The recently published horror novel "Night Film" by Marisha Pessl has this to say about being scared: "Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are."
This is exactly why I write horror. Fear is crucial to my life. It always has been. My list of fears is long and legendary: leeches, ghosts, the Apocalypse, Skeksis, aliens, the coyotes I see skulking down my street at night, swimming in the ocean, a killer hiding in my backseat, basements, cougars, clowns, zombies, abandoned houses, swimming in a quarry, rat hordes, heights, getting lost in a cave like Tom Sawyer, being buried alive, rustling cornfields, pets that come back to life, buckets of pig's blood, reading "The Shining" with a flashlight at three in the morning in the dark in a dead silent house... My fear has helped me learn what I'm made of. It has shown me what I am.
My list of scary books is not comprehensive, and leaves off some greats like "The Road," "Perfume," "House of Leaves", and several Stephen King titles. But most of the books I mention I first read as an adolescent, and they still haunt me today. Which means something.
1. Best Brother & Sister: "Flowers in the Attic" by V. C. Andrews
This book. Every girl in my eighth grade class read it. It was the Great Unifier. It overcame cliques and class and Heathers. I'm blond like Cathy, and I have a blond-haired brother a year older than me, like Christopher--the both of us were continually teased in school about spending a lot of time in attics. Even this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book, though. There are rumors that "Flowers" was based on a true story about a wealthy family in Virginia who had hidden two children away in the attic in order to inherit a fortune--this just adds to the overall mystique and shock and horror. Need more convincing? Go here.
2. Best Possible Hunger Games Influence: "The Lottery" in "The Lottery and Other Stories" by Shirley Jackson
"The Lottery" received terrible reviews when it was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. People canceled their subscriptions because of the story. Here is what Jackson herself had to say about the controversy: "I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." "The Lottery" scared me, not in the screaming-in-the-dark way It scared me, but in a haunting, civilization-is-an-illusion, "Lord of Flies" way.
3. Best Setting: "The Woman in Black" by Susan Hill
This book was first published in 1983, and was recently adapted into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe. The setting is a small town and an isolated house, creepily named Eel Marsh, which is only accessible at low tide via a causeway. The narrator, a stranger to the town, soon learns that everyone in the village is keeping a secret...a secret about a "woman in black" who is always seen right before a child dies. The vivid descriptions of the fog and the quaggy landscape and the child's screams in the marshes? Terrifying. Utterly terrifying.
4. Best Unreliable Narrator: "The Tell Tale Heart" from "The Complete Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe"
This story might be the best fictional portrayal of madness and creeping paranoia ever. It opens with the narrator desperate to convince the reader of his sanity: "TRUE!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" Quick test of your gender assumptions: Is the story narrated by a male or female? No clarifying pronouns are ever used. Other books with great unreliable narrators: "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, "I am the Cheese" by Robert Cormier, and "Madapple" by Christina Meldrum
5. Best Nostalgia Horror: "The Lifeguard" by Richie Tankersley Cusick
The trashy-awesome "Lifeguard" was another book that flew through my high school. A girl is missing and people keep drowning. At least Kelsey is surrounded by lifeguards who will save her. Unless one of the lifeguards is taking lives as fast as he's saving them. Does this excite you? No? Why not? There are killer lifeguards! What more do you want?
Runner-up: "Interstellar Pig" by William Sleator. Teen sci-fi horror at its best. Don't know what keelhauling is? You'll learn. It's gruesome and vivid and sucked the teenage me right in.
6. Best YA Horror: "Tender Morsels" by Margo Lanagan
I've read some great young adult horror recently, like Kendare Blake's "Anna Dressed in Blood," its sequel "Girl of Nightmares," Cat Winter's "Gothic In the Shadow of Blackbirds," and Libba Bray's dark, dapper, heebie-jeebie "The Diviners." But "Tender Morsels" by Margo Lanagan is, by far, one of the most wonderful, and most disturbing YA books I've ever come across. A retelling of the Grimm's "Snow White and Rose Red," it starts off brutal and gets worse. I put the book down three times before I managed to get past the first few strange, cruel, bloody chapters. I'm so glad I read it though. At least, I think I am. Dark...so dark...
7. Best Clown: "It" by Stephen King
It. IT. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I was far, far too young when I read this book. Some of those scenes--that one scene--went right over my head. I don't know what It did to my young brain but it couldn't have been good. I'm still scared of clowns, but then, practically everyone is scared of clowns. No, the damage probably goes much deeper...
8. Best Briny Monsters: "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" from "The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories" by H.P. Lovecraft.
I dug right back into Lovecraft when drafting "Between the Spark and the Burn," the first (and only) sequel to "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Lovecraft's use of eerie small towns, especially Innsmouth in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth,"--I love it. Lovecraft himself wasn't particularly fond of this story. I can't understand why. It has everything a good story needs: an unreliable narrator, ancient secrets, an isolated, fishy-smelling town populated by scaly people with bulging eyes...
April Genevieve Tucholke is the author of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea."
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