– by Michael Ritchie –
From watching horror flicks to going on roller coasters, enjoying the thrill of fear without the associated danger seems to be in our collective DNA. But nothing is as frightening as a good spine-tingling scary novel. A talented writer can reel you deeper and deeper into the terrifying web in a way not quite possible with any other medium, keeping you up night after night, afraid to simply look up from the pages let alone turn off the light.
As a writer of the highest caliber, Stephen King truly is the master of the genre and it’s this talent that makes his novels the new standard against which all others are measured. If you’re reading this article then chances are you’ve read at least one of his novels. But plenty of other novelists also know how to keep you up reading until dawn breaks because you’re afraid to turn off the light, and here are six of their best, in no particular order.
Although you are almost certainly more familiar with this story in its film incarnation by Alfred Hitchcock, the book came first and is arguably more terrifying. By its very nature and certainly because of its length, a film loses some of the mystery, suspense and downright terror provided within the pages of a book, and this book ushered in a whole different type of fear. The groundbreaking story ventured far from the Pollyanna norms of the day, offered disturbing glimpses into a scary and subversive world of oedipal feelings and voyeurism, among other human frailties.
The plot: Mary Crane has just stolen thousands of dollars from her boss with the intention of taking it to her lover. While on the run, she stops at a motel run by Norman Bates, a strangely isolated man who is dominated by his mother. When Norman’s mother catches him looking at Mary in the shower, she takes matters into her own hands to “save” her son.
But now Norman has to protect his mother, and with more and more people descending on the motel to find out where Mary has got to, it’s going to prove difficult.
With his painfully atmospheric style, Bloch creates a world that will lodge forever in a corner of your brain, populated with characters that will reappear whenever you’re in a quiet motel room or closing a shower curtain.
Horror stories are horrifying for the most part because of the ambiguous, confused, upside-down nature of what’s happening. Things are almost as they should be, but something is awry. In the real world, we understand that children need more protection than adults, so when the children are the threatening ones, we instinctively know something bad is happening.
In The Midwich Cuckoos, also a famous film though with the name changed to Village of the Damned, one night in strange circumstances everyone in the village passes out. After a few months it becomes known that every woman of appropriate age is pregnant. They all give birth to creepy, silent babies who grow quickly, show a supernatural intelligence, can read minds, control things and people and collectively have some kind of hive mind. The children begin to dominate the town, using mysterious powers to inflict damage on humans or animals that hurt one of them, either intentionally or unintentionally. The adults recognize that something is seriously wrong and they need to do something drastic to stop the children, and the children realize they are under threat, doing whatever is necessary to protect themselves.
Shirley Jackson is one of the queens of terror, and this is her masterpiece, considered by many as the best ghost story ever written. Like the previous two selections, this book was written during the time when modern horror stories were being made into films shortly after their release, so is best known as a movie. (I highly recommend watching it, by the way.)
Like Stephen King, who came later and for whom she was reportedly a strong influence, Shirley Jackson’s strength was her writing. She was incredibly adept at pulling terror out from hidden crevices. In this, her most famous work, a group of individuals has been invited to Hill House to help with research on the paranormal, each chosen because of previous experiences they’d encountered. While the experiences that begin to occur are indeed very scary, what sets this book apart is way we are drawn into the main character’s possible madness, possible causation of the events and certainly possession by the house.
“The Haunted Book” by Jeremy Dyson
Easily the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. In The Haunted Book a journalist has been asked to look into some ghost stories. As he works his way through, he encounters an older book, also containing ghost stories. The book you’re reading becomes the one he’s found, so you are reading what he is. This happens yet again. You, the current reader, realize that each respective author is being haunted by the same ghostly figure, a figure that may just be standing behind you as you read, so you are both reading scary short stories and possibly being haunted by the same thing haunting them, adding another dimension of fear.
While most of the stories are not especially inspired and are for the most part set in the usual locations of abandoned insane asylums and creepy houses, a couple of them stand out as particularly scary, including one set on a boat and another in a darkened recording studio. The blurring between reality and fiction is so complete that you do start to wonder how much of it is entirely the author’s imagination. My skin prickled every few pages, and you should find yourself completely drawn in as I was.
Ray Bradbury spent his years working his way through fantasy, science fiction and generally creepy tales, but this is one that could certainly be classes as out-and-out horror. Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade live in a sleepy American town. Both are approaching their 14th birthday. A lightning rod salesman tells them a storm is coming, but later that night the boys find something even more unusual. A carnival has rolled into town, which is unusual for late October. The boys are excited, but Will’s father Charles is unnerved.
The boys visit the carnival, only to find it is more than they could ever have imagined. There’s a mirror maze where they can get lost forever, and a carousel that ages them up or down, depending on which way they spin. The carnival plays to the visitor’s wildest dreams, weaving strange magic between the tents to make those dreams come true. But visitors to this carnival must be careful what they wish for, as the carnival’s owners, Mr Cooger and Mr Dark, are anything but pleasant.
While I haven’t included any of Stephen King’s novels in this list as promised, this still feels sort of a cheat. Joe Hill is King’s son, and the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Perhaps superior horror writing is innate. All I know is that I’m pleased that he’s keeping up the family tradition.
Horns is about Ig Perrish, a young man who everyone in town seems to believe raped and killed his girlfriend Merrin. He wakes up one morning to find two horns growing from his head. They are made of bone and incredibly sensitive, so he visits the doctor to get them checked out. Worryingly, he now finds that everyone around him begins sharing their darkest, ugliest thoughts with him, and if he says the wrong word, he can even make them act on their base desires.
With his new powers, Ig sets about trying to find the truth about what happened to Merrin so he can clear his name, but with people around him so busy discussing their vilest innermost thoughts, there are plenty of distractions to be had.
A few years ago this book was turned into a film with Daniel Radcliffe, and while he gives a stellar performance, as always the book is better and even scarier. Dive in.