The Haunting of Hill House
This is old-school scary; a psychological, very human horror that throws together a bunch of terribly damaged people and allows them to make what they will out of the unsettling place they’ve found themselves in. A rare female horror writer, Shirley Jackson teases out the real characters that lie underneath the hysteria, forcing them to confront their own failings through what the house forces on them. Aside from that, it’s got some bloody great scares and is still the absoloute epitome of what a haunted house story should be for me; complex, devious, and endlessly chilling.
Stephen King has created a lot of books that are uncomfortable to read, or particularly gory, or just downright creepy, but ‘Salem’s Lot is the only one that actually terrified me (Danny Glick at the window! If that isn’t fear, I don’t know what is). Unlike most of King’s work, there’s no grand idea or theme behind the story, and it’s none the worse for it-the actual plot of the vampiric goings-on in small-town America is the focus, and, blow me if it isn’t scary. King has a knack of getting inside the rough side of suburbia without drenching it in cliché, and for those who want a quicker fix, Tobe Hooper made a very serviceable TV adaptation that totally captures the claustrophobic nature of the novel.
Handling the Undead
John Lindqvist’s first novel, Let the Right One In, is by far the better known of his creations, but this, his follow-up, simply got it on the scare-stakes for me. One of the only sympathetic zombie novels, it ignores gooey, emotional mooning and rifle-toting convention in lieu of the hard truth about families dealing with the mutual joy and desperate horror of coping with their member of the undead. I love the jerkily disjointed method of storytelling-cutting between case reports, official news and personal stories-that fleshes out what could have been a boneless novel. Filled with potently striking images and Lindqvist’s stark, affecting writing, this is one for the ages.
The Midwich Cuckoos
Playing on one of the all-time universal fears-parenthood-this slow-burning sci-fi chiller is John Wyndham’s masterpiece. This is a story based around a handful of major events that conspire to disrupt the small town of Midwich, focusing largely on the characters and fear that surround them instead of laying on the ultra-gore with a trowel. A terrifyingly claustrophobic venture that leaves the parents trapped at the hands of their potentially preternatural children; the cuckoos of the title. It might seem a little dated now, but it’s still as potent and intelligent as it always was.