Post originally published on 2/13/15
It’s Friday the 13th in all its spooky glory! Not only are we planning a dark night of horror movie marathons and popcorn bingeing, but we are also planning on curling up with some scary books. Need one, too? Here’s our list of the 13 books that made Alternating Current staffers hide under the covers:
Kevin Catalano’S PICK:
Bret Easton Ellis
This grisly novel of a Wall Street serial killer is an obvious choice for scariest book; so I searched my bookshelves, my falling-over stacks, and my Goodreads library for an alternate — and I kept coming back to this one. American Psycho frightens me in two ways. The first are the murder scenes that are so graphically detailed, so wildly imagined, I don’t think I can even paraphrase them without offending. Let’s just say that the many ways the narrator, Patrick Bateman, tortures and kills his victims includes: a nail gun, a sharpened coat hanger, a rusty butter knife, a stapler, and a hungry rat. But the true horror of this novel does not include the sick Mr. Bateman, or the talented (sometimes jerk) Mr. Ellis; instead, it’s borne from within the reader. It’s the idea that I am reading this — I am a participant in these horrible acts, and while I am repulsed, I keep reading, but not only that: I want to keep reading, pressing the murders forward, seeing what I can handle. So the truly gripping fear is a fear of myself: what unbounded darkness do I have within myself that pushes for that nail gun, that desires that rapturous rat? When American Psycho came out, many critics and readers slammed Mr. Ellis, calling him and his novel sick and perverted. But really, the readers are the sick ones; we are the truly horrible creatures.
Nicole Tone’S PICK:
Following the life of Charles Hillenbrand, twenty years after the abduction and murder of his five-year-old daughter, the novel was as haunting as it was gruesome. It is not just the violence of what happened to his daughter that makes this book horrific, but also the ghost-story elements and Charles dealing with living alone. I have never had a book make me feel so afraid, or so claustrophobic.
MISTI RAINWATER-LITES’ PICK:
The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House is the scariest book I have ever read. When I read the book I was living in a massive two-story Victorian in a small Texas town, out of my mind with postpartum psychosis and cabin fever. That quite possibly colored my perception. But the eerily accurate portrayal of the novel’s psychotic female protagonist unsettled me to the point that I haven’t read the book since, and will probably never read it again. It is unclear if the house in the novel is haunted or if the narrative is a reflection of the protagonist’s unstable mind. The ambiguity creates one hell of a spine-tingling read. I have never been a huge fan of the horror genre or any particular genre. I am a fan of literature that stays with me. The Haunting of Hill House is such a read.
Lori Hettler’S PICKS:
Don’t let Come Closer fool you. This is one teeny tiny spooky little novel that will haunt you long after you’ve read it. This book, about a woman who is slowly and knowingly being possessed by a demon, scared me before I even started reading it. I wouldn’t crack the cover until full daylight, fearful that if I read it into the evening, it would have me sleeping in bed with my kids, too chicken to risk a night in bed alone.
I read this novel back in middle school. At the top of my street sat a small cemetery, which never really bothered me until I began reading this book. Only a Stephen King novel could get me to break into a run when walking past the cemetery on my way to and from the bus stop. It also kept me from sneaking out at night, for fear of what was waiting for me at the top of the block behind those black gates. Now, as an adult, Pet Sematary frightens me on so many other levels. Imagine the heartache, the guilt, the pain of losing a child … If there were a way to bring him back, would you take it? The temptation alone is chilling.
Al Kratz’S PICK:
We Need to Talk about Kevin
I don’t read much in the scary genre, but I definitely remember being brought to the edge of my seat, scary-movie style, by the suspense of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. She writes a story I’d bet Stephen King would respect. Getting to the end without previous spoilers helped, but it’s clearly sold upfront as a story about a mother dealing with the gruesome crimes her son committed. While she builds a very believable and dark character out of the boy, it actually was the other family members that made this so suspenseful. The mother sometimes makes it a “two bad guy” story rather than one. It’s a horror story of motherhood wasteland as much as it’s one of teen angst. The teen’s younger sibling and father made for classic horror-story victims inspiring me to yell, “Get out of the house!”
