Scary Tales

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When I lived at home, my bed was under a window, and outside the window were two big forsythia bushes that sometimes swished and whooshed against the glass when the wind blew.  Most of the time it didn’t bother me, until one night after I’d been shopping with my parents and had brought home a new book.  I don’t remember the title, but it was a collection of horror stories, one of which was about a vampire coming in a woman’s window.  I didn’t sleep for several nights, because I was just sure that sound must be the vampire trying to get in and bite me.  I kept that book, though, and I read every single story in it.

We love being scared.  There’s just something thrilling about reading frightening tales when you’re safe in your house snuggled into your favorite blanket with the door safely locked.   Scary stories work at any time of year, but especially at Halloween.  And here we are at that time of year again – the ghosties and ghoulies are prepping to assault your homes demanding sugary treats in exchange for not wrapping your trees with toilet paper, not throwing eggs at your cars and other such horrors.   So after a long day of hanging fake cobwebs from the porch rails and stocking up on candy to appease the fearsome horde, you can relax with one of these terrifying books.

Stephen King is, of course, the master.  I’ve read most of what he’s written, and I think The Stand is probably one of the finest pieces of apocalyptic literature ever created.  But King managed to terrify me excessively with his book Pet Sematary.  It wasn’t the kind of scary involving creatures jumping out at victims.  That kind of scary only lasts a moment, and usually leaves me giggling at being taken in.  King builds the atmosphere slowly, and by the middle of the book, when the Big Event occurs (no, not telling you what it is, in case you haven’t read it and want to) the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen.  I was no exception – I even put the book down and swore I wouldn’t finish.  Two weeks later I couldn’t help myself.  I picked it back up.  It ended exactly as I feared it would, and the memory of the last line, “‘Darling,’ it said.” still sends shudders down my spine.  With this book, King sets out to rattle your complacency, and he succeeds all too well.

Harlan Ellison is a science fiction powerhouse.  But what people don’t always recognize is his ability to frighten readers with his words.  In “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”, five human beings, possibly the last five in existence, are trapped by AM, the artificial intelligence that brought about the end of the world.  AM uses them for its own entertainment, mutating and torturing them in horrifying ways.  Every attempt to escape is thwarted, and in typical Ellison fashion, the most horrible punishment is saved for the very end.  Another of Ellison’s stories, “Flop Sweat”, will leave you shivering and unwilling to listen to any more late-night radio shows.

F Paul Wilson is best known these days for his Repairman Jack series, but before Jack became popular, Wilson completed an amazing series called The Adversary Cycle.  The six books detailed the rise of a great evil and the gathering of the people with the skills to defeat it.  But it’s the last book in the series, “Nightworld”, that scared me enough to keep track of the sunrise for a week afterward.  You see, the great evil has managed to shorten the days and lengthen the nights, so that every night his foul servants can run rampant across the countryside causing death and mayhem.  Wilson takes our very common fear of the dark and expands it into a horrifying, inexorable march to the end.  You’ll find yourself checking the Weather Channel to make sure the sun is rising and falling when it’s supposed to. I would have included a link for you, but Nightworld is being re-released after an extensive rewrite to incorporate all the events of the Repairman Jack series.  I have to assume it will be at least as scary as before, and I plan on reading it.  (But only in the daytime.)

And finally I want to recommend Jeff Lester’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in the acclaimed series that’s also been made into a very successful HBO series.  Dexter is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department.  He’s also a serial killer, although he only kills murderers and rapists who’ve slipped past the ordinary bounds of justice.  Reading what Dexter does to his victims is gory and shocking, but what’s really scary is how much you’ll come to cheer for the darkest antihero on paper.  He’s not a good person, not even remotely, and you still are glad when he wins.  Knowing how easy it is to like this man for doing the horrible things he does, will scare the bedoodles right out of you.

Happy Halloween!

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20 comments to Scary Tales

  • I’ve never been a major reader of horror, although I went through a middle school phase where I fell in love with Charles Grant’s Oxford Station books. (The atmosphere and the inevitability – that’s what got me…) Thanks for these recommendations!

  • Great recommendations, Misty. I loved Pet Sematary and was just thinking of it the other night, a scene where the writing is especially atmospheric. King is so good at using words, not just plot points, to evoke real feeling. I think my favorite of his is IT because he has such a gift for sketching pre-adolescent children and for making us remember what was scary (real and imagined) when we were that age. If you haven’t read IT before, check it out.

  • Misty, like Mindy, I am not big fan of horror, maybe because these stories always stick with me for many years. Ages ago, I read Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and I *still* remember parts of it so vividly they make me shudder. And I’ve never read a Dexter book, nor seen any of the Dexter shows. All that said, I love the idea of Dexter. He’s the *Robin Hood of the Knife* to me, the Superman who saves the day when all else has failed. But, no. I would not want to meet him in a dark alley. Not that I’d go into a dark alley. How scary is that?

  • I wonder if being frightened fulfills an elemental need in people. We evolved in dark nights filled with the calling of predators. Now, we cower under florescents, our feet wrapped snugly in slippers, and we feel something is missing. A little fear to make us remember we’re alive.

  • Ken

    Peter Straub’s “Ghost Story” is another good one. I tend to agree with AE. A little fear reminds us that there’s more out there than comfy chairs and blankets when it’s dark and stormy just beyond the window.

  • Misty> Ah! Steven King’s “The Stand” was the first book I read where I had to get through 200 pages of character introduction (and yeah, plot building and world building, but I was in 7th or 8th grade, so I didn’t have a lot of nuance) to get to the action. I stayed with it because I found it so compelling. (FWIW I read the abridged version, because the unabridged hadn’t been released yet). I remember thinking “Gee, this isn’t that scary!” and then I coughed. And then I nearly freaked out. :) Definitely stayed with me.

