To Scare the Bejesus Out of You

In the spirit of Halloween, I offer up these thoroughly terrifying books. I can vividly recall where I was when I read almost all of them. Feel free to weigh in on these and tell us what books have left you sleepless on a dark and stormy night. Pleasant dreams.

1. Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897).
It's probably less scary than I remember it, but Stoker's epistolary novel about the undead count from Transylvania mesmerized me on a family roadtrip one summer. Eventually, twisting and turning through the Pennsylvania mountains while reading about all that blood -- buckets and buckets of blood -- made me so nauseous that we had to stop the car. That sucked.

2. Salem's Lot, by Stephen King (1975).
To keep King from dominating the whole list, I purposely restricted myself to just one. This was King's second novel, and it describes a little town in Maine that's gradually taken over by vampires. I read it in a single night in the absurdly formal, oak-paneled reading room of my college library when I should have been studying for finals. But the more I read, the more afraid I was to stop and walk across campus to my room. I'm lucky I ever left.

3. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty (1971).
This is the story of an 11-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., who is possessed by a maniacal spirit. Among other things, Blatty's novel had the odd effect of making me, a good little Protestant boy, terrified of Catholic priests for many years. I hadn't thought of the book for a long time, but the day my grandmother died, I sat in the living room with her nurse, who insisted on watching the "Exorcist" on TV.

4. The Amityville Horror, by Jay Anson (1977).
After becoming engaged to a woman who lived not too far from Long Island's most famous haunted house, I read "The Amityville Horror" while standing in a Walden's bookstore in the mall. The bright lights, the Muzak -- none of it helped: I was still scared white as a ghost by this "true" story of a nice family that buys a house in which six murders had been committed. And I've never forgotten the pig's beady red eyes.

5. Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974).
The only true crime book I've ever read, "Helter Skelter" describes the Charles Manson murders and the court cases that followed. Its ghastly details and the lack of any paranormal elements make this more terrifying than any of the other books here.

-- Ron Charles

By Christian Pelusi |  October 11, 2007; 6:59 AM ET Fiction , Ron Charles
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How can you leave Stephen King's "It" off of that list? *shiver*

Posted by: Me | October 11, 2007 7:30 AM

Maybe more thriller than horror, but I stayed up to finish The Alienist by Caleb Carr because I was too afraid to stop reading.

(Full disclosure, I think it was The Alienist, but I read his other book, Angel of Darkness, either right before or after and now am getting them confused).

Posted by: md | October 11, 2007 7:44 AM

I read "Salem's Lot" while stationed aboard ship in San Diego. The late-night creaks and shifting sounds of the ship, coupled with shipmates walking into the compartment from time to time just magnified the terror of the book. I've never been able to read it again.

Posted by: rfairweather | October 11, 2007 7:56 AM

The Alienist was a great book. I am in the middle of reading The Terror by Dan Simmons. Which means I have another 3 million pages to go....Long book but a good read.

Posted by: Me | October 11, 2007 8:21 AM

Perhaps the most terrifying book I've read is Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." Real live monsters trump conjured demons every time.

Posted by: Amy MacKinnon | October 11, 2007 8:29 AM

What's your favorite Dean Koontz novel?

Posted by: virginian | October 11, 2007 9:19 AM

I'm sorry to admit I haven't read any Dean Koontz. Anybody have a recommendation?

Posted by: Ron Charles, Book World | October 11, 2007 10:57 AM

The Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz is good.

Posted by: Me | October 11, 2007 11:18 AM

For me, 'Salem's Lot was "eh"--probably b/c I had already seen vampire movies that frightened me much more. Now, "The Shining"? I was so scared I cried--of course I was 12, but it still holds up. A recent release that scared me so much I had to set the book aside for few days was "Heart-Shaped Box." What can I say? The King family has a strong scare gene.

Posted by: DD | October 11, 2007 6:42 PM

Growing up, I had one book I treasured. It had all the requisite terror I wanted, but it also had some pretty extraordinary writing--Saki, Poe, Jacob, Bierce. It was Bennett Cerf's "Famous Ghost Stories." I remember carrying it around under one arm, almost like protection. And I remember drawing a cross on the cover to innoculate me against all the evil. It was a fantastic book. Especially for a kid. What's become of it, I wonder? says it's out of print. That would be a crime.

Posted by: dc reader | October 11, 2007 10:08 PM

Unless you're a stickler for new books, don't let a favorite book's out-of-print status discourage you. Amazon, AbeBooks, and others are so easy to use that the in- and out-of-print labels don't really matter anymore. You can get anything quickly and, usually, fairly cheaply.

