As my favorite holiday approaches, I’ve once again been reading my way through a stack of spooky stories to share with you in time for Halloween. With something here for every age group from preschoolers to adults, there’s sure to be something for everyone, whether you prefer your Halloween books tame or terrifying. Please note: This post contains affiliate links.
Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark by Lucia Peters
Recommended Age: Teens
Approximate Cost: $13
I started out my Halloween reading for this year with Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark by Lucia Peters. This guide book blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and introduces the rules to 24 games in six different categories including Summoning Spirits, Contacting the Other Side, Party Games, and High-Stakes Hide and Seek. Each game receives its own short chapter including a risk level for playing, any additional warnings (many note a fire risk due to the use of candles), the basic objective of the game, and any rewards there may be for winning. These rewards include knowledge, a trip to another world, or possibly nothing beyond your own survival.
Each game is introduced with some of the history and lore surrounding it. I found this section of each game’s chapter to be the most interesting parts of the book; some of the games covered here can be traced back to the 1600s while others have surfaced very recently online. There are also games here from around the world. While many will be deeply familiar to those of us in the U.S. and UK (who hasn’t heard of summoning Bloody Mary in a mirror), others originate from Latin America, Japan, and Korea.
After the game is introduced the rules are laid out. These take you through the game step-by-step including rules for what to do if anything goes wrong, which there is a strong possibility of in every game. Finally, the additional information gives rules variants for different numbers of players, help for games that have gone badly, and other useful information.
The book is very well written because, despite not believing in any of the so-called consequences of these games, on the nights I stayed up late reading it by myself I found that I didn’t want to look into any darkened rooms on my way to bed and also found myself avoiding looking into mirrors, whilst simultaneously admonishing myself for being so ridiculous. The logical, scientific part of your brain knows perfectly well that chanting Bloody Mary 13 times into a mirror at midnight will result in absolutely nothing happening, but the irrational part of your brain knows equally well that you won’t be testing out that hypothesis by trying it yourself. Just in case.
This would be an ideal gift for teenagers looking to spice up a sleepover. Just be sure to warn them that maybe they shouldn’t play if they’re not 100% certain about what might happen…
The Halloween Tree by Susan Montanari
Recommended Age: Pre-School – Grade 1/2
Approximate Cost: $8.99
My next Halloween book this year is intended for a much younger audience. The Halloween Tree by Susan Montanari is an adorable picture book illustrated by Teresa Martinez. I have never identified so closely with a tree before in my life!
The story follows a little sapling growing up on a Christmas tree farm. Unlike their siblings who cannot wait to grow big enough to be taken home by a family and decorated with lights and baubles, this little sapling decides they do not like people and would rather be left in their spot. The tree’s wish comes true when eventually the tree farm closes down and a housing development springs up in its place. Now surrounded by families and at the center of the games played by local children, the tree begins to see what it has been missing out on. However, by now it has grown so gnarled that it will never be a beautiful Christmas tree no matter how hard it tries. When the adults in the neighborhood threaten to cut it down because of how ugly it looks, the children rally around their beloved tree and give it a new lease of life by turning it into the centerpiece of a totally different holiday.
I absolutely fell in love with this book and the positive message it brings. There are great lessons here about acceptance, embracing differences, and seeing value in everyone no matter their outward appearance, yet the book never feels preachy or overly worthy. Instead, it comes across as a simple and lovely story that could be read equally at Halloween or Christmas.
I will definitely be picking up some copies of this one to give to friends with young children this holiday season and I highly recommend it to everyone.
The Lost Ones by Anita Frank
Recommended Age: Mature Teens – Adult
Approximate Cost: None listed yet, released Oct 31st
My next Halloween read was one aimed at a distinctly older audience. The Lost Ones is the debut novel by Anita Frank and if this is any indication of her work yet to come, then I’m excited to see what’s in store.
Set in England in 1917, The Lost Ones immerses itself in the grief and heartbreak of a country too many years at war. The central protagonist is Stella Marcham, a young woman recently returned from nursing along the front lines following the death of her equally young fiance. Beside herself with grief and teetering on the brink of suicide, Stella’s doctor and parents are considering having her institutionalized when her salvation seems to arrive in the form of her brother-in-law. Stella’s sister Madelaine is expecting and suffering extreme anxiety after moving to his family home—Greyswick—in the country. Her husband hopes that Stella’s presence may prove calming and she agrees to an extended visit immediately.
