It’s the time of the year again where spooky is in vogue – there are blockbuster Stephen King films and television series, pumpkins and ghouls are in shopfronts everywhere and, perhaps most frighteningly of all, the countdown to Christmas is officially on. So what better time to write about some of the scarier books I’ve ever read?
Now, I’ve mentioned Stephen King. Hold onto your hats – I’ve never actually read anything of King’s before. I’m terrified enough of the mere prospects of some of them but am told with strength that they are among some of the finer books I’m ever likely to read. I’ve purchased a copy of 11.22.63 (and yes I’m aware that that may ease me into King’s style without being too horrific or nightmare-inducing) and am intrigued by the prospect of Gerald’s Game (now a Netflix series). But I’m sorry to say that Mr. King does not feature on this list.
I’ll kick things off with one of the first books to ever keep me up at night with the sheer ferocity of its depth, as well as the terrifying prospects it holds within its pages.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver is a twisted tale of family dysfunction with a dash of tragedy, horror and drama. One of the finest writers of the generation, Shriver is adept at telling the story of Eva Khatchadourian in the wake of a tragedy on an epic scale. Told through letter format as Eva writes to her husband, Franklin, we see the crucial character in this story come to life – their son, Kevin.
This book explores fundamental questions about humanity itself – is evil born, bred or learned? What truly motivates us? Why do we do the things we do? All set against the backdrop of contemporary America and its violence obsessed and romanticised culture, which makes this story even more poignant, telling and true to life.
I read this book a number of years ago now, and yet I am still haunted by many of the scenes which it contains. In particular, the scene of Kevin and his younger sister, Celia, and an unfortunate incident with caustic drain cleaner; Kevin’s supposed lack of bladder control well past his toddler years; and that ending. It threw me off and continued to wail well past the closing of this book.
Shriver’s modern classic has since been adapted into a critically acclaimed film (2011) but I have yet to have watched it. The book haunted me enough without needing to actually see the scenes which it contains!
My next choice is straight from the classics section. Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell has, since its rocky road to publication, become firmly lodged in the canonical works of literature as a “must read”. Along with Orwell’s other most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, it has taken on a new level of horror and consequence as the world’s events have done nothing to set our assurances that these works of fiction were based on an ancient past.
An allegorical work of fable and satire, Animal Farm reads as a “fairy story” (as was its original subtitle) for children. However, upon reading its contents, it becomes clear very quickly that this is not the case. Instead, it is a cautionary tale against Stalinism in the Soviet Era (post Russian Revolution) and the perils of life in a dictatorship. All being told through anthropomorphic farmyard animals in a strikingly simple yet haunting prose style.
A stalwart of modern literature classrooms from secondary education all the way through to tertiary level education, this is a book that few manage to escape in their lives. But it is one that is certainly to be encouraged to read. The simplicity of the text betrays just how complex a situation that Orwell is describing, as well as the potential dystopian future it predicts (which Nineteen Eighty Four elaborates upon even further). It is full of iconic lines (“all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”) and scenes (the ending scene being one among many) that have landed this book in its iconic status.
And just what is so terrifying about it? It certainly cannot be described as a work of gore and horror, but rather, a political work of great genius that contains equal parts humour, warning and shock that certainly allow for a different level of understanding of the political situation of a reign of terror such as what Orwell was living through at the time of this book’s penning.
Animal Farm was one that I read during my university studies, and this was both a pleasure and a curse. It was a wonderful book to study and yet it was something of a traumatic experience reading it. It has certainly stayed with me long after my degree has been completed as one of the best things that I read during my studies and would gladly pick it up again as a “pleasure read” (but also not really) down the track.
My final book that I’ve chosen for my Halloween special came to me courtesy of a recommendation as “one of the scariest books ever” – so naturally I had to see what all of the fuss was about. Behind Closed Doors (2016) by B.A. Paris was a debut novel that was both intriguing and sickening in equal measure. Jack and Grace are the picture perfect couple: attractive, entertaining and elusive. They are never apart and so friends never get to know them any better beyond dinner parties and the like. Grace doesn’t own a mobile phone and is perpetually slender in spite of eating a tremendous amount of food whenever they are out. Not adding up? All is revealed early on in the novel and the horror unfolds from there in increasingly sickening and terrifying ways.
This was described as one of the year’s great “twists” in publishing, so I will refrain from spoilers. Needless to say it’s only the beginning in a sick ride that is this oddly compelling read. In spite of hardly being able to continue reading any more sentences in this book (such is its nature; it breeds discomfort) it was addictive enough for me to simply not be able to put it down. As with the other books that I have mentioned in this piece, there are certain scenes that I simply cannot shake from my memory as a result of reading this book, and I’m sure will continue to haunt me into the future! In particular: the “red room”, the amazing character of Millie and the nightmarish trip that Jack and Grace take to Thailand as their honeymoon…not to mention never being able to see George Clooney in the same light ever again.
This book was of a rare breed. It actually gave me nightmares during reading it (true story) and it really, truly made me question the world around me. I found that I looked at relationships, public personas and even my own relationships with friends and family in a completely different light. It was nothing short of a remarkable, provocative and haunting book that, in my experience, was completely unique.
To be read:
I hope that this blog has you sufficiently spooked and has perhaps given you something new to consider to read!