Any list of recommendations for Hallowe’en reading would seem incomplete without an entry from Stephen King. I’ll forego some of the more obvious choices from among his novels though, and instead choose one of his shorter short stories: “Gramma.”
The premise is very simple: 10-year old George Bruckner lives with his 14-year old brother Buddy and their single mother Ruth. Staying with them is Ruth’s ancient, senile, bedridden grandmother. When Buddy breaks his leg playing baseball, Ruth goes to the hospital out of town to see him, leaving George alone to look after Gramma.
Just that idea alone is scary enough, and much of the horror of the story is simply from George’s fear of being alone with the terrifying woman upstairs, and the inevitable thoughts about what would happen if she died. It taps into a fear of the elderly so many of us have of children. They remind us of mortality, and their ways of thinking and acting seem so alien to us. This is of course made even worse by senility, which can be truly horrifying for children as it’s difficult for them to understand, as a frightening introduction to the idea that no matter what we do we may well lose control of our minds. Like a lot of the best horror, there’s a simple, everyday fear at the heart of the story that most people can relate to.
The story moves beyond that of course, as George’s recollections of overheard conversation between his mother and her siblings don’t mean much to him, but give us little clues that tell us that there might be more to Gramma than meets the eye. Still though, at heart it’s about a young boy who’s terrified to go upstairs into the dark room with the wheezing, rasping, senile old woman who mutters in her sleep… I won’t go into much detail about the plot, but unlike some of King’s novels (which he doesn’t plan in much detail), the story has a satisfying yet terrifying and incredibly tense ending.
The story can be found in King’s 1985 collection Skeleton Crew, which I highly recommend. Though he’s better known for his novels and their cinematic adaptations, many of his short stories are fantastic. The stories in Skeleton Crew are quite varied, and in addition to “Gramma,” I’m also quite fond of “The Mist,” “The Raft,” “The Jaunt,” and “The Reach” (I guess I have a thing for short snappy titles!)
“Gramma” was adapted as an episode of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone. I haven’t seen it, but it seems to be quite a faithful adaptation, apart perhaps from the tone of the ending. You can find it in two parts on YouTube. The story was also made into a feature film called Mercy in 2014 (if you want to read the story don’t google this film as the posters and DVD art give quite a bit away). I haven’t seen it either, and don’t really intend to, as it got mixed reviews and it would be hard to extend the story organically into a full-length film.
Bonus Trivium!: (minor spoiler) like another King short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” this story could be seen as part of H.P Lovecraft’s Chthulhu mythos, with some snatches of the language of The Great Old Ones appearing.
If you’re looking for something longer to read, then I think that ‘Salem’s Lot*, The Shining, and It are probably the three scariest of his horror novels that I’ve read. Of the three I’d probably go for The Shining as the best, as like “Gramma” it manages to base a lot of its scares on imaginable, relatable situations. Even if you’ve seen the film it’s well worth a read as it’s quite different (and arguably scarier, though I still like the film).
*Yes, that apostrophe before the S is deliberate! As the town was originally name Jerusalem’s Lot and shortened to ‘Salem’s Lot, the apostrophe is there to indicate the contraction. Have a look at any covers of the book if you want to check (though it doesn’t feature on posters for the TV miniseries). If you ever get a pub-quiz question asking you to name a novel whose title begins with an apostrophe, you now have an answer!