LAURA CITINO’S PICK:
The Fifth Child
Art that is brilliant and truly horrifying has to hit at our most deeply held ideals. Doris Lessing’s novella, The Fifth Child, destroys the relationship held most sacred by society — that between a mother and a child. Harriet and David Lovatt have a charmed life, and consider themselves conservative torch bearers in London’s swinging 60s. They have a wonderful little house and four perfect children, and, in the way of all good people, want more — another child. This fifth child, however, is different from the beginning. Harriet suffers a painful and debilitating pregnancy; she feels her unborn child kicking away and imagines herself clawed and bruised from the inside. When Ben is born, he grows into an alien on Earth, a monster in human form, terrorizing his siblings and parents with seemingly no motivation or reason. What I love most about this book, both as horror and literature in general, is that it never becomes didactic. Is the story a parable, Ben punishment for his parents who dared to be too happy? Is it a metaphor, meant to give a glimpse into the minds of parents who spawn inhuman children — serial killers, mass shooters? Maybe, could be, who knows. Write your dissertation on it if you want. It is a nightmarish story, and perhaps the scariest part is that it never answers why.
Cetoria TOMBERLIN’S PICKS:
I remember reading Dracula for the first time in tenth grade. I was 15 and had very little exposure to “vampire fiction.” Twilight was almost a decade away, and I’d only read a little of Anne Rice (though that would drastically change later). I read the text quickly because I just had to know if Jonathan and Mina were going to survive, if their friends would survive — if anyone would survive. For me, the book being written in an epistolary format only gave credence to the characters recollection of their encounters with the mysterious Count Dracula. The retellings seemed so real, and you got multiple characters’ impressions of the title character, which really worked well in establishing him as someone (or something) to be afraid of. The scene where the Count gives a baby to the three female vampires that inhabit his castle (sometimes referred to as the Brides of Dracula) still gives me shivers. And when the child’s poor mother comes searching later only to have the dogs set upon her. So, so evil. But that’s one of the greatest differences between the Count and more modern vampire creations: He’s unrepentant. There’s no moral compass eating away at him, and he’s resolute in all his actions. Now, at age 26, I’ve gobbled up plenty of vampire stories, and Stoker’s Dracula is still the most blood-chilling.
Sphere is the science-fiction/psychological thriller hybrid story of an alien-like structure discovered at the bottom of the ocean that uses your imagination against you. A group of scientists is assembled by the U.S. government and charged with unlocking its secrets. But the structure has a mind of its own. And our heroes have some complicated fears in their overactive minds. To re-cap: you’re at the bottom of the ocean (That alone is known to cause serious freakouts.), you’re forced to work within a group of highly intelligent individuals who can barely get along with each other, and your greatest enemy (unbeknownst to you) is your own mind. Crichton creates a wonderful setting, good characters, and a great plot in telling this scary story. Once the basic foundation is laid out, the plot moves fairly quickly, and by the end you’re reading as fast as you can because you know something really, truly awful is just one turn of the page away.
Eric Shonkwiler’S PICK:
The Orange Eats Creeps
I read The Orange Eats Creeps alone in a cold, drafty room in an apartment building whose tenants were almost exclusively recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and at least one gibbering madman — my immediate neighbor. Reading Grace Krilanovich’s novel was not much of an escape, in that way. Set in the Pacific Northwest during the 90s, Orange follows a band of “teenage hobo vampire junkies,” as they roam across parking lots, rob convenience stores, and lurk in basement concert venues. It’s a dense, vertigo-inducing, robo-trip of a book that doesn’t let up in its tenuous walk between reality and nightmare for a moment. Like American Psycho, there’s no clear way to tell when the protagonist is hallucinating, bragging, or truthfully relaying the landscape that surrounds her. Nameless, the protagonist is half-wandering with her merry band of fuckups while she searches for her sister, equally lost out there amid the killers and bums. It’s hard to describe a clear plot to The Orange Eats Creeps because there isn’t much of one, but what we do get a clue into is that terrible world of the teenage mind — real or no, to the protagonist, this is what surrounds her. Everyone is angling to get high, and everyone is looking to drink your blood.
