October marks the time of year when I go out of my way to read something scary, and not in a “Why did any publisher support this hot mess of a novel?” way, but in a “When am I ever going to sleep without the lights on again?” kind of way. I haven’t selected this year’s addition to that annual bookshelf, but if I had to choose the scariest book I ever read, I’d pick Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror.
I know it’s now generally accepted that Amityville is a fake “true story,” but that didn’t make it any easier to descend into the basement after reading the book in the 9th grade. We had an old garage door opener on the wall down there with two red dots that glowed like the eyes of an evil doll, spirit, demon, the Devil, or what have you. The book—absurd as it was in spots—combined with those lights and a creeping dread that my mother's house might contain a secret red room created a cacophony of horror in my brain, and the side effects manifested in equally absurd habits of safety and precaution for months afterward.
Since that first sample of terror, I became a fan of thrills, chills, and things that go bump in the night—be it eerie fiction, true crime, or the paranormal unknown—and when deciding what book to tackle this October, I grew curious about what other authors and editors I know would select as the scariest book they ever read, and so I asked…
What was the scariest book you’ve ever read, and how did it affect your writing and/or your life after you put the book back on the shelf?
“Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi. When I was a kid, my best friend didn't read fiction, and I rarely read nonfiction, so we made a pact to exchange books we each thought the other would like. I gave him IT. He gave me Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson Family murders. No offense to Stephen King, but Helter Skelter messed me up in ways IT never could. Both books deal with the madness that lurks beneath the thin veneer of modern society—but while King wrote of monsters, Bugliosi convinced me that the monsters were us.”
– Chris F. Holm, author of The Big Reap and Dead Harvest
“It was the right book at the right time—1968: I was 22, doing my student teaching, and my supervising teacher lent me I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Utter claustrophobic terror—zombie-vampires—some of whom might happen to be your friends, loved ones, etc., back from the dead to get you. I'd read and loved Matheson's collections of short horror stories, but this short novel built the nightmare and sustained it and sustained it until you were saying, "I want out of this" even as you knew you'd stick with it to the bitter yet triumphant end. Once I knew that a "modern writer" could do it without ghosts or ghoulies or an English moor and Gothic trappings, I was there. It was an epiphany, and strengthened the desire I'd had to write horror, which began in grade school with "The Pit and Pendulum" and "Tell Tale Heart."
– Mort Castle, author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning New Moon on the Water and the upcoming Dracula: The Annotated Classic, from Writer’s Digest Books
"The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood horrified me. The scariest part is that it becomes more and more evident that Atwood may have been forecasting the future of the North American female experience. The thing I take with me after I set it down is always the same: I should keep writing my experience, and never let the bastards shut me up."
– Dena Rash Guzman, author of Life Cycle
“Aside from the user’s manual for the first printer I got, I’d say the scariest book I ever read was James Dickey’s Deliverance. I was really too young when I first read it (about 14). My mom, a high school English teacher, had brought it home and told me not to read it, so of course I grabbed it and read it in secret as soon as I could. The impact on me was: the world is a much more dangerous place than I’d thought. Since then, as an author, I’ve remembered it and tried to write as well and as frankly as Dickey. And to not shy away from uncomfortable scenes and topics!”
– Elizabeth Sims, author of Holy Hell and You’ve Got a Book in You
“Horror’s like Erotica—imagination is key. Don’t rob it by giving every last grisly detail. Exercise some subtlety and restraint. As a writer, I learned this and more from Henry James’ truly haunting The Turn of the Screw.”
– David Comfort, author of The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead and An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, coming soon from Writer’s Digest Books
As you can see from the answers above, there are all kinds of ways we can scare ourselves—everything from hack-and-slash stories to tales that make us see the horror in our ourselves and in our potential futures. Tell us what you think in the comments below…did we select your favorite frightful tome? Is nonfiction scarier than fiction? Is there a book we should consider reading that will keep us awake in the dead of night?
James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.com.