This Is (Almost) Halloween…

I know. Perhaps it is too early for me to be writing about Halloween. I’ve been seeing  merchandise for the unofficial holiday in stores since September 5th, however, so I’m actually behind the curve. Herewith please find my subjective list of Top Five frightening reads that will carry you through the next few weeks:

MISERY — I was given this newly published book as a present for Father’s Day 1987. I started reading it that afternoon and did not stop until I finished it that evening. Some dad, huh? Stephen King’s now-iconic tale of popular author Paul Sheldon’s extended visit with defrocked nurse Annie Wilkes — his Number One Fan — more than stands on its own merits. It makes/tops my list, however, because I had a relationship with someone very much like Annie, right down to her potentially dangerous mood changes and odd turns of phrase, the manifestation of which always preceded what I would come to call an “episode.” I read this book at least once a year, repenting at leisure and recalling the exhilarating sound of doom whistling by me at a near-miss.

THE SHINING — This tale about Jack Torrance, a struggling author with writer’s block the size of a Jersey Wall, and his family was already quite well known when it was adapted for a (lesser) film by Stanley Kubrick. I screamed twice while reading it. The first was during young Danny Torrance’s encounter with the girls in the hall.  To this day, when I am in a large hotel with a long, carpeted corridor, I think of Danny and the girls who wanted to play with him forever.The second was during the bathroom scene. I have, unbidden, remembered this scene at inopportune moments over the course of my adult life, with unhappiness ensuing. The book as a whole, however, is a terrific example of how to wring every bit of drama that can be wrung out of a single location.

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty — This early 1970s novel was a potboiler for sure — and that is one of my highest compliments — but it is a cringe-inducing tale of demonic possession and the efforts of a heroic priest to save the life and soul of an innocent girl  which fed right into my Roman Catholic upbringing. My father, who spend serious and quality time in Seminary school, assisted in an exorcism and told me that Blatty’s account of possession was mild compared to what he witnessed. That might have been, but it is hard to believe that what (almost) Father Joe experienced was any more frightening than Blatty’s description.

‘SALEM’S LOT by, ummm, Stephen King — I have always enjoyed well-written vampire novels — there aren’t many of them — but there is a special place in my heart for this story of the Undead and love lost in a small town on its last legs. King’s second novel published under his own name is a textbook example of how to plant a slow, unnamable dread on the first page, nurture it, and grow it to full blossom stark terror. The television adaptation, with David Soul in the lead role, has its weaknesses but actually stands up quite well. A planned sequel was later incorporated into the Dark Tower series in THE WOLVES OF THE CALLA and SONG OF SUSANNAH but neither quite reach the atmospheric levels of fright found in this book.

THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney — I saw the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers before I read the book upon which it is based. That august novel, although almost as old as I am, has held up much better than either myself or its film adaptation. Marketed as science fiction, THE BODY SNATCHERS is a paranoia-laden horror story about alien seed pods that land on earth and begin producing a duplicate replacement copy of each human being. You have almost certainly seen at least one of the three films based on the book but you can’t beat the source material on any level. Five-year-old mini-Me was also certain at one point that his parents had been pod-snatched. You might as well, but take a chance and pick up a copy of this classic if you’ve never read it.

You know what I’m going to ask now, I’m sure: what are your favorite horror/scary novels? And why? Thank you.

43 thoughts on “This Is (Almost) Halloween…

  1. I avoided horror novels and stories (other than Poe) even though everyone told me that Stephen King’s were wonderful, but then someone loaned me his collection of short stories, DIFFERENT SEASONS. Most, if not all, of the stories have been made into movies: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption became THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, The Body became STAND BY ME, The Boy and the Nazi became THE APT PUPIL (or vice versa)… and so on.

