The thing about quirky horror is how slyly it tricks you.
Like many of its heroes and heroines, you crawl through a portal to another world, lured by the unbelievable hominess of a mirror world where everything is fantastical and fun, so much more so than real life. The mystical creatures seem cute—who doesn’t love button-eyes!—and everyone is oh-so-welcoming. They want to make you their queen, or their apprentice, or their eternal guest of honor. But the thing is, what seems normal in these quirky tales is actually quite horrifying back in the real world. Yet we can’t resist opening that mysterious door that has just appeared in the wall, or in the tree…
Read on for eight whimsical horror tales, but don’t forget to keep your wits about you.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Unappreciated by her parents, young Coraline Jones crawls through a hidden door into a mirror world, where her Other Mother actually pays attention to her and wants her to stay. The only immediately noticeable difference is that everyone in this world has buttons over their eyes. Buttons, on their own, are the kind of twee touch that heightens the whimsy of a secret world like this. Except when you consider the actual mechanics of sewing those buttons on in the first place. And why the Other Mother is so eager that Coraline trade her freedom for her own bright, shiny pair.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Jack and Jill, but they’re sisters. No, wait—Jack and Jill, but Jack is the girly one and Jill is the tomboy. OK, once more—Jack and Jill, but they’ve tumbled down through a portal into the dark Moors, watched over by a blood-red moon, where a vampire and a mad scientist divvy them up for themselves. The Master sees in Jill the “daughter” he’s always wanted, and she gets the opportunity she’s always hungered for, to be a “lady”… all she has to do is join the Master in immortality. Dr. Bleak also wants an apprentice, but he strips away Jack’s frills to reveal the practicality he needs in a protégé. A protégé, that is, who can help him raise the dead. McGuire’s second Wayward Children installment (albeit a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway) riffs on the beloved nursery rhyme about curious siblings getting into trouble, but instead of a hill, it’s a mashup of two archetypal horror villains. Something for everyone!
The Nightmare Before Christmas, original poem by Tim Burton
One of the hallmarks of this subgenre is the disconnect between something not being scary in the context of the quirky horror world but being quite creepifyin’ out of that context. To wit: Halloween Town is more cute than scary because of the joy that Jack Skellington (the Pumpkin King! delightful!), rag doll experiment Sally, and the trick-or-treaters take in their existence. They love Halloween, so we do, too! But when they take over Christmas, bestowing Halloween-inspired gifts to the children in the real world, they’re terrified by the killer dolls, hungry wreaths, and severed heads. Sounds like they would’ve been better off with coal…
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
On her first foray into Fairyland, September gave up her shadow to save a life. But, like Peter Pan’s shadow, Halloween the Hollow Queen has taken on a life of her own: She rules the shadowy underworld of Fairyland Below, throwing lavish parties where residents get to wear the spangliest dresses and eat the spangliest food, and who cares if the price of admission to the Revel is losing their own shadows? Surely the Feast, with tables buckling under the weight of Goblin tarts and pumpkin soups and inky-black chocolate cakes, is worth it. The Revelers could want for nothing else; the eternal half-existence in the underworld is enough. Isn’t it?
Return to Oz, story by L. Frank Baum
Dorothy Gale’s homecoming to the land of Oz is stripped of any of the technicolor warmth of The Wizard of Oz in this bizarre sequel, which reverses the quirky horror trope by twisting the original’s whimsy into something terrifying. Everything that once welcomed Dorothy to Oz is now forbidding: King Scarecrow is firmly situated in the uncanny valley; the Tin Man has been replaced by a sweet mechanical man called Tik-Tok whose eyes are deep pools of sadness; her steed Gump is a moose (?) constructed from an old couch (?!). And while the Wicked Witch of the West was delightfully evil enough to inspire sympathy in Wicked the book and musical, vain sorceress Mombi, with her collection of staring heads, is pure nightmare fodder.
Over the Garden Wall, created by Patrick McHale
In the dreamlike Unknown, half-brothers Wirt and Greg encounter all manner of whimsical beings: a talking bluebird named Beatrice; a town of people with pumpkin heads; a witch who has imprisoned a girl into working for her, except that it’s actually the other way around; a spooky person trying to catch a soul in a lantern… and suddenly, you start to understand why they’re trying so hard to find their way home. What began as a carefree romp over the garden wall is actually the reverse, a desperate attempt to return to where they came from, before they become permanent residents of the Unknown.
The Addams Family, created by Charles Addams
From the irreverent, satirical cartoons of Charles Addams to the macabre movies and TV series, Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, and Pugsley Addams—plus their assorted spooky relatives—put a spin on their own spookiness. Their delight in Friday the 13ths and bedtime stories where the dragon, not the princess, lives happily ever after makes them quirky (one might say “altogether ooky”) but also weirdly relatable.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
The Baudelaire orphans lose their parents in a fire, are shipped off to mysterious distant relative Count Olaf, and must outwit his nefarious schemes to get his hands on their fortune. The Bad Beginning alone involves a hook-handed man, emotional and physical abuse of children, and Olaf tricking 14-year-old Violet into a legally binding marriage.
Actually, Snicket’s series is, as the Baudelaire orphans give as good as they get—always watch what hand someone uses to sign a marriage contract—and escape Olaf’s clutches, only to land in increasingly more ridiculously awful situations, from hurricanes to empty elevators. There’s also a healthy dose of meta humor, as beleaguered narrator Snicket’s attempts to deter you, the reader, from picking up the next installment become increasingly more histrionic: SAVE YOURSELVES! DO NOT READ THIS SERIES. Except, do.
What are your favorite works of quirky horror?