Scariest reading experiences
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- What piece of art would you want to memorize in order to pass it on to the members of a future generation?
- Tell us about your pop-culture weekend: May 31-June 2
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been said that it’s hard for a book or comic to really scare a reader, since it’s so easy to see the words or images coming up, and to interrupt the story completely just by looking away from the page. But is that true? What’s the most frightened you’ve ever been while reading?
People who say books can’t be scary clearly never read horror late at night while young. Kids can find literally anything scary, and they tend to be suggestible to boot. I know I was when I first started reading Stephen King at age 13. I profoundly remember sitting up late at night reading The Shiningin bed, and getting more and more unnerved by the idea of the drowned woman in the bathtub, to the point where I didn’t want to get up and use the bathroom, just in case the tub turned out to be mysteriously full of water and a greenish, angry, violent corpse. Weirdly, that momentary image of the rotting monster-woman in the tub stuck with me—and seemed more plausible, somehow—than anything else in the book, including the perfectly mundane idea of a man going crazy in isolation.
In high school, my friends and I ate lunch in the lobby of the science building because it had a lounge full of cushy couches. One day during my freshman year, I noticed a slightly tattered copy of Mark. Z Danielewski’s House Of Leaves sitting on an end table, where it had been sitting in the same place for months. I flipped it open and read the prologue, a direct address from the book’s narrator, and was instantly hooked. It’s a conservative estimate to say I read the book in less than 48 hours, but as I read a chase scene in the middle section of the novel by flashlight in my bed, hurriedly flipping the pages to follow text splashed in corners of a page—and at one point, merely a single word on each page—it was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. The text itself may have only constituted about 20 pages, but typographically spread out over 100 or more, it established a direct connection to the characters’ terror. That was Danielewski’s genius in making reading scary, to make the physical act of turning pages or scurrying to find where the text appeared on the next page a way to force the reader to keep pace with frantic explorers in a fictional documentary film. I bought my own copy of House Of Leaves later that week, after placing the tattered copy back on the table where I found it, for another unsuspecting and curious reader.
I remember being terrified by any number of John Bellairs books, especially The House With A Clock In Its Walls, which (if memory serves) made memorably morbid use of the children’s rhyme “Oranges And Lemons”—the one that ends, “Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” And I remember being frightened and entranced by a comic book I plucked from the spinner rack at my neighborhood Waldenbooks. It turned out to be about a convention of serial killers: Sandman #14. In both cases, it was the tone more than the specifics that scared me, not the dread of endless ticking or the fear of falling prey to a maniac, so much as the nameless tension that lingered after the story was done, the kind that can’t be reasoned with or dispelled, only lived through.
I’m guessing Stephen King is going to come up a lot in this AVQ&A, so let me get in while the gettin’s good. Pet Sematary scared the living daylights out of me when I read it at age 14—or, rather, when I half-read it at age 14. I had plowed through plenty of King tomes beforehand with no ill effects: Carrie was kind of cool, It was kind of funny, and Misery was a hoot. But when I got to the part of Pet Sematary where Louis Creed exhumes the body of his recently deceased infant child, I put the book down and never picked it up again. There was something so visceral, so wrong, and so terrifyingly logical about Creed’s plan. I learned years later that King himself briefly abandoned the writing of the book at roughly the same point in the story, only adding to my pre-teen heebie-jeebies.
We had a book when I was growing up, and I don’t know where it came from. My sister claims it was a hand-me-down from neighbors, and that makes a certain amount of sense; it was definitely used. More than “used,” really. The book was Ghostly Terrors by Daniel Cohen, a slim paperback like the kind they sold at book fairs in junior high, with cheap covers and yellowed paper that was always too greasy and thick. A witch holding a lantern glared out from the cover, and the tag line was “Spooky Stories To Scare And Delight You,” which was such bullshit. One look at that fucking witch, and you knew “delight” wasn’t going to have anything to do with any of this. Like most scary-story anthologies, Ghostly Terrors is a collection of urban legends, vaguely historical myths, and flat-out nonsense, punctuated by the occasional spooky illustration. (On this score, Terrors is light years behind Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. I didn’t hear about that series until years later, which is probably a good thing for my mental health.) I can’t specifically remember any of the stories now. I just remember that fucking cover. I remember how the book emanated this awful, almost physical radiation whenever I was in the room with it, that got worse whenever I got closer. I couldn’t breathe around it. The book was beat up and cracked and ragged, and you could imagine somebody throwing it out of a car window and never looking back, the thing lying in a ditch, soaking in moonlight and killing earthworms. I forgot about Ghostly Terrors for years, but I remembered it a few weeks ago, and my sister found me a copy on eBay, and now it sits on my desk, because I thought it would be funny to buy it. I haven’t opened it yet. Ha ha.
