I’ve been fascinated by mysteries for as long as I can remember. Real, fictional, solved, unsolved, I don’t care; they all fascinate me. I think that’s a core human trait. Most animals are pragmatic about mysteries: If they run across something they don’t understand, all they care about is whether it’s edible and whether it’s dangerous. Humans, on the other hand, are drawn to the mystery for its own sake. I’m always looking for the potential mystery in everything; I can’t imagine writing about anything else. Here are five of my favorite mysterious and frightening books:
“Watership Down” by Richard Adams
I read this when I was 6, and it’s the first book that ever terrified me. There’s a scene where a group of rabbits, in a ditch at dusk, hear something moving towards them — and then a terrible voice calls one of their names. They’re certain that it’s the Black Rabbit, their devil-equivalent: “You have to go when he calls you.” It’s so wonderfully written that it still makes my hair stand up.
“It” by Stephen King
It’s not the creepy clown that makes this one scary, for me. It’s the protagonists battling to hold onto memories that twist and struggle and escape as soon as they’re caught; it’s the idea of our minds and our memories being vulnerable places that can be infiltrated, besieged, used against us. I read this book when I was a teenager, and that sense haunted me for weeks. Even today, decades later, it’s at the core of a lot of my books.
“The Franchise Affair” by Josephine Tey
A missing girl stumbles home, claiming she was held captive by two women — but they say they’ve never seen her before. This is a frighteningly accurate portrait of a psychopath in action and of the swathes of emotional devastation that they leave, almost casually, in their wake. There’s no gore, there’s practically no crime, but it’s the mundanity that makes it so disturbing because it’s close to home: We’ve all known people like this, and we’ve all got the scars.
“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt
This one isn’t scary in any of the usual senses, but it holds a deeper kind of terror: a heart-shaking sense of the world being much wilder than we can ever take in, of an undercurrent of pure transformative power that — if we could find a way to come face to face with it — would shatter and reforge our sense of reality and of ourselves. Although it doesn’t exactly leave any major questions unanswered, this is one of the most mysterious books I’ve ever read.
“Collected Ghost Stories” by M.R. James
This is the ultimate classic chiller. The simplest objects — a whistle, a curtain pattern — are humming with menace; anything might turn on you, and once it’s got your scent, there’s almost never any way to shake it off. What makes these stories so chilling is how little James shows us. He gives us bare glimpses of whatever horror he’s got in mind; the rest is left in shadow, and our imaginations fill in the blanks more effectively than any graphic details could.
And a bonus extra: one of the scariest things I’ve ever read is a short story called “The Entrance” by Gerald Durrell. It’s framed as found footage, and it’s the story of a man snowbound in a Gothic chateau. One cozy evening he looks in the mirror — and reality fractures around him. I left the bathroom door unlocked for months after I read it, rather than be locked inside with a mirror.
Each of these is mysterious and frightening in a very different way. That’s what I love about the mystery genre. It’s got infinite possibilities; it can shift the way we see almost any aspect of our world, and of ourselves.
Tana French is the author of the Dublin Murder Squad Series. Her new book is “The Witch Elm,” published by Viking.
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