There are horror books, and then there are horror books. There are some books that are a bit of a thrill, they might keep you up for a night or two and make you think you’re seeing ghosts, but it’s all in good fun. And then there’s horror as in totally disturbing, that make you question reality and your values and maybe your sanity. Full up disturbing kind of horror.
In honour of Halloween, I dug through my archives to find the most disturbing books I have read. We all have different levels of what is fun horror and what is super disturbing, and I have long suspected that my threshold as to what I find horrifying corresponds with that of a five-year-old. That in mind, here are some of the books that I have found the creepiest, from maybe-could-be-a-bit-of-fun all the way to I-wish-my-brain-had-never-seen-these-words.
Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
When the daughter of cult horror film director Stanislas Cordova is found dead, investigative reporter Seth McGrath suspects the worst. I am a big fan of Pessl, and this isn’t even my favourite of her books, but it does the trick nicely if you don’t want to sleep tonight. Night Film is so steeped in dread that it’s like slowly peeling your skin off. And a perfect read for Halloween, I think. It was long, though, and all the heightened creepiness was almost too much to bear. I was even staying in an old, creaky house while I was reading this, often by myself in the evenings and it was a perfect backdrop. I left more lights on than I normally would. While I greatly enjoyed the read, one small critique is that it could have been a touch shorter. By the end I was like: get on with it already, we get it, things are not as they seem. But it was a very satisfying horror read.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
I read this gothic tale several Halloweens ago. It is pretty short, almost a novella, and full-on creepy. Two sisters live together with an ailing uncle, the subject of village rumours and discrimination based on an incident six years ago when the rest of their family was poisoned by arsenic in the sugar
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told from the youngest sister, Merricat’s, point of view. It’s clear from the beginning Merricat is unstable and having a book being told from a psychopath’s perspective is compelling … and also deeply disturbing. Reading by the light of my Jack O’Lantern certainly added to the effect. I needed some candy to help with the chills it gave me.
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This is one of those books that plays with reality and makes you question your sanity – as do all the characters in the book. It is about an evil tree and the people who become obsessed with discovering its secrets. An artist takes up residence in the old house near the tree and discovers the unfinished manuscript of the tree’s most recent victim. She gets sucked into the legend of the tree and desperately tries to unearth its secrets before losing her sanity.
Every step of the way you must question what is real and what is only in the mind, and who is creating what. Not only is this book a trip, but it became extra creepy for me because for some reason I had forgotten to document when I read this book (perhaps I didn’t want to remember because it scared me). All I could remember is it was a book about a red oak, and that it didn’t exist in my GoodReads list where I keep track of everything (no matter how embarassing). And when I looked up The Red Oak, the book didn’t exist and I started to think that I made the whole thing up, and was going completely insane just like the characters in the book … but then I found it under the Red Tree so all is well. Read at your own discretion.
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
Every once and awhile a book comes along that I wish I hadn’t read, and Perdido Street Station fits this description nicely. I don’t want to take away from any of China Miéville’s talent, as he is truly talented and can create awe-inspiring worlds. And I have seen that he has been subjected to online attacks and cyber harassment, so I’m doubly tentative about wanting to say anything negative about his book, but I have to say that this book is so deeply disturbing to me that I wish I could un-know it. There are passages, thoughts, and full-on concepts that years later still haunt my nightmares. You might like this book, or be challenged by it, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it. I’m just saying I am hesitant to read anything else by Miéville ever again because of the whole wishing I could unknow the whole book.
Are there any books you wish you hadn’t read? What’s your favourite creepy book? I want to know!