Oh, hands down, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood terrified me more than any other book I’ve read, for the simple reason that it was a true story (or most of it, anyway, creative nonfiction, etc.) It wasn’t just the brutality of the murder of the Clutter family that was the most frightening, or the fact that it occurred in the country in the middle of the night (the country is way scarier than the city for this exact reason), or that a young girl like myself-at-the-time-of-reading was killed, or that Herbert’s family witnessed his murder and then had to wait for their own deaths. It was the randomness of the crime: Dick Hickok and Perry Smith organized the 1959 robbery based on false information, and then the murders were spur-of-the-moment, not part of the plan. It was a real thing that really happened, and the type of thing that could happen to anyone. This made being alone in an empty house at night, or even a not-so-empty house, that much more terrifying. It was like the way people felt about going swimming after seeing Jaws, only in this case, the ocean was my own home.
When I was 6 or so, I checked out Edward Gorey’s alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies from my elementary school’s media center. My interest in the book probably arose from my amusement that the skeleton on the cover wore a scarf on his top hat. (That is clearly not what scarves are for.) This book uses one sentence and a typical Edward Gorey illustration on each page to describe the deaths of 26 children who appeared to be about my age. I remember being so creeped out by it that I didn’t keep the book in my bedroom with my other library books. No, this one stayed in the living room by the front door. To this day, I still remember that Kate died after being struck with an axe, and poor Neville became a victim of ennui. (My 6-year-old self was positive “inn-yu-ee” was a horrible disease that afflicts children who hang out by themselves.)
I was such a neurotic, skittish child that I used to give myself soul-shaking, anxiety-producing, “Will I ever be able to sleep again?” nightmares just by reading the Twilight Zone Companion.Bear in mind that it wasn’t the actual episodes that scared me to death (though they spooked the hell out of me as well): No, all it took to reduce me to a quivering mass of anxiety was reading competently written synopses of old television-show episodes. Such is the power of Twilight Zone: even without a visual component, its spooky tales are still enough to terrify the easily terrified. Namely, children.
When I was a kid, I was hooked on paperback collections of stories devoted to “true” tales of the supernatural, paranormal, and eerie. These quickies tended to throw together the cryptozoology all-stars (Bigfoot, Nessie), unsolved mysteries (the Mary Celeste, Kaspar Hauser, the lost colony of Roanoke), UFO lore, urban legends, and probably some stuff the writers made up on the spot when their deadlines were approaching and there were still pages to be filled. The one that stuck with me was a little two-page anecdote about a guy who claimed to have been out in a field somewhere and seen his grandmother appear out of nowhere, waving to him in the distance, before she vanished. When he got home, of course, he was told that his grandmother had died. The part that really got me was the accompanying illustration: a black-and-white drawing of a smiling old woman who looked a lot like my own grandmother, if she’d deflated her hair. For decades, I would sometimes see that picture in my dreams, and whenever I did, I’d wake up, wait for the sun to come up, and then phone my grandmother. She died in 2005, and I haven’t had that dream since.
In grade school, I read and re-read a book called The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien, who I just learned also wrote The Secret Of NIMH. I have almost no recollection of The Silver Crown, except that it basically begins with the heroine’s entire family being killed in a fire, and then her adventure through some terrifying woods where pretty much everybody has been brainwashed by a supervillain. I absolutely loved and was completely freaked out by the book—I have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor in the library at Lake Bluff elementary devouring it. (I was so eager to get started, I couldn’t be bothered to go to a table.) What I didn’t remember about the book until researching it just now is that the main character is a girl. Apparently I was a very forward-thinking young man in grade school.
