10 Essential Scary Books
It’s damp and cold and the October wind is rattling your window shutters at midnight. For those of you looking for appropriate reading material, you can follow the “Scary Books” tag on this blog’s alphabetical right-hand column for an on-going list. Meanwhile, here are ten essential classics I recommend for those of you interested in putting together a home library.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Originally published in 1817, Frankenstein has endured for two centuries. Quite naturally my introduction to the story came courtesy of Boris Karloff’s three films, and by the time I first read this paperback I was well acquainted with the basic plot and images from the movies. At that tender age I found the book challenging, but over the years I have nurtured a fondness for Shelley’s original tale. It is admittedly difficult to separate the name “Frankenstein” from the Jack Pierce classic make-up and Karloff’s brilliant portrayal of the monster. There is so much more involved in the story than just the monster’s horrific appearance. I don’t know who painted the cover shown here for the Airmont paperback but I believe it perfectly captures the essence if not the mood of Mary Shelley’s novel. Here is a brooding Victor Frankenstein, contemplating his violent creation, haunted forever by the creature that will eventually doom them both. The gothic castle on the hill, the graveyard, and the laboratory’s glass beakers and vials add a Victorian touch to the moody scene. The hint of the monster’s visage in the upper right corner, clearly inspired by the make-up Jack Pierce created for Boris Karloff, adds the now familiar Hollywood touch to a perfect cover. There are many editions of Frankenstein available, but this pulp style paperback is my favorite.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Pictured here is the Airmont Publishing 1963 paperback edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The best known vampire novel ever published, Dracula continues to inspire a host of vampire films, both good and bad. Bela Lugosi’s quintessential performance in Universal’s 1931 class film went far in making Dracula a household name. Stoker’s vision of Dracula differs markedly from the film versions – he was white haired albeit still creepy – but the basic gothic elements of Stoker’s novel have transferred well to the screen treatments. Written in the leisurely style of the Victorian era, the novel’s suspense builds slowly but the concluding chapters are truly riveting. This Airmont paperback was the first edition I had read and the cover is clearly modeled after Christopher Lee’s film version. It’s a great gothic cover. I don’t know who painted the cover but it’s one of my all-time favorites for a great book. It’s possible this cover was painted by Elaine Duillo who created so many memorable covers for the paperback market. Modern editions all offer a lackluster cover. Dracula is a fun book to read and definitely on my list of scariest books.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Even if they haven’t read the book most people are familiar with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Published in 1886, Stevenson tackles the idea of what some refer to a split personality. Of course, what he was really getting at is the idea that within each of us there is a beast – a beast that must be suppressed or else it will cause death and destruction wherever it goes. Perhaps this idea is not far removed from Mary Shelley’s themes in Frankenstein. According to his biographers, Stevenson dreamed this story and when he woke up he wrote it all down in a rush. And so we have the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll whose experiments turn him into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Next to Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula there is no monster as well-known as Mr. Hyde. Stevenson is said to have considered his story an allegory for the human condition where certain people are conflicted by the good and evil side of their nature. It all worked beautifully and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is another classic deserving your attention during this Halloween season.
The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells
When people talk about books by H.G. Wells they usually talk about The War of the Worlds. Sure, it’s a masterpiece, but so is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Published in 1896 it has never been out of print. Told in a first person narrative by Edward Pendrick who has been shipwrecked on left on the island that is home to Dr. Moreau and his mad experiments. Pendrick soon discovers that Moreau is also experimenting humans. Having created an Ape-Man, Pendrick discovers a race of half-animal and half-human creatures living on the island. A variation on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wells is tackling moral issues and man’s potential interference in nature with his science. These issues still resonate today. The Island of Dr. Moreau is a horror story of the highest order but it’s also just a great adventure yarn. Readers can take whatever approach they like when reading this great book and they are assured of one thing – they will find this novel compelling. Another personal favorite, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a chilling tale. Slip into that over-sized leather chair and light a candle to read this one by. You won’t be disappointed.
Fear by L. Ron Hubbard
L. Ron Hubbard’s Fear is a masterpiece of suspense. Published in 1940 in Unknown Fantasy Fiction magazine, it was later reprinted in hardcover. Since then Fear has been reprinted many times. I have seen it described as a psychological thriller, which is true in a broad sense. I think of it as a character study, layered with a growing sense of dread. The plot involves Professor James Lowry who publishes an article that asserts that witchcraft and magic can’t possibly exist. Then he loses his hat and soon discovers that he can’t recall four hours of his life. His journey to discover what has happened to him leads him into one harrowing nightmare after another. The ending, albeit slightly (and intentionally) ambiguous, manages to tie it all together with a neat twist. The suspense never really lets up and I consider this book one of the all-time classics of horror. No, it doesn’t have the gruesome descriptions that modern novels flaunt, but it makes up for that with its well-crafted plot, characterization and pacing. Fear is one of three of Hubbard’s novels that found its way onto the Modern Library 100 Best Novels in the Reader’s List. I can easily understand why. Put this one on the bookshelf with Psycho by Robert Bloch and Hell House by Richard Matheson and keep the doors locked and windows shut when you read them. L. Ron Hubbard’s Fear is a suspense-filled classic.
