I’ve spent a lot of time reading about scary things. I don’t think it’s that odd, but when I was ten years old, I was OBSESSED with serial killers. After Jeffrey Dahmer got caught, I watched the news every day to see what salacious details had been released in the trial.
I don’t know; I just found perversion…interesting. Like, this was the major event of my young life. That, and the Menendez Brothers trial. When I was a kid, you couldn’t escape the horrors of the world.
I mean, horror was hard to escape in the 80s. Freddy and Jason were everywhere. (Michael Myers wasn’t, for some reason. Maybe it was all the incestuous implications of his raison d’etre, but you saw hockey masks and knife gloves EVERYWHERE during Halloween.) I dressed up as Jason Voorhees for Halloween every single year for school between second and sixth grade. (Side note: I don’t remember what broke the streak, but I think it was just my realization that I was getting too old to dress that way.)
And that extended to the fictional world, too. I picked up books as bleak as the world around me, and I loved them. Couldn’t get enough of them. I wanted to be terrified. I think a lot of people know what I mean, because slasher movies became maybe a little bit too kid-friendly when I was growing up. I read nearly every GooseBumps book I could afford, and I tore through Christopher Pike’s and Richie Tankersley Cusick’s catalogs, as well.
As I grew up, I read increasingly sophisticated horror fiction, but the desire for that same sense of fear I got from, say, The Scariest Stories You’ve Ever Heard never left me. I still yearn for that feeling today, which might explain some of my later misadventures in literature. These 10 books actually did scare the ever-loving shit out of me.
The Scariest Stories You’ve Ever Heard, Part II, by Katherine Burt and Richard Kriegler
Hell, even the cover for this book still gives me the Hershey Squirts of Fear. It goes back to the Scholastic Book Fair I attended back in the day, in the dimming years of the 1980s.
Even as a wee little redneck, I was a fan of the horror movie pictures, and so I ended up falling headlong into a whole host of middle school scary books, among them this series of bone-chillers.
None of the stories themselves really jump out to me — it’s more just the overall…je ne sais quoi that really speaks to me. I can remember being horribly terrified by the stories, so that’s quite enough for me, thank you very much.
Plenty of them revolve around some traditional urban legend or another and some brutally stupid and / or brash young people doing brutally rash and or stupid things, but hey: that’s why we have horror, am I right?
Insomnia, by Stephen King
Okay, so I know that, in the grand scheme of Stephen King’s oeuvre, his 19 novel Insomnia is nowhere near the top of the list, in terms of scares. If my memory serves correctly, the book is basically Grumpy Old Men meets The Underpants Gnomes, but the fear of death that this book instilled and reinforced in me still lives with me today.
I have to add here, too, that Insomnia is the first Stephen King novel I read, so it holds an extra special place in my heart. Up until this brick of a paperback novel (that I got for Christmas), I’d only dug into some short fiction by The Horror Master of Bangor, Maine. I spent all of that holiday break digging into this book, listening as it were to the funky tones of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ most recent release, One Hot Minute. (The one with Dave Navarro on guitar).
It was that book which first hooked me on the idea of reading long books. To this day, whenever I pick up a particularly long book, I am almost immediately reminded of Insomnia.
The first page is utterly Poe-ian in its construction, and I can’t think of a book that better captures the fascination of death creeping ever nearer in the midst of middle age. That first section is called WINDING THE DEATH WATCH, and just thinking about it gives me the belly gurgles. So terrifying. Death, unlike ghosts or serial killers or mass shootings, is something that each and every one of us must contend with.
Oh, and there are myriad references to the Dark Tower series here, ones that very obviously I did not get at the time.
The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum
Hoo, boy. The Girl Next Door is a book that is a category unto itself. By the time I reached my twenties, I thought I was impervious to horror, in a lot of ways. Books are books, and scary things are fun and engaging, I thought, but nothing can really trouble me.
Boy, was I really, very, truly wrong.
