Spooky Stories for the Whole Family (and how to get them for free)

I like scary stories. I like them for me, and I like them for my kids. Especially in October. On our recent family vacation, I knew we'd have many, many hours in the car, so I downloaded some spooky audiobooks I thought could be enjoyed by all three generations along on the trip. Most were a big hit, one, not so much.
Before I get into specifics, I should probably tell you how we get our audiobooks . . . and the way we get them is: almost always for free. If you're not familiar with LibriVox, or OverDrive Media Console, or other audiobook delivery options, I'll explain them more at the bottom of the post.
And now, here are our five current favorite spooky stories for the whole family:
1. The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald
I cannot for the life of me remember or find the blog post that first introduced me to George MacDonald (if you can, please tell me in the comments so I can link to it). How did I not know about these books?
Anyway, we're not actually done listening to this first one, but my kids all insisted that it was their favorite of the bunch. So here it is first.
The LibriVox reader does voices for each of the characters (some are a little annoying, but it's still really amazing that he manages it!)
It's mysterious and a bit spooky, with characters that have charmed both my boys and my girls. An adventurous tale of underground goblins and a secret great-great grandmother is a great fit for this time of year. But it hasn't been too scary for even our littlest kids.
2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson
I was excited to learn that this classic horror tale was by the same author of most of the sweet little poems my kids memorize in school. Jack and I read Treasure Island together a couple of years ago and he really enjoyed it, so even though I knew this would be a more sophisticated book, I hoped it would be a good fit for us.
And it was.
This book was the one most popular with kids and grownups alike. The language was complex, but even my younger kids were able to follow what was happening in the story.
It's more of a mystery and a moral tale than a horror story, and again, wasn't too intense for my little guys. We were able to have a really great discussion afterwards about the nature of sin, and of the consequences of giving in to temptation. It's extraordinary how much depth and Christian truth there is in such an entertaining story. I just wish I had been able to listen to it without knowing the twist ahead of time!
The LibriVox reading was very well done.
3. Coraline
by Neil Gaiman
This one wasn't available from LibriVox or the library, so I spent the money and bought it from iTunes. The audiobook is read by the author, which I always like. That way, I know I'm hearing it the way it was intended to be heard. He did a great job with it, of course. The story is peppered with some very creepy little songs, sung in a weird chanty voice, that my kids are still singing to themselves.
It starts off most promisingly, with one of my all-time favorite quotes by G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
I found it enjoyable, and so did the kids. It's spooky and odd, and its scariness is tempered by the very dreamlike quality to the story. The heroine never seems to really believe that she's in danger, so we don't ever get too worried for her.
It's a story with a pretty modern sensibility, but I found everything to be morally acceptable. And there are some really lovely moments, such as when our heroine scoffs at her kidnapper's suggestion that if she chooses to stay in this other world she could get whatever she wants:
“I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?”
In the end, Coraline gains a deeper appreciation for her boring ol' real life and sometimes frustrating parents.
4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
by Washington Irving
This one was the least popular with the kids. It's a short book (the audio version is less than an hour and a half) but the language is complex to the point of being obtuse. Even my oldest son (11) had considerable trouble following it.
The LibriVox reader is extraordinary, flying through the descriptive flowery verboseness like it's NOTHING. I think the husband and I enjoyed it more as an audiobook than we could have reading it ourselves, because of the skill of the reader with such challenging material.
The story has comic moments, the characters are quite memorable, and it's interesting as a study of life in a particular historical time and place. It's also a cautionary tale about what can happen if one lets oneself be carried away by superstition. But, because of the sophisticated language, I think it's best enjoyed by high school kids and adults.
5. James and the Giant Peach
by Roald Dahl
This one is perhaps not usually thought of as a scary story, but it's fantastical and creepy enough to be a good Halloween-time read.
We didn't listen to this story on our trip. I read it to my oldest son many years ago, but we really enjoyed it.
The thing that sticks in my head the most about James and the Giant Peach, is that it taught me about how black and white things seem to be to my children. As I finished reading my then three-year-old son the chapter in which the evil aunts are unceremoniously squashed by the giant peach, I cringed inside, expecting him to be horrified. Instead he let out a gleeful whoop and did a little dance of joy.
Evil people had come to an evil end, what could be more natural than that?
So, we've been working on civilizing him a bit since then, but that's one of the things I love about this story in particular and fairy tales in general. They may seem odd to grown ups, but somehow they make perfect sense to children. Even in the most fanciful story, everything turns out the way the child thinks it should.
We've got spooky movies we like too, including ones based on some of these books. Stay tuned for a rundown of those at some point in the near future.
Now, as for how we get our books, here's a quick rundown of the options I've used. If you know of another, do please let me know!
1. LibriVox is an awesome way to get free access to audio versions of the classics. You can live stream from the internet or download books onto your home computer and burn your own CDs or use the podcast app on an apple device to easily search for and download books (though you have to do it chapter by chapter, kind of a pain, but it works).
All LibriVox audiobooks are free to access because they are in the public domain (their copyright has expired) and are recorded by volunteers. The vast majority of books I've listened to have been very well done. Most of the readers sound very professional. However, you do occasionally get what you pay for. Some longer books are read by multiple readers, which can be a bummer, especially if you really liked the first reader.
And every so often, for me, the reader just hasn't worked. I just couldn't listen to a Sherlock Holmes story read by a South American woman. I'm sure she's a lovely person, but she's just not the right person to read Sherlock Holmes to me.
2. With an iPad, iPhone, or iPod you can also borrow and download audiobooks (and ebooks)from your local library's website and read or listen to them using the OverDrive Media Console. You get access to them for 21 days, and then they are automatically returned. No scratched CDs from the library, no late fees, no having to drive back to the library when you realize you left one of the CDs in the changer in the car. And with OverDrive rather than LibriVox, you get new books and professional quality.
3. Audible is a subscription service from Amazon. They'll let you try it for free, then after the trial for $15/month you can get new and classic books and listen to them at your leisure. I had a subscription for a bit, but the two times I tried to use it in the car on a long drive it failed me. So, I gave up on it, but hopefully they've sorted out any of those issues by now.
4. In a pinch, I'll buy a new book we want through iTunes. We most often listen to classic books anyway, but if we want something newer, and I can't get it from the library, I've been known to fork over the $10-15 to get it from iTunes every now and again.
I'm linking up with the lovely Hallie of Moxie Wife for Five Favorites this week, and Jessica of Housewifespice for What We're Reading Wednesday. Head on over there and find out what else people are loving this week!