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Scary

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

I actually wrote a post about scary and creepy books that stay with me over the years. They are not ones with monsters and ghosts lurking on the pages but more atmospheric, full of creepy suggestion. Books that make my hair stand include The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, And Then Then Were None by Agatha Christie and most surprisingly, the one that never advertised horror, but surprise is in store at every turn of a chapter, Under the Skin by Michael Faber.

For the sake of contributing to this week’s BTT, I would add Stephen King’s The Shining. The evil is encroaching, and it could be that Danny’s shining has empowered it. The book does end with an explosive climax, pun intended, that sends me over the edge. It’s almost like fighting against unknown, unseen evil. The characters understand the hotel is evil; that it sought Danny, his power, and that it would do anything it could to get him. This book is a big spooker, atmospherically speaking, and haunts me tremendously.

Fear Factor

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It’s the time of the year for spooky reading. The most traditional Halloween reading would be the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Many horror movies later, surviving vampires, woman climbing out of television, grisly murder with an ice-pick, I have survived the genre. Ghosts and demons no longer scare me; nor does a monster lunging forward trying to eat my head off. I don’t want grisly murders; I prefer atmospheric horror in which one is stalked by an unknown but malevolent entity. The uncertainty is nail-biting, the ominousness stomach-turning.

My current read, Where Are the Children?, is one such book. The main character is haunted by the death of her two children about seven years ago and the shocking murder charges against her. She left California for the peace of Cape Cod, changed her name, dyed her hair, and started over. But her nightmare repeats as one morning her two children are missing. She’s battling against a sociopath, a kidnapper, and a killer.

Books that make my hair stand include The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, And Then Then Were None by Agatha Christie and most surprisingly, the one that never advertised horror, but surprise is in store at every turn of a chapter, Under the Skin by Michael Faber.

[645] Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin

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” She had been eating her meat rare; now she ate it nearly raw—broiled only long enough to take away the refrigerator’s chill and seal in the juices. ” (Part 1, Ch.4, 141)

The story of Rosemary’s Baby is very simple, despite its absurdly bizarre ending: In summer 1966, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are given the chance of an apartment in the much-coveted Bramford after being waitlisted for a long time. The only person who tries to talk them out of the move is Rosemary’s friend Hutch, who actually dies later when he’s within the hair of teling Rosemary the secrets of the building and its shady inhabitants.

One morning, when two or three weeks had gone by, she thought she heard a baby crying. She rayed off the television and listened. There was a frail faraway wailing. Or was there? (Part 3, Ch.1, 225)

Shortly after Woodhouses move in, Guy, a struggling actor, gets a major break in Broadway. The Castevets, their strange and overbearing neighbors, also take a special interest in Rosemary’s welfare after she becomes pregnant. They give a charm and daily drinks made from home-grown herbs. Everything seems to work in her favor until she becomes so emaciated from incessant grinding pain and lack of sleep.

You look like Miss Concentration Camp of 1966. Are you sure this doctor knows what he’s doing? (Part 2, Ch.5, 154)

Tension builds as Rosemary becomes more isolated during her pregnancy. She begins to suspect the Castevets’ motives but whatever evil force at work seems to have singled her out for the achievement of its goal. This creepy atmosphere is gradually escalating, as the setting changes from an idyllic yet blank family life into a nightmare. The book reflects on the wicked human nature and its inner demons, and shows it’s impossible for a humane and morally innocent person to survive in this world of evil. Much of the book is masterful. It’s creepy but not scary—creepy in the way that Rosemary has been chosen from the beginning, as if the apartment irradiates a magnetic field to absorb her. What happens to Rosemary is predictable. The ending is disappointing, with revelation full of unbearable cliché. That said, it was an important book to revive occultism in fiction.

245 pp. Pagesus Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[627] Watchers – Dean Koontz

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” From the first, the dog and The Outsider had possessed a special awareness of each other, an uncanny instinctual awareness of each other’s moods and activities even when they were not in the same room. Davis Weatherby had suggested, more than half seriously, that there was something telepathic about the relationship of those two creatures. (Part I, 5.6.224)

Part suspense fiction and part science fiction, Watchers in the core is a story of love and how it transpires our lives. Thirty six-year-old Travis Cornell, ex-Delta Force man, successful real estate broker, is a loner of a tragic past. Since adolescence, his brother and parents succumbed to illness or accident, one by one. On a day hike Travis stumbles upon a stray golden retriever that seems to possess an uncanny intelligence as well as a degree of self-awareness. The dog leads Travis to Nora, a beautiful former recluse who never experiences the warmth of companionship.

But at Banodyne, it harbored a fierce hatred of the dog, worse than what it felt toward people. When Yarbeck worked with it, constructing a sign language with which to communicate complex ideas, The Outsider several times expressed a desire to kill and mutilate the dog, but it would never explain why. (Part I, 6.6.295)

The golden retriever they call Einstein is the product of a top-secret genetic engineering experiment and the central character of the book. The K.G.B., through a hired professional killer who believes he can attain immortality by inhaling the last breaths of the dead, has just rubbed out all the scientists involved in the project, and Einstein, along with a monstrous creation bred to kill, are the escapees. The mutant killer, evil as Einstein is good, loathes its own ugliness and has a penchant for decapitation and a compulsion to gouge out eyes.

