). My 10-year-old self was given one to shut me up on a boring shopping trip. I honed in on the dollhouse story. After all, I had one of those. Not scary, right?
Wrong. As the self-satisfied purchaser of said dollhouse found out, things do go bump in the night. Bells toll and people scream. Old men get poisoned, and children snuffed out. As I read this story, my own dollhouse began to take on a sense of maleficence, glowering at me from the corner of my pink bedroom. My four plastic collie dogs became menacing hellhounds, teeth bared, plastic nails scraping across cardboard floors. Mocking laughter came from my mustard yellow plastic Sindy bathroom, the toilet gurgling. I ran from the room, my nylon nighty crackling with electric fear. The dollhouse was removed before I would re-enter.
A more sensible child would have binned the book. This one read on in horrified delight at ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ and the particularly grisly tale of ‘The Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall’. I never did play with the dollhouse again!
The Dark Portal by Robin Jarvis
I still have my copy of The Dark Portal but haven’t opened it since my dad finished reading it to me when I was 9 years old, and I couldn’t give you an exact synopsis off the top of my head. There’s talking mice and rats, and ancient evil gods, with scary-but-not-too-scary evil red eyes on the cover. The sort of thing you might read to a kid who loved The Hobbit. But I remember a lot of those mice die – even the nice ones. And the evil isn’t defeated, only held back for a moment. Even now, Lovecraft can only really scare me as much as it reminds me of that story about some talking mice.
The Dark Portal is the first book in the Deptford Mice Trilogy. I hope the mice win in the end, but I doubt I’ll ever have the courage to find out.
Bury Me Deep by Christopher Pike
I blame a lot of sleepless nights in my tweens on my school library’s big collection of Christopher Pike books. I must have been trying to prove something because, as someone who still won’t watch a horror film alone, they were a far cry from what I usually read at that age. From friends killing each other in school plays to a dead girl solving her murder from beyond the grave, the creepy (and looking back, pretty ridiculous) tales of teens in danger really got under my skin, and the graphic descriptions definitely weren’t for the faint-hearted (me).
Although it had one of the weirder plots, the book that really got me was Bury Me Deep, which was all about the dangers of scuba diving – if you happen to go diving with a murderous instructor. In a particularly disturbing moment (of which there were many), a character’s equipment was deliberately damaged so that he got “the bends”. The horrific description of him hurtling up to the surface way too fast was enough to keep me lying awake in fear. Even now, whenever I think about how fun it would be to go scuba diving, I remember that book and feel a little bit sick. I guess you could say it was educational, I’d never heard of the bends before, but I probably didn’t need to know about it in quite so much detail at the age of 11… Thanks a lot, Christopher Pike.
Empire Of The Ants by H G Wells
HG Wells is best known for sci-fi masterpieces like The Time Machine and War Of The Worlds – but the author also took occasional forays into horror. I read his 1905 short story ‘The Empire Of The Ants’ as a teenager, and was taken aback by just how, well, bloody scary it was.
It’s the tale of two men’s journey on a gunboat up a tributary of the Amazon river, deep into the rainforest, to investigate rumours of a plague of super-intelligent, flesh-eating ants. While the tally-ho prose and Creole dialogue hasn’t aged so well, this is still the perfect example of how well-conceived ideas, rather than jump-scare tactics, work best in written horror – his scurrying little monsters are so numerous that even machine guns are useless on them.
The story ends with the narrator calculating how far the ants would spread if they were left unchecked: “By 1920 they will be halfway down the Amazon. I fix 1950 or ’60 at the latest for the discovery of Europe.” Sadly, by 1977 a truly awful film version starring Joan Collins had been made – which, like the ants themselves, should be avoided at all costs.
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The brilliant stories of Roald Dahl have introduced many a young child to the playfulness and eccentricity that defines so many good horror stories, but one, in particular, proved too much for young me. One of my most vivid memories is of literally locking my copy of The Witches in a cupboard on the other side of my bedroom, after reading only the first few pages and becoming terrified when the titular witches trap a child inside a painting, destined to grow old inside of it. For coming on a year I was afraid of even opening the door to my makeshift literary holding area, and it wasn’t until my mother – a horror aficionado – realised what had happened and realised, with some disappointment I’m sure, that her daughter was a big ol’ wimp. To this day I struggle to look at an old-style painting without recalling the book and wondering which unlucky child found themselves cursed to live out their days within.
Goosebumps: Shop Till You Drop by R.L. Stein
RL Stine has been providing young readers with early horror experiences for decades. He’s written so many books, in fact, that it’s not always easy to remember exactly what happened in any specific one of them. I for one couldn’t tell you anything about Shop Til You Drop… Dead! besides the fact that it was set in an American mall and had a purple monster on the cover. Apparently it was a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but I’d forgotten that part of the experience completely. I can remember the book scaring me silly, though, causing a sense of fear to permeate my next few visits to the Peacocks shopping centre in Woking. Scary thoughts would arise, along these general lines: what if there is a monster lurking near the Pic N Mix in Woolworths? Ah! Is Blockbuster safe?! Eek!
The Mist by Stephen King
I didn’t read much horror when I was younger. I preferred instead to have fear beamed directly into my eye-holes through the medium of video nasties and demonic creature features.
But my big sister, eight years my senior, made sure that I wasn’t deprived of the written word’s power to deliver deep psychological terror to a little boy’s imagination, which she achieved by reading me Stephen King’s ‘The Mist’.
When I was six.
My sister’s words terraformed an ordinary suburban supermarket, one of the most boring buildings I’d yet encountered, into a site of monster-ridden savagery; a place from which a mother or father might disappear in a tangle of shrieks and screams. Plus, our copy of King’s anthology The Skeleton Crew, in which the story appeared, had an actual skeleton on the front cover, which stared at me all the while my sister read to me. Thanks for the nightmares, sis. Thanks for making shopping with mum substantially worse.
The Good Son by Todd Strasser
Carley Tauchert Hutchins
Back in the early ’90s, Macaulay Culkin was a one-child moviemaking machine, and when he wasn’t getting forgotten around Christmas or being a billionaire, he was playing a psychopathic killer in a little-seen (and I’ve yet to meet anybody other than me who has watched it) movie called The Good Son.
Now I can only assume our local library took one look at Culkin’s smiling face on the movie tie-in novel and thought, this belongs in the children’s section. It most certainly did not. Based on the screenplay by Ian McEwan, the title character not only is responsible for murdering his baby brother, he tries to murder his sister, mother and cousin, tries to cause multiple deaths by throwing a mannequin onto a motorway and, if memory recalls, there may also be some kind of animal murder.
If that all isn’t enough, we are then treated to a final showdown that includes a graphic death scene. Reading this as pre-teen totally scared the living pants off of me, considering the most hardcore thing I had read at the point in my life was the Point Horror series! It was only later on when I actually watched the hammy movie that I realised I’d probably overreacted a bit. But I won’t ever read it again, you know, just in case.