I asked the authors who’ve participated in my Writers Who Read interview series a simple question: What’s the scariest story you’ve ever read? Down below are their answers, from Stephen King to Shelley to an old MR James collection of ghost stories.
H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House”
I read The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft while living in Chicago and experiencing some sort of ghost story fugue state: the weather was dark and gloomy, and I was probably a little too into it. Taken as a whole, the collection isn’t actually all that scary – it’s compelling, rather, as an overview of Lovecraft’s chaotic vision of the horror just behind the veil of human consciousness. A lot of the pieces are fragmentary, and I was starting to get frustrated by all those barque snippets when I hit “Dreams in the Witch House.” Let me just say: this story scared the pants off me. On the first page, I was stretched out on the couch, lazy and happy. By the last, I was crunched into the smallest ball my knees and elbows and spine could possibly conform to. Highly recommended, if you never want to sleep soundly again.
MR James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
Oh, how happy I was to discover these old time-y ghost stories. I especially love “The Mezzotint,” in which a curator receives an unremarkable picture of an unidentified estate. He shares it with an appraiser, hoping to learn why it’s been valued so highly—and the friend observes a figure in the corner of the frame. The narrator seeks out another opinion, and finds the picture has changed again: “In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.” And the picture continues to change.
James’ tales are not polished, workshopped fiction–they’re brilliantly creepy, unsettling fragments and vignettes to dip into in October, preferably on a dark day when you’re alone.
Frank Norris’s McTeague
The scariest story I’ve ever read is Frank Norris’s novel McTeague. It isn’t only the eerie events that occur, the dark behavior of the characters; the real horror lies in the suggestion that we are all at the mercy of primal, animalistic forces from within, that we are doomed to destinies almost preordained by our flaws. Norris’s characters are ordinary people, merely a few among millions—but each has a unique secret, an undeniable drive in his or her core. In their helplessness, they seem childlike, which makes their actions all the more disturbing and creepy. And though they are caricatures, we can easily find them in the world around us, and that is the scariest part of all.
Jo Walton’s Among Others
Jo Walton’s Among Others isn’t terrifying in the usual sense, but unsettling—and it’s stayed with me in a way that many other books haven’t. The story uses hints of the supernatural to express the deep sadness and fear of adolescence—especially the sense of possible total rejection by your own family. The world will always feel weird to some of us … but Walton offers us hope for true friendship and great joy.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”
The story with the distinction of haunting me for the longest is Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I was about 13 at a youth group Halloween party. We were sitting on hay bales in a dark barn after a hayride, and one of the leaders read it by candlelight—and he read it masterfully, smug and calm at first, with mounting hysteria. Then, unexpectedly, he screamed the last lines (the killer’s confession to the police) and blew the candle out. Even more than the spooky setting and the theatrical delivery, the tale stayed with me because it was the first that made me complicit in the crime. In so many scary tales, the killer’s out in the dark, lying in wait. Poe was a master of putting the reader inside the twisted, obsessive brains of madmen. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator, tries to deny his insanity, then takes another tack, conceding, even defending his madness: “the disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them.” What could be scarier than having your own brain, your very senses, conspire to destroy you?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Frankenstein. It is fabulous not only for its horror elements but also its philosophical, which still resonate today. A man-made monster twisted into evil by the rejection of society, giving chase to its creator, all set within a variety of atmospheric 19th-century backgrounds. What more could you want?
Amy Kathleen Ryan
Stephen King’s The Stand
The most book-scared I’ve ever been was when I read The Stand by Stephen King, a novel that depicts a horrifying pandemic that kills 99% of the world’s population in a few weeks. Cocky singer Larry Underwood decides the best and fastest way out of New York City is by the Lincoln Tunnel, which happens to be stuffed full of dead bodies. And rats. I’m naturally squeamish, and honestly wanted to put the book down but I couldn’t because Stephen King’s masterful prose wouldn’t release me. I still remember how scared I was. It was the middle of a Vermont summer and I had no air conditioning, but I felt cold in my red flannel bath robe. I couldn’t sleep at night, and decided I had to commit every waking moment to finishing the book so that I could finally be free. That was one of the most thrilling reading experiences I’ve ever had.
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary
Choosing a book by Stephen King is obvious, but the truth is the story I was most terrified by was Pet Sematary. It’s about a family torn apart when they move to a small town in Maine near a cemetery for pets and an ancient Indian burial ground where people and animals could be resurrected. When I was reading the book, I was in boarding school in New England, and my bedroom had a view of a cemetery. I had to sleep with the lights on. Also, because of the cat in the book named Church that comes back to life and starts ripping apart other animals, cats freaked me out.
Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. So engrossing and simple. My mother, a writer who loved “the gothic” and who wasn’t always careful about what she exposed her children too in the name of art, read this story to me when I was seven. I was shocked by the ending, by the realization that even family members could turn on each other. I understood, on a level I was too young to articulate, that violence and persecution was random. The Lottery was written in 1948, only 3 years after the end of WWII and it perfectly captures Hannah Arendt’s term, The Banality of Evil, to describe Eichman, but also a larger population and their inability to think for themselves. This short story scared me so much that it haunts me even now.
Maureen O’Leary Wanket
Peter Straub’s Ghost Story
Ghost Story by Peter Straub is my favorite horror novel of all time. Straub takes his sweet time telling this awful, intricate story of a group of old men facing the ramifications of an awful thing they did together when they were young. Fred Astaire is in the movie version, which is weird enough in itself. The movie is okay but the book got under my skin from the beginning. I read it for the first time when I was a teenager. The characters of two brothers who live in the woods are awful and terrifying. This is a story of supernatural evil that Straub writes with complete conviction. This is a scary and brutal story, impeccably and elegantly told.
Laura Madeline Wiseman
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder
I read the audio version of State of Wonder in the evenings the year I finished my Ph.D. and while listening in the darkness of my bedroom, the creepy world of insects, swelter, and sickness made my skin crawl, made me think that the equator would never be a place I wanted to go. One aspect of the novel focuses on the protagonist’s search for her missing colleague in the Amazon rainforest where a scientific study is currently running. It is a place where culture, science, and women’s reproductive capabilities take a haunting twist. It was this—women curiously giving birth in their seventies and sightings of a white creature floating through the treetops—that made me shiver, turn on the lights, and look for a cat to scratch for comfort.
This is part of the Halloween 2014 series, with posts on everything from Sherlock to spiders to slut-shaming tropes in horror movies. Find out more about this series here—if you dare.