So, it’s that time of year again…
Yes, Halloween is drawing upon us…
The season for scary stuff!
But there is a good remedy for when your football team is so embarrassing that the local Fox syndicate switches from the Colts game to the game played by the other not scary good team (the Washington Redskins, as a matter of fact)…
Yes, a little therapy from The Master!
Football team got ya down? Go read some Stephen King, and be reminded as to what is really scary! Suddenly, two interceptions thrown by your darling quarterback (sorry Andrew, you know I still got love for ya) seems pretty tame!
Yes, Stephen King is scary.
Well, his writing, at any rate. He doesn’t look too threatening in that picture, but one never knows.
Stephen King is many things, and I have spent an incredible amount of time on this blog (who knew) addressing those things. Most importantly, he is a great writer. He has the ability to even appeal to the non-horror fan (well, the one who will give him a chance, anyway). He creates characters that readers get attached to (and kills them off and seems almost gleeful about it, but I digress). He is also the Everyman, giving the reader realistic scenarios, and then casually placing in the horror and/or fantastical element, making the story that much more believable.
But, I would like to get back to fundamentals for a moment, if I may. Stephen King writes scary stories. This may sound like Captain Obvious tooting his horn, but the man is able to frighten folks. And frighten folks badly. It could be the fact that seemingly “good” characters often go “bad”, at the drop of a hat. Or maybe it’s the element of realism that makes it seem a certain room in a hotel really could be bad news. Or maybe because he makes great villains, including evil clowns, that haunt the dreams of many a 90’s kid.
Whatever the reason, people find Stephen King books frightening. And many enjoy being frightened. Some people skydive (eek). Some watch Indianapolis Colts football (eeek, maybe I should skydive instead). Some people enjoy drag racing.
And then there are the stalwart, the steadfast, the bold (you know, like me?)…we read Stephen King for our fear fix! After all, gotta get the good old adrenaline rush somehow, right?
And a King book will give you that and then some! In fact, many King books may just scare you into a change of pants!
With that being said, here is my list of the top 10 scariest books of all time. Please note, this is my opinion only, and not to be taken as gospel…
Oh, and as always:
10) Rose Madder
As I have stated before, one of King’s strengths as a writer of horror is the human horror. Sometimes (well actually, a lot of times), men are beasts to their fellow man…
The villain in the book Rose Madder is human. Well, in appearance at least. However, on the inside, Norman Daniels does not pass for human. Not even remotely.
Norman Daniels savagely abuses his wife Rosie, for the nearly 14 years of their marriage. To boot, he is racist. And uses his position as a police officer to grossly abuse his power and literally get away with murder. It is only a mere drop of blood on the sheets that awakens Rosie one morning, when she runs away from her hellhole of a marriage and attempts to begin a new life, free of the horrific abuse. But, as can be expected, Norman does not take Rosie’s flight lightly, and leaves behind a trail of bodies in his quest for revenge and his hunt for Rosie. It takes a magical painting set in the world of our friendly neighborhood gunslinger for Norman’s trail of blood to be halted. Even then, the death count is enormous, and Rosie is barely able to cope with the events.
There is a line in the book that where Rosie thinks that after surviving her horror of a marriage to Norman, anything else is pretty cut rate. As a survivor of an abusive marriage, I would have to agree with that assessment. When you are married to an abuser, you don’t need to Stephen King or scary movies to get your fear fix. An argument with your spouse will give you that fix in spades.
Stephen King has cited HP Lovecraft as an enormous influence. This is evident in his novel From a Buick 8, which tells the story of a mysterious vehicle that becomes the charge of a police department in a small town in Pennsylvania.
It quickly becomes evident to one of the officers of that police department that the “vehicle” is not actually a vehicle at all, but rather an object from another dimension beyond human understanding. The vehicle becomes the center of many odd occurrences, and the police department struggles to do damage control. However, the vehicle is responsible for the disappearance of at least one person and the death of the department’s mascot, a dog named Mr. Dillon. There is even a confrontation of sorts with one of the creatures from the unknown dimension. The images King paints are disturbing, especially when he references the fact that our world may be as frightening or even more frightening to those creatures as their world is to us.
