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Candy day: Let’s pick the scariest books of all time.

October 29, 2010

Today I’m going to set aside responsibility for making the world safe for literature, and instead go straight for the candy jar. In honor Halloween, let’s gang together and pick the best scary books and stories ever written. Here’s 10 that give me the willies, starting with The Exorcist.

First a few words about what scares me. It’s less blood and gore and outright violence (though these certainly have their place) than it is a) dread, b) suspense and c) a creeping sense of the uncanny. This last is the most important to me, that unshakable notion that a malign otherness is seeping into reality…

It’s why H.P. Lovecraft is so effective, despite his cumbersome prose, littered with modifiers the way a 19th century drawing room was stuffed with furniture. When I read that in Lovecraft’s cosmology demons waited in space to reclaim the earth, and that the Age of Man was good for only 15,000 years, I could think of nothing else for weeks.

Except girls, of course. I was 15 at the time.

Anyhow, here’s my list of books that have scared me in that delicious way we all love.

!. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. I grew up in the Bible belt, attending church three times a week, so I was especially susceptible to this now-classic story of demon possession. It was my first (but not last) religious thriller. It unsettled me to the core of my being.

2. The Omen, by David Seltzer. As a reprobate college Baptist, I was even more primed for Seltzer’s story of the Antichrist’s arrival. I’d grown up hearing this stuff from the pulpit! It actually scared me back to church for a few months.

3. Island Nights Entertainment, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Most critics would probably name The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as Stevenson’s great contribution to horror. But I give you this short story collection solely for “The Bottle Imp,” a variation on the genie-in-a-bottle story that is unsurpassed in its implacable uncanniness.

4. Misery, by Stephen King. Yes, yes, I know King has written many effective and terrifying novels and stories, any one of which could be nominated. I choose Misery because it doesn’t rely on the supernatural for its tension and fear. And it’s funny, too.

5. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I actually found the language so extravagant that I wasn’t scared much by this book when I read at 14. But in the years since I’ve come to appreciate how thoroughly Shelley dramatized all the ideas implied in her story. Every novel of science gone wrong since owes it a great debt.

6. The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells. Rousing adventure, gripping terror– and scarier and more relevant than ever now that “vivisection” has been replaced by genetic engineering. A forerunner of Margaret Atwood’s similarly effective Oryx and Crake.

7. The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker. Like King, Barker could be nominated for any number of titles. But The Hellbound Heart, which I read in 1986, struck me as the most original notion in horror since Lovecraft invented Cthulhu. Even the best of the movies do not do the novella justice.

8. H.P. Lovecraft: Tales. I’m reluctant to recommend the handsome Library of America collection on the grounds Lovecraft should be read in yellowing paperback pulp editions. But this one has most of the essentials. Read them all to appreciate the man’s broad imagination. My fave: “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

9. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. If Lovecaft and Hemingway called on Yog-Sothoth to create a baby, then it would have grown up to be Ray Bradbury. His origins in pulp tend to obscure the fact that Bradbury was one of the great stylists of the 20th century.

10. A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub. Athough Straub is almost as prolific as his pal and sometime collaborator King, I came to him late. A Dark Matter, published earlier this year, sets the mundane and the uncanny side by side as well as I’ve ever seen. So this is what happens when you kick down the doors of perception!

As you can see, I’ve left off any number of great scary books and their authors. Bram Stoker’s Dracula deserves to be on the list, if not at its head. Others I’ve simply not read, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or M.R. James’ The Ghost Stories. Robert R. McCammon, Ramsey Campbell, Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Neil Gaiman — the list of potentials is long.

What are some of your favorites?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. John Karwacki permalink
    October 29, 2010 3:21 pm

    Great list, Chauncey, here’s mine:
    At the Mountain of Madness – Lovecraft, I did not know what was going on but it scared me silly.
    Cabal – Barker, maybe it was the blackouts to which I related.
    Pet Semetary – King, freaking scary, period!
    Lord of the Flies – Golding, just re-read, don’t put your kid on a plane with a bunch of other kids.
    A Clockwork Orange – Burgess, too close to home, “Praise bog, I’m cured.”
    Childhood’s End – Clarke, is it a good or bad thing, you decide.
    Brave New World – Huxley, game over dudes and dudettes.
    The Trial – Kafka, worst nightmare than Metamorphosis.
    Flowers For Algernon – Keyes, sometimes smarter isn’t better.
    One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest – Kesey, don’t f*** with the man even if her name is nurse Ratched.
    Thanks for another great blog, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 29, 2010 10:57 pm

      John, your definition of horror leans more in the sci-fi direction than mine, but I can’t gainsay a single entry. Every one’s great. Except for Lord of the Flies, which is a little too self-consciously lit’ry for my taste.

  2. October 29, 2010 5:26 pm

    “The Bridges of Madison County.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 29, 2010 10:58 pm


  3. Vicki Brennan permalink
    October 29, 2010 6:32 pm

    You left off Edgar Allen Poe! He buries people alive. He cuts out their hearts. He subjects them to rats and a ticking knife-sharp pendulum swinging down upon them. He even gives them a raven that convinces them that they’ll never escape the depths of grief for their one true love …

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 29, 2010 11:00 pm

      Poe’s the master, no doubt. Everyone working the field is in his debt. (You left out my personal fave — premature burial; he’s pretty good at pedophiliac incest, too — oh, wait: That was his real life). But I left him out because I fgured everyone knew him aleady.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        October 29, 2010 11:42 pm

        I should have at least mentioned Poe, now that I think on it some more.

  4. Connie permalink
    October 31, 2010 9:25 am

    I think the two scariest books I ever read were Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” and Dennis Lehane’s extraordinarily creepy “Darkness Take My Hand.” Serial killers are the scariest of the scary. But in terms of pure horror, I’d have to add, in no particular order:

    Floating Dragon, Peter Straub: What is it about books with “dragon” in the title?

    Ghost Story, Peter Straub: A classic.

    IT, Stephen King: Yes, I know, most people wouldn’t count this one, and I too am put off by the pre teen gang bang, but the rest was great. Plus, nothing is scarier than clowns. I’d rather face Dracula than Pennywise.

    The Stand, Stephen King: As far as end of the world apocalypses go, nobody does it better, even though the ending was terrible.

    Salem’s Lot, SK: Still one of the best vampire books ever; suck on THAT, Stephenie Meyer.

    Dracula, Bram Stoker: Still superb after all these years. Jonathan Harker’s wild ride to the castle is one of fiction’s best opening sequences ever.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 31, 2010 11:30 pm

    A good list, Connie. A little heavy on Mr. King, but he is a great one, I’ll warrant. Otherwise, I’m so over the serial killer, which has been a tired cliche at least since the Profile TV show of the mid-’90s. But Harris virtually invented the genre, so he deserves credit. I don’t know the Lehane, but I trust your critical acumen, unless Ian McEwan is involved.

  6. Paul Ray permalink
    November 6, 2010 12:57 pm

    I would add Sarah Water’s “The Little Stranger.”

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