Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Our Scariest Stories

Recently, as the Foxes gathered round the cauldron, brewing up ideas for posts, we decided it might be fun to talk about the scariest books or stories we’d ever read. The very idea caused at least one wimpy Fox to scamper off shrieking, but some of the others were happy to shine some jack-o’lantern glow on their experiences.
schalcken-video Moira told us “I’ve never actually read a scary book – or rather, I’ve never read a book that scared me, which isn’t quite the same thing. I have, however, read a few short stories which caused me to sleep with the light on, and one particular favourite (if that’s quite the right word) is Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’.
Godfried Schalcken(1643-1706), the central character of Le Fanu’s story, really existed. He was a Dutch painter renowned for his mastery of candle and lamp light. Often his subjects are only illuminated by the light of the candle they are holding or sitting by. Sometimes there are other people in the shadows – and it’s those shadows and who, or what, lurks in them that Le Fanu used to such spectacular effect.
He describes a particular painting in some detail – of a young woman holding a lamp and standing in a darkened, ancient room, with the half-obscured figure of a man in the background, drawing his sword in alarm. He then goes on to tell the story of that painting – a deeply weird tale which is more than lightly touched by eroticism and necrophilia. What it implies is absolutely horrific in the truest sense of the word and it frankly gave me the screaming meemies the one and only time I read it. The painting described is not – as far as anyone can discover – a real one, but that doesn’t stop me from periodically trawling through online listings of Schalcken’s work to see if I can spot that figure in the shadows and scare myself all over again …
(By the way, if you value your peace of mind, do not – UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – be tempted to buy this
BBC adaptation of the story. If, on the other hand, you want to see a master class in how to transfer a classic ghost story to the screen, take a punt – but you have been warned …)”
lord-of-the-rings Lisa confided “I tend to avoid reading frightening books, and I am slightly embarrassed to admit that The Lord of the Rings is the scariest book I’ve ever read, thanks mostly to the Nine, also known (among several other names) as the Ringwraiths, or Nazgûl. Once mortal men, they were corrupted by Sauron’s dark power and became his most deadly servants, utterly consumed by the power of the One Ring. Tolkien’s descriptions of them are absolutely chilling. At the hobbits’ first encounter with one of the Ringwraiths, a cloaked figure dismounts and appears to be sniffing them, trying to discover their hiding place. This scene has stayed with me vividly over the past twenty-odd years. Fortunately, that Ringwraith does not discover the frightened hobbits, but soon after there is a terrifying encounter with the Ringwraiths at a hill called Weathertop. Once again, this scene haunted my dreams for quite some time. As Bookfox Moira put it so beautifully, “The Nazgul are absolutely terrifying creatures to anyone with a half-way active imagination.””
hawksmoor-cover Hilary admitted “Here’s another Bookfox who does not like getting scared for pleasure. I avoid books that set out to scare with shocks and suspense, terrifying monsters and gruesome scenes. The scariest books I’ve read are the ones that take me unawares and play subtly on a sense of unease. The more relatable the scarier, as far as I am concerned. I think my vote right now for the most terrifying book I’ve read is Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. It is because of its closeness to a couple of my preoccupations. Dyer, the possessed 17th century architect, is as recognisable in his public guise as some of the polymaths of that era that I’ve been finding out about in research related to the early 18th century library I help to care for. How many of them pursued forbidden and arcane lines of enquiry, and hid terrible personal secrets? Probably a vanishingly small number of them, but the seeds of doubt are now there. The modern scenes of Hawksmoor are set in the parts of London – Spitalfields, Seven Dials and Bloomsbury – that fascinate me most and streets that I walk often (these days with more of a frisson from the unknown, unseen person who may be dogging my footsteps). The sense of Ackroyd’s modern hero Hawksmoor’s powerlessness and cold terror is now in my mind. It doesn’t take much to spook me as a reader!”
So there you have it, the Book Foxes’ scariest stories, perfect for Hallowe’en. And now we ask you, dear readers, to share your spookiest read in the comments. C’mon, don’t be scared!

2 comments on “Our Scariest Stories

  1. Hilary
    October 31, 2016

    You know what, Moira? I’m the wimpiest reader in the world, (bar possibly one, Jackie), but you’ve sold me this one – I must know! Maybe, now that I’m almost a grown-up, it won’t haunt my dreams too badly. I’ve never even attempted Le Fanu, though I have tried MR James (then scuttled rapidly back to the comforting and familiar).

  2. Moira
    October 31, 2016

    That’s a fair trade, because you’ve sold me on Hawksmoor. 🙂

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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