The Scariest Book I Ever Read Was . . .

In honor of Halloween, one of crime writers’ favorite holidays, we’re recycling a post from the past in which we shared our own scary favorites and solicited views from some of our Sisters (and Brothers) in Crime. Just as scary and informative the second time around.

Kate Flora, here, leading off this week’s group discussion: What is the scariest book you ever read? I should begin by saying that unlike some crime writers, I don’t much like scary books. I don’t like a lot of graphic violence. Serial killers tend to give me the creeps. I certainly am still affected by memories of those Poe stories I read when I was 12. The Pit and the Pendulum? The Cask of Amontillado? For the love of God, Montresor! Who among us does not have a perfectly rational fear of being walled up, closed in, shut up in Aladdin’s cave?

But my candidate for the scariest book ever, the one that left me

William Blake’s painting that Francis Dolarhyde was obsessed with in Red Dragon

jumping at every bump in the night, and mistrusting every staring stranger, was Thomas Harris’s first book featuring Hannibal Lecter and a creepy serial killer named Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon. The killings were graphic and horrible, but much more horrible was the absolutely randomness of the crimes. Whole families were butchered, but there was no connection between them. Until the FBI profilers finally figured out. In the meantime, there were threats and scary people on every level. Agents forced to go and deal with Hannibal. There was the spooky presence of William Blake’s red dragon paintings. And even when the book was supposedly over, the bad guy, thought dead but not dead, returned one more time for one more savage attack. In the majority of crimes, the killer knows the victim, so it was the randomness of victim selection, the way that horrific violence could suddenly come out of nowhere, and a killer so hard to stop, that haunted me. It scared me just as much on a second reading.

Lea Wait: I’m with you, Kate.  Although maybe for a different reason.  I’ve read Poe (of course!) and found his stories fascinating. And I do read some of the more … scenic … authors today, although one book which described the body in terms of the maggots involved did get to me. But for some reason they don’t scare me.  Maybe because I know they’re on the pages of a book, and I’m safe in my own world. Real world events? Now THEY can be scary. I also refuse to watch horror movies, or war movies, or “adventure” movies which are just excuses for car chases and blood. Not for me. I stopped watching Criminal Minds on television several years ago because, although I was fascinated by the psychological analyses, I thought they’d stretched the torture parts of the murders to a point I didn’t want to — I didn’t need to — watch any more. I didn’t need those nightmares.

But one book that did scare me was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. No; it wasn’t physically scary. It’s since been made into a movie, and I don’t know how the various twists and turns in the book were handled there, but the surface plot appears clear. A boy shoots others in his school, and his mother thinks back over his life, and her relationship with him, and wonders what went wrong; whether he was born to do what he did; whether she could have changed what happened. What is scary is her honesty with herself: she admits all the moments she resented being a mother. The times she was too tired to be an ideal parent. She wonders whether she loved him enough. And while she is thinking back over every moment of her life since her son’s conception (did she take enough vitamins during her pregnancy?) she is learning more and more about what her son did. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a very scary book because the horrors are not ghouls and goblins. The horrors are her own flesh and blood, sleeping down the hall. She created what is destroying her life. And I challenge any parent not to identify with the narrator.

Vicki Doudera: I’ve heard of that book Lea, but never read it. Sounds very creepy — especially for a mom.

My vote for another scary read goes to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.  The action takes place during the construction of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, when a young architect, Daniel Burnham, is building the magical “city” and a methodical killer, Dr. H. H. Holmes, is using it to lure his victims to their grisly deaths. The parallel stories are true, and Holmes’ is decidedly chillling.

For fiction, I will never forget being so frightened while reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Gotta admit, the gothic stuff STILL creeps me out!

And while Barb is recovering from her marathon road trip, and many of our writers are out at book fairs and festivals everywhere, we turned to some of our friends in the mystery community for their suggestions, as well.

Our guest contributor Janis Bolster suggests Ruth Rendell’s A Sight for Sore Eyes, hands down. “Appalling” might be a better word. Even though the sociopath gets only what he deserves, Rendell makes us dwell on the most revolting aspects of murder, never letting us off the hook. Her later Inspector Wexford follow-up, The Vault, deals with the story in a way that’s easier to take – for this reader at least!