After becoming obsessed with Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy as a teen, I gravitated (or maybe I should say degenerated) toward some of the more hardcore conspiracy theorists. Chief among them is the late, infamous Milton William Cooper, author of Behold A Pale Horse. The book, published in 1991, tied together just about every wingnut conspiracy imaginable, most of which have since become semi-mainstream and borderline-cliché: everything from aliens and (of course) the Illuminati to even more shadowy groups like the Bilderbergs. I was already suspicious and misanthropic as a 19-year-old, and Behold A Pale Horse seemed to confirm every fear I’d ever had about those in power—and then amped them by a magnitude of a thousand. Black helicopters? Suspension of the Constitution? Secret military bases on the moon? I didn’t necessarily believe everything I read in Cooper’s book, but I certainly let my imagination run away with all that stuff. I remember thinking, “Christ, if only 10 percent of this shit is true, the human race is well and truly fucked beyond all hope of redemption.” As it turns out, 10 percent was a pretty generous estimate. Cooper was, without a doubt, a gibbering lunatic—and an anti-Semitic, right-wing, militia-sympathizing one at that. He wound up dying in 2001 in a shootout with U.S. marshals after years of tax evasion. I have to give the guy credit, though; when none of his predictions came to pass, he made sure he wound up a martyr for his own sick, government-hating, fear-mongering cause. (They call it The Tea Party nowadays.)
I’ve never read any horror novels or other scary stories, but I’ve read plenty of non-fiction that scared the crap out of me. My freshman year of high school, I discovered Nostradamus after a friend told me about him, so I checked out a book—I can’t remember what it was called—from my school’s library. (How quaint!) Over a couple of nights, it filled my poor young mind with images of a dystopian, war-torn, plague-ravaged future, all of which could happen at any moment. It basically turned me into young Alvy Singer from Annie Hall: “What’s the point?” I even talked about it with my mom, who thankfully didn’t chastise me with “Why is that your business?!” but said to take it all with a grain of salt. As an adult, the thing that’s come closest to making me feel that rotten was Richard Clarke’s cover story in the January/February 2005 issue of The Atlantic, wherein he predicted a grim, terrorism-ravaged future for the U.S. that made me want to live on a deserted island. This time, it was my therapist telling me to take it with a grain of salt. If The Atlantic ever runs a cover story on Nostradamus, I’ll stay the hell away.
I’m not sure how I ended up reading Scott Smith’s The Ruins. I generally don’t care for horror in any medium, and I could count the number of adult horror novels I’ve read on one hand. Plus, I read it after the by-most-accounts-horrible film adaptation came out, so I knew all about the book’s dubious-sounding twist. (Spoiler: It involves killer vines. Vines.) So don’t take this as a declaration of the book’s overall scariness, but rather as an example of my overall cravenness: I could not sleep after finishing it, which I stayed up most of the night doing. Something about the terrifyingly isolated situation the victims find themselves in really got to me while sitting alone in my apartment, and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t get up and move the philodendron plants I keep on either side of my bed halfway through the book. (Seriously, you guys, philodendrons get crazy-spindly; not good when you’re reading about murderous vines.) From the few glimpses I’ve seen of the film version of The Ruins, I think the story actually benefits from not having a visual component, which can only serve to highlight the innate silliness of killer plants. But when you imagine it in your head, with a scary-looking philodendron peering over your shoulder, it’s extremely unsettling.
As a kid, my reading habits rarely veered very far away from the realm of comic books and science-fiction novels, so I can’t recall how I came to possess a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery, but I’m pretty sure I was almost out of my teens before it was supplanted as the most disconcerting book to be found on any shelf in my house. The cover was creepy enough, but then I opened it to find this image, which was immediately followed by this one, so my nerves were already jangling before I’d even so much as started to read one of the “eleven spooky stories for young people” that the subtitle promised. Some of the tales were creepy, some more in a darkly humorous vein, but the one that freaked me out then and still makes me a little antsy even now was “Obstinate Uncle Otis,” by Robert Arthur, Jr. If you’re not familiar with it, I don’t want to spoil the story, since you can actually read the whole thing if you click on the preceding link, but it definitely causes you consider the phrase “waiting for the other shoe to drop” a little differently. Reading it now, my first reaction is to wonder why it was never adapted for a Twilight Zone episode, because it seems like it’s straight out of the Rod Serling playbook, but it turns out that Arthur did write a trio of Thriller episodes, not to mention an Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In fact, his connection to Hitchcock extended well beyond the TV series and even the Ghostly Gallery anthology: not only did Arthur anonymously compile more than a dozen anthologies of mystery, suspense, and supernatural stories bearing Hitchcock’s name, even ghostwriting the supposedly Hitchcock-composed forwards for the collections, he also wrote 10 of the Alfred Hitchcock And The Three Investigators novels, which, if memory serves, were pretty creepy in their own right.
