What story scares the hell out of you?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Writers with experience in the dark art of terror pick their favorite frightening tales.

Anne Rice: I would say M.R. James's story "Count Magnus." That evil could be so easily roused and so relentless in its pursuit of the innocent who stumbled on to it, that terrifies me. But then many of James's stories are terrifying.

Scott Smith: I don't know if "scares the hell out of me" would be the right description for Stewart O'Nan's incredible novel "A Prayer for the Dying." "Disturbs the hell out of me" would probably be more apt. It's a beautifully written account of a town's descent into hell, a delightful cocktail of fire, plague and mass death with a dash of necrophilia thrown in to spice things up.

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child: The worst short story either of us has read, in terms of absolute mind-freezing fear, is "Sticks," by Karl Edward Wagner. We consider ourselves pretty tough cookies when it comes to handling horror tales, but this is one of those really rare pieces that you put down with nerveless fingers and mutter quietly to yourself: "Oh . . . my . . . God."

Jonathan Carroll: Totally unoriginal of me, but "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs, still does it every time. Just thinking about the last two pages of that story gives me the willies. Thanks a lot for making me think about them now. . . .

Dan Chaon: Joyce Carol Oates has written many wonderfully terrifying stories, but I find myself going back to the odd, disturbing "Is Laughter Contagious?," which seems surprisingly pertinent today in our increasingly hostile and nasty media age. It's a story about cruel humor, the loss of civility and the delight that we can take in wounding one other. The scariest thing is that her once-phantasmagoric premise has mostly come true over the ensuing 18 years.

Charlaine Harris: This is an easy one for me: "The Haunting of Hill House," by Shirley Jackson. No matter how many times I read it, I get goose bumps. Do not read this book if you're alone in the house.

Joe Hill: I'll cheat -- here's two: Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat," which is simply the most original horror story since Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and Neil Gaiman's "Bitter Grounds," a quiet, unnerving piece of work that I've found myself returning to again and again in the three years since I first read it.

R.L. Stine: There's a story by Ray Bradbury that I always tell kids is the scariest thing I ever read: "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is about boys in the Midwest who sneak out of their houses late at night and go to this really creepy carnival. It gets horrifying. . . .

Lemony Snicket: Anything by Charles Krauthammer. Just about all of his commentary has a madness and a menace that H.P. Lovecraft couldn't top.

Sarah Waters: "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs, is a small masterpiece of a tale in which a grieving couple use an unlucky talisman to wish their dead son back to life. . . . Oh, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, just thinking about it now.

China MiƩville: "Sredni Vashtar," by Saki (H.H. Munro), is a remorseless depiction of stifling, brutal familial cruelty, with a resolution simultaneously satisfying, horrifying, restrainedly implied and overtly macabre. It's a quite brilliant and terrifying piece of work.

Audrey Niffenegger: "The Island of Doctor Moreau," by H.G. Wells, is horrifying in a very visceral way. Wells was commenting on Darwinism, but the story is still sadly topical in a modern world unable to grapple with torture and animal rights.

Elizabeth Hand: "The Yellow Wall-Paper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, terrified me when I first read it at age 12 with its depiction of a woman's descent into madness as she undergoes an enforced rest cure for melancholy and is haunted by the "other woman" she sees creeping behind her room's "horrid wall-paper." Originally published in 1892, the story has lost none of its nightmarish power.

Peter Straub: I love Shirley Jackson's "The Daemon Lover," which leads into a greater and greater instability and ends in a world of absolute mystery and unknowability that all the time remains the world around us.

William Peter Blatty: It's still Bram Stoker's "Dracula," if only for his description of the Count crawling down the side of a massive stone mansion headfirst. But then I sleep with a night light. Well, actually two.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company