Columns > Published on October 17th, 2011

The Top 10 Scenes In Literature To Bring You Terrorsleep: Part 1

Header image by Ricardo Esquivel

For whatever reason--and step near any literature major, and you'll hear every possible one of them--scary, gory, and downright mean stuff is some of the most invigorating and dreadfully fun to read. You know from the jump that you are going to see some shit, alright! Crack the spine. Awake now, eh? Got your attention? Can you imagine for a while? You might regret it, 'cause there is no unknowing. As morbidly entertaining as they are, though, for the most part I find horror novels to be almost wholly forgettable; not every creaking door of the horror story echoes down the mind's hall, and some of those doors aren't even technically housed in the horror genre at all. If you're really wanting for a scare--legit, bone-deep scare--then as Mike the Cleaner proffer’d to one Walter White: no half measures. Get elbows deep in the quality mess and set to it, yeah? I have culled some quality mess for you, readers. How I judge the terror of a book is how it stains; how it creates an image with one scene that will not wash off. It's with you in every waking moment and especially in the dark night ones; it is with you in Rockland. It's an entirely subjective method, but as anyone who has clenched terrible news behind their teeth will tell you: the only way to ease the suffering is to share it. So here's some stuff to freak you out! In no particular order, this is the first installment about those true ruiners of sleep and which scenes from them have subjectively Macbeth'd me. Out, out!

(Something SPOILERY this way comes. I mean it. Everything is spoilers!)

'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis10. "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis

I read American Psycho for the first time in college, after I saw the movie. I am not bullshit where it concerns film and I scoffed at all warnings. And once you’ve been Sussudio’d, you’ve known the worst of it, right? Friends, no. I had such an active nightmarescape after reading it that I can say with authority that Mary Harron was merciful. The scene that won’t wash out? It involves a woman, her holy place, and starved rats. You’re on your own. Also, an earned piece of advice: do not mix with alcohol. You might, for example, wake up from a book induced nightmare only to be positive that Patrick Bateman is perched neatly at the end of your damn dorm bed, watching, waiting, drumming his fingers against the blanket. And you will know too much to go back to sleep again.

Get American Psycho at Bookshop or Amazon


'A Feast of Snakes' by Harry Crews9. "A Feast of Snakes" by Harry Crews

The funny thing about Harry Crews's classic of the southern gothic genre is that it's terribleness kind of just dawns and grows on you. You just realize, all at once, in the middle of a paragraph, that you are in the proverbial shit. It's so damn smooth on the way down and then just absolutely destroys. After taking me up on the suggestion, a friend gave me this short review: you like some fucked up books, lady. Spot: blown. This is a book full of very horrible, very vivid things. Copromania as interior decorating for the addled: I jest not. And though it feels like a slight cheat to spoil such a spectacular ending, and cheaper still to say this was what people'd my dreams worst of all, well. I'm just cheap, then.  The big deal of the book's southern town is the annual rattlesnake roundup, and all of the snakes are put together in a large pit. The main character, Joe Lon, has a complete break and murders his way through the gathered crowd, gleeful with a shotgun, before he is tossed into "the boiling snakes." He rises as through a current, snakes hanging from his face, before he disappears completely. Drowned in snakes! I verge a faint.

Get A Feast of Snakes at Bookshop or Amazon

'The Painted Bird ' by Jerzy Kosinski8. "The Painted Bird" by Jerzy Kosinski

The cover of Jerzy Kosinski's books always have a nightmarish feel to them, and that's purposeful. It's made of grim stuff--a young Jewish boy is separated from his parents during WWII and, alone, avoids discover by ever-present Nazi's--but it's really just about how awful everybody is, ever. It's a little overwhelming. I am the first to admit that my only real immediate weakheart when it comes to reading or watching something is going to be where it involves animals. And in a book where a moment of animal cruelty defines the metaphoric title: there's a lot of it. It took me way too long to finish this book, for real. But I will tell you that the scene that scared me the most--I mean, I am not gonna sleep at all tonight--was human brutality. A town whore is beaten nearly to death--the requisite animal death occurs quickly, mercifcully, graciously--before a bottle full to the brim with shit is shoved into her sacred spot and kicked farther inside until the glass shatters. Yeah. I am here for moral support.

Get The Painted Bird at Bookshop or Amazon

7. "The Shining" by Stephen King

If you have King hate, this is not going to be the list for you. He’s the accessible master of horror; this usually means that suggestible folks read him too early and suffer unnamed boogeymen for it. When it comes to The Shining, though, I think you’ll agree with me when I say: what in the holy hell. I did read it the first time as a young pluck but rereading it as an adult just makes it all the more demonboned:  it's so well written. I think we can all agree that there are bottomless nightmare choices here but, I read this way too young and therefore my brain did its young sums mostly by comparison. I was always fascinated by clockwork domes, always found them reassuring in their archaicness. They just sit on a mantlepiece and repeat themselves, always on time, always the same dance. In The Shining, there is a point where Jack is staring at two clockwork figures in a little glass dome, and the larger figure brutalizes the smaller with a steel mallet.  And keeps brutalizing, until the inside of the dome is somehow covered in very real blood, brain, and bone and it's all just a mash of metal. Impossibly. This led to such horrific dreams that to this day I immediately find clockwork pieces terrifying; possessed where once they were simply mechanical. Unmask! Unmask! Check the boiler while you're up.

Get The Shining at Bookshop or Amazon

'The Exorcist' by William Peter Blatty6. "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty

I’ve written about The Exorcist before (you can find my Book vs. Film HERE). Between the incessant bodily functions and cussery I’m in no hurry to return to the terrible plotzing that comes from reading this book, but seriously, there’s a reason that as soon as I finished re-reading the book for the article (where it was kept in a punishment drawer when not in direct use) I mailed it to someone on the other side of this continent. I can’t. The scene that sealed my sleeplessness was the infamous spider-walk, where Regan glides down the staircase in impossible bent, chasing after her caretaker, before hissing and licking her ankles. There is no looking back. You must understand that the book is written so realistically that once I got to this point it might as well have been non-fiction. The Exorcist certainly has more terrifying scenes further into its bind, but that scene pushed me out the figurative window. Also, I got that witchass book out of here and am therefore unable to look up the ones that will chill the blood of even you most steely folk. Just, trust.

Get The Exorcist at Bookshop or Amazon

That should tide you 'til we ring the campfire next, but I'd love if you'd share your own with me. Because, of course. I must know, and you certainly must share. And so, 'til next time: sleep sweet.

Read Part 2

About the author

A small, square, solid, six-buck, clothbound, print and paper-jacket life. An indie bookshop hustler and a dame who'll brainhard on mean film, I dassn't take light the Eliotian dare to disturb the universe; I draw words together for the sheer soundsex of it. I have faced the Forms and I wear lace.

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