However, upon arrival at Greyswick, Stella soon becomes wrapped up in the mystery that is causing her sister much angst and misery. The sound of a child crying in the abandoned nursery wakes them in the night, doors open by themselves, and objects appear in rooms with no one the wiser as to how they got there. Unconvinced that these occurrences are caused by the mischievous household staff, Stella begins to uncover the truth about past events at Greyswick and tragedies that have long lain buried, but can she convince the others before she is labeled mad and sent away?
The Lost Ones kept me up at night reading just one more chapter and had enough spooky atmosphere to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and cause me to jump at the slightest of sounds while reading late. The book feels like a classic ghost story in the style of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill or Dickens’ The Signal-Man thanks to its Great War setting and old-fashioned style of scares. Given the setting, I was surprised to come across some diversity in the form of multiple LGBTQ characters, although their portrayal ended up being somewhat problematic. Trigger warnings should also be noted for rape, sexual abuse, and childhood death, although all these subjects are handled sensitively.
All in all, I really loved The Lost Ones despite the tragedy that unfolds within its pages. This is a story that I hope one day becomes a classic and will make for perfect autumn reading for those looking for something with less horror and more tension.
Dead Voices (Small Spaces #2) by Katherine Arden
Recommended Age: Middle Grade
Approximate Cost: $10
My next book was one I listened to courtesy of Audible. Dead Voices by Katherine Arden is the sequel to Small Spaces which I read as part of my 2018 Halloween reading roundup and continues the story several months after the events of the first book.
In book one, Ollie, Coco, and Brian met a malevolent entity known as the Smiling Man on a fall school trip to an isolated farm with a disturbing history, narrowly escaping his clutches with the help of Ollie’s watch which somehow connected her to the spirit of her recently dead mother. In Dead Voices, the three friends are off on a winter ski trip with Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom to a newly renovated ski lodge atop Mount Hemlock. Arriving in a terrific snowstorm just before a reporter—Mr. Voland—who claims to write for a magazine about ghosts does, the kids soon realize they are the only guests who made it through, and there doesn’t seem to be any way back down the mountain.
After seeing ghosts in their dreams and being given warnings not to listen to “the dead voices,” Mr. Voland teaches the kids that Hemlock Lodge was once an orphanage with a history just as awful as the farm where they recently escaped the Smiling Man. As they begin to investigate the ghosts that roam the lodge, the kids begin to realize that they are being manipulated, but are the ghosts on their side or are they working with the Smiling Man who is angry at being outwitted before and determined not to repeat his mistakes?
I absolutely loved this book, although I’ll admit that in my opinion, the voice acting for the audiobook edition wasn’t quite the right fit for the story. I didn’t feel that there was as much character development among the three kids as in the previous novel (and I did feel aggrieved that one main character is removed from the story for the nearly the entire final act) but what was lacking in that area was more than made up for in extra chills. This second volume certainly felt scarier than its predecessor and had me jumping several times while listening alone at night. I also really liked that the primary protagonist has switched from Ollie to Coco for this book; I hope that in volume three (which should be set in spring as the series of four is supposed to follow a year season by season) will feature Brian taking on the role of the central character.
While this is a middle-grade book, it might be too scary for some and I would advise parents to pre-read it if they are concerned about their nervous readers having nightmares. However, for kids (and adults) who like a good spooky story full of sinister spirits, haunted corridors, and plucky kids determined to save their friends before the night is through, Dead Voices is a perfect read as the colder months creep in.
Ghost: Thirteen Haunting Tales to Tell by Ilustratus
Recommended Age: Mature Middle Grade
Approximate Cost: $20 Hardback, $12 Kindle
Next on my list was Ghost, a collection of thirteen short stories and poems compiled by Illustratus, a design company founded by Disney staffers Kit and Jeff Turley. Originally funded through Kickstarter, Ghost claims that there are “only thirteen true ghost stories” and all of these are contained within this book. The book contains stories by many writers with illustrations throughout by Jeff.
The book opens when two young campers—Thomas and Skeeter—dare to sneak out of their cabin at night and visit the groundskeeper at Camp Champlain. Old Man Blackwood is known to tell the most terrifying stories, the ones the camp’s counselors consider too gruesome for around the fire, to those who dare to visit him, and the boys are determined to up their street cred by returning to their cabin armed with terrifying tales.
Old Man Blackwood fulfills his end of the bargain through the stories contained in the book. There is a tale of a girl looking out from inside a mirror, a basement closed off behind a bricked up entrance, a teenage boy descending to retrieve his parents’ bodies from the submarine they were exploring, and the new kid at school who dares to visit the graveyard at night and discover the secret behind the eyes that float there in the dark. All the stories here feature children and teens, which makes their macabre endings all the more haunting (or upsetting depending on your point of view) and all are designed to be read-aloud. Coming from a design studio, the pages are filled with stylized pictures that add to the terror.
