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.