Book Corner: Books That (Safely) Give You a Scare

It’s October, and you know what that means: scary stories, tales of terror, and the excuse to binge on 10-pound bags of fun-size Snickers...wait, that’s a different topic entirely. Anyway, why, you might wonder, do we enjoy reading books that have us avoiding mirrors and pulling blankets over our heads? Why do we (willingly) do this to ourselves?

Here’s the science-y answer to why we read and watch horror, according to sociologist Margee Kerr, Ph.D.: hormones. Getting scared causes the brain to enter “survival mode,” releasing a flood of hormones, including adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, causing a natural high. Combine this with the fact your brain knows it’s safe--no, that clown is not actually going to come out of the sewer and grab you--it’s a good time all around. When you’re snuggled up on the couch with a cat and a cup of coffee, you can enjoy that body and brain hormone rush while knowing there’s no real danger.

Now, of course, there are some people for whom this does not apply, in which case you may as well skip my book recommendations. According to Kerr, there are reasons that some people hate to be scared, having to do with past experience or brains that function differently. Some brains have difficulty registering when they’re in a safe environment and can’t discern between an actual threat (being chased by a mugger with a knife) and a “pretend” threat (see aforementioned clown in gutter). And, that’s okay! Every book its reader, and there are books for every brain out there.

For my Team Spooktober friends, here are my picks:

The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

Koike spins a tale of psychological suspense of a young couple and their daughter who move into the seemingly perfect starter home, a brand-new apartment building that happens to be built next to a graveyard. Despite this detail, the setting seems bucolic at first, until inexplicably strange and frightening things start happening. The building’s residents start moving out one by one, until just this little family is left to contend with something creeping in the basement. 

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Boisterous, larger-than-life Pepper isn’t mentally ill, but suddenly finds himself an inmate of an underfunded mental institution in Queens. On his first night, he is assaulted by a terrifying creature, saved from certain death only when hospital staff intervene. And, it’s not Pepper’s imagination: the other patients confirm that a hungry devil lurks in the hallways after sundown. Pepper rallies three other inmates to wrestle their own inner demons and come together to kill the monster before it kills them. 

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Garcia-Moreno

Award-winning Garcia-Moreno uses elements of Latin American mythology to take readers on a sweeping, wild journey. Mexico City is a veritable oasis in a world of vampires, heavily policed to ward off these vicious creatures of the night. In the city, Domingo is another street kid trying to survive, when he meets Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers. Domingo is instantly in her thrall and clings to her relentlessly, which Atl reluctantly allows. But then Atl’s nemeses, Nick and Rodrigo, arrive in Mexico City to track her down, and their killing sprees attract the attention of the police, the local crime bosses, and the vampire community. Atl now has to escape before Mexico City, and she herself, are destroyed.

There's Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins

Coming to Netflix in 2021, this slasher story centers on Makani Young. Makani, haunted by her past in Hawaii, has been living with her grandmother in landlocked Nebraska for a year now. She’s still trying to adjust when, one by one, the students of her small-town high school begin dying in a series of murders that grows more grotesque and gruesome with each one. As the hunt for the killer intensifies, Makani is forced to confront her own dark secrets.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Green Book meets The Twilight Zone in Ruff’s imaginative tale, now an HBO series. In Chicago 1954, when Atticus Turner’s father Montrose goes missing, Atticus sets out for New England to find him. Accompanying Atticus is childhood friend Leticia and Atticus’s Uncle George, publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide. Along the way to the manor of Mr. Braithwaite, heir to the estate that owned one of Atticus’s ancestors, the trio encounters both the terrors of white America and those of malicious spirits that seem to hail from those weird tales George loves so much. At the manor, Montrose is discovered in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal called the Order of the Ancient Dawn, which has lured Atticus to unwillingly participate in a ritual that centers unexpectedly on Atticus himself.

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

1982, Fell, New York: Viv Delaney works as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel to pay for her move to the big city. Viv sees customers of all types, from those passing through to locals with their secrets. Strange, inexplicable things happen on the night shift, and soon Viv realizes something isn’t right at the Sun Down, so she starts digging. Forward to 2017. Viv’s niece Carly has always been fascinated by her aunt’s disappearance before she was born. Carly goes to Fell to find out what happened to Viv, mirroring her aunt’s life by working as the night clerk at the Sun Down, which hasn’t changed since 1982. Carly discovers that Viv had been trying to unravel mysteries of her own, including exposing a potential serial killer working in Fell. If Carly can last through the Sun Down’s horrors and find the answers Viv had been trying to look for, perhaps she can find out what happened to her aunt.

Are you a writer, or do you aspire to write? Join Sarah Warburton, author of psychological thriller Once Two Sisters, on October 20 from 6:30-8:00, for her virtual workshop “Building a Writing Community.” Simply head to to view the workshop live, no Facebook account needed.

Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.