For Halloween – Our Scariest Books Ever

Lea Wait: I’m not a big fan of scary stories for the sake of scary .. although I love many contemporary suspense books, I don’t stay up all night to avoid nightmares. (Although I may stay up close to all night to find out how they end!) But as a young teenager I first read Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, and I was petrified. And, of course, couldn’t stop reading. The Pit and the Pendulum … The Premature Burial …  The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Really scary.  And recently I read another novel – set in the same time-period as Poe’s books – that  is now on the top of my “scary” list. Joanne Harris’ Sleep, Pale Sister, about an innocent young girl. Effie, who becomes the muse and then wife of an artist who tries to keep her innocent and powerless by dosing her with laudanum. That’s horrible enough. But then there’s the brothel owner who decides to turn Effie into her daughter, Marta, who was murdered ten years before, when she was twelve. And soon Effie (and the reader) are not sure who is Effie and who is Marta .. and who is going to die next. Really spooky!

Kate Flora: I don’t like scary at all, though I’ve recently started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only about twenty years too late, right? Anyway, my all-time scariest book is Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. The plot wouldn’t work so well today, but (SPOILER ALERT) the idea of someone in a remote lab developing family movies and then targeting the families is utterly creepy. Francis Dolarhyde is a horrible antagonist, the violence in the book just won’t stop, and Dolarhyde keeps rising up again and again like the shark in Jaws. Hannibal Lecter also plays a role.

My alternate candidate, along with some of the other writers here, are Poe short stories. I read them when I was about twelve, my mom having bought me a set of them in a used book store, and I still have nightmares about being sealed up in a wall. Still imagine that swinging pendulum. And the language. Oh my. Just reread the first few paragraphs of The Fall of the House of Usher and feel the chill.

Susan Vaughan: I debated about my scariest read, waffling between Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Stephen King’s It. I finally chose It because King’s book colored my nightmares for a long time. The master of horror is the absolute best at characterization and creating reality where there is none, making a reader believe in a monster in the closet. Or in the town sewers, as in the Derry, Maine, of It. But what really affected me about this story is the evocation of childhood fears. Children of Derry periodically die horribly, and when the teenage Losers Club comes together to stand up to the town bullies, they find themselves battling more—the monster and their worst fears. It shows himself to his victims as what they fear the most—a vampire, a mummy, a leper, Pennywise the Clown. I’ve never been able to look at clowns the same way since reading It.

Vicki Doudera: Even though I write crime stories, I’m not a fan of super scary books.  I once started listening to the audio version of “Interview with the Vampire” and had to shut it off!  Our fellow Mainer Stephen King’s “The Shining” would be my choice for the creepiest.  I read it in the 1990’s, after we’d moved to the old farmhouse where we still live, and I can still recall curling up in terror at the character of Jack Torrance and his slow slip into insanity. What a phenomenal book.

James Hayman:  Without question, I think Stephen King’s the Shining is the scariest book I can remember reading.  I believe it was King’s third novel, after Carrie and Salem’s Lot, and in my mind it’s the book that really defines him as a master of horror. For those who have only seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the novel.  And what better time than on Halloween.

Barbara Ross: It was a children’s book (I guess it would be classified as YA or more likely middle grade now) about an orphaned girl and her younger brother wandering in North America in 1816–the year of no summer, when a combination of weather events including a far off volcano eruption resulted in temperatures dipping below freezing every month of the year in the northern hemisphere. Crops died in the fields and starvation was wide-spread.

I took that book out of the library as a kid and it’s haunted me for years. I’ve never been able to find it again. If anyone knows what it is, I’d love to track down a copy.

Kaitlyn Dunnett: Scariest book I ever read (keeping in mind that I tend to stay away from scary books) was, hands down, Pet Sematary by Stephen King. Why? The ending, which of course I can’t explain further because it would be a spoiler. Interestingly, when I asked Sandy this question, he gave the exact same answer. I think I read somewhere that this was the novel that managed to scare Stephen King himself—while he was writing it.

If you ever want to add in scariest movies, for me that would be the first incarnation of The Haunting, based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. Black and white and you never actually see anything—no blood, no gore, no ghosts or other monsters—but the scene where the lights go out and Julie Harris says to Claire Bloom, “If you’re over there, who’s holding my hand?” still gives me nightmares!

John Clark: While not scary, George Chesbro’s Bone sticks in my mind as eerie and haunting because he totally nailed what it’s like for someone who has schizophrenia. The main character can’t tell where reality ends and hallucinations begin. As a result, he’s unable to defend himself when accused of murder. Chesbro was an under-read and very under-appreciated author. I really liked his Mongo series, but Bone was head and shoulders above the rest of his work because of how well it got readers to experience that terribly frightening world where reality and delusion mix, forming a horrible sea of silly putty.

Readers, the overwhelming choice of Stephen King was echoed by many of our Facebook friends.

Matt Mallio:  I read “The Shining” at an informative age and that just scared the daylights out of me! I was reading one of the more intense portions during a windstorm and the branches of the tree outside my window were snapping at the glass…That made an impression! That and “Crime and Punishment” because, with that book, murderers were not *all* these psycho, frothing-at-the-mouth types. I realized that a killer could be shaped by circumstance and desperation and it could be anyone — including me. That really scared me.

Brendan DuBois also picked The Shining.

Charlaine Harris choose Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, calling it “an American classic,” while Jackson’s The Lottery also got some votes.

If Stephen King isn’t your cup of tea, you could crawl into a dark tent and read the following by flashlight: The Exorcist, The Other, Rosemary’s Baby, Coraline, or In Cold Blood.

What books would you add to the list?


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7 Responses to For Halloween – Our Scariest Books Ever

  1. Kate, If you’re watching Buffy with the commentary available, give it a listen. Joss Whedon is a writer’s writer. Also, stick with the episodes in order to the end. You’ll be glad you did.

    Kathy/Kaitlyn, who also loved Joss’s version of Much Ado About Nothing.

  2. Gram says:

    Reading Red Dragon made me vow never to read Thomas Harris again! The scariest book for me was Helter Skelter because it was true!

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Kaitlyn, I started Buffy because of him…I’m very curious about him and his “direction” and choices. Currently enamored of David Milch, Aaron Sorkin, and wanted to get to know Joss as well. It’s interesting to ponder on the differences between writing and screenwriting. Heard a screenwriter last night say that the difference is books are interior and films are what you can see and hear.

    One of these days, I may get around to finishing my screenplay.


  4. MCWriTers says:

    Dee…I agree. Helter Skelter is scary because it’s real…because that kind of evil can just come out of the night and change life forever.


  5. Mario R. says:

    Since Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House has already been mentioned, I’ll add what is an interesting pendant to it, Richard Matheson’s Legend of Hell House — same set-up, both book and the film based on it, but with the more visceral, physical horror. One can learn a lot about horror writing from reading those two books, and watching the films, as a double-feature.

    For short story, hands-down and no hesitation: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”. I mean, just think about it: a man hypnotized at the point of death so that his soul, and his consciousness, are trapped inside his decaying corpse …

  6. John Clark says:

    I bet this is the kids book you read.
    Title The Year Without a Summer: A Story of 1816
    Author Ethel Parton
    Illustrated by Margaret Platt
    Publisher The Viking press, 1945
    Length 288 pages
    Subjects Country life
    New England

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