Tracing literature’s darkest plot lines – enter a world of killer kids, evil masterminds and… clowns
Have you summoned the Mexican demon yet? We tried the Charlie Charlie Challenge last week and got him to answer some very important questions. We emerged from this encounter unscathed, but if you think talking to Charlie has satisfied our appetite for the demonic, you're quite wrong. Now we're thinking about the scariest experiences that literature has to offer. Here are ten of the best.
THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS BY JOHN WYNDMAN
Cuckoos are nature's best horror story. The female cuckoo flies into the nest of another bird, knocks out one of the eggs there, lays her own and flies away. The cuckoo chick hatches, kills all the other baby birds and fools their mother into thinking he belongs to her. She feeds him and cares for him until he's ready to leave the nest and explore the world. In The Midwich Cuckoos, all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich fall unconscious for one day. When awoken they discover that every woman of childbearing age is pregnant. The resulting babies are beautiful, fast-growing and sinister. Nobody quite knows what their intentions are, but they're certainly not good.
IT BY STEPHEN KING
Look, we could argue for hours about which Stephen King novel is the scariest. You might say The Shining or Pet Sematary or Carrie, but the correct answer is clearly It, since the 'It' creature is both a clown (scary) and works out what thing you're most afraid of in the world and turns into it (very very scary).
THE DARK HORSE BOOK OF...
If you like your horror illustrated, check out The Dark Horse Book of... anthologies. Each book in the series (The Dark Horse Book of Haunting, Witchcraft, the Dead, Monsters) is a collection of short stories by comic artists, edited by Scott Allie. The first one (Haunting) features a haunted dog kennel, a haunted suit, a haunted house and an interview with the medium Larry Dreller.
PENPAL BY DATHAN AUERBACH
The NoSleep forum on Reddit is where readers go to post their own scary stories. It's kind of a scary place itself, since once you're there it's strangely hard to leave, even though many of the stories are tame, rambling or confusing. But Penpal is the real deal. It started as a series Auerbach posted on Nosleep, before becoming so popular he turned it into a book. It’s about a boy who once released a balloon with a letter attached to it, in the hope that someone would find it and write back. The result is terrifying, and it'll make you thankful that your French penpal in year eight was so boring.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW BY HENRY JAMES
A young woman moves to a gloomy house in the English countryside to act as governess to a pair of freakily angelic orphans. It isn't long before she starts seeing two figures of 'unmistakable horror and evil' appearing around the estate. Are they ghosts? Have they possessed the children? Are the children evil? James's novella is that rare case where the possibility that it's all in your head is even worse than the alternative.
PICTURE OF INNOCENCE BY JILL MCGOWN
I took a break from writing this column to go for a walk, and on the pavement right by my house was this book, put out for any interested passer-by to take. This feels like a sign and probably not a good one. I can't honestly tell you how scary it is because I'm too scared to read it, but the jacket promises a bloody corpse, a secluded farm, murderous passions and the East Midlands.
Back to Reddit’s NoSleep forum, except this time someone else has done the work of finding its best stories for you. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of scrolling down the page; all you need to do is press play on the weekly audiobook-style podcast. Don’t let the schlocky music in the background fool you into thinking you won’t be frightened.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN BY JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST
There's nothing creepier than creepy children (see The Turn of the Screw and The Midwich Cuckoos), and the creepiest fictional child I've ever encountered is Eli, the centuries-old vampire girl/boy in Swedish novel Let the Right One In, which became first a Swedish film and then an American one. Eli lives with her paedophile guardian, who goes around killing people so that she can drink their blood, and befriends Oskar, a lonely, murder-obsessed 12-year-old. It’s the saddest horror you’ll ever read.
MY COUSIN RACHEL BY DAPHNE DU MAURIER
Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, is scary too, but I find My Cousin Rachel much more sinister. You think it’s all grand country houses and gardening and a chaste romance between the son of the manor and his cousin’s widow, and then you realise there’s murder and paranoia and possibly an evil mastermind at work. As with The Turn of the Screw, it’s disturbing because you’ll never really know what happened.
LOST SOULS BY POPPY Z. BRITE
Brite's novel features a shy and disaffected teenager called Nothing, a sexy vampire with bright green eyes called Zillah and a whole lot of chartreuse. It's set in New Orleans in the 1980s and it's kind of about existentialism and it's kind of about hedonism and it's definitely about illicit love and the blurry space between sex and death.