In honor of my favorite holiday, here’s a handful of books that scared me silly even as they were refusing to be put down. The fear came in a different flavor with each one. Not all of them are technically horror novels.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. For years – literally years – after I read this, I had nightmares about discovering that everyone in my life had become vampires. What if you were the last person on earth, so far as you knew, who had not been turned into a vampire? What if they came for you every single night? Brilliant book, but save up your money first to pay for the increase in your electric bill from sleeping with the lights on.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. What’s so scary about werewolves is that they’re us. It’s been my observation that werewolves have been the most sympathetically portrayed monsters in horror. In Sharp Teeth, Barlow is masterful at building non-stock, well-developed lycanthropes. In verse. Did I mention he does it in verse? What made this book nail-biting for me was how much I cared about a couple of the characters and how human nature was just as threatening as animal nature. This is one of my all-time favorite books in any genre.
1984 by George Orwell. I value my privacy. The thought of being watched every second of my life is anathema to me. For the watched, even one slip-up in something as minor as facial expression can mean death. Add in the inability to trust anyone else and the constant head games played by the government and this is about as dystopian as it gets. Scary because it seems so possible. Oh, and the rats.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Again, scary because I can imagine it happening in real life. Extreme religious fundamentalists take over and implement selective Biblical practices. Not the ones about the rich selling what they have and giving money to the poor. Rather, the ones where many women are considered as no more than property and are pressed into service to bear children for those who have been rendered infertile by a wrecked environment. And as someone with severely dry skin, let me say how horrified I was by the lack of hand lotion.
The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright. This is theoretically a children’s book. I read it as an adult and it creeped me out no end. But it impressed me, too, with its exceedingly clever premise. A big old house, with one room containing a dollhouse that’s a scale-model reproduction of the real domicile, including the furniture and dolls representing the original residents. Each night, the furniture and dolls are moved around to re-create a murder scene. Is it the victim’s ghost trying to communicate in some way?
Dracula by Bram Stoker. In the novel, Renfield scares me more than Dracula does. Actually, that’s true in some of the movie versions as well.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. There are ghosts and then there are GHOSTS. Knowing I would have reacted just as Sethe did and thrown away everything. That part gets me. The parts based on the true history of slavery are the scariest, though.