    After reading the first two stories, I realized that I’d been a snob–I’d assumed that King’s many critics were right, that he couldn’t write, so I didn’t want to waste my time. I was soooooooooooooo wrong. The critics are so wrong, too. So, if anyone out there is avoiding Stephen King, try DIFFERENT SEASONS; you may change your minds.,

    MISERY is my all-time favorite full-length King novel in the horror genre, and the movie did not disappoint. Loved THE GREEN MILE, but it’s not horror.

    Anyway, after DIFFERENT SEASONS, I read other Stephen King novels, and the only one I haven’t liked is ROSE MADDER, the story about an abused woman married to a cop who finally gets the guts to escape, only to be pursued by the cop… for 700 or more effing pages, “effing” because King could have cut many, many pages without losing the essence of the story; in fact, I believe the story would have been more powerful had it been edited by a developmental editor. The price of fame is that your editors can let you have your head, and the work suffers.

    I can’t recommend any other books in the horror genre because I prefer reading other genres, and my TBR list is daunting. When I’m on my deathbed, I think my only regret may be that I never finished the list.

    • Sheryl, you make an interesting point about King. I too initially turned away from him. I can’t remember what made me pick up ‘Salem’s Lot but for whatever reason I did and was surprised at what a smart writer he was.

      I am totally with you on that daunting TBR list. I am fearful that when I do have the time to seriously attack it I will be too sick to care or be able to do it. Happy happy happy, that’s me this morning. Thanks for sharing!

  2. My current favorite is KILL SWITCH by Jonathan Maberry. I had never read his books, but we chatted a time or two on Twitter and I liked his sense of humor. Until I met him at a book event here in town (which I attended to show support for my Twitter friend) I had no idea he was hugely famous and has written a lot of books. If they’re all like this one – holy cow!

    I still love The Watchers by Dean Koontz

    NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (audio version) kept me awake on dark country roads when I went on vacation last spring.

    Never read The Body Snatchers. Will check it out (saw the movies). That whole premise always scares me.

    • Jonathan is really good, Cynthia, and unfortunately underappreciated. Thanks for helping to spread the word. Try HEART SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. It for me is still his best book. I was absolutely sure that the premise wouldn’t work and I was amazed at what he did with it. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. The Magic Cottage by James Herbert, an English writer who died not long ago. I have no idea how it holds up since I read it many years ago. But it stayed with me for ages. Also, anything by Dean Koontz. Scenes from his books come to me at random times years later. And yeah, whenever I’m in a big hotel with long hallways I think of that scene from The Shining, too.

    • James Herbert is another writer whose work is worth looking at, for sure, Margaret. Thanks for the reminder. There are so many who have passed on and are undeservedly forgotten, or at least passed over…

  4. After viewing The Omen, I went straight home and inspected every inch of my newborn son’s body for 666. Silly, I know, but I could not help myself.

    Later, my husband and I built a house in a location where the first three digits of our phone number were 666. It didn’t bother us, but others in the new development petitioned to have the numbers changed. They were not, and we survived fine for seven years with our phone number.

    • Thanks for the story, CJ. When my siblings and I were young we saw a movie called Invasion from Mars (the 1950s version). The premise of the movie was that the Martians had secretly landed and were taking over peoples’ bodies; the only sign of it was that each person so afflicted had a cross on the back of their neck. My sister went bat shoot crazy. Naturally my brother and I had fun with this for weeks (months) (years!), drawing crosses on the backs of each other’s neck and then pointing it out to our sister, who would scream and hide. She couldn’t watch anything more frightening that Leave It to Beaver for years. Even now…

  5. Good morning, Joe.

    Thanks for your recommendations. I’ve never read in the horror genre, so I have nothing to add. But after reading your list and summaries, I think I’ll try The Body Snatchers.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Good afternoon, Steve! Thanks for stopping by. THE BODY SNATCHERS is a good place to start, but a physician like yourself should almost certainly read MISERY, considering Annie Wilkes’ occupation. I am sure she will remind you at least partially of someone that you might have encountered, however briefly, in the course of your practice. Have a good weekend.