What is perhaps most disturbing about this novel is the fact that the “vehicle” very nearly traps a young man who is the son of a fallen police officer, and sees the “vehicle” as his one remaining connection to his father. The young man is saved by timely intervention from another officer, but barely. Sometimes, a person with an obsession is the most frightening of all.
Revival is another novel that deals with our fear of the unknown. More specifically, Revival deals with the last of the unknown frontiers: death, and what may happen once we die.
Revival is also a morality play, much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If we have the means to find out what happens after death, should we? And what will be the consequences if we intervene in matters that we (probably) have no business intervening in?
The consequences for Jamie Morton and his friend Charles Jacobs are not pretty. Jamie Morton first met Charles when he was a child, and Charles was the pastor in his rural hometown. However, tragedy strikes Charles Jacobs, and he is forced to leave town after a disastrous sermon that comes to be known as “The Terrible Sermon.” The experience shakes Jamie’s religious beliefs to the core, and Jamie is never quite the same afterwards.
Charles is also shaken to the core by this tragedy, and quickly becomes a man obsessed. Charles discovers what he refers to as “the secret electricity”, and believes that this mysterious force will allow him to find out what happens after death. Jamie refers to Charles as his “fifth business” throughout the book, and encounters him by chance when he is an adult. Jamie is addicted to heroin, and Charles is able to use his “secret electricity” to cure Jamie of his addiction. Jamie feels that he owes Charles a debt, and agrees to help him conduct what turns out to be his final experiment: using the “secret electricity” to find out what happens when we die.
And it turns out that sometimes ignorance is bliss. As stated before, the consequences are not pretty for Jamie and Charles, and Jamie’s “cure” for his heroin addiction has come at an enormous price. The ending is disturbing, reinforcing the belief that at least sometimes, not knowing is the best option of all.
Yes, I know that this entry actually consists of two books. However, I am considering one work for my purposes, since both books mirror each other, with one being written by Stephen King, and the other being a posthumous script from the poor, beleaguered Richard Bachman, who died an untimely death due to cancer of the pseudonym.
Both Desperation and The Regulators are also tied together by one of King’s uber-villains, Tak. Tak may not be as creepy as Randall Flagg or Pennywise the Clown (at least to some), but he is able to hold his own in the King universe. Tak is frightening because he is able to drain people almost like human batteries (mostly), and discards them in the same manner. However, there is one human that Tak cannot drain, and that is Seth Garin (the autistic boy in The Regulators). What Tak does to Seth is perhaps even more frightening: he uses Seth body to manipulate his surroundings, causing the suicide of Seth’s uncle, exploiting Seth’s aunt and killing many people in Seth’s neighborhood. Ultimately, Tak is beaten, but at the cost of Seth’s life and many others.
Desperation and The Regulators are not only frightening because of the entity Tak, but also because they deal with a theme that many of us can relate to: isolation. Desperation begins with a couple who becomes stranded in a small, seemingly abandoned desert town after they experience vehicle trouble. In The Regulators, Seth and his aunt are isolated due to Seth’s handicap and Tak’s effort to alienate Seth’s family from those who might help them. Isolation is a big theme in many King books, and once again it adds that element of realism to the story to make it that much more frightening.
6) The Stand
It is no secret that horror and fantasy are closely related. In fact, one could almost say that horror is fantasy taken to the next, darker step. From the Orcs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the witches in SA Hunt’s Malus Domestica, to the Others in the Game of Thrones series, many works that are considered to be fantasy and not horror certainly contain some frightening elements.
The Stand is another book that toes the line between dark fantasy and horror. On one hand, there are reluctant heroes (Larry, Stu and Nick). But on the other hand, there is an evil wizard figure (Randall Flagg). The evil wizard tends to be a common archetype in fantasy stories (Sauron is a good example). But Flagg is something beyond the ordinary evil wizard (if such a thing exists). Flagg invades the dreams of the survivors of a great plague that has wiped out most of Earth’s population. Frannie Goldsmith is one of those survivors. Frannie is pregnant, and dreams of being chased by The Dark Man (Flagg), who has a coat hanger in his hand. Nick Andros and Tom Cullen, two other survivors who are a deaf-mute man and mildly mentally handicapped man respectively, encounter Flagg’s presence when they seek shelter from a tornado that may have been sent by Flagg to dispose of them. Mother Abagail, who is Flagg’s counterpart on the side of the White, encounters Flagg when she is gathering food for her charges. Flagg has transformed to a weasel, the one creature that frightens the old woman. Mother Abagail is nearly beaten by Flagg, but is still able to best him the end.
