Fictional creatures have the power to intrigue us, amuse us, delight us–and terrify us beyond belief. I asked the authors in the Writers Who Read interview series a simple question, What is the creepiest creature in literature? Here are their choices for the scariest non-human entities, drawn from classic horror to children’s books, that are trapped (we hope) between pages.
I saw the whole man emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the great creepy crawlies of all time, because he’s uncanny—very human and also very not. He’s a titled aristocrat with refined manners (except when, well, you know) and a castle. He’s also an animal, and supernatural, defying the laws of reality. He can’t be pinned down, yet he seems to be everywhere. He’s the monster in all of us, which we fear we can’t control.
Tiffany Reisz, author of THE ORIGINAL SINNERS series
The creepiest creature in all of literature has to be the Jabberwocky. I recall very clearly the day I was blithely reading Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There and enjoying being back in Wonderland and then turning the page and OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT THING?! Sir John Tenniel’s illustration could have simply created your standard dragon creature but then he did the creepiest thing an illustrator can do with an animal–he gave it human teeth. I’m still a little horrified by it, but now the Jabberwocky and I are on good terms. I gave “Jabberwocky” to my Original Sinners series heroine Mistress Nora to use as her safe word.
Lisa Barr, author of the award-winning FUGITIVE COLORS
I’m terrified even writing these words: Who’s Afraid of Mary Worth? Mary Worth (aka: Mary Worthington, Bloody Mary) — a so-called urban legend that haunted my childhood. Whenever we had sleepover parties — in between “light as a feather, stiff as a board” — The evil MW always made her bloody entrance. Someone would inevitably bring up this frightening character and I would, of course, be up all night clutching my blankets and stuffed animal. The gist of the story is this: Mary Worth was once a beautiful young girl who was in a terrible accident that left her face permanently disfigured. No one wanted to look at her — and the damage was so horrendous that she was not even allowed to see her own reflection in a mirror. One night she accidentally glimpsed upon her horrible face and broke down screaming for her “old reflection” — vowing to take revenge on anyone who looked at her or tried to find her reflection in a mirror. Many tales were wrapped around this tragic (and in my mind) all-too-true tale. Blood, stabbings, torture, evil girls. (Perhaps, Mary was the prequel to Mean Girls…). To make matters worse, my bedroom closets were full-length door mirrors facing my bed. So every night I would sleep with my sweatshirt hoodie on tightly to ward away Mary Worth from looking at me in my own mirrors. Hello, therapy! There are so many scary characters in literature and film — and let it be known, that aside from Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, Frankenstein, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist — indeed, all nightmare-worthy — NONE has ever affected me as much as Mary Worth.
Eddy Webb, author of WATSON IS NOT AN IDIOT
Hands down, the creepiest monster to me when I was growing up was the Hound of the Baskervilles. Part of the reason why it’s so creepy is that nearly all of the time it’s “off-screen,” lurking on the edges of the story, waiting to pounce. The Hound is only actually seen when it is confronted at the climax, but how people talk and think about the Hound is far scarier.
Maureen O’Leary Wanket, author of HOW TO BE MANLY, THE ARROW, and the forthcoming THE GHOST DAUGHTER
The creepiest creature in all of literature is the malevolent shape-shifting lady in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, along with her creeptastic little minions. I return to Ghost Story for everything I love about good horror fiction. The story builds gradually and with a solid foundation in character, place, and history. It’s also centered on a fiction writer which is a bonus to me. A group of old men gather to tell ghost stories, inviting the nephew of one of the friends to chronicle their tales. It turns out they are to the one haunted by the creepiest creature ever invented in the form of a sexy girl they think they killed by mistake. I reread Ghost Story now and then, and am terrified and riveted anew each time. It’s an ambitious novel featuring a creepy creature of such insidious evil that it will hurt your sleep.
Michelle Falkoff, author of PLAYLIST FOR THE DEAD
My creature isn’t exactly a creature–it’s a little kid who turns into something very, very old. Stephen King’s “The Jaunt” completely messed me up as a kid, and it still does now. Ricky, the kid, is on a trip to Mars, and his dad is explaining the science behind getting there, which involves everyone on the ship being put into a sleep-state so they can move through time without aging. But Ricky decides to stay awake. What he turns into is one of the scariest things I’ve read, and the image of him cackling, “Longer than you think, Dad!” is nightmare-inducing.
Rita Arens, author of THE OBVIOUS GAME
My vote for the creepiest creatures in literature are the hedge animals in Stephen King’s The Shining. Much creepier in the book than in the movie. I was particularly disturbed by the rabbit, because rabbits are not supposed to be creepy. They are at the very bottom of the food chain. If rabbits are scary to you, where do you now sit in that chain?
Andrea Cumbo-Floyd, author of THE SLAVES HAVE NAMES
I’m going with “The Raven” from Poe’s poem by that name. Here’s why: When one of the smartest creatures in the world comes clothed in black and sits by you as you write, a writer is bound to fear. Add to that the single word “nevermore” uttered in what must be a creaky cackle of a voice, and the blood races. When terror comes as the everyday, the depth of fright is all the richer.
Karina Sumner-Smith, author of the TOWERS TRILOGY
Creepiest creature in all of literature? Oh, that’s easy: the evil doppelganger. This trope takes on different aspects, from a true doppelganger to evil twins to the twisted reflection one sees in the mirror. Doppelgangers make us the enemy—and let us know that if things were slightly different, we might be the cruel hunter and not the hunted. A great example is in Kameron Hurley’s recent fantasy novel The Mirror Empire, where people are at war with versions of themselves from an alternate reality. Forget monsters and ghosts; the thing we’re truly afraid of is ourselves.
Laura Madeline Wiseman, author of WAKE and other collections
In middle school, I read Steven King’s It and felt fairly creeped out by the thought of clowns, of what floated under the streets and what might speak to me through the gutters as I walked home from school. I also read Dracula, but I wasn’t scared of him. I read stories about mummies, ghosts, ghouls, and witches, but never felt my skin prickle for such characters made to have human fears. As a girl, it was the movies and their representation of monstrous creatures that made me sleepless and wondering about bumps in the night. More recently, in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, the image of the lost friend, ghost-like dashing through the bush, made me feel terrified, as did the wound of the protagonist in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. But if anything, I’ve always been terrified of the knocking in the “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, that sound, that beating, that terrible reminder of a wrong.
If you’d like to read more scary story recommendations from this group, check out last year’s post, Writers Who Read: Scariest Stories Ever.