Oh, the horror, the horror!
I recently finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and sadly you won’t find my review here because I was just plain exhausted by the end of that book. Someday I will appropriately categorize my thoughts but the novel left me dazed and and on edge, but in a good way I might add. I recommend reading it not only because it is an interesting and dazzling addition to the time-travel canon, but if you are indeed a King fan you will be quite surprised by this book. If Stephen King owns the title of “King of Horror” then 11/22/63 is an extreme departure from his usual fare. Not that the novel about the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have its horrific moments- there are a few cringe worthy pages- but on the whole the novel is more of an emotional struggle and response to the passage of time, aging, and our obsession with defining, and perhaps redefining, personal and cultural history .
Several reviewers of the book have remarked that this is probably King’s most personal work, and I agree. His main character is only 35 years old, but carries the weight and burden of someone who is being written by a man in his late 60s who has surely seen his fair share of history and most likely would love to go back and change some past regrets. As we get older, what do we regret the most? Wish we can change? Do we know instinctively that no matter what we change, our lives might have ended up on the same path regardless? This is all scary enough, indeed.
But at the very least, I finished the novel feeling unsettled (and not unsatisfied, I might add, lest it appear I didn’t enjoy the novel). It haunted me in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. The book was so different from King’s earlier works and books that I read and was more than a little disturbed by that I got to thinking about scary books and how they continue to haunt you. Perhaps we need to redefine what we consider “scary” anyway. Someone on an NPR report a few weeks ago claimed that horror novels are not nearly as scary as films and the visual medium. I respectfully, but wholeheartedly, disagree!
Just because a film, or any visual medium, can scare and thrill with images (our worst fears gruesomely coming to life on screen) rather than words doesn’t in any way mean that the power of imagination cannot interpret the words on the page to mean something equally terrifying and horrific. Just recently, in fact, I scared myself silly simply by reading the plot description on a copy of Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon. From what little I read, the novel struck me as incredibly violent and terrifying- certainly my worst nightmare as a woman come to life. Needless to say, I decided against the book.
There are just a handful of books that I would categorize as truly horrific and disturbing, and this select pile has continued to haunt me since the first reading. I remember being scared; the palpable fear that crept up the base of my spine and took root in my imagination: This could happen to you, this could happen to you… And while I disagree with the NPR reporter who says films are much scarier than books, I do agree that film has its own special brand of POWER over the imagination. What I like about reading gripping books is that you get to crawl inside the mind of the character as the horror happens, rather than watch the horror unfold on film. To me, there is a big difference in the fear factor!
Here are my top 5 all-time scary books:
(An interesting thing to note that I hadn’t realized until now: all of my choices involve some sort of violence towards women. Obviously we now know what I find truly terrifying!)
1. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
I’ve written about AP before in a different post. This book ABSOLUTELY terrified me at first reading. I distinctly remember asking my friend who was visiting at the time to come in and hold my hand as I fell asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my life! The book is gory, violent, and can be very, very dark. What shocked me the most from reading the book was that Ellis mixed humor and terror in equal measure. You literally didn’t know when the next gruesome and cringe-worthy moment was going to happen. The chainsaw scene with the prostitutes, the torture he uses on his friend’s fiancée with the rat, the careless disposal of all of the bodies in a dirty tub filled with lime in Hell’s Kitchen as if they were just trash… all of this disturbed me to my core.
2. Carrie, Stephen King
I wouldn’t say Carrie is as horrifying as it is disturbing. I don’t remember being particularly frightened by this book, per se, but I was horrified, rather, by the cruelty and abuse Carrie suffered. Her mother, especially, just creeped me out. Still, to this day I remember the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read this book and the sorrow and fear I felt at the end of the book when Carrie wreaks destruction and does get some revenge but is still doomed, and I count it among my all-time scary reads.
3. Intensity, Dean Koontz
Ok, this book nearly changed my life, or I should say that it changed my driving habits and taught me to be ever-vigilante in the face of strangers and policemen, alike. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about. You, too, might also have a necessary egress plan in place for any remote and unfamiliar place you stay in from now on. I would stay up late in my dorm room reading this book and praying that my roommates would be coming home soon so I wouldn’t be alone. What scared me most was that violence against women can just be so random and out of our control. I instantly knew what yahoos and maniacs I might be up against now that I was moving from young adulthood to adulthood, away from my parents and still in that ever curious and trusting mode most women in their late teens/early twenties find themselves in. It terrified me that people could be so cruel, especially those in positions of service and power. The book is aptly titled, as I found myself intensely on edge with a racing heart throughout the entire course of the novel!
4. Relic, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
A stand-out part scientific/part sci-fi thriller that gets you right in the gut with its plausibility. I’ve always had a hard time with ghost stories and supernatural stories. Usually I can get away with watching “Paranormal Activity” or “The Ring” and without being super scared. I don’t know why, but perhaps I’m skeptical about the supernatural actually harming me. Serial killers, on the other hand…
Relic, however, will terrify you and the supernatural aspect of it makes sense, too. The authors do an amazing job of keeping the audience in suspense right until the very end. Meanwhile, “the relic” goes on its munching and crunching spree (this was the grossest part of the novel- the descriptions of the gore!) and killing off main characters with abandon. You can feel and almost smell the fear from each person as he/she hears the tell-tale clicks and gets a whiff of the awful “goatish” smell from whatever the hell it is that’s been hunting them in this dark and foreboding museum.
5. The Collector, John Fowles
Another book to add to the “Things You Need to Watch Out For as a Woman” pile. Not so much a horror novel either as it is a psychological thriller. What woman doesn’t absolutely fear being locked away in a creepy basement with no hope of escape from an equally creepy loner type who actually thinks some day the two of you will get married and live happily ever after? And this stuff really happens!! Think back to the recent discovery of women being held captive for years by the man in Ohio. Frightening! And if his psychological torture wasn’t bad enough, the Collector subtly goes from obsessed to disinterested very fast, and it was absolutely awful to read about this poor woman fight for her life and realize she’s going to slowly and painfully die by illness and not even at the hands of her captor.
So how about you? Which books would you rank as absolutely scary and horrifying? And what scares you the most: the paranormal or serial killers?