The Stand is one of King’s best books, blending both elements of fantasy and horror to make it a truly frightening, yet fantastical read.
5) Black House
Black House is another novel (co-written by Peter Straub) that may be considered part of the fantasy genre, along with its predecessor, The Talisman. However, it is Black House (much like The Stand) that toes the line between fantasy and horror.
One of the reasons Black House is so frightening is because it contains a human villain that is unfortunately all too realistic. There is a supernatural villain, a creature known as Mr. Munshun, and King’s ultimate uber-villain, the Crimson King, is also alluded to in the book. However, the human villain, Charles Burnside, is another person that is human in appearance only. Charles Burnside appears to be a senile man suffering from the indignities of dementia and living out his final days in peace in an unsuspecting nursing home. However, the reader learns that Burnside is actually a serial killer who targets children. Burnside has made a grisly contract with Mr. Munshun and the Crimson King: he allows Mr. Munshun to possess his body so that he may murder children, in exchange for seeking out children PSI abilities who Munshan and the Crimson King can use for their evil purposes. Charles Burnside and Mr. Munshun are eventually defeated, but not before Burnside has murdered several children and left a small town nearly paralyzed in fear.
Charles Burnside is another one of King’s chilling examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
4) ‘Salem’s Lot
If I mentioned ‘Salem’s Lot to you, and you responded with “vampire story”, you would be correct…
But, wait…there’s more!
‘Salem’s Lot is indeed a book about vampires. And those vampires are scary. The head vampire is killed but his TEETH are still alive and bit Ben Mears…so the vampires in this book are indeed gruesome.
But, like most r
eally everything single thing he has ever written of King’s work, ‘Salem’s Lot is much more than a vampire story. Much, much more, in fact.
‘Salem’s Lot is a story about a small town, and how the small town succumbs to the vampire plague. There is clinical language and some medical terms included when the “patients” are diagnosed, and that just adds another level of gruesomeness to what is already frightening. Also, the description of how quickly the people in the town are either transformed to vampires or killed in some awful manner is quite disturbing, given how attached the reader gets to these characters and the town itself.
However, ‘Salem’s Lot is also a haunted story. Most of the action centers around the Marsten House, which is the local haunted house. We learn some of the history of the house through Ben Mears, who believes he saw the ghost of the former owner as a child. The house was a site for many terrible deeds that involved children, and King is able to weave this seamlessly into the vampire tale, thus adding an extra dimension of terror to an already scary story.
Note: Nowhere is it mentioned in ‘Salem’s Lot that vampires sparkle!
3) The Shining
The Shining is another King work where there is more than meets the eye. Perhaps the most famous, or perhaps infamous (thank you, Stanley Kubrik), of all King’s work. On the surface, the story is another haunted house story (well, haunted hotel actually). The ghosts wreak havoc on the Torrance family, and there are some truly scary moments involving the supernatural aspect of the story (the blood from the walls, the dead woman in the bathtub and a ghostly New’s Year Eve party all come to mind, along with several others).
However, what many people may fail to realize is that The Shining is also frightening because it tells the story of the disintegration of the family unit. Humans are social animals, and to most of us, the family is the most important unit of all. The Torrance family feels the same. Danny loves his parents, even they (especially his father, Jack) have failed him on many occasions. Wendy and Jack Torrance love Danny, and each other as well. Jack wants to do nothing more to provide for his family, which is why he takes a job that is less than ideal, given his education and his addiction to alcohol. But that family unit slowly begins to dissolve even at the beginning of the story. However, we are led to believe that maybe there is hope for this family, as they make an effort to draw together and achieve a fresh start. Tragically, this is not the case, as Jack ultimately succumbs to his demons, and Wendy and Danny barely escape with their lives.
Again, Stephen King is a master at including that element of realism in his stories, making them that much more believable and terrifying.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
We all have fears. When you are an adult, they may be more abstract, such as fear of failure, financial worries, fear of divorce and so forth. But children’s fears are pretty concrete: most fear things such as movie monsters, vampires, spiders and so forth. So what if there was a monster out there that could take the form of whatever a child feared most, and literally scare them to death? And maybe this monster needs to only be visible to kids (since adult fears are too abstract to capitalize on) and live under the sewers, where It can quietly do its dirty work?
