Aren’t the holidays a great time to snuggle under the blankets and watch your favorite scary movie? Or curl up with a horror novel? I sure think so. Of course, I love horror for any occasion. I watch, read, and write horror all the time. Yet rarely does a written story actually scare me. Sure, suspense gets me whipping through pages. Nasty images haunt me. Narratives thrill me. But few books truly frighten me. Many of you have assured me that I’m not alone in that regard, but while that gives blessed comfort, I still wish that stories and novels terrified me the same visceral way that movies can. Bemoaning my state got me thinking about the cherished few books that did scare me. One thing is for certain, when the written word frightens, it packs a wallop! Here, then, is a list of books that have scared me silly.
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD
1. Ray Garton’s The Loveliest Dead
This novel is a tour de force of fright. Kids are creepy anyway, am I right? Dead kids even more so. Garton turns his masterful mind to the ghosts of abused children and the spirit of one horrible predator. Quirky but relatable characters add the spark of reality that’s the framework for suspension of disbelief when the crazy happens get going. He captures the fear of dark basements and puts us right there in the middle of it. His suspense hits the perfect pitch. The images he creates are depraved—in the best sense. This is the horror novel as its best. Every time the ghosts rose up, I sank down further in bed, pausing to listen to the noises of the house creak around me. This book made me paranoid about what might be in the other room or just beyond my bedroom windows. Garton nearly changed my mind about reading just before bed. The Loveliest Dead is exactly what I want out of a scary story. Almost more than I bargained for.
2. Josh Malerman’s Bird Box
Right out of the gate, Malerman steeped me in unbearable paranoia. Just what I want out of a suspenseful read! Bird Box is a prime example of horror without blood and guts. Instead of solid nightmare images, the entire book is the even better elixir of persistent dread. I read this over the course of a day and half, and every moment of that time, I felt like in was on a roller coaster as it sets out slowly climbing to the apex before dropping. Chugging unrelentingly forward, the book weaves a macabre spell. I needed to take a short break from the story because every little sound around me set my nerves screaming. What Malerman achieves in Bird Box is as refreshing as it is astounding. He takes away our sense of sight and infuses every little sound with terror.
3. Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror
One of my favorite scary movies of all time. I found the book at my used book store (this was many blood moons ago), and thought it would be a fun read. Fun? Even for me, this book redefined that term. Granted, haunted house stories are my weakness, but I hadn’t—and still haven’t—experienced this must terror while reading about things going bump in the night. That the events really happened (insert debate about the Lutzes and arguments about hoaxes and money-making schemes) added a layer of intensity that just about drove me crazy with fright! It’s a horrifying account of the spirits and noises and all the foul things that befell this family in their new house—the most famous house in horror. The scene where a malicious presence materialized at the foot of the boy’s bed haunts me to this day. Just thinking about it, I’ll need a nightlight tonight.
4. Bentley Little’s The Haunted
As with the Poltergeist movie, it’s Little’s characters and family drama that set the hook for The Haunted. Once I cared about these people, all he had to do was reel me in with an increasingly frightening series of events. And not just scary, but truly bizarre events and compulsions in the best Bentley Little tradition. The clincher for me was all that weirdness in the loft. That had a particular edge to it that worked into my psyche. It helped that at one crucial point, a loud crash out in my hallway sent me investigating. Other people in the house had heard it, but nothing had been disturbed. I’ve always wondered if the power of the prose conjured a presence!
5. Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game.
Yes, the king of horror has given me literal nightmares for years. Intense plots, complex characters, and suspense with gruesome surprises make him one of my favorite authors of all time. But when I turn out the lights, I’m not scared of Pennywise or Cujo or Barlow. As harrowing as a King novel can be, they don’t leave me frightened as I walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Until Gerald’s Game. Not the book as a whole, just a section. But what a section! When that freak finds our heroine handcuffed to the bed and stares down at her. Just stands there. Watching. Reminiscent of the malefic force appearing at the bedside of children in The Amityville Horror. It’s one of those moments where I had to put the book down and listen careful… Were those footsteps in the other room that I just heard?
There you have it—the five books that frightened me beyond the limits of reason. What are some of yours? I can't wait to hear about them! Until next time, stay dark my friends, and stay out of the attic… and the basement… and the garage…