Amanda Jean’S PICK:
The Silence of the Lambs
I picked The Silence of the Lambs almost in spite of its place in the cultural zeitgeist. Serial killers in horror fiction are at this point prosaic, and Thomas Harris’ works contain some of the most famous examples — but thing is, there must be some reason why Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill are still household names nearly thirty years on. Whether it’s Harris’ knack for gruesome details gleaned from years working the crime beat as an AP reporter, or because he turned his love of research and detail onto the FBI’s unit dedicated to catching killers, or his knack for characters so unsettling they seem almost supernatural, people cannot move on from this book. The Silence of the Lambs is hints of gothic horror and a feminist narrative (Clarice Starling is a woman in a male-dominated profession, and it’s up to her to save the damsel in distress.) and ultimately laid the groundwork for modern horror and procedurals. It’s fascinating, it’s super creepy and even gross, and it’s hard to shake.
Leah Angstman’S PICK:
The Turn of the Screw
When I was a child, I was a reader of old, used classics that I found in the local library’s monthly book sales. I’d have no idea what I was picking up, but that it was old and that I’d often heard of it or heard of the author, as I filled the totebag my mother graciously allowed me to fill. I have never been a reader of horror novels; I wasn’t blessed with the stomach for it. Yet, the cover of this book looked unassuming enough — my old beat-up copy has just the cover you see here — but I had no idea that it was a gothic ghost story of the ambiguous, psychological kind, leaving events uncertain of their realistic or imagined nature to the reader. All I know is that, to a child, the hinted-at, glimpsed evil that lurks through the pages was something that doctors to this day try to hang my insomnia on. “Did you read any scary books as a child?” they always ask. This is the book that comes to mind. Throughout the book there is this implied sexual violence (It is rumored that a boy is molested by an adult man — who is now dead and is a ghost that the boy can see.) far too mature and vague for me as a kid, but I understood the darkness of it, and the darkness was what was scary to me. There is also the idea that this possession, whatever this unnamed ghost being is, possesses young children, as it does to young Miles and Flora in this story, and that to me, as a child, was terrifying. I was afraid to see a ghost, for fear it would possess me, and then, if it left, it would steal my soul with it, and I would no longer be alive. The Turn of the Screw is a quiet creeper and now seems outdated, most likely, but I’ve never minded those things. Its vague evil still ignites my imagination.
Julia Hy’S PICK:
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Retold by Alvin Schwartz; Illustrations by Stephen Gammell
There has always been one book series that comes to mind when I think of reading something scary, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. These stories were what I used to read in middle school for a good scare, but now more than ever, I find the illustrations done by Stephen Gammell to be what truly makes this book top my list. From decrepit, decaying castles with vines dripping off of them, to Dali-like long, thin-boned skeletons, these drawings are enough to bring the most stubborn imagination to life. These pictures are what haunt you long after you’ve read and forgotten half of the story. These pictures are what keep you up at night, second-guessing every shadow and its origin. The tales themselves are retellings from folklore, and their scare comes from the plausibility of some of them actually happening. So many of the stories are coincidence and circumstance, that you find yourself looking over your shoulder just a little more often than you used to. On this Friday the 13th, I know what I’ll be reading. Do you?
“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked.
“Yes, I do,” she replied. “There are ghosts everywhere.”
“I don’t believe in them,” he said. “It’s just a lot of superstition. In all my years I’ve never seen a ghost, not one.”
“Haven’t you?” the woman said — and vanished.