What scares us? What really scares us? It’s not the form outside the window or the noise in the basement. It’s not the unexplained howling or the abandoned building that might or might not be populated by angry ghosts. Or it’s not just those things. What we find most terrifying is the wondering of what those things might be and the idea that whatever darkness lurks just out of sight, it’s so powerful, so sinister that we never stand a chance. The darkness—it’s coming for us. And when it gets hold, there will be no escape.
That’s horror. And horror gets a bad rap—limping monsters, and shlocky movie effects, gore, and blood-curdling shrieks. But I have long been a fan of what I think of as smart horror. Stories that tease and explore the true nature of our fear, that walk the razor’s edge between psychological and the so-called supernatural. There’s nothing as terrifying as what is happening in our heads; we are uniquely qualified to scare ourselves senseless. After all, the most effective haunting is personal, tailored to our unique fears and vulnerabilities. What scares you? Only you can answer that. Here are some books that have terrified me.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The loose inspiration for my recent four-part serial collection of short stories House of Crows, Shirley Jackson’s iconic novel has been scaring readers silly since 1959 and has inspired countless adaptations, most recently the stellar Netflix series. In the novel, four people gather at Hill House to explore rumors of its haunting. Dr Montague, an explorer of the occult, his assistant Theodora, Eleanor, a young woman running from her dark experiences, and Luke, the heir. It begins with one of the best openings ever: No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within. But for all of Hill House’s machinations it only seems to have as much power as you give it. And poor broken Eleanor is incapable of holding anything back. This is quiet, intelligent, twisting horror, more dream than novel, where nothing is ever clear, and its layers reveal only more questions about Eleanor, about Hill House, and about the true nature of being haunted.
Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin
Guy Woodhouse is a struggling actor and Rosemary is his young wife. We like them right away because they’re just like us. Guy is smart and adoring. Rosemary is aspirational and sweet. They’ve already signed a lease on a place when they get the big news that an apartment in their dream building The Bramford has come available. They fall in love with it, and at Rosemary’s behest Guy gets them out of their just-signed lease and into The Bramford. When good pal Hutch tries to talk them out of it, they scoff. He claims that The Bramford is in the “danger zone” and warns of a history of cannibalism, satanism, and a rash of suicides. It’s Levin’s first master stroke; we’re worried about the lovely couple before the first sign of trouble. As Guy’s acting dreams come true, and Rosemary’s pregnancy seems to leave her ever weaker, Levin ratchets up the tension subtly, moment by moment, scene by scene until we are as completely in the thrall of The Bramford’s horrors as poor Rosemary.
Bag of Bones, by Stephen King
No list of smart horror would be complete without a novel by Stephen King. This iconic master has had his finger on the pulse of what terrifies for decades. In fact, his work has rewritten the script of our fears. I have been reading his books from an inappropriately early age and to this day I can’t look at an ajar closet door in the nighttime without thinking of his short story The Boogeyman. Bag of Bones showcases all King’s many talents, not just as a storyteller but as a beautiful writer. This novel, about a novelist who can’t stop grieving the sudden death of his wife and is called back by his nightmares to their isolated summer home Sara Laughs. This is a ghost story and a love story. King delicately twists psychological trauma of grief, history, nightmares, hauntings, and fiction to keep us mesmerized and lure us into the dark open doorway of his imagination. Of course, there’s no escape until the final page.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Gaslighting is my own personal horror. The idea that someone might say you’re crazy when you’re not, and the more you protest, the more insane you seem – yikes. You’re trapped by people who should mean you well, but they are really keeping you prisoner. Just thinking about it makes me jittery. When Noemi Taboada receives a frantic note from her newlywed cousin with fears that her new husband is trying to murder her, Noemi ventures out to the Mexican countryside to investigate. We love Noemi right away because she’s a young, spirited, fun, glamorous debutant, but soon we see her intelligence and mettle, as well. She’s not intimidated by the creepy High Place or its nasty patriarch, or her cousin’s unpleasant new husband. Surely, she’ll rescue her cousin and they’ll be out of there right away! But slowly, inexorably, the house with its dark secrets and ugly history gets its hooks into her. When she starts to sleepwalk, Noemi knows she has to leave – only to be told that she cannot go. This is a blistering, complex story of madness, incest, genetics, biology, and ghosts.
The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones
If grief can be a kind of haunting, then so too can guilt. When four young Blackfeet men poach elk on their elders’ land, they kill a young elk cow trying to protect her unborn calf. Years later, her spirit returns to exact revenge on each one. Rich, human, eloquent, written in Jones unique combination of slang and stunningly beautiful prose, The Only Good Indians is not just about a wronged spirit relentlessly stalking, exacting revenge. It is also, perhaps more frighteningly, about being unable to escape your past and the psychological horror of your own bad deeds come back to haunt.
What scares you? Is it haunted places where pained souls wander hallways moaning? Or is it that abandoned mental hospital? Or is it some psycho-spiritual torture from which you can’t escape, like grief or guilt, or madness? Pick your poison. And then pick up one of these novels that will terrify you, haunt you, and make you think all at once.