Since we’re getting into the season of Pumpkin Spice Everything and Halloween, it’s time to talk about scary books. You know, the ones that made you sleep with the light on for a week or stop reading, hide the book in a dark corner of the closet, check under the bed, and lock all the doors (OK, maybe that was just me).
In any event, I don’t usually find books “scary.” Maybe it’s because a book is so much less visual than, say, Michael Myers coming after your ass in Halloween or Norman Bates interrupting your shower. Of course, that very fact can also make a book even more scary, since the images you drum up are all in your very own head. And because of the latter, there are a few books that are just downright scary to me.
I posed the question on Facebook a few days and got a few good responses. And, no surprise, a Stephen King book title was the first response (It). Also making the list: Salem’s Lot, Rebecca, Helter Skelter, Neverwhere and In Cold Blood. All pretty strong choices.
My own list, in order of scariest one first. Interesting that my top two are non-fiction titles. I guess real life is scarier to me for some reason.
Got one for the list? Leave it in the Comments section.
1. Zodiac: The notorious “Zodiac,” a serial killer that terrorized San Francisco and northern California for years in the lat 1960s and ’70s, was never caught. He just disappeared. But not before killing several people with a brazenness and an arrogance not seen since Jack the Ripper. He became so infamous that Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was (very) loosely based on Zodiac’s rampages. The movie features a San Francisco cop chasing a killer named “Scorpio” who was eerily similar to the Zodiac. The book was written while the case was still under investigation and examines several theories as to the Zodiac’s identity and whereabouts. I made the mistake of reading this book alone, in a hotel room in a city, at night. It gave me the heebie-jeebies for weeks. Besides being a gruesome killer, the Zodiac was a mocking, creepy presence.
2. The Hot Zone: If you believe in things such as the zombie apocalypse (and I’m not saying I do; I’m not saying I don’t), it’ll start with a scenario described in Richard Preston’s chilling account of an Ebola breakout in Africa. Yes, it’s real. And Preston’s excruciatingly graphic depictions of the outbreak and the effects on the human body will scare you out of your skin. Preston also carefully investigates and tracks down some of the possible sources of the Ebola virus, all of which lead to a dead end.Even Stephen King said it was one of the most horrifying things he’d ever read, so you know this is some scary stuff. And Preston is an exceptional writer. As tragic and terrifying as the story is, I could not stop reading — and thinking about zombies. All I could think of after finishing this book was, “Please. Find a cure.”
3. Red Dragon: Actually, any Thomas Harris novel could fill this spot. But this one, the first “Hannibal Lecter” novel, really put the hook in me. Harris is as skilled a writer as any novelist working. I’d never read a book where I was actually sympathizing with a serial killer, but Harris’ depiction of Francis Dolarhyde is gripping. This isn’t a psychopath run amok as much as a tragically flawed man created by the abuse of others at an early stage in his life. Harris writes him with a humanity and empathy that is rarely seen in “horror” novels (I think Harris transcends the genre). As for Lecter, as this is his debut, the best is yet to come. The novel was originally adapted for the movie Manhunter (directed by Michael Mann in the ’80s), a well-produced but weak movie. It was redone in the ’90s with Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde — this version is truer to the novel and much better viewing.
4. The Shining: Holy cow, what a creepy book. I’m not a Stephen King purist, so I’m not going to say whether this is one of his better novels or not — it was, after all, his third novel and first one in hardcover. I will say it scared the bejeezus out of me — and that was after I saw the movie. Like Harris, King makes your skin crawl with every page, even though you can’t stop turning every page. And, unlike the movie, I was drawn in to the story immediately, rather than spend time trying to figure out exactly what in the hell is going on. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with such a high creepy factor, from Jack’s descent into insanity to the visions themselves to the little boy (“REDRUM!” “Tony’s not heeere.”) Even thinking about now makes me shudder a little.
5. In Cold Blood: Yeah, I know, Truman Capote’s signature work isn’t really a novel and it isn’t really a true-crime story. I know it’s scary as hell, too. Written in 1966, the book details the 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter, a successful farmer from Holcomb, Kansas, his wife, and two of their four children. Capote heard about it and traveled to Kansas with his childhood friend Harper Lee (of To Kill A Mockingbird fame). Capote claims to have written it straight, but the book is not without its critics regarding its factuality. No matter. Capote’s skill as a writer make this story of quadruple murder as real and frightening as it can be. The book is scarier than the movie. By a long shot.