Scary novels? I’ve read a few. Heck, I’ve even written one myself! That puts me in a peculiar position when it comes to breaking out my Top Disturbing Reads. One, because as I said, I’ve read a whole schmeer of ’em. And two, as a result of reading so many, I’ve developed a tolerance. I’m like some weirdo who’s eaten so many ghost peppers that his tongue’s gone numb–or an addict who has done so much junk that it takes a vanload to feel a buzz anymore. So when I say some of these books are your 100 percent gen-u-wine, soul-shredding, skull-crushing, fire-balling, run-over-by-a-dumptruck-driven-by-a-rabid-zombie disturbing-as-hell reads, I pray you take my word for it. I ain’t funnin’ with you, mmmkay? Beware, my friends. BEWARE!
1. THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by SHIRLEY JACKSON
There’s nothing gooey or gory about Jackson’s masterpiece. The horror is mannerly, controlled. A group of people converge in a remote manse with a history of odious happenings. The following days are spent on the house’s grounds, during which time several odd and unsettling events occur. The primary character, Eleanor, is plagued by the spirit of the house itself, by its brooding and incalculable menace. This is outstanding horror of the creeping, lingering, subtle variety. You could try Richard Matheson’s Hell House–a similar riff on the haunted house story–if you’re looking for a more visceral reading experience.
2. PET SEMATARY by STEPHEN KING
This whole list could be devoted to the modern master. No other person (with the possible exceptions of Poe, that wacky opium-eater, or Lovecraft if you’re into that whole “nameless dread” stuff) seems as keyed in to what scares the hell out of all humanity quite like King. It’s infuriating from a fellow writer’s perspective: You try to take his writing apart to see what makes it work, same way a mechanic takes an engine apart, but it’s impossible. The terror somehow lives behind the words on the page: a gathering groundswell of dread and panic. So thanks, Uncle Stevie, for making the rest of us look like muddling crap-stains! Pet Sematary gets my nod as scariest King, but it could’ve easily gone to It or any number of his short stories from the collections Night Shift or Skeleton Crew (“The Boogeyman” scared me senseless, for example). The movie kinda sucked eggs–except that scene where a Wendigo-crazed Gage severed poor old Jud Crandall’s Achilles tendon with a scalpel–but at least we got this kickass Ramones video out of it.
3. HOUSE OF LEAVES by MARK Z DANIELEWSKI
Some readers aren’t keen on this book’s po-mo, narrative-within-a-narrative structure–and to be honest, it does go overboard at times, as a lot of first novels can–but man, you want to talk about freaky? Simple setup: The Navidson family moves to a house that is just the slightest bit bigger on the inside than on the outside. From that simple framework, Danielewski unfurls a tale of primal dread. There are no vampires or slime-oozing monsters to be found, only a terrible house whose dimensions, upon investigation, are seemingly endless. That fear of a dark, endless space–akin to the fear of infinite outer space–is what got me. It pinged on a deeply buried register of my subconscious in a way no other book has.
4. THE BOOKS OF BLOOD by CLIVE BARKER
Man, this guy can write. Lord, what an imagination! Stephen King anointed Barker “the future of horror,” and he wasn’t off base. Barker leveled up everything about the genre as it existed in the mid-eighties: he leveled up its literary heft (during the 80s horror boom the market was glutted with lurid paperbacks, their glossy covers featuring blood-dripping knives and skeleton cheerleaders–now I loved a lot of those books, but man, Barker offered something else entirely). He leveled up the intensity, the sexuality (although sensuality is more apt), the gore, and in general pushed things a step further than his forebears. Barker’s Books of Blood was his first transcendent shot across the bow, a six-volume set of stories and novellas that include classics like “The Midnight Meat Train,” “The Forbidden,” and everyone’s favorite, the indelible “In the Hills, the Cities.” Do yourself a solid and check them out.
5. THE EXORCIST by WILLIAM PETER BLATTY
Of course it’s gotta be on the list. If there were a Mount Rushmore of horror novels, Blatty’s demonic chiller would be chiseled up there. Do you really need a synopsis? Everyone knows the tale of beleaguered Regan MacNeil, guilt-stricken Father Karras, Father Lankester “I’m too old for this shit” Merrin, and a wee scamp of a demon named Pazuzu who has a party inside poor Regan’s body for a few months. And if you’ve seen the film you can close your eyes and recall some of its more hellish moments while you read the book. And hey, maybe you’ll Google “Pazuzu” for kicks and squirt a few drops of pee in your pants, too. Wheeee!
