Scary Kids Books That Still Terrify Us

28th Oct 2013

Scary Kids Books That Still Terrify Us
Most children like ghost stories, right? This one didn’t. In fact this one was a nervous child with a vivid imagination and a prodigious memory: dangerous combination. Still, I can’t be the only one who was freaked out by some of these...

Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken’s 1962 children’s classic , The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, rests on the premise that the inhabitants of an alternative 19th century England are being terrorized by Russian wolves, who have migrated to England via a mystical ‘channel tunnel’. Bonnie and Sylvia are cousins, staying at Bonnie’s house while her parents are on a recuperation holiday for Bonnie’s mother.

Unfortunately the girls are at the mercy of evil Miss Slighcarp, who takes over the house and drops hints that Bonnie’s parents might be dead. Slighcarp sends the girls to a horrible orphanage run by a bitch called Mrs Brisket, and only after a daring escape and painful journey can they return home, thwart Miss Slighcarp and her accomplice Mr Grimshaw, discover Bonnie’s parents are fine, and set their world to rights.

Aiken had a talent for tapping into the specific fears of children. Mr Grimshaw offers Sylvia tempting cakes, and everyone knows not to accept sweets from strangers, but she’s stuck on a journey with him, so what should she do? There’s a bit in the orphanage where Mrs Brisket cuts off the girls’ hair: as a kid who hid behind (actually still hides behind) two feet of the stuff, this was frankly TERRIFYING. The whole tone of the book is brilliantly sinister. If you haven’t read any of Aiken’s books, start with this one.

Tom Kitten gets rolled up in pastry by a group of rats who plan to cook him as a dumpling. That shit stays with you.Diane Hoh

Point Horror queen Diane Hoh wrote, among others, Funhouse, The Train and The Accident. In Funhouse the killer bumps off the children of an amusement park’s Board of Directors in a variety of grim ways, and The Accident’s protagonist agrees to swap places with a dead girl, which NEVER goes well.

The Train’s plot focuses on a group of friends travelling on, yes, a train, with the coffin of a boy they were all horrible to. As they’re all viciously attacked, they wonder if he’s dead after all. This book wins as Hoh’s most unnerving Point Horror because at one stage a main character gets trapped alive in a coffin, and the idea of being buried alive is the Scariest. Thing. Ever.

“Her hands dug and clawed, searching for a way out. Her breathing became so shallow…there was no air left for screaming…”

Thanks for the nightmares.

Beatrix Potter

On the face of it Beatrix Potter wrote cute little fables about anthropomorphised animals. But they aren’t all cute, are they? The bit where Squirrel Nutkin gets caught by Old Brown Owl and has to escape out the window to avoid being skinned is nasty. And Tom Kitten gets rolled up in pastry by a group of rats who plan to cook him as a dumpling. That shit stays with you.

Agatha Christie

Mothers: if you leave Agatha Christies lying around, your bookish, nervy 10-year-old daughters will read them. Then they will sleep with the lights on, because they aren’t ok with Miss Marple investigating the deaths of a) a 16-year-old wannabe actress who gets murdered because she looks like the actual intended victim (The Body in the Library), or b) a teenage girl who’s killed off to disguise the heinous murder of another teenage girl (Nemesis).

But the creepiest Christie remains Crooked House (if you haven’t read it, skip to the next section because here come the spoilers), in which the murderer turns out to be a 12-year-old girl who kills household members simply because they piss her off. Said 12-year-old girl dies in a murder-suicide plot hatched by a relative, who drives their car off a cliff because she doesn’t want the murderer to ‘suffer’ when she’s caught. It’s haunting stuff, and Christie believed it was one of her best.

[Ed note: as a fellow highly strung 10-year-old reader of Crooked House I got creeped out just editing this.]

Enid Blyton

Yes. Enid Blyton. She of the jolly hockeysticks boarding school stories and adventures that always have a happy ending, even if her intrepid children do get kidnapped and threatened a lot. The scariest books she ever wrote? Noddy. Even without the terrifying racism, there are robberies galore and Blyton’s illustrator, Harmsen Van der Beek, did a fine job of imprinting disturbing characters like the Bunkey and The Tootles on to impressionable small children.

The most upsetting is probably Here Comes Noddy Again, in which a group of golliwogs lure Noddy into the woods to steal his car and his clothes. Thankfully recognising that making the black characters the inevitable villains was completely unacceptable, the 1990 version was updated and goblins became the baddies instead.

This, as you’ll have noticed, is a very white list. These scary kids books were all read in the 1980s and 1990s when, as Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman points out, it was pretty difficult to come across mainstream children’s books that *weren’t* written by white people, so scary books by non-white authors were at even more of a premium. (An honorable mention here for Blackman’s own fabulously feminist horror short story collection, Not So Stupid!, read later on.) With that in mind, what do you think of our list? Have we missed any of your favourite scary kids books?

Image from Saved By Love Creations


  • Nina says:

    The Witch Doll by Helen Morgan and The Owl Service by Alan Garner are two books I read when I was a child that still give me the creeps when I think about them, especially the former… a governess who slowly turns the little girl in her charge into a doll? ARgh!

    • Beulah Devaney says:

      Oh god as I was reading your comment I was thinking “that sounds familiar” – suddenly the fire alarm at work went off and I was convinced that the governess was standing behind me!