So far. 1. Pet Sematary. The blurb on the back cover of my copy claims that this one is “(T)he most frightening book Stephen King has ever written.” I think it’s the most frightening book anyone has ever written. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone under eighteen. (And that’s really saying something, as I believe in freedom of literary choice as much as the next former aspiring librarian.) What makes Pet Sematary so godawfully, can’t-forget-it shriekifying is, to me, the sunny-warm portrayal of the happy family the evil Micmac burial ground disassembles. I don’t think there were ever characters as friendly, charming, appealing, yet realistically flawed (and therefore relatable) as the Creed family in any other King books, with the possible exceptions of Andy and Vicky McGee (Firestarter) or the merry band of misfits in the novella, The Body (better known as Stand By Me.) Watching the Creeds basically eaten alive by the menacing force in “those woods,” frightening not just for its destructive impulse but for its power, is painful. It’s worth noting that at the end of the novel, like other King books, the Micmac burial ground and whatever doom lives there is still active. Nothing that has taken place in the story has saved any future victims.
I’ll spare everyone my small opus of insight into the rest of what makes this novel superb (in any genre, really) because I have literally seen college thesis projects written about it. (I’m trying to keep this post tolerable, plus save up some energy for the new movie about the 1989 film, Unearthed and Untold, which I’m anticipating will be a terrific documentary, if I can bulk up enough emotionally to sit through it.)
2. The Haunting of Hill House. God help anyone who reads Shirley Jackson’s book after, as I have for many years, living on a house at the top of a large hill. Surrounded by large trees. That’s off the beaten path and hard to find on a good day. With slightly odd architecture and an odder feel to it. You might walk away from your reading experience…changed. The main character’s journey from sexually immature, socially isolated post-adolescent to an adult woman aware of her own erotic and emotional capabilities (yes, I subscribe to the Freudian interpretation of the novel) are a miraculous, if grueling, thing to witness. The perpetually (and literally) unsettled environment in which this awakening occurs makes it all the more upsetting. If read on a purely supernatural level, (as opposed to a critical level that recognizes the story as a classic ‘erotic unveiling’ tale) this is a book about a sheltered woman unprepared to face the overwhelming threat she encounters in this novel, which easily devours her.
3. The Shining. Usually when I read, I read every word. I am a slow reader who actually hears a voice in her head when going through each line of text. When I read horror fiction, it is with a desire to read every word (maximizes the scare effect.) So The Shining has the distinction of being the only horror novel I have made a conscious choice to read and experience that was actually too utterly frightening for me to get through all of it without skimming a few parts.
I’m not proud of this. I mean, it’s a book. It’s fiction. I’m one of those, “how scary can it be if it’s all made up?” types. And I want to be able to say I’ve read every part of every book I’ve read. However. Some quality the completely cracked out Jack Torrance character has, not to mention the unhappiness in his past and in that of his spouse, Wendy, freaks me the hell out for a reason I can’t name even today. To such a degree that it’s somewhat pointless for me to think about the hotel itself, the haunting that consumes it and its winter guests, or any other part of that damn plot. The only reason it isn’t number one on this list is because its fear factor cuts into its mastery as a novel (which Pet Sematary doesn’t suffer from.) Also, I read The Shining once and never want to read it again. There’s such a thing as too much horror.
4. The Exorcist. Personal tip: if you’re a fan of the film but feel William Friedkin left something out, seek out William Peter Blatty’s book. There’s a lot left out of the plot of this deceptively simple novel which appears, at first, to be a simple “encounter with a demon” story. Man (or, in this case, women) against the supernatural. Nothing magnificent. Except it is. Once you get past the somewhat experimental prose, which will lure some readers (read: Grey Harlowe) into falsely believing the book has not much strength with which to scare them, The Excorcist is a journey into the boundaries of human endurance, and a shockingly spot on (IMO) depiction of the way a demon conquers a human—using the vulnerability of our own loss and pain against us.
5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I read an afterward by Dan Choan in one of my copies of this book (I own three different volumes) which tells us that one of the more mysterious things about Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic is that the nuts and bolts of the plot are widely known even among the younger generation, even if the novel itself is rarely read. Which it is. Rarely. I haven’t found another single individual in my pod, even those who will read Victorian literature, who can claim to have actually read Dr. Jeyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet, we all know the story. A man of reason and respectability becomes a monster, then changes back again.
You may be expecting a comment about Jungian psychology here, maybe Joseph Campbell’s world of archetypes, but I’m not going to go there. What spooks me about this novel is the impact of this one scene, in which Henry Jekyll’s servants are pooled in the foyer of his mansion listening to a crazed…thing barrel around in the basement. They have no idea what to do with or about their employer, or, rather, what he has become. In that moment, they are as helpless as anyone facing the gale force of the unknown’s nightmare offerings, and we as readers join them in their fear.