  6. I was reading Salem’s Lot at home all alone on a summer break from college. My dad walked in, startled me, and I jumped with such vigor that the book hit the ceiling. Scary indeed.

    I read Amityville Horror in 1979 as a teen because my parents wouldn’t let me go to scary movies, but I could read anything. (Silly parents.:-)) It scared me enough that I had to sleep with the lights on. The lights kept me from seeing through the window and into the night where I was SURE there’d be two, little red eyes glowing back at me.

    • Great story, Priscilla! Thank you. It’s interesting…my wife Lisa grew up near the Amityville house and our daughter was interested in horror films and the like from such a very early age that I nicknamed her “Stephanie King.” She watched The Nightmare Before Christmas all year round. I got her the bendable character figures from the movie and she would play with them for hours. She genius level now and wouldn’t hurt a fly (though God help anyone who tries to mess with her on the street) so it apparently didn’t affect her…yet…

  7. Excellent list. My Halloween read is Dean Koontz Phantoms. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is frightening. I think the scariest book of all time Is King’s It.

    • Thank you, Brian! If you like Shirley Jackson you should try the books of TKZ’s own Laura Benedict. IT is definitely up there and is of course enjoying a resurgence due to the movie adaptation. True story…I was in the middle of IT on a Saturday when I had to leave my apartment for an appointment. As I drove over a culvert across from the complex a friggin’ clown came out from under the bridge, holding balloons and waving. I almost wrecked the car. It turned out that he was part of a promotion for another apartment complex across the way. I haven’t lived in that area for over thirty years but I think of that every time I drive by there.

  8. I’ve not read much in the horror genre, but I liked several of the Koontz novels. My favorite of his is Lightning. The only King books I’ve read were The Stand, which I couldn’t put down and the one about the JFK shooting, which I could, and did.

    My favorite horror/suspense novel is The Hahnemann Sequela by Harold King.

    The Silence of the Lambs was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. The movie Misery reminded me too much of my mother.

    • Dave, thanks so much for the suggestion of The Hahnemann Sequela. I am totally unfamiliar with it and will check it out. Your last sentence made me choke coffee all over the keyboard. I’ll be laughing about that all day though I imagine it really isn’t funny. How did you turn out so well?

      • Who said I did? At a writer’s group meeting once, we read one of my short stories, and one member looked at me very seriously and said, “You scare me. You scare me a lot.”

        I met Harold King once at a writers conference at a local community collage. He scheduled a personal meeting time after he spoke in the student union. I was the only one who showed up. (There were other writers during the same time.) We visited one-o-
        one for over an hour. He had just released his latest book, Shelkagary, which is one of my favorite books of all time. I re-read it yearly. I very highly recommend it. His usual genre was WWII suspense stories, and he co-authored one with Lawrence Block. Unfortunately Mr King died of cancer several years ago. But he was a greatly under appreciated writer and a wonderful human being.

  9. I got “creeped out” by King’s short story “Night Shift,” read while employed on, appropriately enough, the night shift.

    I also found Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES a bit, shall I say, disconcerting… still~

    • George, I’m with you both on the story and the collection. Thanks! In the collection “Children of the Corn” to this day creeps me out whenever I drive on a country road through a cornfield.” I keep expecting a body to come flying into the road in front of a car.

  10. I can’t read horror–it’s just too much on top of the bad news about human kind that we’re constantly inundated with in the news.

    But I can’t help but be wowed with Stephen King as a professional. Some of us may write just to entertain ourselves, some want to make money, but the common denominator for all of us, whether we admit it deep down or not, is to make our mark on the world, to be known for something.

    Here’s a guy who has most definitely made his mark, distinguished himself in the writing world in a way that is very hard to do in a sea of books. Very impressive. Although I’m sure he has many goals still to reach, I hope he has the satisfaction of realizing for himself his accomplishments because that’s just HUGE!