Ghost ended up being one of my least favorite books this Halloween. While the stories it contained were all new to me, they also frequently felt predictable and the twists at the conclusion of many of them almost never surprised me. I feel like the inclusion of children in nearly all the stories also lessened my enjoyment as I usually try to avoid tales where children meet untimely ends, although this is a personal preference. The one stand-out story for me was “Depth” by Jesse Reffsin which did an excellent job of playing on an old childhood fear of being trapped in a submarine stuck at the bottom of the ocean—I can thank Sapphire and Steel for that one.
I struggle to know exactly who Ghost is aimed at because, while it is a picture book designed to be read aloud, the stories in it will terrify a lot of children (I would absolutely recommend pre-reading this before passing it along to anyone below their teens) so its audience feels rather niche. If you have brave kids who love being terrified at bedtime then this will be perfect for the Halloween season; if they’re a little more nervous then I’d avoid Ghost for now.
A World Full of Spooky Stories by Angela McAllister
Recommended Age: Elementary School
Approximate Cost: $18 Hardback, $10 Kindle
My penultimate Halloween read was another collection of short stories. A World Full of Spooky Stories by Angela McAllister promises 50 tales “to make your spine tingle” and includes traditional folk tales from all over the world. Each story comes complete with illustrations and a note about its country of origin.
It was interesting to learn about the myths and traditional stories from around the world and to note how similar many of them are to the traditional tales of Western culture—it’s hard not to compare China’s “The Maiden in the Pagoda” to Rapunzel or Russia’s “Vasilissa the Beautiful” to Cinderella. The book is divided into eleven sections which roughly group the stories by location and/or theme with titles such as “Into the Woods,” “Strangers at the Door,” and “Frozen Lands.”
Despite the interest from the global nature of the stories within its pages, this book ended up being a bit of a letdown. This was because, while interesting, none of the stories it contained were what I would consider to be “spooky.” While I wasn’t expecting anything overly terrifying from a book like this, none of the stories contained here seemed even a little spooky. Even tales I recognized and knew to be scary seemed to have been sanitized. Baba Yaga came across as more a grumpy old dear than a terrifying witch and the Scottish Water Horse was little more than laughable.
As a book of folk tales and interesting international mythology, this is a great little primer, but as a book of “spooky stories,” you’re better off looking elsewhere.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Occult Edition by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Recommended Age: Teens
Approximate Cost: $20
Finally, I picked up a copy of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Occult Edition from Archie comics. This new hardcover book includes all eight issues of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic series by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa so far, along with some special features.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have read this while mid-way through finally watching season two of the Netflix show because I quickly found myself getting the similar yet distinct plotlines mixed up! The comic series is far more intense than even the modern TV series with Sabrina’s family far more callous, her father’s motives more suspect, and more horrifying consequences for her friends as the story progresses. The comic series is also set in the 1960s which gives it a different feel from the modern setting of the TV show. While the majority of characters appear in both the TV series and comic series, there are also a lot of big differences. Roz and Theo are effectively non-existent as is Nick, Hilda and Zelda are far more terrifying and far less caring toward Sabrina, while Harvey’s character arc is probably the most obviously different. It was interesting to see some of the events which clearly inspired similar events on screen and see how they had been tweaked—some only a little and but some were almost unrecognizable. It was also fun to spot some crossover appearances from the Riverdale cast with Betty, Veronica, Archie, and Jughead all putting in appearances across the eight issues.
My favorite part of the collection had to be issue six. “That Damned Cat” is a Salem-centric story that covers how he came to end up stuck in the body of a cat. In the comics, Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose has a pair of cobras—Nag and Nagaina—who act as his familiars and their backstory is also told in the same issue adding some interesting depth to the animal characters who are far more prominent in the comic than on screen. Several issues include scenes that flashback to the past, fleshing out the stories of Sabrina’s parents Edward and Diana Spellman in an often horrifying way. I ended up finding these flashback sequences to be my favorite parts of the whole series.
The story ends on… not exactly a cliff-hanger but a dramatic revelation nonetheless, and I do hope the series will return in the future. For now, the book ends with some bonus features including a gallery of previous cover art from the series so far, copies of the very first Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch comic from 1962 and an early appearance of Madam Satan from 1941, concept sketches for the comic series, and a selection of stills from the Netflix series.
This hardback volume will make a great read for fans of the Netflix series and those of macabre and chilling comic series in general. It’s best suited to older teens as the content is frequently graphic; this is not your grandparents’ Archie-verse.
GeekMom received copies of these titles for review purposes.