Long before Stephen King’s prestigious body of horror, men and women have faced their fear of the dark and the unknown. Understandable, since you could become a predator’s meal if you weren’t fearful.
The fear of indescribable creatures is so real that it was passed down through generations. First through storytelling and cave drawings, and then through written and printed word. After all, vampiric mythology was the only way medieval shepherds could rationalize what would possibly eat their sheep at night.
Today, horror thrives during the Halloween season and takes on special manifestations.
As the ghoulish holiday approaches, let’s look at some of the most enduring and popular horror books. It’s likely that most of us base our knowledge of scary stories on movies and television shows, but horror movies are often inspired by actual books.
Mary Shelley, barely out of her teens, wrote “Frankenstein” in 1818, while on a weekend getaway with friends. Soon following was Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” written in 1820 and famously recreated as an animated special in 1958 for Disney. Even in charming, animated form, it was scary, giving boomer pre-teens had nightmares for a week.
In the ’60s, Saturday reruns and midnight horror specials, featuring shock hosts like Elvira or Sir Graves Ghastly, helped fans rediscover classics like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” written in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson, and made into a black-and-white film in 1931. The 1932 movie “Freaks” is one scary and politically incorrect movie that frightened the hell out of viewers, especially the revenge scene that ends the flick. Today, the film still generates active debate about disabilities and physical perfection. Oddly, the movie “Freaks” has inspired a plethora of circus freak books.
Reaching back in time, numerous other authors and their books inspired the horror genre’s growth — including Daphne du Maurier’s short story, which became the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” was made into the movie “The Turning” in 2020, and H.P. Lovecraft’s 1926 story “Cool Air” helped create the modern zombie tale.
Perhaps the grandfather of macabre writers is Edgar Allen Poe, whose short stories inspired numerous horror movies. The Internet Movie Database attributes at least 15 movies to Poe’s influence — including “The Raven,” “House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Both Hitchcock and Lovecraft said they were inspired in their careers by Poe’s writing.
One precursor of the modern horror story might be Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked Comes This Way” — which, unsurprisingly, is set in a traveling circus. Its title is based on Shakespeare’s “Three Witches,” proving that horror tropes are indeed hard to kill.
Fifty years from now, readers and movie-goers alike will be watching films based on King’s massive output of horror novels.
Perennial favorites are “Carrie,” “Pet Sematary” and “The Shining” — which, based on personal experience, I don’t recommend reading at an old northern Michigan resort.
One early horror book that is often overlooked is “The Haunting of Hill House,” which inspired hundreds of other haunted house books and movies. The author, Shirley Jackson, read hundreds of traditional ghost stories before tackling her own in 1959. Although it has been made into two feature movies, it found its most infamous afterlife streaming on Netflix.
Other books that should be on your horror reading list are “Psycho,” by Robert Bloch, “The Exorcist,” by William Peter Benchley, “Rosemary’s Baby,” by Ira Levin, and “Harvest Home,” by Thomas Tryon, which later became a 1978 NBC mini-series. I had the pleasure of watching it in an airport terminal with hundreds of other fans while we waited for a flight.
Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of Lambs,” which became box office hits and introduced the world to Hannibal Lector, should also be on any reading list of horror books.
Two more modern horror books that will keep you up late are “The Bird Box,” by Michigan’s own Josh Malerman, and English author Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline,” which has an opening that is drop dead. And then there are John Bellairs’ books, which are deftly illustrated by Edward Gorey, a master of horror cartooning.
Bellairs’ books are considered an entry-level read for young people before they move onto King’s horror tales. Bellairs was born in Marshall, Michigan, and his childhood home was the prototype for his successful 1973 children’s thriller “The House with a Clock in its Walls.”
Bellairs attributes his inspiration for his children’s novels to his hometown. “It’s filled with old Victorian mansions and history and would work on the creative mind of any kid,” he said.
I’d like to hear more about our readers’ favorite and scariest horror books. E-mail me at email@example.com