The Girl Next Door is horrifying on so many levels. It’s not just the brutality of the book. And the book is brutal. So brutal, in fact, that even Ketchum himself, as the narrator, cannot bring himself to utter the worst of the atrocities visited upon the victim of young mens’ worst inclinations.
I still think of the way the book made me feel. Horror now is less visceral than it was when I was a kid. There is a particular brand of emptiness that accompanies the most effective horror books. I’m not even sure how to explain it. It leaves me with a sadness that is beyond existential, I guess, and it’s hard to overcome. The Girl Next Door made me feel it, for sure, and though I’m happy to have read it, I hope it’s a long time before I experience even facsimiles of the emotions I got during the ride that was reading this novel.
Trick or Treat, by Richie Tankersley Cusick
Another selection from my childhood, Richie Tankersley Cusick’s Trick or Treat stands out less for how “classic” it is than what it did to me at the time I read it. I remember staying up well past my bedtime, tearing through the pages to see if I could figure out the mystery before the book’s ending.
Of all the novels on the list, Trick or Treat probably reminds me the most of the slasher movies I watched growing up. Since I couldn’t take Freddy or Jason to school with me — unless I was dressing up like one of them for Halloween — these books were the next best thing.
Also, I’m sure that there should be some RL Stine on this list, but I never found myself afraid of “Stephen King’s training bra.” Those books were entertaining as bottle rockets aimed at your best friend, but they never evoked fear. They were always so cartoonish and…schlocky.
This particular book, for some reason, felt a whole hell of a lot meaner and more perverse than the others. It is probably the fallibility of memory throwing shade over my eyes, but I remember this book so super duper fondly that I couldn’t not put it on the list.
Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
At one point in Joe Hill’s debut novel, a woman masturbates furiously while holding a gun barrel firmly between her teeth. That is an image I will never forget, so long as I live.
The book itself captures a sense of the unimaginable the rest of his novels, IMHO, never quite achieve. It’s a ghost story with a rock-and-roll twist, and if reading this one in the dark doesn’t make you check the closet, nothing will, I’m afraid.
Hill’s prose style is so slick that you’ll be neck deep in the dark woods of this book before you know it, and there is absolutely no escape from the terrors that await you.
Later, I went back and listened to the audiobook of ‘Heart-Shaped Box,’ and I would also recommend that as a way to consume this title. My only knock against this book is that, now that it’s in the world, I can’t really write my own version of it, because it would crib so heavily on what this book manages to do.
The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty
Kind of apropos, The Exorcist is probably getting a whole new audience due to the television show. I know I’m going to be in the minority here, but even as good as the movie is — and it is one of the best horror movies of all-time — the book by William Peter Blatty succeeds in creating a grim, extraordinarily unsettling atmosphere from page one.
The novel is not just well-written but well-researched, and Blatty’s lengthy descriptions of real-life exorcism cases only help to reinforce the idea that, My God, this could really happen. I was absolutely rapt by the entire book, from stem to stern, and really wish I could take the time to re-read it.
Regan MacNeil; her mother, Chris; Father Damien; Father Merrin — they’re all realistically written and flawed characters. They inhabit so much of the age that it could be a historical novel as much as anything else.
Which brings us to the book’s climax. I could not imagine what it must have been like to read The Exorcist when it was first published in 1971. I was barely able to deal with it when I gobbled it up in my mid-twenties. One last plea for the need to read this book. If you’re like me, you tend to eschew reading a book if the movie is good enough, and that’s what prevented me from making it to The Exorcist until I did.
I was super dumb. I can only imagine how pants-wettingly afraid I’d have been as a teenager with this book in my hands. It might have changed the entire trajectory of my life. I, mystelf, might have gone into the business of fighting demons and whatnot, even though THE CHURCH don’t really do that anymore. I could have been my own Father Merrick.
Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club, as it turns out, is NOT the end-all, be-all of Chuck Palahniuk’s oeuvre. While I’m not much of a fan of his later works — Rant and everything after — dude had one hell of a punch left in him when he published Haunted.
