Storyville: 10 of the Scariest Books I've Ever Read
So obviously this is a personal list, not any sort of final say on what the “best” scary books are. Unfortunately, even though I’ve read a LOT of books, there are still some classic horror novels, and contemporary masterpieces, that I haven’t gotten to. Because there are so many great titles, I’ll even add a few “honorable mentions” at the end of this column, in three categories: Stephen King, all other authors, and “Still To Read.” Hopefully you’ll see a few of your favorites on here and maybe even find a few new titles to read. I should also clarify that I’m not just focusing on scary books, but also disturbing books, upsetting narratives, books that were disgusting, emotional, and hard to get through. There are all kinds of ways to create tension, to unhinge your reader, so here are ten of my favorites, in no particular order.
1: "The Shining" by Stephen King
This is not only one of my favorite books ever, but also a book that scared the life out of me when I first read it, many years ago. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this story—the Torrence family: Jack the alcoholic dad, Wendy the fragile mother, and Danny, the little boy, have been hired to be caretakers of a hotel in the mountains one winter. Bad things happen, and Jack goes insane. I’m not sure what aspects of this novel worked on me, but I can remember picking up The Bible to feel safe. I imagine part of it was the ghosts, the ways that they appeared in bathtubs, the twin girls, and the hedges—oh those animal hedges coming to life. Pair that with the slow slide into insanity of Jack Torrence (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”) and the gifted, but barely controlled “shining” that Danny has (“REDRUM! REDRUM!”) and there is so much tension in this novel that it just cannot be put down. The ending, the questions about reality, all of it adds up to one of Stephen King’s best books. I also loved the movie, but I know King hated it. But I’m a fan of Kubrick. (SIDE NOTE: I’m currently reading Doctor Sleep, the sequel, and will review it here at LitReactor in October. So far, 100 pages in, it’s GOOD.)
2: "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis
I think this is the best work Ellis has ever done, but when this novel came out, there was quite a controversy. He’s been called misogynistic and misanthropic, but you can’t confuse the author and his protagonist, Patrick Bateman. The story is a very unique mix of the Manhattan social society, with long passages devoted to fashion, and all things elite, paired with some of the most brutal and horrific instances of violence I’ve ever read. This is the only book that ever made me gag. There is a scene involving a rat, that I think you will remember, and it really set me off. But I think that’s exactly what makes this novel so upsetting and unnerving—one minute we’ll be discussing the color of Patrick’s business card, and the next minute he’s slaughtering an innocent woman, in graphic detail. That cold-blooded, detached manner in which Bateman exists is a fascinating study of the human psyche and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s not for everyone, I struggled with Glamorama for similar reasons, all of the name dropping and fashion references often went over my head, but if you let those bits of information wash over you, and just enjoy it in the context of each scene, you can still enjoy this book. It’s dark, sexy, and one hell of a wild ride. I know you’re running out to get your new business cards in eggshell with Romalian type or bone with Silian Braille, maybe. I won’t say a word—it’ll be our little secret. Oh, and by the way, I hated the movie. I never saw this book as a satire. As much as I love Christian Bale, the film was a joke, in my opinion. I can remember handing this book back to a friend of mine that loaned it to me, and I thought to myself, you’re a bad person, there’s something dark about you. And now you’ve transferred that stain to me.
3: "Come Closer" by Sara Gran
If you haven’t read Sara Gran yet, this title is a bit of a departure from her usual writing, which leans closer to noir and crime. But this is one creepy novel from start to finish. This is the story of Amanda, a promising architect, who starts acting out—writing obscene notes to her boss, shoplifting, moments of random cruelty and intense sexual fantasies. Do you get echoes of American Psycho? I did. In her dreams there is a woman, Namaah, a demon that has pursued Amanda since her childhood. We are never sure exactly what is happening, the mixture of paranormal and psychological, and the blend of insanity and possession, keeping us guessing the entire time. This is a hypnotic narration, horrific for sure, that lures you in with its poetic, lyrical unhinging, an air of authority that forces you to believe everything that is happening. This is a slim volume (168 pages) but one that shouldn’t be missed. In addition to the Ellis reference, it always had a bit of that Japanese horror about it, the mundane mixed in with the surreal, which is a great way to keep you on your toes.
