So, I don’t want to alarm anyone, but did you guys realize what today is? It’s Friday the 13th. And in case you haven’t heard, the world is also ending next weekend. I had assumed the Mayan calendar/2012 stuff was nonsense, but I didn’t realize it was because we’re actually not making it out of 2011.
Still, you’ve got a week left for reading, and you might as well get yourself in the spirit of things with something really creepy and unsettling. For me, I can go for a good horror schlockfest now and again, but don’t tend to find them genuinely frightening. More campy, nauseating fun. I usually find psychological horror and real life situations most intensely disturbing, but they tend to keep me up at night contemplating rather than willing sleep to come while refusing to close my eyes.
I wasn’t always that way, though. The scariest book moments I can recall are all from my childhood. I grew up in a somewhat creaky 100-year-old house, so hauntings were a particular source of terror.
I once made the mistake of starting to read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, on which the film was based, while idly flipping through bookshelves when I was reasonably young. I didn’t make it very far, if I remember correctly, because I was too creeped out—I think mostly by the idea of reading something I knew was scary—and not kid’s stuff scary. Real adult scary. I had dreams for a while after that that related somehow to Psycho, even though I’m reasonably certain that I still had no idea what happened in the story. The dreams made no sense, as dreams are wont to do, but I distinctly remember that Psycho was the name of the bad guy I was afraid of and at one point he morphed into a sneaker. Sounds funny and non-threatening now, but does it help to know he was a man-sized sneaker? A man-sized sneaker who was chasing me around a really old house? No, probably not. At any rate, I still have never seen the film (I know!) or read the book, because I’m a tad traumatized. I suspect sneakers are not a part of it.
Actually, as a child, I was both a total chicken and completely unwilling to accept that. I used to read and re-read and re-read this big non-fiction picture book of notorious crimes, even though it gave me nightmares. If I caught a glimpse of it on the shelf in the living room, I sort of had to look at it, because I was worried there was something I might not know I should be worried about yet. (Knowing is half the battle?) This meant, of course, that I grew up afraid not of being murdered, but of specific dead murderers. I recall my mother explaining that I had no reason to be afraid of Jack the Ripper, even though they hadn’t caught him, because he’d have died in the meantime. I don’t think it helped—what if he’d lived to be really, really, really old? People can live to be 100, you know. And some people are still very spry at that age. I’m pretty sure I thought that fleeing to America and hiding out in the suburbs would have been a very good way to avoid getting caught. I think I was still too young for my mother to also explain that I would have been fine anyway, seeing as I wasn’t a hooker. I was also afraid of Lizzie Borden, Burke & Hare, and just the general possibility that I might own something that was secretly made out of human skin. Sometimes I’d read the part about the Great Train Robbery last, as a sort of freak-out palate cleanser, because it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the prospect that famous historical murderers were actually secretly still alive and coming to get me.
But the book that hands down wins the prize for terrifying me so much that I couldn’t cope with sleeping with the lights out and contemplated moving all my dolls so I couldn’t see them from my bed was a short story collection called Thirteen. It featured the big name kiddie horror novelists (Christopher Pike, RL Stine, Caroline B. Cooney) and a bunch of others, and some of the stories still would probably creep me out if I read them today. I read a lot of the works by the major authors in the collection, generally. I was a devoted Christopher Pike fan for years, though I remember being sort of unimpressed with the story in this collection. “Lucinda” by Lael Littke and “The Doll” by Carol Ellis were the two that really clinched the sleepless nights for me.
So what are your top scary moments in books? And do the most terrifying still make a lasting impression on you if you read them today, or is that “cannot possibly sleep” feeling a remnant of your childhood?