Sister in Crime Robbie Harold offers Farthing, by Jo Walton, an alternative-history/murder mystery set in a pre-WWII Britain where a fictional version of the aristocratic, Nazi-sympathizing “Cliveden Set” is gaining political ascendancy and things start to get very anti-Semitic very quickly. It’s not horror in the sense of dismembered bodies or anything, but I came away from it with a bad case of the chills and a sense of how easily history could have gone the other way. Written in the voice of a rather shallow-at-first daughter of the aristocracy with a lot of wit and humor, but it gets inexorably darker.

Boston Globe mystery reviewer Hallie Ephron says: My memory doesn’t go back very far, but one that really creeped me out was Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale. Southern gothic with overtones of To Kill a Mockingbird. Gorgeous writing, freaky-scary book. You’re in the swamp with the virtual Swamp Thing. And it feels all too real.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of the widely acclaimed suspense novels The Other Woman choose Rosemary’s Baby. Hank: I was reading it on an airplane on the way to New York. I was terrified. I couldn’t put it down. I think of it to this day. Rosemary is such a normal person, with such a normal happy life, and then little by little by little, step by step, everything begins to change. It’s the most suspenseful and sinister mystery ever—because it seems so realistic and so possible. Susan Santangelo says: I agree with Hank. Rosemary’s Baby is a VERY scary book. And when it came out, I was pregnant with my first child. And also working at Cosmopolitan. I was given the task of culling that book into a word count that could be printed in the magazine. I remember working on the galleys at my kitchen table. And, as I read it, being scared to (almost) death!

Ruth McCarty, a Derringer winner for her short crime fiction, has picked Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. “I remember reading it in bed one night, long after I should have been asleep. At the very scary part where Danny is at the window, my husband touched my shoulder and I screamed out loud!

New England Crime Bake registrar Lisa Haselton says it’s The Fog – by James Herbert (not the Dennis Hutchinson book or movie of the same name). I read it as a young teen and more than 30 years later I still remember how scared I was when I was reading it. I was horrifically mesmerized by the mysterious mist released from the bowels of the earth that could alter minds with such devious intent and seemed to have its own mind. And the way it kept growing, was super creepy. I could only read the book during daylight hours, but had to read the whole book so I wouldn’t be left without some type of conclusion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fog_(1975_novel) Stephen King’s The Mist didn’t come close to scaring me as much as Herbert’s “The Fog”.

Our recent guest blogger Steve Liskow put Carol O’Connell’s The Judas Child on his list, writing: It still makes me sweat even though I read it years ago. Detective Rouge Kendall is searching for two young girls who have been kidnapped only days before Christmas, and remembers when his own twin sister was seized fifteen years ago. That case was apparently solved, but the present case is disturbingly similar. Slowly, Kendall understands that they may have convicted the wrong man. And that maybe he himself was unknowingly responsible for his sister’s being taken. Things get worse from there.

Another recent guest blogger, Marni Graff writes this: It’s not as horrific in terms of graphicness, but one of the scariest I’ve read this year was Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner, which revolves around the psychology of romantic obsession. We meet free-spririted Catherine, a Lancaster woman enjoying her freedom but searching for the man who will change her life. Lee Brightman certainly does that. Their explosive chemisty shadows his dominant nature and things get creepy as Catherine starts to notice things moved around in her flat, just as she has the oddest feeling of being watched.

Haynes alternates two time lines, so as we see Catherine’s growing realization of Lee’s abusive personality, the reader also sees her four years later, living in London as Cathy, with a new job and appearance. She’s trying to piece together a new life, experiencing panic attacks and using OCD to compensate. The reader knows what Lee will eventually do to her but is as powerless to stop it as Catherine was; the tension explodes when the two storylines converge into one horrifying present. Lee is one sick dude.

Paul Doiron: Edgar Allen Poe was a huge influence on me as a kid. I was once reprimanded by the Scarborough Junior High School librarian for continually checking out a cassette of his short stories, effectively preventing anyone else from listening to them. Those stories, especially “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” gave me goosebumps. Bad Little Falls is an homage to the weird child I was then (although not as weird as Lucas Sewall).

