Scariest Books of All Time
For as long as I remember I've loved the dark, mysterious, and spooky. As a preliterate kid, Scooby Doo dominated my Saturday morning TV viewing. But elements of that show drove me crazy. Why, I fumed while eating bowls of dry Count Chocula, aren't there ever any real monsters? I dreaded the inevitable, anti-climactic unmasking of the creature, revealing a pathetic human villain behind every rubber facade. Somewhere in the show's rules it must have been forbidden to expose impressionable minds to real ghosts, ghouls, and vampires. It frustrated the hell out of me, as did the complicated traps set by Scooby and the gang that never, ever worked as planned. What redeemed the series was danger-prone Daphne, the sexy redhead in a fashionable lime-green scarf, who became the object of my first crush. In a memorable episode, she sat in a chair which immediately rotated behind a false well. When the wall rotated again, the chair appeared—with a skeleton in Daphne's place. I was shattered. She was later discovered alive, of course, and all was well in the world again. But that silly cartoon shoved the bleak reality of death into my developing consciousness, if only momentarily. So much so that I still recall it four decades later.
And then I learned to read.
Books opened up a vast world of supernatural stories, and though my literary palate has widened considerably, there's still nothing like a good horror story to spark my pleasure receptors. I was lucky to find anthologies of the classics—Poe, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, August Derleth, and Lovecraft, of course—in my local library before the force that is Stephen King bulldozed his way into horror's papacy.
There is one anthology in particular, however, that cemented my love of well-written horror: Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, edited by Henry Mazzeo and illustrated by Edward Gorey. It's first on my list of scariest books of all time mostly because it was one of the first to grace my bookshelf. Gorey's cover is still one of my all-time favorites, with its subtle, dreary evocation of ghostly despair. See for yourself:
They don't make covers like that anymore, do they?
The author list is canonical: Lovecraft, Derleth, Conan Doyle, M. R. James, Henry James, William Hope Hodgson, H. G. Wells, Robert Aickman, John Collier, and Robert Bloch, among others. It was my first introduction to many of them, and I can credit this book with singlehandedly shaping my taste for subtle—but still terrifying—stories.
One story stood out, however, and to this day I can still creep myself out by thinking about it. John Collier's "Thus I Refute Beelzy" is a masterpiece of understated supernatural horror and a very British riff on a dominating father and the dark power of repressed childhood emotions and imagination. And oh, yes, there are demonic forces at work.
Do yourself a favor and read it here. Or, even better, listen to Vincent Price read it aloud. Go on. I dare you.
Need more thrills and chills? Check out part 2.