In real life, I am a coward. I am blessed/cursed with a vivid imagination, and I can generally scare myself much better in my own head than some external stimulus can. Yet there have been a few books that have deeply disturbed me through the years, with effects that lingered long afterwards. So with Halloween right around the corner, I thought it was fitting to talk about the books that have frightened me through the years.
The book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The plot: Young Dr. Frankenstein obsessively creates a creature out of body parts. When he manages to bring the grotesque creature to life, it frightens him so much that he runs away and leaves it behind.
Why it’s scary: The creature does not start out as a monster; it becomes a monster because it’s left behind by its “father,” alone and unloved. By the time I finished the book, I felt sorry for the monster. Plus, with all the biomedical advances that have come about in recent years, Shelley’s message about the consequences of science left unchecked seems all that much more relevant now.
The book: The Dark Half by Stephen King
The plot: An unsuccessful author of literary fiction attempts to “bury” his more successful pseudonym, it comes back to haunt him.
Why it’s scary: I have to admit, my sampling of King’s work has been more limited than it probably should be. But for some reason, this book sticks out in my head. I think it’s the idea that one’s own brain could betray you always intrigued me. And as a writer of fiction myself, I know what it feels like to have ideas that don’t seem like your own.
The book(s): The Fear Street series by R.L. Stein
The plot: It’s been awhile since I read these, but as I recall that it focused on a street (Fear Street) that had been cursed by a former resident whose daughter was burned at the stake for witchcraft (most “witches” were actually hanged, but that’s beside the point) during Puritan times.
Why it’s scary: Okay, before you tease me too mercilessly, bear in mind that I was about 10 when I first read these books. Also bear in mind that I had a mother who knew what a vivid imagination I had and prevented me from reading any “real” scary books (a la Stephen King) until I was in high school. But R.L. Stein? He was in the Young Adult section. He must have been okay. If only my mother had known that these books contained gory murder scenes, supernatural phenomena galore, and blood—lots and lots of blood. Granted, it’s nothing you probably haven’t seen in an average (or below average) slasher flick, but these books haunted my preadolescent nightmares.
The book: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
The plot: In the summer of 1969, several prominent people are murdered in Los Angeles, including Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate.
Why it’s scary: Because it’s true. The cold, calculating nature of these murders wouldn’t be so frightening if they hadn’t really happened. Somehow, an unattractive failed songwriter who had already spent most of his adult life in prison managed to influence several young hippies to commit brutal murders. Manson has somehow become a major cult icon in the decades since the murder, and—even scarier—he still comes up for parole every several years. I have no doubt that, if given the opportunity, Manson would do the same thing all over again.