4: "The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris
We’re all probably familiar with the characters in this novel, FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (who is briefly introduced in Red Dragon, also by Harris, and a great read as well). Searching for a serial killer dubbed, “ Buffalo Bill,” Clarice utilized the brilliance of Lecter to try and catch this man who is kidnapping, slaying, and skinning young women. This probably isn’t even considered a horror novel, but that’s okay—call it a thriller or a suspense novel, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on serial killers, hypnotic from the opening lines, twists and turns, that uneasy feeling and tension washing over you one scene after another. This book, and the film, are a part of our culture now and Lecter, while immensely likeable, is a violent and dangerous man: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." So many lines: “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” And whether you prefer the book or the film, you will never get all of the subtle details in the film. Somehow reading the book feels so much more personal, up close and tense.
5: "The Girl Next Door" by Jack Ketchum
This was the first book of Ketchum’s that I read. I’d never seen anything like it. When it came to horror, most of what I’d enjoyed was of the traditional variety—vampires and werewolves, demons and ghosts. The idea that evil could be lurking next door, suburbia in the 1960s (or 1980s) was a new idea to me. We follow the narrator, David, as he tells us the story of an adult, Ruth, his neighbor, and the kids that hang out at her house, her three sons included. She’s very permissive, so when she adopts two girls, her nieces, Meg, and her crippled sister, Susan, after their parents die unexpectedly, things quickly descend into madness. I’m sure many of us have some strange memories from our childhood, those secret games of playing doctor or post office. Reading this novel, there are moments where you wonder where the line is going to be drawn. You keep telling yourself that things will be okay, that these games are normal, a part of growing up, and then Ketchum crosses that line, and the next one, and the next one, until you are now part of something horrible, and much like David, feel the need to expose the situation, to tell somebody what is happening. King has called him the scariest guy in America, and I have to agree. And this may not even be his darkest, most violent book—be sure to read more of his novels, such as Offspring, Red and Off Season. His short story collection, Peaceable Kingdom, is really good, too.
6: "Ghost Story" by Peter Straub
Hard to believe that this came out in 1979, but this was the novel that pushed Peter Straub over the top and onto the national stage. It’s been a long time since I read this book, but it tells the story of several members of a group called the Chowder Society. They like to get together and tell ghost stories. Over time, the members start to die off. As more and more of their secrets bubble to the surface, we have to contend with many different supernatural elements, including a possibly shape-shifting woman. One aspect that makes this such a compelling novel is that the truth keeps shifting. Is a young girl kidnapped, or is she there of her own free will? Is the victim of an accident alive, or dead—and how many different entities has she inhabited? We jump back in time to find out the horrors of the Chowder Society’s childhood, and are then brought back to present-day to see how their actions have resulted in consequences—hauntings if you will, members dying off one after another. Some have said that Straub is a boring author, but I prefer to think of his work as a slow burn—and this novel owes as much to Salem’s Lot, as it does to The Turn of the Screw. If you take your time with this novel, which I think is probably his best, it will not disappoint you. Sometimes nightmares do come true.
7: "The End of Alice" by A.M. Homes
This may be one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. Homes is known for being a literary author, albeit one that isn’t afraid to take chances with her writing. Ever since I had my own I’ve been extra sensitive about stories that involve children. I had to stop watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, because I couldn’t take all of the raping and killing of kids. I can remember Pela Via talking about this novel, and in fact, I think she sent me her copy. She warned me, and spoke of how terrible this experience was, but I didn’t listen. It’s the story of a young girl, who writes letters to a convicted murderer and rapist, a pedophile that delights in telling her about his exploits, and how to succeed at her own molestations of young boys. I know, why bother reading this, right? I put it down several times, and had to really struggle to keep going. So in the end, why did I stay with it? Well, first of all, it’s very well written. Homes is a talented author. In lesser hands this would have simply descended into kiddie porn of the darkest variety. But she is able to not only place us in the minds of two very dysfunctional people, but to even garner them, against all odds, some sympathy. By the end, much like in American Psycho, I felt dirty, soiled, tainted by even bearing witness to such crimes against humanity and nature. This is the closest that I ever want to get to understanding why somebody would do these things, abuse children, and commit such horrible crimes, knowing they are damaging someone forever. I cannot even say that I “recommend” this novel, because you have to have a strong heart and stomach to endure it. But, if you are the kind of person that can’t help wanting to know what motivates such dark pursuits, then this is one of the most upsetting and horrifying books I’ve ever read. You have been warned.
