The Most Terrifying Books We Have Ever Read

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 27 2014 9:09 AM

Happy All Hallow’s Read: The Most Terrifying Books We’ve Ever Read

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Boo!

Photo by NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

Two years ago, in honor of the recently-hatched holiday All Hallows Read, we asked Slate staffers to recommend the scariest books they knew. With Halloween coming up this Friday, we’ve reprinted a slightly modified version of that post below.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

Two roads diverged in a haunted wood: trick or treat. And the one most traveled by, for the majority of kids on Halloween, is definitely treat. That’s not a bad thing: In retrospect I’m grateful that the biggest fright I was likely to encounter, come October 31, was a box of raisins instead of a Kit-Kat. But the author and comic book artist Neil Gaiman has slightly darker plans for the Festival of Souls. He’s dreamed up a way to reconcile tricks and treats via a newly-minted holiday, All Hallows Read, which encourages you to give scary books to your friends and loved ones along with the candy. Now you can spook and delight people, trick and treat them, all at the same time! In the video below, Gaiman explains his brainchild:

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To help you plot, Slate staffers have transformed themselves into dastardly, sadistic librarians and dug up the stories that gave (OK, still give) them nightmares. Cue the organ! We present our picks for The Scariest Books Ever.

Dan Kois, culture editor:

Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe

A chilling tale of warning signs ignored and pleas unlistened to, as Chester the cat desperately tries to alert his human family and Harold the dog to the danger posed by the vampire rabbit in their midst. Are the white vegetables in the kitchen, all their nutrients sucked out, not a clear sign of evil afoot? A crucial text for every child who has not yet learned to fear the threat of undead pets.

David Haglund, senior editor:

I’m going to open myself up to all kinds of teasing and pick a short story about meeting someone in an art gallery by Don DeLillo. “Baader-Meinhof” first ran in the New Yorker 10 years ago and was collected in The Angel Esmeralda last year, but I first encountered it on the magazine’s fiction podcast, where Chang Rae-Lee read it aloud. And it did what ghost stories are supposed to do but for me never have: It gripped and terrified me. I recommend finding a friend or two and reading it aloud, possibly in a dark room with a flashlight. I won’t spoil it by saying too much about what happens, but you can get a feel for it from the first line alone: “She knew there was someone else in the room.”

Emily Bazelon, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest:

I love the suspense of And Then There Were None. It’s the Agatha Christie mystery I push on people even when I’m not sure they’ll be Agatha fans. The plot builds slowly—my son was surprised by how long it took for someone to get killed—but that’s part of the book’s charm. It pulls you in and makes you prickle as you wonder who will be offed next.

Abigail Ohlheiser, contributor:

Worse Than Myself  by Adam Golaski

It's an eerie short story collection split between the Pacific Northwest and New England. Any book that can make Seattle sound terrifying is doing horror writing right. 

Andrew Morgan, former Slate designer:

House of Leaves  by Mark Z. Danielewski

I only read this because a friend said it was so scary she could never finish it—it was a challenge. By all rights, it should be a terrible book: The concept is so incredibly farfetched, it should fall flat. But through really careful writing, Danielewski makes it believable and sinister and uncomfortable. It’s the only book I've ever put down for a few days because I felt I was going crazy.

Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor:

I was a nerdy eighth-grader when I picked up Geek Love by Katherine Dunn—mostly because the title suggested romance among the socially awkward. I was a little disappointed when the description talked about a family of circus freaks (with a mother who ingested chemicals and more to ensure her children came out deformed). But I decided to buy it anyway, anticipating, for some reason, a dark but funny tale. At the register, the cashier raised his eyebrows and said skeptically, “Do you know about this book?” “Yeah,” I lied, trying to look bookstore-cool. Big mistake. When I got to the part about a cult whose members amputate their own limbs, I wanted to stop reading, but I didn’t. I should have, because it only got worse from there. Whoever said clowns were the scariest part of the circus was wrong.

Katy Waldman, staff writer:

This quiet, chilly collection of Japanese ghost stories will insinuate itself into your dreams. Literally: After reading the tale of Hoichi the Earless, a blind biwa player who is fooled into playing for a long-dead court night after night, in the middle of a cemetery, I had nightmares about being led into dark spaces for forced chats with my ancestors. Hearn’s snow women (yuki-onna) and faceless specters (noppera-bo) are equally shuddersome. Save this book for the kids you don’t like and the adults you do.

Chris Kirk, interactive editor:

Dreamsongs: Volume 1. Before George R.R. started poisoning, beheading, and flaying your favorite Game of Thrones characters, he wrote (other) horror stories. The first of his two-part anthology is hit-or-miss, but the horror stories claim the lion's share of the hits and leave Westeros looking like Wonderland.

Miriam Krule, assistant editor:

I was always too scared to read Goosebumps (something about the bumpy, slimy cover got to me), but for some reason I kept on going back to Roald Dahl, no matter how many children he seemed to torture or how creepy Quentin Blake’s illustrations got. The 1971 movie-adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is easily the scariest thing I’ve ever watched (Gene Wilder in that tunnel!) but when it comes to his books, I’d have to go with The Witches—(spoiler alert?) the boy ends up stuck as a sentient mouse for the rest of his life!

June Thomas, editor of Outward:

I’m one of those oversensitive people who doesn’t even need to see a horror movie to be robbed of several nights’ sleep just imagining how much it might terrify me. Consequently, I would never intentionally read a scary story. But after a childhood obsession with the Patty Hearst case, I still find myself drawn to tales of kidnapping. My favorite is the story “Bathpool Park” in Adam Mars-Jones’ first collection, Lantern Lecture. (It was published in the United States in Fabrications.) It’s a fictionalized version of the tragic tale of Donald Neilson’s kidnapping of 17-year-old Lesley Whittle, who died in 1975 while being held captive in a drainage shaft. It’s been more than 30 years since I first read that story, and it haunts me still.

Laura Helmuth, science and health editor:

My favorite scary story is “Survivor Type,” in Stephen King’s collection Skeleton Crew. A drug-smuggling doctor is shipwrecked on an island with his heroin, a journal, and a pen. He writes the story of how he tries to survive, at first by hunting birds. He slips and injures his foot, which he has to amputate so it doesn’t become gangrenous. Then he gets really hungry.

David Plotz, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

There is no relief from the terror of The Road. It’s bleak beyond redemption. It offers no fun, no humor, no pleasure of any sort. It’s also the most moving book I’ve ever read. Any father of sons should read it, and despair.

John Swansburg, deputy editor:

The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone. The title says it all.