These days I don’t really read horror fiction. Nor do I read “scary” thrillers. It’s not a snobbish thing. I just don’t find them enjoyable. I used to enjoy horror movies before someone decided, about twenty years ago, that you couldn’t scare people without showing graphic scenes of dismemberment and torture. It bothers me that we have a generation that’s grown up on the morally bankrupt Saw movies.

So, readers, what books would you put on the list, and why?

Sandy Gardner: The scariest book I ever read, hands down, was “On the Beach.” I think the writer was Nevil Shute, but I’m not sure. The whole scenario, about a nuclear war and its aftermath, scared me for years. I still get shivers when I think about it. The reason, I think, was that it was so real– especially during that time, the Cold War.

Mo Walsh: I found “River of Darkness” by Rennie Airth so scarey because it was so realistic. The novel starts with the murder of a household in a small village in post-WWI England. We quickly learn who the killer is (though the detective does not yet know) and follow him as he stalks his next victims. The tension between the killer spiraling out of control and the detective’s methodical investigation kept me figuratively on the edge of my chair, shouting “Hurry up! Think faster! He’s going to kill them!” It’s heightened by the killer’s psychopathology: he’s a born killer whose instincts finally find free reign when he’s trained by the Army in how to kill efficiently. Serial killers have always been with us.

Jeanne at the Bristol Public Library: I’ve been posting some of our favorite spooky books at the library bookblog, but honestly I sort of quit reading horror after having the dickens scared out of me by Richard Matheson’s Legend of Hell House aka Hell House aka Richard Matheson’s Hell House. I didn’t think it was all that scary while reading it but it gave me terrible nightmares. The other one that creeped me out was Helter Skelter. The randomness of it all, I guess.

Thelma Straw: I’m with those of you who named Red Dragon… whenever I start a new novel with a creepy killer, I reread bits of it to get myself in gear to write that sort of thing – As a person, I am generally peaceful and calm-thinking, but I seem to always write about a really creepy scary psychopath! Thelma in wind-howling Manhattan

Librarian Shannon Jensen: As a reader of thrillers, suspense, horror and supernatural fantasy, I always assumed that I’ve read so much graphic violence, murder and mayhem that over the course of my reading career I had become jaded to it. That was, until I read SHADOW MAN by Cody McFadyen.
At first I though it was just going to be another run-of-the-mill thriller, I’ve read thousands of them.
But this one had me glancing over at the door to make sure it was locked and doing a round of the house’s windows to make sure they were all secure.
When a patron comes into my library telling me they want something scary, it’s the first book I go for. We’ve replaced it three times since it was published because it goes out that often.

Pat Brown: The scariest book I ever read had to be Phantoms by Dean Koontz. Reading it, I had no idea what was going on which is what scares me. The first time I read Salem’s Lot by King I was so unnerved I couldn’t read it at night (I lived alone then) up until the moment I knew the monster was a vampire. After that it no longer bothered me and I not only finished it, but read it a couple more times.

Lorraine Gelly: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I still think of the daughter putting her watch in her shoe. For some reason that always seemed to stay with me.

Lisa: Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”.

“…silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I get goosebumps just thinking of it. My goodness, I love her. Brilliant.

Chris Colter: Most likely it was a function of my age at the time (11 years old), but a novelization of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” rocked my socks more than any horror/suspense novel before or since. Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” also got to me, but I was a bit older and not quite so impressionable when I read it.

Janet McCord: Patricia Cornwell’s first Kay Scarpetta book, “Postmortem” was the first book I ever read that gave me nightmares. I was living in Virginia at the time, not too far south of Richmond where the book was set and to know that it was based on a real case I suppose, made it all the more real and frightening to me. I was never one to seek out or enjoy graphic crime or hard-boiled mysteries but this one gripped me because Cornwell is such a good writer. It was my first “serial killer” book and it was very scary. Right now I’m reading “Dracula” for the first time and I wasn’t expecting how atmospheric and chilling it is. I’m completely repulsed by the descriptions of the insanity of the character Renfrew. It’s making more of an impression on me than I thought it would!