We have a responsibility to stand watch over one another, we are watchers, all of us, watchers, guarding against the darkness. (Part II, 9.2.526)

So Travis and Nora, against the pursuit of the crazy hitman, government agents, and the beast, assume a new identity—one that stands up to inspection—in order to protect the remarkable dog that has become more than just family and friends. Koontz is an amazing stylist and story-teller. Despite the sometimes pedestrian, heavy-handed writing, he keeps reader interested, intrigued, and guessing. Watchers is a pulse-pounding adventure, filled with many twists. Blending science fiction, horror, and thriller, it also concerns the importance and benefits of civilization, the longing for acceptance and a meaningful existence. The darkness is not so much the violence of the beast as the human beings who want to take over the world at the expense of animals.

611 pp. Penguin. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[626] Intensity – Dean Koontz

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” As hard as she tried, Chyna could see no beast in his eyes, only a placid blueness and the watchful darkness of the pupil, and she was no longer sure that she had seen it. He wasn’t half man and half wolf, not a creature that fell to all four in the light of the full moon. Worse, he was nothing but a man—living at one extreme end of the spectrum of human cruelty, but nonetheless only a man. ” (Ch.7, p.259)

Intensity is a very quick-paced, heart-in-the-mouth book. It starts out with Chyna driving up with her best friend Laura to Laura’s parents’ house in Napa. But things quickly go bad after dark. Up past midnight, gazing out the window, Chyna heard a soft thump—and her instincts suggest predatory presence in the house. A murderous sociopath has entered the house and kills everyone. She is spared only because the killer is not aware of her in the guest room. Her friend is sexually violated, and later kidnapped, trapped in the killer’s motor home. Until Laura, Chyna had lived secretly with her past—the haunting memories of a childhood that thwarts any emotional bondage with people.

Against the odds, she had already survived the events of the past few hours. The killer didn’t even know that she existed. She had made it. She was free. It was over. (Ch.5, p.134)

The violent pursuit of the killer takes Chyna out of her nutshell—into the motor home, hiding. On the way to his remote home in Oregon, Chyna gets out and hides behind the shelves of the mini mart, where Edgler Vess kills two more people. Instead of going away, Chyna feels a moral obligation to save this girl with an angelic face held captive in his house because she overhears the conversation between Vess and the clerks. The house is protected by four trained Dobermans. Chyna learns that all the killings were just arbitrary—outcome of casual conversations and chance encounter.

Sociopaths like this man were drawn to beauty and to innocence, because they were compelled to defile it. When innocence was stripped away, when beauty was cut and crushed, the malformed beast could at last feel superior to this person he had coveted. After the innocent and the beautiful were left dead and rotting, the world was to some degree made to more closely resemble the killer’s interior landscape. (Ch.6, p.215)

Intensity is very fast-paced and the plot lives up to the title. It does indulge in goriness. At the heart it reveals the mind and thoughts, as well as the meticulous calculation of a serial killer. However, it doesn’t offer explanation. Both characters are compelling: Chyna is a young psychology student and her nemesis, homicidal maniac Edgler Vess, who revels in sensations, be it ain or pleasure—in the intensity of experience. The worst horror is not the blood, but that the killer steals meaning from the unfinished lives of those he killed, and makes himself the primary purpose of their existence.

436 pp. Bantam. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[613] Ghost Story – Peter Straub

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” Wee see things, but we don’t believe them; we feel things—people watching us, sinister things following us—but we dismiss them as fantasies. We dream horrors, but try to forget them. And in the meantime, three people have died. ” (Part Two, III/9/317)

Despite the very simple title, Ghost Story, has an ambitious scope that Straub intends it to be a summation and continuance of its literary forbears. The book is straight out of the Gothic classic literary style. Two characters have names that pay tribute to masters of the genre. Evoked from the complex layers of this story are monstrous deeds, decades of guilt, revenge, and death.

Set in fictional Milburn, a small town in upstate New York soon to be under the siege of a terrifying Christmas blizzard, Ghost Story revolves around members of the Chowder Society, which meets over whiskey and cigars to keep one another company as age creeps up on them: Frederick “Ricky” Hawthorne, Sears James, Lawrence Benedikt, John Jaffrey, and, until his death a year prior, Edward Wanderley. These men, in their 70s, are bound by a guilty past some fifty years gone that involves a dead woman and some feral children. Not only are they not appeased over time, history seems to have repeated itself with greater intensity.

The bedroom was cold, and almost bare. Two coats, Edward’s and the girl’s, were lain across an exposed mattress. But Ricky only saw Edward Wanderley. Edward was on the floor, both hands clutched to his chest and his knees drawn up. His face was terrible. (Part One, II/5/150)

The men begin to have spooky, prophetic dreams after Edward’s utterly unexpected, inexplicable death at a party, thrown by John Jaffrey, for a beautiful young actress named Ann-Veronica Moore. More to their horror, that mysterious actress vaguely reminds them of the wretched Eva Galli from fifty years ago. The men find in the town around them, and in Edward’s distorted, fear-stricken face in death, hints that their unholy past is catching up with them. In distress, they write to Edward’s nephew Donald Wanderley, who is, of all things, a horror writer whose past also reveals a relationship with a strange woman. Soon the Chowder Society and Donald realize their stories were not coincident but inter-related.

