by Jarrod Fouts, contributor
In order to be a total hipster and advance my catalog of mind-terrorizing spooks, I spend my Halloweens reading messed up books that should come packaged with a ski-mask and knife to dig into the armrest with instead of watching the literal billions of “Friday the 13th” sequels there are and hanging out with friends. The problem with this is that modern horror fiction is packed full of campy, cliché-ridden garbage. So instead of bemoaning how hard it is to write good, compelling horror fiction and then judging the stuff that is already out there marked as horror, I’ve decided to share ten of my favorite books of terror for you to run your weird little eyes through and get all messed up on. I was going to make a joke about being prepared to not get sleep but this is directed at SCAD students, so just be prepared to do what you normally do, but with a leaning toward terror and paranoia.
1. “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis
I read this book one summer when I was bored with so-called horror and trying to hunt down a book that would be so scary it would mess me up and get inside my mind like some kind of language demon and torment me long after I finished it. Reading online about this book earning outright bans in several countries, being sold in shrink-wrapped bags only to people with IDs in other places and having loved the movie starring Christian Bale, I figured this was a good place to start. It’s written from the perspective of Patrick Bateman, a successful Manhattan investment banker and serial killer. What’s so disturbing about “American Psycho” is how realistically Patrick Bateman is portrayed. He’s insane through and through, from hallucinations of being stalked by a park bench to moonlight murders. I’ll put it this way: I love horror and gore and I never, ever skip through books, but there were about ten pages in here toward the end that I just up and skipped because I couldn’t handle them.
2. “The Marbled Swarm” by Dennis Cooper
I think one of the marks of a great writer is to be able to write nearly anything with tact and grace, as well as to keep you reading even though what you’re reading is kind of like a big hole torn through all of your morals and social conventions that no-faced skin creatures with long claws are now crawling through. Cannibalism, child abduction, a new language, labyrinthine houses with secret passageways and fourth wall breaking that isn’t terrible — this book has all of that and as a bonus, it’s voiced by a narrator who’s intelligent and, if not for being the near embodiment of evil, a joy to listen to. “The Marbled Swarm” is perfect for those Halloween spooks that involve questioning morality and why exactly you sort of enjoyed reading something so against all human decency.
3. “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy
Here’s an infamous sentence from this book — which is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most disturbing novels ever written — that I think will encapsulate why it is on this list:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed [sic] out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil [sic] and some in headgear of cranefeathers [sic] or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed [sic] coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
“Blood Meridian” is not for lit lightweights. It follows a character known only as “The Kid” and his experiences with the Glanton Gang, who were a real group of scalp hunters. It’s a pretty intense, long read as far as prose goes. It’s also chock-full of gore, terror and pages upon pages of fully detailed, near-pornographic massacre.
4. “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo
This is easily one of the most effective anti-war novels that has been and ever will be written. What makes this so scary you ask? It’s written so well, it’s like being there. “And that’s scary how?” you might follow up. Well, imagine waking up in a hospital bed after being nearly destroyed by an artillery shell during combat. You don’t have any of your limbs. You can’t speak, see, or smell. Your mind, however, is completely undamaged. A prisoner in your own body, all you can do is tap your head on your pillow and wriggle a bit. In your bed, in a state of sensory deprivation your mind will start to invent sensations. Like the character in this book, you would hallucinate and feel things, like rats burrowing under your bandages and eating at your wounds, or your whole body just bursting into flames. You’d know of course that it wasn’t real, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t feel every second as you lay there, unable to move.
5. “Pet Sematary” by Stephen King
Some people who read this will probably either wonder why I bothered to include a King book on this list, or wonder why it took so long for me to include said King book on this list. King divides people, like politics, or Lay’s chip flavors. “Pet Sematary” is about what goes wrong when you do weird magic to bring back various dead things in a place just beyond a small cemetery in the woods where kids bury their deceased pets: everything. It’s one of King’s more well-written books and is much scarier and atmospheric than his others, complete with some gross-out moments involving waterlogged corpses.
6. “Fugue State” by Brian Evenson
From not being able to trust your own memory of a disturbing event that you can’t let go of to becoming a Midwestern Jesus to a jerk boss terrified of dolls to being trapped by a mime, this collection of short stories centers around deranged characters and feelings of disassociation from reality. Brian Evenson’s stories in this collection are dark, comic and absolutely terrifying. He writes in such a way that makes me feel paranoid I’m just as detached from the real world as some of his characters. And that uncertainty as to what’s even real anymore is one of the main things that makes “Fugue State” truly scary. Read this and then make an appointment with your therapist.
7. “Jealousy” by Alain Robbe-Grillet
I think it adds to the overall creepiness of this book that I found it hidden behind other books in the back of an old used bookstore. It had lots of stickers for different bookstores on it, like university and college bookstores. One was from Colorado. It still feels like that book traveled all throughout the country just to find me and make me feel unnerved. This book is scary because it’s one scene being constantly re-told by a narrator who grows more and more jealous as time goes on. Reading this book feels like someone is watching you through your window and writing down every little thing you do like they just hate your guts. Speaking of guts, there’s a centipede getting crushed in here that happens in every scene. This and the feeling of hate the narrator gives you for some 200 pages will make your skin crawl. Enjoy.
8. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison
I love this collection because the title story, which you can find for free online in PDF format, is basically about a super-intelligent AI gone mad with power. It controls the climate and can mutate the remaining survivors, turn them against one another and just outright kill them on a whim, though it much more prefers to torture people. What makes this story so scary is the feeling of having no control, no power, to be at the mercy of a computer god, in addition to the fact that we are making leaps and bounds toward AI sentience. Books like this reinforce my technophobe ways.
9. “Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach
Apparently some people in our hyper-terrified-of-everyone age still do those Flat Stanley projects at school, where they take a little 2-D figure appropriately named Flat Stanley and circulate him throughout the country. People who find him will take pictures and send letters. The whole thing teaches kids about how many people would take a break in their busy schedule to take a selfie with a little paper man, I guess. Dathan Auerbach’s “Penpal” is very similar to that. Kids at school release balloons with pictures and addresses and wait for responses. Our narrator gets one but it isn’t what he expects. He also gets pictures of him and his friend that could have only been taken from very close. From there the story gets way crazier, because the narrator skips through the years of his life and every moment you think he’s going to find the man who took those pictures, like he’s right around the corner at all times. This self-published page turner is a real spook for those who are already terrified of being watched, i.e. everyone.
10. “Piercing” by Ryu Murakami
Like “American Psycho,” this book gave me a feeling of inner disgust when I was finished with it that was like having a layer of filth on my skin that I couldn’t get rid of that I could feel moving whenever I moved. This little book, which is considered to be one of Ryu Murakami’s best and also one of the few to get translated into English from the original Japanese, is all about a successful guy who has it all: a nice job, a wife and a brand new baby, his pride and joy whom he watches sleep in her crib every night — with an icepick in his hand.
Do you have any books of blood and terror that aren’t on this list? If so, post them in the comments — I need more stuff to get haunted by.