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

Tina Estlin Page

Column by Tina Estlin Page

Tina Estlin Page has written for and, and was an editor for years at the biggest publisher on this'n here Earth rock. She's been called "Zooey" and "budget Aubrey Plaza." She takes no offense with the latter.

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kdmccl02's picture
kdmccl02 from the Oregon Coast is reading The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer October 17, 2011 - 12:49pm

The only book to have ever given me nightmares (as I mentioned in the "books you wish more people had read" thread)  is Language of Fear by Del James.  It's a collection of short stories that play on the idea that the most scary things in life might be, could be, and possibly are, real.  Some of the stories are most definitely fantastical, but you still finish them believing something you never thought you would.  My nightmare took place in my car after midnight, driving.  I looked in my rear view mirror and saw someone sitting in the backseat with a baseball cap pulled down over their eyes.  I screamed out in my sleep.  There's no scene like that in the book, but I know this book is where the dream came from.

The only story to make me feel sick to my stomach is the first one in Palahniuk's Haunted titled Guts.  Again, playing on that real factor, it creeped the crap out of me.  In the afterword, Palahniuk talks about how everytime he has read this story aloud, at least one person has fainted.  I can totally see why. 

Philip Hopkins's picture
Philip Hopkins from Knoxville, Tennessee October 17, 2011 - 3:26pm

The "Tralala" section of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn is one of the more horrifying things I've read.

Tina's picture
Tina is reading Drive, James Sallis October 17, 2011 - 3:38pm

Well now I must read these short stories. I agree that not all nightmares make sense with their source, but you know only a witchass book can give such good creep. I must get some...

And yeah. Selby for a lot of nightmares. Amen.

TomWKoch's picture
TomWKoch from Sydney is reading On Writing by Stephen King October 17, 2011 - 5:23pm

Out of these I've only read American Psycho, and while it did a good job at being gruesome and misanthropic it didn't give me nightmares. But I think thats just me being desensitized to it.

A reason for this, I think, is that today mainstream 'horror' seems to be all about either startling people or playing on the gross-out factor, rather than evoking horror, terror, or fear. Has anyone else found this?

King is one of the best horror writers out there and remains in the top echelons by being able to actually scare people, filling them with dread and terror, which I think is being neglected these days.

I also agree with kdmccl02 about Palahniuk's Haunted being one of the most disturbing stories I've read, along with Palahniuk's newer one Pygmy (and let's face it, most of his work.)

Can't wait for part 2! Particularly curious if any newer books make it in the list.


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 17, 2011 - 8:34pm

I don't know about full on terror, but the only book I can say spooked me as an adult was House of Leaves. It was so effectively creepy, it had me afraid of any and all closed doors.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts October 17, 2011 - 10:58pm

Speaking of whore killing, there is a Vietnam war memoir called ...And A Hard Rain Fell in which an American troop is interrogating a Vietnamese prostitute. When she doesn't give them the information they are looking for, she is promptly fitted with a firehose in the downstairs region, I believe the writer describes it something along the lines of 'a torrent of pink water' spraying out and the hooker is gone.

I read Joe R Lansdale's short story, I think called The Night They Missed The Horror Show and had nightmares for a good week. The most horrifying part of the story is going along for the ride and actually rooting for one of these despicable characters.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. October 18, 2011 - 7:11am

I think Joyce Carol Oates' novel "Zombie" deserves a spot on the list.  It is a strangely simple prose and written in the voice of a mentally-challenged man who is also a serial killer and rapist of young boys.  The child-like simplicity of the writing is what is most creepy and the drawings like of his father shaming him as a child and making him burn porn magazines of men having sex.    As he describes killing them, there is such a feeling of detachment and absence of horror that makes it creepy because insane people don't think what they are doing is insane. The whole concept is that he wants to make a zombie of his own, he tries to lobotomize the young men with an icepick so that he has his very own zombie who will love him and be with him forever.

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse October 18, 2011 - 8:54am

House of Leaves! That book is so creepy because the horror pops into your mind like you, the reader, had an epiphany. Instead of making you fear what is lingering outside the room, it makes you afraid of the room itself and what might be there just behind you wherever you turn your back. It is one book that absolutely knows where terror comes from: your imagination. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 18, 2011 - 9:06am

That Oates book sounds awesome. I thought she wrote "lady" books.

Seems like the terror associated with most of these choices stems from the old ultraviolence. I've never read it, but suppose Hogg by Delany would fit into this list well.

