Halloween is one holiday worthy of a suspense-filled buildup. Younger kids can spend the next two weeks focusing on costumes, candy and screwing up the courage to say "trick or treat."
But older kids can indulge in something far more thrilling: ghost stories. The telling of spooky tales is one of the few oral traditions we have left. And if you can't remember any by heart, there are plenty of stories to read aloud.
Eight is usually a good age to start with scary stuff, although everyone is different and parents should take care to gauge the fright factor. One person's spine-tingler is another's recurring nightmare. Boys especially tend to go for blood and guts and gore -- just use common sense and enforce your own standards of taste.
As someone who gets squeamish just walking past the Stephen King rack at a book store, I tend to err on the side of caution. And now I have a new favorite: "The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural," by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Alfred A. Knopf, $15, ages 8 and up).
Ms. McKissack is a superb storyteller. She and her husband shared the Coretta Scott King Award for "A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter," and her "Mirandy and Brother Wind" was a Caldecott Honor Book.Here she has collected 10 original stories inspired by the tales she heard growing up in the South, where kids called the half-hour just before nightfall "the dark-thirty." These are ideal for reading aloud -- they'll keep you on the edge of the bed, but they won't keep you
up the rest of the night.
Ms. McKissack draws from African-American history, and the stories follow in chronological order. The first, "The Legend of Pin Oak," is set on a plantation during the time of slavery. The plantation owner, Amos McAvoy, has two sons: Harper, whose white mother died in childbirth; and Henri, whose mother was a free black woman.
Another story, "Justice," is set in the 1930s. Hoop Granger is a white man who wrongly accuses a black man of murder. When the white police chief refuses to press charges, Granger calls his Ku Klux Klan chapter into action. The Klansmen lynch the black man, who with his dying words warns Granger: "I'm coming back. Watch for me!"
And he does come back, giving Granger the haunting he deserves.
"The Sight" is about a man who was born with a veil -- that's what midwives called it when a baby was born with a filmy part of the embryonic membrane covering its face. Such children were said to have psychic powers, especially the ability to see into the future.
When he has a recurring nightmare about his wife and children caught in a house fire, he packs the family off to safety at his mother's house. Then the sight comes back, and he realizes the xTC house he envisions is his mother's. His desperate attempt to save his family is the book's most suspenseful scene.
Each of the 10 stories is accompanied by a full-page black-and-white illustration done in scratchboard. A white board is covered with black ink, and Mr. Pinkney then scratches off the ink with a sharp tool, revealing the white underneath.
It's the same technique he used in "The Ballad of Belle Dorcas," another wonderful book. The illustrations are haunting and beautiful at the same time -- just like Ms. McKissack's stories.
Another original collection of stories to check out is "Frankenstein's Hamster," by Barbara Griffiths (Dial Books, $15, ages 10 and up). Most of these are scarier, but not gross. They remind me of the old "Outer Limits" and "Twilight Zone" TV tales, because they leave just enough to the imagination.
The title story, for instance, is about a strange boy who excels in math and science in school and engages in a weird hobby: taxidermy.
There's also a tale about a boy who takes the wrong videotape back to the rental store. He retrieves the copy of the family's home movies from the store, but something new has been added. After the shaky shots of his childhood, the tape keeps going into the future, showing his wedding, the birth of his first child, and -- maybe -- his death.
Next week: Not-so-scary Halloween books for younger children