This horrifying short story collection will make you queasy. I’m not kidding. There are a few short horror stories here that had me cogitating on them for days afterward, thinking, How can one man be so disgusting?
End result: I loved it.
Structurally, it is not entirely unlike the movie V/H/S, a frame narrative surrounding some pretty grotesque short fiction. You can basically pick a horror story at random and just jump in, but the book is built around this writers’ retreat of misfits and monsters who sit around and tell one another ghastly tales of nightmares, sex, violence, and the supernatural.
Kind of like The Canterbury Tales meets 120 Days of Sodom.
The stories themselves, well, they range from the utterly monstrous to the completely disturbing. I’ve never read anything quite like the short story “Guts,” and part of me hopes I never do. That’s the one people who have read this book always trot out, but there are other ones here I find to be absolutely electrifying.
Chain Letter 2: Ancient Evil, by Christopher Pike
I get it. This list is heavy on young adult fiction from a particular time and place. HOWEVER, I must add that these books helped to formulate my own opinions on horror, so it is a must that I be truthful about what actually scared me than to create a list of books that everyone approves of as “scary.”
Honestly, though, I don’t remember very much about Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil. I’m almost convinced there isn’t even a Chain Letter 1 out there, since I never saw it or read it myself. Still, I do have distinct memories of being physically afraid after putting down this tweeny horror novel and trying to go to bed. (Also, and this could just be the cover playing on my psychology, but I also distinctly remember someone in the book cutting off his or her hand. Maybe. Maybe not.)
I’ve got to be true to what my experiences are here. I’ve ready “scary” books. I’ve read The Turn of the Screw and Dracula and Frankenstein and Rosemary’s Baby. I just didn’t find them altogether frightening. Might be I was too old and cynical to have the bejesus scared out me, but those novels did nothing for me. Chain Letter 2, though; that tiny little young adult horror novel had me shaking in my Reebok Pumps.
The Ruins, by Scott Smith
The Ruins is simultaneously one of the longest and yet most fast-paced horror novels I’ve ever read. It’s easily as good as any of Stephen King’s longer works, and it has an oddly simple premise: Some silly turistas vacation south of the border and end up getting tangled up in some shocking situations.
I was well on my way to 30 when I read this monstrous doorstop of a novel, but I could. not. put. it. down. I read the whole thing in just a couple of sittings. I binged on it until I was done and was so impressed with it that it ruined a few of the books I tried to read afterward.
If you are unconvinced by the movie, you’re not alone. I hated the film, in part because it suffers from the same thing most Stephen King adaptations do. The books provide so much more detail, so much more character, that you actually care when the victims bite it. In the movie…meh, not so much.
If The Ruins is my favorite pop-horror book of the last decade or so, then his first novel, A Simple Plan, is my favorite twisty thriller of the last fifty years. The Sam Raimi movie is good but doesn’t hold a candle to the book, which reads like cool water drinks on a hot day. My only complaint: he ONLY has two novels. Period. So. Sad.
Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo
The only book to have given me literal nightmares on the list, Johnny Got His Gun is a hellscape of a book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Sadly, though, I did not come to the book because of recommendations or its literary merit. I came by it via my favorite band in the whole, wide world: Metallica.
Yup. That’s right. If you’ve ever seen the video for “One,” from …And Justice for All, then you probably know the plot of Johnny Got His Gun. A kid goes off to fight in war and ends up a human vegetable. He’s got no legs, no arms, no sight. All he’s got are his thoughts to keep him company.
When I finished reading this book in high school, I’d have nightmares on the reg about it. Either I was the the main character, or else someone in my family had become disabled. It was all very horrifying, and I still, to this day, think about the novel fairly regularly.
All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage do not hold even a fraction of the horror of war that this book does. Trumbo was a great writer and a great storyteller. He was blacklisted for being considered a communist during the red scare and never reached his full potential as a writer, or else he did not receive the credit he deserved. Read this book.