Friday Favourites: Scary Books
By The Hodderscape Team
Posted on October 18, 2013 in Friday Favourites with tags Scary Books
Yesterday’s post by Ian Simpson, asking ‘Can a book be scary?’, got us all talking about which books (if any) have scared us. So for this week’s Friday Favourites we’re picking out our favourite scary books. Are we all wimps or did any of these scare you? Let us know in the comments!
The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty
The 70s were a very scary time to be a teenager. I shrieked my way through some classics of book and film: Carrie, Jaws, The Amityville Horror, the first Halloween outing… but the one that haunts me most came right at the beginning of the decade The Exorcist (Goodreads: ‘perhaps the most terrifying novel ever written’). It was followed two years later by the immortal movie. As with all terrible experiences in life I would never voluntarily go back to book or film. Once was enough in both cases. My memory of both is imperfect, thankfully so…
But as I recall, the plot is simple: 12-year-old Regan MacNeill MAY be possessed by the Devil. At first her possession manifests in small signs (objects flying around the room, messages written on walls, strange voices) but there comes a frightening escalation. Two priests are brought in to try to exorcize the evil spirit: the upstanding, unshakeable Father Merrin played with admirable rectitude by Max Von Sydow in the movie; the second, Father Karras. He’s the one we FOLLOW. He’s a Jesuit psychiatrist who has begun to doubt faith, humanity… everything. It leads to (as far as I can bring myself to remember) a tragic and totally awesome climax.
I read far into the night. The room had one large red leather armchair and there were no curtains on the windows. The night pressed in. My eyes passed over the page like lightning as the symptoms of Regan’s doom became more and more exaggerated, the peril to Father Karras’ body and soul more present. The icy opening bars of Tubular Bells were playing on the old Ferguson record player (remember the smell of vinyl, the satisfying click as you changed the speed lever up from 33 to 45 RPM?. Actually this is a false memory: Tubular Bells wasn’t released until ’73 and was actually used in The Exorcist MOVIE…)
Anyway, (possible false memory spoiler alert!) the moment had come for Merrin and Karras to accept Regan was now more devil than child. Her head swivelled on her spine and turned 180 degrees to stare at them and, with it perched between her shoulder blades, she spoke with the voice of Satan… I couldn’t bear to read any longer, my eyes lifted from the page and
I saw in the pitch black window my pale, horrified face staring back.
Sorry, Mum, for waking you with my screams…
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
I mentioned this in the comments on Ian Simpson’s guest post yesterday, and thinking about it then decided it for me now: the scariest book I’ve ever read was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (And its sequels.) Not for the stories themselves, which are predominantly urban legends that were so long in the tooth by the time I got to them that they were pretty much all tooth. Except for the story of the wendigo; the Scary Stories version was my introduction to the wendigo mythology and it creeps me out as much now as then. C’mon, say it with me: Oh, my firey feet! My burning feet of fire! (I can also still recite ‘Maybe You’ll be Next’ from memory.)
Nope. The reason Scary Stories was – and is – scary is entirely down to the book’s horrifically creepy illustrations. Artist Stephen Gammell outdid himself with his infamous pen and ink drawings of decaying bodies, deserted mansions and assorted creeping evils. The impression his art left upon me is strong enough that I cherish the hope of one day commissioning him to do some cover art for me. Scary Stories’ publishers have since replaced Gammell’s art, but the originals are still out there… and still horrifying.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver
Being a total wimp (confession: Halloween scares me a bit) and therefore having spent most of my life avoiding ‘scary’ books and films, I’ll move away from the horror genre and go for a book I found terrifying in a different way –Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. No monsters, but just a boy who did a horrific thing and the big question of why. Was Kevin born with something broken inside him, or did his upbringing by a cold, struggling mother break him? There have been other books written on this topic, but this one is astonishing chilling, sad, and yes – given the fact that school shootings keep on happening, over and over again – extremely scary.
Ordinarily, I’m incredibly easy to scare and can be relied on for an embarrassing reaction to horror films, spiders and those viral videos that tell you to look closer and turn your sound up . . . But, books never provoke the same reaction. I think I agree with Ian’s post and what a few of you were saying on Twitter: books are more suited to that insidious sense of dread, or subtle warping of perspective, that sticks with you and gets under your skin.Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves does exactly this.
The premise is fairly simple: the novel’s protagonist discovers an academic study of a cult film called The Navidson Report, a film documenting a photographer’s relocation into a house with hidden depths. House of Leaves is a mixture of the manuscript, the protagonist’s commentary on it, and various miscellanea appended to that. It’s a collage-like novel, almost like the literary version of those ubiquitous found footage films which fill cinema seats every Halloween. It is also in part a satire on academia, on the way people confront and intellectualise the mysterious and unknown. Though it mock those who try to unravel its mysterious, it is impossible not to try: there are forums dedicated to unravelling the book’s mysteries and parts of the it require concentrated decoding, an effect that draws you closer to the story and alters the way you read. Turbulent and disorientating House of Leaves is not only scary, but scarily good: a towering and challenging work of literary experimentation.
The Sandman (1816) by E.T.A Hoffmann
E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Sandman is the closest I’ve been to scared, well… perhaps scared is a strong word – I think it made me very uneasy but I can’t exactly place why, hopefully you’ll have better luck figuring it out! The story follows the young Nathanael who believes his father’s murderer has resurfaced under a new persona, his desire for revenge and his deep and slightly disturbing love for his professor’s reclusive and cold daughter are the central aspects of the book. The story itself is fairly short, if memory serves, the edition I read (a translation of the original German) was only about 26 pages long. However, the story builds excellently – you sense what is coming but it still surprises, confuses and disturbs you – not to mention making you feel not exactly comfortable with what you are reading. Alongside that there are the inherent questions about the soul and the subtle references to the devil incarnate that pretty much ensure you have a great read. It’s a book worth taking a look at and one that hopefully will make you feel that odd sensation between uneasiness and pleasurable fear.