Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The two scariest books ever written

Since it's now Halloween and the western sky has gone amber here in middle America, the window is rapidly closing for horror-themed posts. I'd better get with it. Soon trick-or-treaters will be making their endless demands and I'll be too busy shoveling candy at them to do much else.

Let us turn now from scary movies to scary books. I wonder: Is it easier to terrify someone with sound and light, or with the printed word? I hold with those who favor print -- properly done, a book can tap into the darkest reaches of individual imagination in a way no movie can. With the imagination thoroughly engaged, the reader becomes a participant in the tale, rather than an observer.

Unfortunately, books are just as prone to cliche as movies are, and it takes a true master to banish disbelief and conjure terror with no more tools than the 26 letters of the alphabet and a few punctuation marks. It's an art, not a craft, and those who can do it are rightly revered.

When I consider the scariest books I've ever read, two come shambling out of the darkness like particularly fearsome specters: Ghost Story, by Peter Straub, and Pet Sematary, by Stephen King.

Straub's Ghost Story came out in 1979; I believe it still stands as the best work of this recognized master of the genre. Straub's style is more literary than King's, but this book lacks the dense, gothic surrealism that infected his later work. That's a good thing. Its sense of dread starts early and never lets up.

The plot is simple enough: A group of old men discover that a tragic mistake they made in the distant past is back to haunt them. By "haunt," I don't mean melancholy ruminations by the fireplace; this is a particularly vengeful spirit that will not rest until each geezer in turn pays with his sanity and his life.

That might not sound so frightening, but Straub's subtle hand creates a reality where ghosts do dwell, and they are not to be trifled with.

Pet Sematary, which occupied a spot on the New York Times bestseller list in 1983, is without a doubt the darkest book in the King canon. It deals with every parent's worst nightmare: the loss of a child. And it poses the very question that led to such unpleasantness in the classic short story "The Monkey's Paw" -- what would you do to get that child back? King was at the top of his game in 1983, grounding his characters in the minutiae of daily life, then drawing you down, by degrees, beyond the most macabre ending you could imagine to something worse. I'm not kidding. King's next scariest book is The Shining, but that's nowhere near as chilling as this one. Too late to scare yourself with it this Halloween, probably, but keep it in mind for next year.


Maxine said...

I didn't find Ghost Story that scary, I think because it is too long. I do remember a very scary story about a man who goes to sleep and the ceiling comes gradually down on him -- was that Poe or was it Wilkie Collins? (or neither?;-) ) It is a rhetorical question as I can't remember the answer.

Dave K. said...

Well, when I read it 25 years ago I couldn't put it down; maybe at that time I was more susceptible to the eerie for some reason. But I still remember a couple of scenes that were masterfully written -- and scary as hell.

It's so interesting how one person's chiller is another's yawner. Life's rich tapestry, I guess.

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