3 scary stories to sink your teeth into this Halloween
AU English professors share their favourite works of horror
The arrival of autumn brings cooler temperatures, falling leaves, pumpkin-flavoured beverages, and, most importantly, all things scary!
To celebrate Halloween, we asked Athabasca University English professors to share some of their favourite frightening stories. These tales might spark some inspiration for your next great read—if you dare—or perhaps inspire you to enrol in one of their courses.
On the Wings of This Prayer, by Richard Van Camp
In fall 2018, Dr. Mark A. McCutcheon, a professor of literary studies and author of The Medium Is the Monster, and a colleague at SUNY Empire State College co-taught a seminar on zombies and vampires in literature.
One of their assigned readings, On the Wings of This Prayer by former AU Writer-in-Residence Richard Van Camp, remains far and away the single scariest story McCutcheon says he’s ever read.
“And as a Frankenstein scholar, I’ve read a lot of scary stories,” he says.
In fact, it’s so scary McCutcheon has only read it the one time while preparing for that course. Explaining why it’s so scary would require giving away too many spoilers, he adds, but one of the key reasons comes down to imagery.
“The imagery with which Van Camp describes the story’s monstrosities is uniquely vivid—more than surreal, more than grotesque,” he says. “It lets you glimpse and smell and taste a worse-than-nightmare scenario like you’ve woken up in a Hieronymus Bosch painting and don’t know how to escape.”
The story also implicates the reader in the plot, a technique McCutcheon says he’s partial to because it’s so effective. He also credits Van Camp for implicating several real institutions and businesses—notably oil producers—for the horror in the story that unfolds.
“Van Camp’s story is a singularly harrowing work of genius, expressed with an improbable combination of allusive brevity and epic scope. If you read it, you too may not find your way back out of it. You’ve been warned.”
On the Wings of This Prayer appears in Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction, a 2014 anthology of short fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and published by Exile Editions.
“Van Camp’s story is a singularly harrowing work of genius … If you read it, you too may not find your way back out of it. You’ve been warned.”– Dr. Mark A. McCutcheon, professor of literary studies
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Armstrong calls it a “deceptively simple story” and that when you try to describe the plot, you realize not much actually happens over the course of the novel. There are a few key moments in which James takes the reader to the brink of horror, only to pitch the reader into frustrated suspense.
“Most of the horror comes from what is not said, what is not seen, but imagined, and the horror of not fully understanding something,” says Armstrong.
The lonely setting and the suggestion of the appearance of ghosts sets the novel’s gothic tone, she adds, but in the end the reader is left with more questions than answers—“and an unshakeable feeling of unease.”
Perhaps that’s why Virginia Woolf once said of the novel that the “power of the story … was in forcing readers to realize the dark places fiction could take their minds.”
“James is a master at playing upon our fears through ambiguity and unresolved suspense,” Armstrong says. “It is a psychological thriller, which recalls a time when dallying in occult activities was not only a somewhat serious topic of scientific inquiry, but also a fashionable pastime.”
“James is a master at playing upon our fears through ambiguity and unresolved suspense.”– Dr. Jolene Armstrong, associate professor of English
The Only Child, by Andrew Pyper
The Only Child is a Frankenstein adaptation that Abdou says simplifies the classic as a cautionary tale about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, about the scientist playing God, or about misuse of technology.
“The Only Child extends beyond those themes to explore the nature of evil, what it means to be a monster, and the way a balance between darkness and light resides in each of us,” she says. “It’s the perfect Halloween read!”