Posted by: Ron Charles, Book World | October 12, 2007 12:27 PM

Ah, Dracula! Love that book.
For me, the scariest part is when that dog comes off the ship.... shudder.
And, although he didn't write novels, Poe's works are pretty scary stuff. Ligeia and House of Usher are among my favorites.

Posted by: a paperback writer | October 12, 2007 9:11 PM

There's a story that horror writers tell, of how several of them gathered round to determine what was "The Golden Age of Horror."

"There's no question," said one. "It was when Poe took the murk of the Gothic novel and shortened it and sharpened it with psychological depth and poetic concision."

"That's a matter of history, not greatness," said another. "The real Golden Age of Horror came with Lovecraft. In the days of cheap pulp magazines, he and his circle of acolytes made the entire universe into a hungry trap, always waiting to spring on us without any refuge to be found in either the past or the future."

The third horror writer grumbled. "Not enough impact there compared with what happened in the '70s. The meteoric rise of Stephen King, who could do everything and make it scary, but he loved to base horror on the everyday for the everyman. Maybe his complement was Joyce Carol Oates for the high-minded, and it was the ultimate age of horror for all concerned."

The fourth horror writer said, "I see it differently."

His compatriots all looked quizzically at him. Then he said, "I know what the Golden Age of Horror is, and there's no question."

The Golden Age is...twelve. It's whatever scares you the most when you are at the most impressionable age for such things. If the popular books of tomorrow were reprints from the '60s, then thirty years from now a group like us will be sitting around and someone will declare that no one ever did horror better than Harlan Ellison and Richard Matheson."

And this seems to be the case for Ron Charles, who gives us very personal associations for what books frightened him. Eighty percent of his books are more or less from his adolescence.

I'd like to see the same list compiled by others at Book World. Dirda, maybe?

Posted by: T.E. Lyons | October 13, 2007 2:51 PM

You're right, T.E., though I was something of a late bloomer so I'd move the Golden Age up a few years. In any case, you'll see a fresh list of five books from other Book World staff members each week (possibly more often), though each of them will be picking different topics.

Posted by: Ron Charles, Book World | October 13, 2007 10:28 PM

I'd have to pick short story collections. There are good general anthologies, such as "The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories," edited by Michael Cox and Montague Summers's classic "The Supernatural Omnibus." My favorite individual stories are Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo," and Vernon Lee's truly haunting "Amour Dure." The two great and classic horror novels are Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House." The five greatest writers of supernatural stories are Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft. I am also very fond of the uncanny tales of Robert Aickman, but these can be very enigmatic.
Oh yes, I might add that my favorite novel of psychological horror --and more -- is James Hogg's "Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner." It possesses something of the power of "Heart of Darkness."

Posted by: Michael Dirda, Book World | October 15, 2007 3:30 PM

i'd say that cormac maccarthy's the road is probably on of the most terrifying books i've read in a very long time. shiver and nightmare-inducing.

Posted by: snackywombat | October 17, 2007 4:42 PM

What's a Bejesus?

Posted by: foreigner | October 17, 2007 6:44 PM

Mr. Dirda, thanks for chiming in on this topic. This is the second recommendation for Hogg I've come across lately--will have to check out his work soon.

Posted by: T.E. Lyons | October 27, 2007 8:30 AM

comments on the movie the exorsist.i was born in zell,missouri.just a handfull of people.german and french nationality .i am french ,irish,indian and last i heard a little english.zell,missouri supposily it was also a place were nuns and priest lived by hearsay.
our family moved to st.louis,missouri
on south broadway our family also ran a confectionary store.we lived so close to were the boy was suppose to been at the alexian brothers hospital.i was born in 1951.but i have two brothers and one sister older then me and one sister younger then at the time or that year i never actually heard about the possessed boy .when the movie the exorsist came out thats when i became fasinated with this story whether true or a lie.the possesed story came out in 1947.right?born and raised a catholic.i believe the story about the possessed boy was made up.

Posted by: linda lou henson from park hills,missouri | November 29, 2007 10:20 AM

I've never been able to get through "Dracula"; it scares me silly. "Salem's Lot"? I read it and couldn't sleep for nights after finishing it. I also think "Rosemary's Baby" was one of the scariest novels I ever read as was, " The Stepford Wives".

Posted by: Steamboater | December 9, 2007 1:58 AM

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