Enter Pennywise the Clown!
And yes, Pennywise the Clown makes the novel It terrifying. He is a clown that lives under the sewers…first strike. He can take on the form of ANYTHING that one fears…strike two. And Pennywise is an extra dimensional monster…I know, not really giving that clown a good character reference, am I?
However, as frightening as Pennywise is (which is at a level 19, at least), there are so many other aspects to this book that nearly beat out the clown that lives in the sewers. It deals with spousal abuse, child abuse and bullying. The Losers Club spends most of that terrible summer in a lot of danger, but much of that danger is NOT supernatural. The children face bullying from the local town bully, and must constantly watch their backs. The adults in town do not care about either the danger under the sewers (even though most can’t see it, nearly everyone is aware of its presence). Nor do the adults care about the bullies, even though they are as aware of the bullies as they are of the monster under the sewers. The lone female Loser, Beverly Marsh, is being abused by her father, and the abuse is becoming increasingly sexual in nature. Other children are abused or neglected. It seems that no one is safe from the town of Derry, and if one is not killed by Pennywise, his/her parent or spouse will step in and do the job instead.
Childhood is hell. There is no other way to put it. And It capitalizes on that concept, showing us just how much more hellish it is for some than others.
And now, for what I believe to be the scariest Stephen King book of all time…
Yes, Pet Sematary has made the top of the list, and I consider it to be King’s scariest book of all time for a multitude of reasons. So let’s talk about those reasons.
First of all, the concept of Pet Sematary is really scary. An ancient Native American burial ground, poisoned by the spirit of a Wendigo that has the ability to re-animate dead animals that come back as zombies, which teaches kids that “sometimes dead is better.” Can anything get scarier than that? I have read a lot of stories about the Wendigo too. and the Wendigo is one of the creepiest entities I have ever come across. So, yes, very disturbing right there…
But the burial ground is not only for animals. No, the burial ground can be used for humans too, so yay?
Well, not really. When humans are buried at the site, they do not come back right either. And the problems are way more serious than a nasty smell or the need to hunt more rodents than usual. The Wendigo is able to possess the body of the human, and render its subject with knowledge that he/she should not have. And this knowledge is not pleasant. Most of the knowledge is of the hateful variety: affairs and other dastardly deeds that were better off to remain secret. The Wendigo is not benevolent, and has malice towards the living.
However, to me, the scariest thing about Pet Sematary is that I relate to Louis Creed. The only evil in the book is the Wendigo spirit. Gage Creed is not evil, he is the victim of a terrible tragedy, in both life and death. Jud Crandall is not evil, he is a kind man who was only trying to help his friend. Rachel Creed is not evil, she is only a protective mother who has an (understandable) fear of death. Church the cat is not even evil, he is simply a beloved pet who also became an unfortunate victim of circumstances.
Most of all, Louis Creed is not evil. He is a loving father who (again, understandably) became mad with grief, and was willing to do anything to bring his son back and make his family whole again. He believes that he has found a way to do that, and that he can also use science to combat any problems. Sadly, he is proven horribly wrong, condemning himself and his family to an eternity of damnation. But if I were Lewis, and placed in his tragic situation, who is to say that I would not do the same thing? I am close to someone who has lost a child, and the pain is unbearable. You will do anything to stop it, even if it is something that may have dire consequences later on down the line.
So if I knew there was a possibility that I could bring back a deceased loved one, who is to say that I wouldn’t? I would be thinking about my loved one, not about any consequences. And that is frightening to me: to be that mad with grief that I would be willing to ignore Nature, and get involved with matters that I really have no business being involved with. And grief is frightening in that way: the pain blinds us, so we cannot see what is in front of us that may actually be worse than the grief.
Ghosts are scary…
Vampires are scary…
Haunted hotels are scary…
Heck, Indianapolis Colts football is scary!
But what is the scariest thing of all?
That’s right, someone who has never experienced the awesomeness that is a Stephen King book!
Why should Christmas get all the fun? It is also allowable to give gifts on Halloween, so do your part, and give someone who has never had this experience the greatest Halloween gift of all: a Stephen King book!