8: "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson
Whether you want to call this a vampire story or a zombie tale, what ultimately got to me about this novel was the sense of loneliness. Robert Neville is the last man on Earth, and the creatures that surround him—they are hungry for his death. Written in 1954, it was ahead of its time, perhaps. The almost documentary tone of the book, the way that Robert goes about his tasks, it’s reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode. When he discovers Ruth, the logical conclusion is that he can now save the human race, there is hope. But when it turns out that Ruth is infected, and that the creatures are evolving, able to stand small amounts of sunlight, changing from what they once were, we come to understand that Robert is the outsider, he is the one that is different, and he must die so the planet can change. He is the enemy, he is the vampire hunter, the zombie killer. I can remember reading the final words and thinking that the ending was not satisfying at all. I was very frustrated with Matheson, but maybe I was just frustrated with the human race, and all of our mistakes, the ways we continue to fight, to fracture, instead of embrace. These final words nearly brought tears to my eyes: "[I am] a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend." This novel is a different kind of fear—the fear of not mattering, of not being remembered, of being inconsequential.
9: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy
I have to admit that Cormac McCarthy is one of the hardest authors to pigeonhole. Is he a literary author, does he write westerns, is The Road a post-apocalyptic horror novel, a thriller—what? It doesn’t help to look at his other work, either. Blood Meridian is one of the most lyrical and haunting books I’ve ever read, with some extremely violent moments. And isn’t No Country For Old Men essentially a story about a serial killer? With The Road, what makes it my choice here are a handful of scenes, and I think you know the ones I’m talking about—the baby roasting on a spit, the basement filled with corpses, those still alive reduced to cannibalism. When you pair the lyrical beauty of McCarthy with the sad, gray landscape of this novel, and then add in a handful of shocking, violent moments, what you have is a powerful story that is horrifying and heartbreaking but ultimately still echoing with a ray of hope. We’ve read enough post-apocalyptic novels, and seen enough of these films to know the horrors of what might be. Much of this novel will stay with me forever, haunting me with visuals of my worst nightmares come true.
10: "Haunted" by Chuck Palahniuk
This was a tough choice, and I almost went with Lullaby, but what makes Haunted so unique and powerful is the way that Palahniuk wove multiple narratives, told many different stories, wrapping his audience in a blanket of violence, disgust, and fear. I loved this concept of 17 authors headed off for a retreat, a thin disguise for a collection of short stories. There is so much darkness here, so many unexpected surprises. The host, Brandon Whittier, seems to be a very old man, but in reality is a thirteen-year-old boy who suffers from progeria. He convinces old ladies to sleep with him and then blackmails them with the truth. And of course you’re all familiar with the story “Guts,” and how distressing that tale of masturbation is. There are porn stars and prostitutes, murderers and rapists, models and psychics. Palahniuk touches on just about every taboo subject imaginable, and in the end, leaves us with a shocking and memorable collection of tales. Because the framework of this book is one larger arc, all of the characters collected under one roof, I’m going to call this a novel, even if it was probably built to house Palahniuk’s stories. I think together, they are larger than the sum of its parts—if they were separate, it would be less of a cohesive experience. I know a lot of people dislike this book, claiming it to be one of Palahniuk’s weaker books, but I loved every dysfunctional minute of it, even the poetry.
I hope that you can find a few new books on here that you've never heard of, and that they haunt you as much as they did me. As we approach Halloween, and seek out these dark thrills, I'm sure there is at least one book on my list that will keep you up at night. What did I miss? Which novels would you add to this list? Also, see below for a few more suggestions.
Stephen King: It, The Stand, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, The Long Walk, The Dead Zone.
Others: The Exorcist, Amityville Horror, The Omen, Swan Song, Phantoms, Whispers, Red Moon, All the Beautiful Sinners, and The Ruins.
Still To Read: House of Leaves, Books of Blood, Damnation Game, Hell House, Sharp Objects, Let the Right One In, The Passage, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. (See, I still have a lot of books to read.)
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