The Haunted House Next Door by Siobhan Adcock
Ghost stories stereotypically call for a gothic, remote, out-there setting: a fog-enshrouded ancestral hall in the country, a cabin in the woods. But how many ghost stories are set among the cheerful streetlights and mowed lawns of suburbia? While I was working on my first novel, The Barter, about a ghost haunting a suburban home, I set out to find great examples of scary stories that didn’t take place in one of those creaky-doored, hidden-staircased country estates, where family secrets and dead bodies are stashed in the basement. In the kind of story I was looking for, the basement had been converted to a rec room.
Of course, some citified people might say with a shudder: “Yeesh, the suburbs are already scary.” I’m a city-dweller myself now, but I’m a bona fide product of a Midwestern suburb—I’ve got no beef with the ‘burbs. As a writer and a reader, the question for me was: Can the suburbs be scary?
And I’m talking real suburbs, as opposed to small towns. Small towns—mostly rural—have been the setting for some memorably spooky stories, including just about everything written by the great Stephen King. But small towns have a different vibe altogether from the suburbs. In scary stories, small towns are depicted as disconnected, insular, and inescapable, surrounded by woods or fields, and full of people who distrust outsiders. They’re just as “out there,” in their way, as a Gothic mansion on a remote country road.
By contrast, the suburbs are the opposite of disconnected or inescapable—pretty much by design, they’re launching pads for commuters, and fortified Green Zones for those commuters’ families. They’re not surrounded by woods or fields, they’re surrounded by big box retail. Where small towns are circumscribed and insidery, the suburbs have no edges, no real outside or in.
Which, when you think about it, is kinda spooky.
You might be surprised to know just how hard it was to find scary fiction set in the suburbs. Moviemakers have been setting horror films in the suburbs forever. There are plenty of examples of suburban scariness to point to in film, notably Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and perhaps the cinema’s greatest example of the splanch (that’s a “split-level ranch” for you city folks) from hell, Poltergeist.
Why so many movies and so few stories? Maybe it’s a question of craft. In film, making the suburbs look terrifying is as easy as applying a filter or a freaky camera angle (or just lots of gore and blood). In fiction, though, conjuring a convincingly spooky mood in a suburban drive-through lane takes some serious special effects. The only visual cues a reader has are the ones supplied by the author, and by the reader’s own imagination—and there’s no eerie soundtrack, either (unless you like reading with a spooky playlist, in which case, see below).
So after much research, here’s what I’ve found: These writers make the suburbs as scary as a moonlit cemetery, using nothing more than language and the power of suggestion.
A cult classic of the early 90s, Kathe Koja’s debut novel is bleak and insane, and often very funny. In the basement of his cruddy apartment building, the narrator and his unpleasant girlfriend discover…a hole. Just a black hole. But it seems to be alive. So they start feeding it—insects, at first—even though everything that goes down into the abyss comes back out hideously changed. And mostly dead. Mostly.
Kelly Link’s fiction often combines unlikely elements, and Stone Animals, from her 2005 collection Magic for Beginners, mashes-up a haunted house story with a marriage plot. A married couple with children move to a suburban house, where they try and fail and try again to recapture what brought them together. All the while, the house itself is having a peculiar effect on each member of the family, and something strange seems to be happening in the yard, just out of sight. The story is funny and sad and almost sweet…until suddenly, it’s truly frightening.
A good old-fashioned haunted house story with a sharp class critique nestled in its cobwebbed heart, Sarah Waters’s justly-praised 2009 novel is pure pleasure…if pleasure, for you, involves jumping at shadows. The setting is a family estate located in what was formerly the countryside, and is now a rapidly developing suburb of a small English town. Can the family hold on to the house? And just what is the terrifying force that’s compelling them to stay? For the English artistocracy, there’s nothing more terrifying than the suburban barbarians at the gate, unless it’s the ghosts in the walls.
Family moves into suburban home, seeking safety and predictability. Suburban home promptly begins, in a manner of speaking, to turn itself inside out and eat itself alive—with them inside it. The comforting limits of the boxy suburban life turn out to be terrifyingly unreal, with each corner revealing a new horror. Even if you weren’t raised on the illusion of the “comforts of home,” you’ll sleep with the lights on for days.
Not a vampire novel for fans of Twilight, probably, this novel (the basis of two film adaptations—see the Swedish verson) suggests that there are two ways of being undead. On the one hand, you could be a hopeless, victimized, and friendless teenager in a Swedish suburban housing development, contemplating becoming a mass murderer just to have something to do. On the other hand, you could actually be undead: a child vampire, rendered helpless in an adult world and forced to adapt to intolerable conditions just to survive. Oskar and Eli, the teenage protagonists, find bleak but believable common ground, and in a series of increasingly bloody incidents, learn that they’re not entirely helpless, and certainly not innocent.
A suburban haunted house story that’s the product of a particular place and time—the New South in the 1970s—Anne Rivers Siddons’s second novel invites you over to a house that manipulates, tortures, and murders the inhabitants of a leafy, tony Southern suburban neighborhood. Smooth, sleek, and incredibly disturbing, it’s one of Stephen King’s favorite modern horror stories. The ghastly ending will stay with you. (I just had an actual shiver just typing that sentence, in fact.)
A Playlist of Spooky Songs to Read To
In case you’re not scared enough by what you’re reading, these songs provide a suitably spooky soundtrack:
Anyone’s Ghost by The National
Monsters by Band of Horses
Scared by Albert Hammond Jr.
Also Frightened by Animal Collective
Half Light I by Arcade Fire
Deep Purple by Artie Shaw
The Present by Bedhead
Evil Is Coming/The Black Cat by Broadcast
Phantom Other by Department of Eagles
He’s Everywhere by Dolly Parton
Down by the Water by The Drums
The Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen
A Grey Cloth Covering My Face by Elf Power
Quiet Houses by Fleet Foxes
Transparent Things by Fujiya Miyagi
Dead Man by M Ward
Never Go Away by Noonday Underground
Ghost Under Rocks by Ra Ra Riot (Passion Pit Remix)
Possum Kingdom by The Toadies
Graveyard Shift by Uncle Tupelo
Poor Places by Wilco
Little Ghost by White Stripes
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