When I was 10 or 11, I stumbled on a book of speculative alarmist Biblical “non-fiction” (in the loosest possible sense) that was sitting on top of some random pile of National Geographics at my grandparents’ house. The back-cover blurb warned of dark days to come, any day now! Soviet scientists were perfecting head transplants! Cloning technology would soon make childbirth obsolete, even illegal! We’d all be wearing the mark of the Beast by 1992 (this would have been around 1984) and the Antichrist would be revealed by the year 2000. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense to me now, this book absolutely terrified me, to the degree I was afraid to even open it—I think I may have flipped through and looked at a couple of weird, amateurish illustrations once before carefully replacing it in its spot—but I could not stop reading those warnings on the back cover and obsessing over what they might mean to me, as a good Christian lad who would be a grownup right in the middle of the stupid antichrist’s reign. Would I have to get a head transplant? Would the mark of the Beast hurt? What the hell is a clone baby, anyway? It wasn’t much later in life I realized how absolutely ludicrous those kind of Christian “prophecy” pulp paperbacks were (and how common) but I’ll never forget that first one. Hell, I still look for it every time I paw through a pile of weird religious books at a thrift store or yard sale.
I pretty much subsisted on Goosebumps books when I was a kid, usually read in the dead of night with a flashlight. But apparently I grew into a wussy, because I can’t read Joe Hill’s Locke & Key in broad daylight without nightmares. To be fair, those books are terrifying. Without giving too much away, it’s all violence, hauntings, manipulation, and impersonations. The fear of not really knowing the people closest to you has always worked on me. Coupled with the ghosts, creepy house, and real-life violence, Hill could not have designed a better comic book to make me look over my shoulder. Knowing all that, and still absolutely loving the books, I tried to ameliorate the horror by reading the third collection outside, on the swing in my back yard, on a beautiful sunny day, surrounded by neighbors. Turns out that didn’t work, and I’m pretty much never making new friends again. The fourth collection is sitting on my shelf. Where it will have to stay until I forget how scary the third book was. Come to think of it, the books’ Head Key really would be handy.
I’d like to thank Cory for keeping this from being yet another “Todd VanDerWerff grew up evangelical, so he never got to do anything fun” answer, since I know how much all of you in comments enjoy that (though, seriously, the book that’s scared me the most in my life has been The Bible). Yet here’s an equally lame answer from my lame childhood. When I was a kid, my grandparents had this elaborate collection of old Archie comics digests, presumably assembled by one of my uncles. The stereotype of Archie comics is that they’re all bland adolescent adventures in small-town America, and while that’s sort of true, the fact that the Archie factory had to keep churning stuff out means that they also did a ton of weird, genre-ish storylines. One of these stories was the one that got me as a kid. In it, Archie and the gang are visiting a small-town art studio while on some sort of road trip, and they somehow end up imprisoned inside a painting of a spooky old house. They soon discover the artist has been imprisoning customers here for ages, and those customers have turned into creepy zombie-esque denizens that Archie and pals must avoid. (The more I think about this, the less convinced I am about its efficacy as a business model.) Fortunately, an escape is found, and the artist is brought to justice. But the idea of being trapped inside a painting with a bunch of aged ghouls (brought to terrifying life by the artist) got under my skin in a bad way. (Then again, everything did at that age. I once had a night terror about Slimer. So.) I’ve looked for this story since, but have yet to find it digitized anywhere. It’s probably creepier in my head anyway.