Kasey's picture
Kasey from the morally and physically challenging plains of Texas is reading 12pt. Courier font October 18, 2011 - 9:24am

I'll third the HOL nominations here.  Strictly cerebral in how it messes with you, but very effective on that level.  Especially when you consider it's metaphorically a book about the relatively impotent terrors of writing a book.

Tina's picture
Tina is reading Drive, James Sallis October 18, 2011 - 11:14am

Zombie is a sort of take on Dahmer, and yes, it is both great AND a book written by a lady! HOL was an effective little haunted house ride, and while it didn't burn any scenes into my brain it did have me thumping pretty quick down the hallway, eyes straight ahead, when the house was dark. There's nothing behind me, but I ain't lookin', either.

And Josh, I think that's a valid assessment. Brutality scares me most. Give me any horror flick over, say, Irreversible. Never again.

Ben Umstead's picture
Ben Umstead from L.A. is reading Speedboat by Renata Adler October 19, 2011 - 2:14pm

I was hesitant to read past the funny intro (thanks, Tina. You're clever) since I've never read a sentence from any of these books. But I took the leap into the spoilery soup anyway. The genital mutilations mentioned here seem far, far worse than anything Von Trier could dish out. That's the stuff that really got me. And I'm in the middle of making dinner.

Now you know what, I can't say I've ever been frightened -- truly frightened to the point of nightmare -- by a book. It isn't the medium's fault, I've never really been freaked by a movie either. Uh, strike that: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse did get under my skin and blow goosebumps to the surface.... anyhow, books, books... Aha! Robert Graysmith's Zodiac account -- that one boogey-manned me thouroughly. Yes, a book written in a cold, fact-finding voice terrified me. Now it certainly didn't help that I was reading it in rural Vermont... in a house without a working phone, two miles off the road. So, I think we can all agree that the truely frightening thing here was my own duncery in picking an appropriate spot to read. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books October 19, 2011 - 4:36pm

Ben, the original Pulse doesn't make a lick of sense, but I agree, it's creepy as hell.

Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce October 22, 2011 - 1:29pm

Call me cowardly, but when I read the Naked Lunch, a few months ago, I actually puked several times, and my parents asked me if i was bulimic.

Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce October 22, 2011 - 4:08pm

@Renfield, thanks a lot, you marvellous bastard. Now I'm going to have the nightmares also. The hypocracy was the worst part I think/

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck March 11, 2012 - 8:36pm

American Psycho is only #10?! Wow, those other books must be pretty scary...

Banz's picture
Banz from Brisbane is reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman April 27, 2012 - 9:27pm

I've read three from this list: The Shining, American Psycho and The Exorcist.  

I do a lot of my reading in bed before going to sleep and this really didn't work with American Psycho as it got into my dreams and made for some very disturbing nightmares.  Some of the more gruesome images did stay with me in the daylight but it wasn't as scary as other things I've read, just gruesome.

The Exorcist I found to be on the other end of the scary spectrum - less gruesome but more frightening.  I started reading it after going to bed for an early night but by the time I was getting tired things were too scary for me to sleep so I had to read through until things calmed down.  I remember it was getting light by that time.

Clete Peters's picture
Clete Peters June 17, 2013 - 12:06pm

When I first read Silence of The Lambs, long ago before the movie, I had graphic nightmares every night I was reading the book.

Tim McLain's picture
Tim McLain March 27, 2014 - 8:05am

I absolutely love your writing. More... more.

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault October 17, 2014 - 8:22am

I can't even walk by someone on the street without thinking they might suddenly slip a knife into my spine from behind. The magic of American Psycho, aside from how the book starts to fall apart as he loses his mind, is how it makes you think about the people going about their lives everyday. You just never know if that well-dressed man, or that hot blonde chick, is a total psychopath out hunting. Great, great book.

ilembcke's picture
ilembcke from Hamburg, Germany, EU is reading Frost, Jeaniene: Halfway to the Grave (Night Huntress) February 9, 2016 - 3:11am

Regarding American Psycho, the scene described is copied from a much more frightening book, from the Master. If you are aware of it, the book leaves much to be desired, nightmares or not. 

You should know of it at least, if you have not read it Marquis de Sade: The 120 days of Sodom. It gets worse the deeper you get, and the word Sadism is based on his writings (this and others). There are probably worse books nowadays (Ketchum's Girl next door, based in part on a real event, comes to mind), but not a lot. The blueprint to measure such books, imho.