Booklicious: Top 10 Scariest Books

October 28, 2010


Halloween is just days away, so what better way to get in the spooky spirit than with a list of 10 eerie reads? Here's a selection of titles both classic and contemporary, adult and adolescent, ghoulish and ghostly. 

*EDIT: Just to clarify, although this is a top 10 list, these aren't ranked in any particular order - it was hard enough determining which made it and which didn't!

1. Rebecca [Daphne du Maurier]
It's saying something when even Hitchcock can't out-thrill his source material. His adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel was no slouch, but there's just an otherworldly creepiness about the original that can't be matched. It's the story of a second wife who moves into her new husband's lavish home, Manderlay, and finds herself eclipsed by the memory of her predecessor. Viewed as the perfect wife, the perfect hostess, the perfect mistress, Rebecca de Winter drowned in a sailing accident a year previously, but her presence in the house is still palpable. This is due in no small part to one of fiction's greatest creations - the creeptastic Mrs. Danvers, Manderlay's housekeeper. Her obsession with her former mistress is nothing short of terrifying, and her cold, ominous presence is the stuff of nightmares.  

2. The Mysteries of Udolpho [Ann Radcliffe]
"Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world." So said Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, of Mrs. Radcliffe's bestseller. Udolpho doesn't inspire the delicious dread and feverish excitement it did when it was first published, but scholars still generally regard it as the archetypal Gothic work. The novel centers around Emily St. Aubert, whose gasp-worthy experiences include the loss of her parents, a wicked uncle, a forbidding castle, and, of course, Prince Charming.  

3. The Shining [Stephen King]
The Shining was King's third book and the one that cemented his status as the master of modern horror. Combine a dysfunctional family, a psychic son, a malevolent hotel and an isolated setting and you've got a recipe for 500-odd pages of pure terror. If you want to ruin at least one night of sleep, this is the book to grab. And if it doesn't do it for you, you can always try Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film version or King's own TV adaptation. 

4. Dracula [Bram Stoker] 
While some declare Twilight to be the cherry on the top of the vampire canon, Stoker's 1897 novel is still the granddaddy of them all. It's estimated that the book has spawned at least 217 film adaptations - a jaw-dropping number, considering it's second only to the number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, which have the luxury of drawing from four novels and 56 short stories. Also incredible is the fact that Stoker had not visited Eastern Europe before writing the book, yet his use of Transylvania for the tale's setting was so effective that the country remains under a vampire shadow even today. Call me when your books are responsible for an entire nation's tourist trade, Twihards. 

5. The Haunting of Hill House [Shirley Jackson]  
You can't have a top 10 scariest books list without including at least one haunted-house tale. And scholars, readers and writers alike are unanimous in anointing The Haunting of Hill House one of the greatest haunted-house stories ever written. Of its opening lines, Stephen King said, "I think there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this." Read them and judge them for yourself: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more."

6. The Tell-Tale Heart [Edgar Allan Poe]  
Poe is the undisputed master of the macabre. If you're looking for a grisly tale, you really can't go wrong with any of his stories. But for the sake of keeping this a top 10 list, I had to pick just one. The Tell-Tale Heart includes a mentally unstable narrator, an old man with a "vulture eye," a murder, and a heart that simply won't stop beating. You just can't go wrong with elements like that. If the last line doesn't make you shudder, then you're probably the kind of person whose idea of a romantic date consists of watching the Saw movies. "Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [J.K. Rowling]
People generally credit Rowling's third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, with bringing maturity to the series. But I think Chamber of Secrets is where the darker tone really starts to seep in. It's the first time our leading trio is made vulnerable, when the strongest of the three, Hermione, suffers petrification. It's also the first book to introduce readers to the hidden terrors of the Forbidden Forest. And let's not forget the blood on the walls, the murder of a student, the hordes of spiders and the giant snake. That no one seems to have any idea who's behind the attacks pushes the tension to nerve-jangling heights. For a kid's book, it packs one helluva punch.  

8. The Woman in Black [Susan Hill]
I expected Daniel Radcliffe to pick something a little lighter for his first film project following HP, so I was surprised to hear he'd signed on to star in the film version of The Woman in Black. This 1983 novel is the quintessential ghost story - a spectral figure in black haunts a small English town, her appearances accompanied by the sounds of a crashing horse and cart and the screams of a boy and woman. Hill wrote the thriller in just six weeks while on vacation, adhering to her personal list of "essential ingredients." They included: a haunted place; atmosphere; weather; and a ghost with a purpose. She had the sister of her daughter's babysitter type up the story using her dictated tapes, but the typist found the story so scary that she eventually had to have another person in the house with her while she transcribed. Way to go, Susan! 

9. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton
Most know Edith Wharton for her classic novels The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Some know her for her influential writing on house and garden design. Few know her because of her ghost stories. She published 11 in all, shocking those who considered her merely a writer of social satire. She likely surprised even herself with her knack for the supernatural, considering she had earlier confessed, "...til I was 27 or 28, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost story." Highlights include Pomegranate Seed, Afterward and All Souls. Wharton's talent is imparting a sense of quiet dread that slowly progresses throughout each story. You'll find no gore or gristle here, just masterfully orchestrated suspense.  

10. Hell House [Richard Matheson]
As with Shirley Jackson's haunted-house story, the homestead in Richard Matheson's 1971 novel is filled to the rafters with supernatural energy and a seriously bad attitude. But Matheson takes a much more physical tack with Hell House, incorporating violent attacks and demonic possession into the mix. You're probably already familiar with Matheson's work, even without knowing it - he's the twisted mind behind I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes. Hell House was later adapted into a film and a comic book miniseries, if you're jonesing for more. 


Unknown said... @ October 28, 2010 at 10:31 PM

Awesome list! I looooove Rebecca - what is it about these creepy books having incredible opening lines?

Dani said... @ October 29, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Chamber of Secrets is soooo scary and nerve-wracking! Great list.

Steph said... @ October 29, 2010 at 6:38 PM

Okay, Rebecca has shown up on everyone's list. Time to buy it! I haven't read it yet...

Also, I haven't read The Shining and that's another that everyone puts on their "scariest" list. I'll have to check out that one as well.

We do have a couple in common, though!

Ammieloris said... @ November 12, 2010 at 10:44 PM


This guy said... @ June 19, 2011 at 4:39 AM

Faerie Tales is worse I only read half a page and I had nightmares for 2 nights and Harry Potter 2 is so not scary.

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