    • Excellent points, CK. Thanks for pointing those out. I would also include King’s wife Tabitha in the accolades as well — as he always does — given her support and guidance over the years, not only when he was a struggling writer but also through his significant injuries and his alcoholism. If you haven’t read ON WRITING please do so. It’s an excellent how-to book and a confession as well.

  11. AND that 1950’s version of INVASION FROM MARS is still one of my fav’s~ a Saturday afternoon “fright fest” staple on TV back in the day~ and the first time I recall noticing how the ending raised the question(s):
    • Dream?
    • Premonition?
    • Reality?

    Wish my brother and I had been mean to our sister like you were to yours~


    • Yes, indeed, CJ! I think I addressed that phobia and a couple of others in this space a few years ago. I’m getting worse, not better as well. Not a good thing.

  12. The story and the similarly titled collection did it for me as well, George. Thanks! I believe that “Children of the Corn” is in there as well…not much of a movie, but I can still recite passages from the story line by line…

  13. I suspect this won’t count, but it’s the only book I can recall that scared me and left me shaken to the bone — The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe because it is real life horror.

    But also got deeply creeped out when I read, as a pre-teen, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And the movie (first one) was great, too.

    • Of course it counts, Chris! Cormac McCarthy scares hell out of me. Try BLOOD MERIDIAN. Thanks for the reminder and for stopping by.

  14. For those of you who don’t creep out too easily, I suggest A Collapse of Horses by Brian Everson. This is considered literary horror. (I didn’t make that up). Everson is Professor of Literature at Brown University.

    • Brian, thank you. I just looked A Collapse of Horses up, it’s a collection of short stories and as I read the descriptions of some of the stories I thought, “How the fheck does he even THINK up this stuff?!” What higher praise can I give?

    • Thanks for another reminder about Shirley Jackson, Elaine. She was truly ahead of her time. She didn’t need gross-outs to scare the wits out of the reader. Her work is a terrific study on the art of the subtle.

    • Very true, Brian. Richard’s son, Richard Christian Matheson, is also a terrific writer of the dark subjects, authoring short — sometimes very short — stories that can pack a wallop. He’s worth checking out.

  15. I love horror! I am a big fan of both Stephen King and Dean Koontz. My favorite King book is The Stand. That was creepy but it was believable to me. He has a way that removes all doubt and however implausible allows a suspension of belief because the reader feels as if s/he is right there. I remember watching a movie when I was a teen that really scared me. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte starring Bette Davis. I was babysitting my brother’s kids. They were asleep and I was on the floor in front of the TV with popcorn. At a very scary scene, the dog put his nose on my hand and I screamed. Popcorn and soda went everywhere! I watch this movie whenever it is aired.

    • That must have been one really happy dog, Rebecca. I bet it was a Bette Davis for life. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Stephen King’s The Stand made a lifetime imprint on me. I can’t drive through a tunnel without imagining that I’m about to be stuck in a traffic jam with dead people in all the cars around me. It takes all my attention to drive the speed limit while inside tunnels. Thanks, Mr. King. No really, I mean it.

    • Janet, thank you…I no longer feel so alone. Thanks to Walking Dead I imagine a zombie apocalypse. I won’t go into detail other than to say I am ready. Are you? Thanks again!

  17. I picked up Invasion of the Body Snatchers at our library book sale. It sat about for a couple of years before I read it, but when I read it, I simply couldn’t put the thing down. The book has been attacked in science fiction circles for its lack of basic scientific authenticity – the pods flying into space – how could they possibly expect to reach escape velocity? No matter to me, though. I loved this book, and I’m glad you included it. I’ve since dissected this book, trying to figure out how Finney did what he did to me (read it, read it again, outlined and studied it).

    • Thanks Carl. Science fiction these days to me seems like but a shadow of its former self, and I like returning to those classic stories, whether scientifically feasible or otherwise…

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