Psycho by Robert Bloch
You’ve seen the film but have you read the book? Robert Bloch was an immensely talented pulp writer and Psycho made him a household name. Bloch’s 1959 novel was loosely based on Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, Bloch’s book is far more violent than the famous 1960 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock but equally as fascinating. Psycho is really a tour-de-force pulp story, bloody and suspenseful. By comparison, most of today’s horror writers produce far more gruesome and explicit novels, but they don’t necessarily possess Bloch’s mastery of characterization, plotting and dialogue. Psycho holds up very well indeed but I believe its high quality has been eclipsed by the movie’s fame. This is unfortunate because the book is a brilliant roman à clef; so named because so much of it was inspired by a madman named Ed Gein and others like him. In 1983 Universal Studios released Psycho II and the same year Bloch published Psycho II. Equally as gripping, Psycho II is unrelated to the second film but does serve as a direct sequel to his original novel. Norman Bates is back, deadlier than ever. Although there are similarities between Psycho II the novel and Psycho II the film it’s important to point out that Bloch’s novel was published first. In 1990 Bloch published Psycho House which is also unrelated to the film series. By all rights Robert Bloch’s Psycho should be considered one of the great horror novels.
Hell House by Richard Matheson
By now your nerves should be shattered, and this book will finish you off. After you read this one I expect we’ll have to pick you up off the floor and pour whiskey down your throat to revive you! Matheson is well known and no doubt most of you are familiar with his many novels. Hell House is captivating, frightening and another textbook example of what a great horror novel should be. It’s still in print so if you haven’t read it this would be a good month to do so. Four people enter Hell House where the lingering spirit of Emeric Belasco is up to no good. Belasco disappeared in 1929 and these four strangers are brought in to determine if the house is indeed haunted. Here’s a book that I’m sure Stephen King wishes he’d written (and perhaps has been trying to write ever since he read it) and one of the grand tales of spooks and possession. Claustrophobic, creepy and unflinchingly suspenseful, Hell House by Richard Matheson is one of the all-time greats.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
I originally intended to blog about Bradbury’s Halloween Tree but after some deep pondering I realized that Something Wicked this Way Comes is a far more chilling book. In some ways Something Wicked this Way Comes is the polar opposite of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s homage to summer and boyhood. You’ll never forget Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and Jim and Will, two thirteen year old boys, get swept up in its evil aura. A chilling study of evil, Something Wicked this Way Comes is among Ray Bradbury’s finest works. I think people tend to forget that Bradbury could write just as masterful a suspense novel as anyone. Here’s the evidence. A fully realized, haunting tale that kept me spellbound when I first read it. In this riveting tale Jim and Will learn that Mr. Dark has a tattoo representing each soul that was lured into his service. Charles Halloway, Will’s father, Stands in opposition to Mr. Dark. The boys are destined to become engaged in a struggle to save not only themselves but Will’s father too. October is the perfect month to read anything Bradbury wrote, but Something Wicked this Way Comes is especially appropriate.
The Wood by Guy N. Smith
This one gets off to a fast start: During World War II Bertie Hass, a Luftwaffe pilot, parachutes from his crippled airplane over England and lands in a place called Droy Wood. He doesn’t know it, but he’ll never see Germany again. Droy Wood is haunted, and Hass becomes part of an ancient and sinister tableau. Cut to modern times: Carol Embleton is pissed at her boyfriend, Andy Dark, and walks home from the discotheque, passing perilously close to Droy Wood. Carol accepts a ride from a stranger as she passes Droy Wood, and suddenly she’s been stripped naked and raped. Fearing for her life, she runs naked into Droy Wood, pursued by James Foster, the rapist. Later Andy and the police organize a search party and everyone slips into Droy Wood looking for Carol, who remains naked, frightened but most decidedly not alone. In addition to Bertie Hass, there are strange creatures in the cold bog and an ancient army preparing for battle. Droy Wood is one spooky damn place. There are multiple characters in this book, and many of them come to a gruesome end. Guy N. Smith lives in England and has published dozens of books, all of them good. The Wood is a modern horror classic.
The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard’s many stories have all been collected by Ballantine Books. This massive collection covers a lot of territory with mostly short tales, but each beautifully written and benefiting from Howard’s wild imagination and imagistic prose. Included here are classic tales like “Wolfshead,” “The Children of the Night,” “People of the Dark,” “Worms of the Earth” and “Pigeons from Hell.” This is hard-boiled testosterone laced fiction at its finest. All of the lesser known stories are equally fantastic, such as “Dig Me No Grave” and “The Cairn on the Headland.” The volume includes some of Howard’s poetry as well. If you haven’t read anything by Robert E. Howard, this book is a great place to start. Ballantine Books have many other collected volumes available of Howard’s work. This edition benefits from beautiful detailed illustrations by Greg Staples.
Thank you and have a frightfully good time!