I’ve been a horror fan all my life. As a kid I loved listening to my BBC Death & Horror Sound Effects record (on blood red vinyl!) as if it was Beethoven, I made those old Aurora plastic kits of Dracula and The Mummy, and the best film I’d ever seen was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Anyway, in no particular order, here are some all-time favourite literary frights:
The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe. My favourite short story, ever. I must have read it several dozen times, and I’ve probably listened to the Christopher Lee audiobook recording of it even more, but there’s something about it, some peculiar weave in the words, that I find completely captivating. I once very nearly won a bet that I couldn’t recite the entire thing from start to finish without making more than 3 mistakes. Grrr, I made four! Curses!
EC comics. Curling up on the sofa, on a stormy winter’s afternoon, I never tire of EC’s authority-baiting horror comics of the 1950s, both as fascinating sociological snapshots and as gleefully ghoulish fun that’s packed with vengeful corpses, dastardly murders and mad scientists, all as tongue-in-cheek as the ‘60s TV Batman.
At The Mountains Of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft. What I particularly love about this novella is its sense of exploration. The characters gradually unearth the distant past like Howard Carter chipping his way into Tutankhamun’s tomb, but instead of finding lost treasure they find something that really should be left well alone. Lovecraft is the master of ancient menace and this is one of his very best stories.
The Uninvited by Clive Harold. Published in, I think, 1977 and now out of print for many years, this modest little paperback remains the single most unnerving thing I’ve ever read. It’s a journalistic account of a spate of real-life UFO sightings that took place on the west coast of Wales in the mid-’70s. This book also has the very best teaser line I have ever seen on a book: “This story is true. You’ll wish it wasn’t.”
The Ruins by Scott Smith. A book which creeps up on you, almost literally. A bunch of friends go on holiday to Mexico and think, hey, let’s go and visit that old Mayan archaeological dig. Bad. Idea. This is a brilliantly effective monster story which features a type of monster you don’t get very often – a homicidal plant.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Frankly, almost any of Matheson’s books deserve a place in almost any horror Top 10! This one is as bleak as they come, a lonely fight against the forces of darkness in which one man hunts for a way to cure a plague while its vampiric victims hunt him.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. Like Matheson, a Top 10 without Shirley Jackson would simply be cheating. This book, her last novel, is about the small-minded persecution of ‘otherness’ and is every bit as chillingly relevant today as it was when it was first published in the 1960s. Jackson’s ability to evoke a kind of miasma of dread is particularly unsettling here.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. If you don’t like this nightmare-inducing collection of short stories you might as well give the whole of magic realism a miss. It’s a twisty, deeply uncomfortable set of re-worked fairy tales – you’ll never be able to hear the words Little Red Riding Hood without thinking of werewolves ever again
Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena. What I love about modern Japanese horror is that its underlying ideas are often bizzarely brilliant. This SF/ horror novel is one I particularly like, partly because it echoes some of the Frankenstein-ian themes in my own book The Workshop Of Filthy Creation, partly because its creepy child monster makes Regan in The Exorcist look like Paddington Bear!
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. A peculiar travelling carnival arrives one day in a small town in Illinois. Its odd proprietor, Mr Dark, says he can see your innermost desires, but the town’s inhabitants soon learn they must be careful what they wish for. A wonderfully macabre excursion into the fantastical, which was apparently inspired by a real life encounter that the 12-year-old Bradbury had with a carnival magician.