In my mid-teen years, my best friend’s family would spend three weeks every summer at a lake house with little more to do than take walks, swim and read. I missed her terribly, but looked forward to her return when she would bring me the best of the books she’d read, eagerly waiting for me to read them so we could discuss them. She, her mom and I were a book club of three, before book clubs came into vogue.
There was always a Stephen King or a Peter Straub novel. We devoured Salem’s Lot, Skeleton Crew, Ghost Story, Shadowland and The Talisman. The Confetti Man by Bonnie Jones Reynolds was a weird and wonderful occult novel revolving around a hereditary skin disorder. (An early clue that I was drawn to the peculiar!) The Legacy by John Coyne faithfully rendered into a movie with Sam Elliott and Catherine Ross is still one of my favorites–hardly scary by today’s standards but good old- fashioned gothic creepy.
In ninth grade my English teacher suggested I read We Have Always Lived in this Castle by Shirley Jackson, a seriously disturbing book about two sisters who live in a sprawling house with their uncle Julian, the only other survivor who did not partake of poisoned sugar at the family dinner. I read everything else I could get my hands on by or about Shirley Jackson, including her biography.
In 1990 I moved to Japan to teach English. Two weeks in, my ex and I got wicked food poisoning. Read Stephen King’s IT aloud to each other while recovering. A peculiar bonding experience that helped pass the time and distracted us from illness. The movie (love Tim Curry!) was pretty faithful to the book.
I’ve recently discovered the ghost stories of Edith Wharton. Brilliant. Tricky. You have to read between the lines to pick out what’s not said. I gleefully discovered that many ‘lost’ Victorian ghost stories not available for the last century or more have been reissued in the last few years. I’m working my way through a list, savoring them like chocolate truffles.
Say Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi or Peter Lorre or anything by Hitchcock and I”ll get the popcorn. Likewise for any of the three Sherlock Holmes portrayals: Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey, Jr.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) —Kim Darby, Jim Hutton (This was an influence for my story “An Old House Just Has So Much Character”)
The Legacy (1979)—Sam Elliott, Catherine Ross + Roger Daltrey (from The Who) cameo—chokes to death on a chicken bone in a spectacular death scene—but he ate ham!
Skeleton Key (2005) with Kate Hudson
The Sixth Sense (1999)—Bruce Willis
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)—Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich
The ‘Burbs (1989)—Tom Hanks (okay, a campy comedy, but in my all-time top 10 favorites)
I can’t list influential films without these three, but they are right at my edge and beyond.
The Shining (1980) Jack Nicholson Took me many tries to get to the end, and to this day can’t watch the whole thing without covering my eyes. Terrific build of suspense.
The Omen (1976)–Gregory Peck Terrific, but it took me many tries to sit through it. I usually was too creeped out by the third commercial break.
The Exorcist (1973) Linda Blair I never made it past the second commercial break. Too much for me.
Notable macabre foreign films:
Kwaidan (Japanese–1964) which features one of my favorite ghost stories, Hoichi, about a blind monk.
Hausu (House) (Japanese–1977) a creepy/campy film ahead of its time. If you watch this movie, please watch the extra material first—the back story about the director is inspirational and you’ll appreciate the movie better. Link to movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0NWIxl2VJk
Dorm (Thai 2006)
Bangkok Haunted (Thai—2001)
The Twilight Zone
Tales from the Crypt
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Elvira: Movie Macabre