    I’m not usually one for horror. Right now in a class I’m reading “The Walking Dead,” the first collection with students. The horror there isn’t the monsters, it’s the people. I’ve always found that plot in horror one of the most compelling.

  • I know it’s not one of his “scary” books, but my favorite novel by Stephen King is FIRESTARTER. I used to read it every year, but haven’t in a long time. It may be time to pick it up again….

  • David, I am totally with on that one. Firestarter was my very fave King book ever.

  • I was at the very end of reading Pet Semetary. It was about midnight and the house was very quiet. That’s when my 125 pound German Sheppard snuck up behind me, nudged me with his nose, and just about sent me flying through the roof.

    That dog and I never spoke to each other after that night.

  • Not all of us ‘love being scared’ … I don’t read or watch horror, because the images stay with me and populate my dreams for a very long time afterwards. Real nightmares are far scarier than anything fictional.

    I understand the adrenaline rush, all the chemicals that are released into the brain, because it has been fooled into thinking that we are in danger, it’s just not the drug or delivery system for it of my choice.

    I admire great horror authors from afar … and that’s good enough for me.

  • Ellison’s “I Have no Mouth” still makes me shudder to think of it. I’ve never read King because I don’t generally seek out the horror genre. However, I did read a horror series for kids whose titles and author’s name I cannot remember. (I tended to tear through books without looking at the covers at that age.) The frontispieces were by Edmund Gorey and the books were terrifying – not gory, but suspenseful like good Lovecraft. I still wonder if the idea for the Dementors in Rowling doesn’t have its roots in one of those books – there were these creatures who looked just like her dementors and they would literally suck your soul out of your body and your face with it. That bit kept me up for several nights in a row.

  • Widdershins, I’m fortunate that I don’t dream about the scary movies or books I consume, but then again, sometimes I wish I did, since my nightmares are far worse than anything any horror author or director has ever come up with. :)

    Ed, when the movie Poltergeist came out, my friend and I went to see it, then went to her house to spend the night. She lived out on the island, so there was always a breeze. I was sitting on the bed near the window (starting to detect a theme here…) when something clicked against the glass. I moved the curtain and saw a huge live oak branch moving toward the window, as if it was about to reach in and grab me (like in the movie). We spent the rest of that night in her mama’s room. *laughs*

    Emily, I love The Walking Dead. We watched the first season last year, and then I went hunting for the original graphic novels. And you’re right – people can be far more horrifying than monsters.

    AE, I think you’re on a good track. There are dangers in our modern lives, certainly, but nothing like what humans experienced 1000 years ago. So waking up our lizard brains in the safety of our homes is thrilling.

    Faith and David, I loved Firestarter! I actually loved everything King wrote until Pet Sematary, at which point I declared I would never read another word from him ever. ‘Course then he came out with The Gunslinger, and my vows went right out the window. :)

    AJ, I’ve never been especially fond of clowns, and Pennywise didn’t help at all. *shiver*

  • It occurs to me that I should mention I’m absolutely no fun to watch scary movies with. The instant the plot veers off course, I’m rattling on about what they should have done. For example, my husband and I watched a movie about a bunch of people with no memory being chased by what looked like the smoke monster from Lost, and suddenly the bad guy announces that the monster prefers to chase people who are fully dressed. So the others took off their clothes (down to their undies). The last 20 minutes of the movie were me and my husband trying to figure out why a smoke monster would care about clothes. No more scary. *sigh*

  • Razziecat

    Overt horror (blood and gore) just makes me go “Ugh!” It’s the subtle stuff that I admire. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” has stayed with me for many years, and that’s probably not even considered “horror” by most people. And there was a short story I read years ago, can’t remember the author’s name, but someone may have heard of it. It was called “Wide O-” and was written from the POV of someone who was home alone, trying to convince herself she had nothing to be worried about, the noises she heard were just the wind, etc. She realizes that the reason she’s cold is that the back door is “standing wide o-” ….And there it ended. Still gives me the shivers.

  • Razzie, I got the goosebumps reading that! Cool!

    And I agree about slasher movies – they’re not scary, just icky.

  • For me, the darkness inside is always more terrifying than what might be outside. It isn’t the thing that goes bump in the night that keeps me awake; it’s the things I don’t hear, that might be right next to my bed.
    I enjoy reading horror novels, but I can’t sit through an entire horror movie. When The Thing came out in the early 80s, it took me over two months to watch it to the end. I’d turn it off when it got scary/gory (remember the dog?). A few days later, I could watch past that point, but when the next scary part got too intense, *click,* and off it went. I could list a dozen or more movies where I only watched the first 10 minutes and never tried again (remember It’s Alive?)!

  • Ryl

    For shivers and shudders I strongly recommend Robert McCammon’s “Swan Song” and “Stinger”. Life’s no fun without a good scare!

  • Vyton

    Misty, I enjoyed your post even though I’m no fan of horror. As for monsters under the bed, according to Calvin, they are named Maurice and Winslow.

    Faith, Stephen King puts you in the situation where you do go into the dark alley.

  • Speaking of The Thing, I have to tell y’all this great story. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica closes down for the southern hemisphere winter. The scientists all go home, leaving a caretaker staff to keep the place from being buried in snow and freezing completely. They’re alone there for several months, effectively cut off from the world. So guess what they do on the first night after the last flight out has left?

    They watch The Thing.

    So very awesome. *grin*

  • Beatriz

    There’s a scene in “The Stand ” that STILL scares me, lo these many years later. I’ve read the book at least 20 times and I never fail to shiver as I read that scene.