What transpires between these strange incidents leaves me transfixed, as the mysteries begin to reveal themselves at a slow but gripping pace. The avenger and her minions have come back; and the men are now launched into a time when madness offers a truer picture of events than sanity.

The book itself calls for reader’s patience, as the crisscrossing between characters early on can be confusing. Once the characters come into focus and a footing gained for the story, Ghost Story is a rich and chilling read. Past and present masterfully collide in this novel that addresses more about the sins of men and their scruple than about incomprehensible evil. The atmosphere is drenched in darkness and despair, prevalent in every page. It’s truly a sublime, powerful, and horrifying read.

Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster. Pocket Paperback. 567 pp. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Horror Reads

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Plain old horror reads. Make you jump six inches when someone comes up behind you. Crawl under the cover, or leave the lights on.

(The) Ghost Story

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“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me… the most dreadful thing…”

Thus is the opening of Ghost Story. I am about a third of the way. The story proceeds through multiple facets and plot lines. Straub spins out his long novel in short chapters, mostly, crisscrossing between characters that, early on, can be confusing. There is the Chowder Society, which consists of four old men who are haunted by an inadvertent act of their youth. There is a mysterious girl arriving in town. Her aunt, Eva Galli, once lived in the fictional town of Milburn, where the novel is set. The inhabitants of Milburn will meet frigid, horrid deaths as they pay for a sin that was not theirs, against which they have no defense. Hmmm … this is the perfect book to read under the cover this Halloween!

Scary 50

Thanks to Tina at Book Chatter for the link. It’s fall and Halloween is right around the corner. It’s time to curl up with a book guaranteed to give me the shivers. The 50 Scariest Books of All Time is limited one book per author. The first ten titles are:

It by Stephen King
Piercing by Ryu Murakami
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Hell House by Richard Matheson
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s a great, intriguing list indeed, which covers pretty much most of the modern horror classics. The ones marked in red are what I have picked out today at the store. I have never been a fan of vampire stories so Dracula stays off my reading list. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic even though I don’t find it scary at all, more appalling and chilling. The list also mentions The Haunting of the Hill House, which has not be matched in its magnitude of horror until I read The House Next Door this year. American Psycho is just disturbing, both in words and in motion picture. Grisly and bloody graphics don’t scare me as much as the atmospheric horror.

[584] The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons

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” I think . . . what Kim did. I think that there’s . . . something . . . in that house that is destroying everybody who lives in it. I think it’s something that can somehow isolate what’s the essence of you, the things you absolutely need most to keep on existing, the you-ness of you. I think it takes your life force, your vitality, and sucks it out of you. I think it needs the core of your life in order to live itself. ” (Ch.17, p.211)

Written in 1978, The House Next Door is an atmospheric horror story set in the suburb of Atlanta, where Walter and Colquitt Kennedy live a modest, quiet life. The young couple enjoys their jobs and spends their time drinking martinis on the porch, sometimes in the company of their well-adjusted neighbors. Then, to their shock, construction begins on the vacant lot next door, a wooded hillside they believed would always remains undeveloped. Disappointed by their diminished privacy, the Kennedys soon realize something is inexplicably wrong with the house next door.

I think we ought to try and forget it. All of it. Okay, just for the sake of the argument, say you’re right and something supernatural is going on over there, there’s something feeding on people—maybe, if its empty long enough, if it doesn’t get the . . . the nourishment it needs, then whatever it is will just die. I don’t know what’s the matter with the damned house. (Ch.17, p.217)

Obviously Siddons has made an evil organism out of this new house, which, over the course of two years, destroys three separate families moving into it. The Harralsons, an ambitious young couple from well-heeled families, loses their child in a miscarriage. Their marriage later dissolves after a scandal literally unfolds in front of their neighbors at the house-warming. The wife of the Sheehans has barely recovered from a nervous breakdown. Traumatized by the loss of her son, who perished in Vietnam, Anita Sheehans has been hospitalized for a long time. What seems to be a calming convalescence takes a horrific turn. As if the house knows she, already fragile, is clinging onto the little sanity left in her, her marriage to a protective husband is also compromised. The horror of the book peaks at the revelation of the secret of the third family, the Greenes.

The House Next Door is not a generic horror novel. Siddons writes with assurance, as tension builds up over small sinister occurrences, with an escalating feeling of eerieness. The actual events and their outcomes are not scary, as some reviewers have complained—but that is not the point of the book. It isn’t so much about the final act that breaks the families as everything that leads up to it. The book is a creepy story that doesn’t contain the in-your-face shock value that defines the genre these days. It simply allows the characters and the atmosphere to tell the story—and this is what makes The House Next Door so disturbing.

356 pp. Pocket Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]