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11 Responses to The Scariest Book I Ever Read Was . . .

  1. Deanna says:

    The scariest for me was “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi. I started Red Dragon and said I would never read another book by that author! Dee

    Like

  2. Janet McCord says:

    Patricia Cornwell’s first Kay Scarpetta book, “Postmortem” was the first book I ever read that gave me nightmares. I was living in Virginia at the time, not too far south of Richmond where the book was set and to know that it was based on a real case I suppose, made it all the more real and frightening to me. I was never one to seek out or enjoy graphic crime or hard-boiled mysteries but this one gripped me because Cornwell is such a good writer. It was my first “serial killer” book and it was very scary. Right now I’m reading “Dracula” for the first time and I wasn’t expecting how atmospheric and chilling it is. I’m completely repulsed by the descriptions of the insanity of the character Renfrew. It’s making more of an impression on me than I thought it would!

    Like

  3. Most likely it was a function of my age at the time (11 years old), but a novelization of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” rocked my socks more than any horror/suspense novel before or since. Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” also got to me, but I was a bit older and not quite so impressionable when I read it.

    Like

  4. Lisa says:

    Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”.

    “…silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

    I get goosebumps just thinking of it. My goodness, I love her. Brilliant.

    Like

  5. Lorraine Gelly says:

    In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I still think of the daughter putting her watch in her shoe. For some reason that always seemed to stay with me.

    Like

  6. Pat Brown says:

    The scariest book I ever read had to be Phantoms by Dean Koontz. Reading it, I had no idea what was going on which is what scares me. The first time I read Salem’s Lot by King I was so unnerved I couldn’t read it at night (I lived alone then) up until the moment I knew the monster was a vampire. After that it no longer bothered me and I not only finished it, but read it a couple more times.

    Like

  7. Shannon Jensen says:

    As a reader of thrillers, suspense, horror and supernatural fantasy, I always assumed that I’ve read so much graphic violence, murder and mayhem that over the course of my reading career I had become jaded to it. That was, until I read SHADOW MAN by Cody McFadyen.
    At first I though it was just going to be another run-of-the-mill thriller, I’ve read thousands of them.
    But this one had me glancing over at the door to make sure it was locked and doing a round of the house’s windows to make sure they were all secure.
    When a patron comes into my library telling me they want something scary, it’s the first book I go for. We’ve replaced it three times since it was published because it goes out that often.

    Like

  8. thelma straw says:

    I’m with those of you who named Red Dragon… whenever I start a new novel with a creepy killer, I reread bits of it to get myself in gear to write that sort of thing – As a person, I am generally peaceful and calm-thinking, but I seem to always write about a really creepy scary psychopath! Thelma in wind-howling Manhattan

    Like

  9. Jeanne says:

    I’ve been posting some of our favorite spooky books at the library bookblog, but honestly I sort of quit reading horror after having the dickens scared out of me by Richard Matheson’s Legend of Hell House aka Hell House aka Richard Matheson’s Hell House. I didn’t think it was all that scary while reading it but it gave me terrible nightmares. The other one that creeped me out was Helter Skelter. The randomness of it all, I guess.

    Like

  10. MoW says:

    I found “River of Darkness” by Rennie Airth so scarey because it was so realistic. The novel starts with the murder of a household in a small village in post-WWI England. We quickly learn who the killer is (though the detective does not yet know) and follow him as he stalks his next victims. The tension between the killer spiraling out of control and the detective’s methodical investigation kept me figuratively on the edge of my chair, shouting “Hurry up! Think faster! He’s going to kill them!” It’s heightened by the killer’s psychopathology: he’s a born killer whose instincts finally find free reign when he’s trained by the Army in how to kill efficiently. Serial killers have always been with us.

    Like

  11. sandy gardner says:

    The scariest book I ever read, hands down, was “On the Beach.” I think the writer was Nevil Shute, but I’m not sure. The whole scenario, about a nuclear war and its aftermath, scared me for years. I still get shivers when I think about it. The reason, I think, was that it was so real– especially during that time, the Cold War.

    Like

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