6. LET’S GO PLAY AT THE ADAMS by MENDAL W. JOHNSON
A lesser-known title, even for horror junkies. It’s simple in its setup: A group of kids capture their babysitter, who has been tasked with taking care of them for a few weeks in an isolated home. At first it’s a game–the kids just wanted to see if they could do the unthinkable and capture an adult. But the game takes on darker and darker tones, as they do in horror narratives. Johnson’s book is often compared to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, whose narrative is much the same. Ketchum’s book could easily have taken this spot, but I found Johnson’s soft tone and southern-gentlemanly writing style slightly more unsettling. Both books espouse a certain kind of horror: no supernatural overlay, no demons or zombies. This is real-world terror, the mundane horror that infests everyday life. There is not much suspense, because most readers will get a sense of the writer’s intent and worldview quite early. It is a bleak, pitiless novel; The closest cinematic equivalent I can conjure up is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Like that film, this book says something damning about our species–it is as banal as horror gets, and for that reason it is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read.
7. LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN by HUBERT SELBY JUNIOR
This isn’t really a horror book at all, at least in any traditional sense. Other readers may think his novel Requiem For a Dream is more deserving of this spot. The story in this collection that most unnerved me was the novella “Strike.” It details the life of Harry, a bullying and horrible union leader who, over the course of the narrative, unravels mentally and physically. There is something terrifyingly compelling about watching a character weaken and disintegrate before our eyes; such tales generate a remorseless momentum, and there’s a powerful satisfaction in being a fly on the wall to witness that collapse. In the end, once Harry is rendered as low as it may be possible to render a human being, Selby managed to make me feel pity for him. A pain-soaked book, not for everyone–but those who like it, like it a lot.
8. AMERICAN PSYCHO by BRET EASTON ELLIS
You gotta put it on this list, baby. Controversial? You bet! But there ain’t nothing else like it. When I first read this book, I was already a hardened gore-hound. I’d sought out the grossest books and films with monk-like observance. Dead Alive. Cannibal Ferox. I Spit on Your Grave. The Splatterpunk anthologies. Ed Lee’s stuff. But this is the most graphic, the most violently precise book I’ve ever read. I’ve held palaver with veteran horror writers and I’ve asked: What’s the most physically repellant book you’ve ever read? More often than not, American Psycho heads that list. I’ll never forget the line about a victim’s head making a hissing sound after Patrick Bateman hacked into it with an axe: the sound of pressurized blood hissing from the wound. Man, that’s writing with panache! Beyond that, it’s damn funny. You could miss that on first pass, but this is one of the most mordantly comical books you’ll read. Finally, there is a rare and breathless vitality to the writing that distinguishes it from any other novel you’re likely to read.
9. BLOOD MERIDIAN by CORMAC McCARTHY
A savage book, but essential. Most writers have a “flow”: the language has its own particular rhythm, and as a reader you’ve got to fall into its slipstream–or not, in which case you close the book and go do a jigsaw puzzle or something. McCarthy has a unique flow; some readers might struggle initially, but once you’re under his spell, man, you’re mesmerized. This book has one of your all-time great villains: the Judge. A bald, huge, preternaturally intelligent, charming and persuasive agent of chaos. You’ve never read anyone quite like him (it?) and his presence alone makes this one of the most disturbing books in all of Christendom. Long live the Judge!
10. ANTHONOLOGY by PIERS ANTHONY
Oh, Piers. You strange, strange man. Piers is known primarily as a light fantasist–like many, I gobbled up his Incarnations of Immortality series as a teen–but the dude can write some weird, perverse stuff as well. He’s kinda like Roald Dahl that way, in that he’s got two very different writing modes. The majority of his story collection, Anthonology, is forgettable. But one tale, “On the Uses of Torture,” is worth the price of admission on its own. It involves an interplanetary diplomat engaging in a terrible summit with an alien race whose caste system is dictated by the amount of torture one can endure: The more you can tolerate, the more venerated you become. I read this one years ago, and it remains burnt into my frontal cortex. It’s not easy to find a copy, but if you do, gentle reader–prepare thyself.
… and if you’d like to turn it up to 11 …
11. THE TROOP by … uhh, yours truly.
Putting one’s own book on a list like this is a little déclassé, right? So instead of tooting my own horn, how about I throw out a few of the early kudos that the book has received? I can do that and maintain a modicum of respectability, right? Aww, who am I kidding? I’ve never been all that respectable, anyway.
Stephen King says: “The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”
Scott Smith (The Ruins, A Simple Plan) says: “The Troop reads like a comic book, and I mean this in the best possible sense. Cutter’s storytelling is lean and crisp and delightfully over-the-top. Think Tales From the Crypt, think early Crichton, think King on coke. This book should be sold as a diet aid. If you have even the slightest fear of parasites, it’ll put you off your food for weeks. It’s a disquieting, disturbing, and occasionally downright disgusting story. It’s also great fun to read.”