Five Books to Avoid Reading Outdoors

A week or so ago, on a family trip to West Virginia, I lay awake listening to wild animals (or, I feared, monsters or depraved killers) munch away on our food. And as I was lying there, the smacking of their slavering lips paralyzing me with terror, my thoughts turned to the very many horrible things that could happen to us in the woods: Bears could attack, snakes could bite, crazed hermits could murderously resent our city-slicker intrusion. And then I thought of all the scary or just downright eerie books I had read about strange doings in the woods. And then I frightened myself to sleep. (The wild animals turned out to be field mice, who had made themselves comfortable in our rustic cabin.) Here are a few books that I try not to think about when I'm communing with nature. Are there any books, or scenes from books, that give you the heebie-jeebies out in the wild?

Ordeal by Hunger, by George R. Stewart.

What if the mice had eaten all our food? And it was winter? And we were snowbound? Would we eat each other like some members of the Donner Party may have done way back in 1846? Ordeal by Hunger is the definitive history of the wagon train that got lost on its way to California and ended up crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains just as the winter storms came raging in. And it's a reminder that nature can be very unforgiving of human mistakes.

The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue.
The fairies who populate Donohue's first novel aren't sparkly little Tinkerbells, but feral children who skulk in the woods and dream of switching places with human children. After reading this book, the crack of a twig will make you clutch your kids close.

In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien.
What if you woke up in your cabin in northern Minnesota and discovered that your spouse had vanished into the wilderness? Was she attacked by wild animals, drowned in her canoe, murdered by you? Those are the questions raised in Tim O'Brien's novel about a Vietnam vet and U.S. Senate candidate whose wife disappears just after his participation in a My Lai-type massacre becomes public knowledge.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry.
Two lessons stick out from this Western saga about moving cattle from Texas to Montana: One, don't be the last guy to cross a river. The cottonmouths are likely to be stirred up by then and will bite you every place you've got skin. It'll take awhile to die. Two, don't go to sleep if there's a Comanchero named Blue Duck lurking within 100 miles. He'll cut your throat before you wake.

Being Dead, by Jim Crace.
Even picnics are perilous. They can lead to murder, and in this novel, readers discover what nature -- in the form of bugs, crabs and gulls -- does to the bodies afterwards. Creepy, but strangely beautiful.

What books spring to your mind?

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

By Christian Pelusi |  June 26, 2008; 7:59 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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Perhaps obvious, but not on your list:
Deliverance by James Dickey
Alive by Piers Paul Read

Posted by: Alexa | June 26, 2008 8:59 AM

I think you can make a case for not reading most Stephen King novels in the wild. Imagine yourself in a tent in the woods. You hear a crack. What is that? Could it be a vampire? A possessed car? A zombie cat? Really, the possibilities are endless.

Of course, you can scare yourself like this while inside, too.

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 26, 2008 10:30 AM

I'd add Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer -- whenever I visit my son in high-altitude Colorado, I envision my brain slowly expanding and then exploding. Or In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, whose comic prose could frighten even the most laid-back Aussie with tales of killer sharks, snakes and generally spiny creatures.

Posted by: Dave | June 26, 2008 10:32 AM

How about Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It's about a little girl who gets lost in the woods and is stalked by a nightmarish creature.

Posted by: Rosslyn | June 26, 2008 11:06 AM

"The Hound of the Baskervilles." Especially if you'll be walking on the foggy moors ... alone ... around evening time ... without Watson (I was going to say Sherlock Holmes but I think I'd actually feel much better with Watson as he's stout hearted and doughty sort while still likely to share some of my instinctual fears).

Posted by: C | June 26, 2008 11:18 AM

Algernon Blackwood's short story "The Wendigo" (From Wikipedia - "Another camper tale, this time set in the Canadian wilderness. A hunting party separates to track moose, and one member is abducted by the Wendigo of legend.") Stephen King's Pet Semetary also features an encounter in the woods with this forest-dwelling beast of Algonquian legend.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 26, 2008 11:39 AM

I've only seen the movie version of Deliverance so didn't feel right about listing the book, but at the West Virginia state park where we were staying, they sold t-shirts that read "I hear banjos. Paddle faster!"

Posted by: Rachel Shea | June 26, 2008 12:13 PM

I agree with anything by Stephen King. Do not read "IT" if you are anywhere near a sewer or storm drain...AAAHHHHH!!!

Posted by: Me | June 26, 2008 2:23 PM

Agreed about all the suggestions thus far. In "A Walk In The Woods," Bill Bryson wrote about reading about bears and looking over his shoulder for them as he traversed the Appalachian Trail. Lots of other things dusted up but in the end he never saw a bear.

Posted by: litmajor | June 26, 2008 3:12 PM

If "the wild" includes the rural country, where the houses are few and far apart, I would say In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. It makes you want to move to the city, where at least there are people around to hear the shotgun and screams. A friend of mine read it before visiting her parents in the sticks, and had a panic attack when she found the house quiet (they were fine).
The highly anthologized tortured-by-locals Paul Bowles story also comes to mind too, although the name escapes me.

Kudos for mentioning Being Dead, which almost makes being dead, and even decomposing, seem beautiful.

Posted by: mark tarallo | June 27, 2008 4:19 PM

Into Thin Air notwithstanding, how about Krakauer's Into the wild, or, maybe, Quammen's Monster of God: The Man Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, or the anthology Wild Stories: The Best of Men's Journal? All of these books are wild, compelling and, as someone else stated, first rate reading indoors or out.

Posted by: Jon Lauderbaugh | June 29, 2008 1:57 PM

Stephen King is to be avoided at all costs. Only read him if someone else is in the house with you.

Don't read Jaws while at the beach.

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