[Note from Frolic: We’re so excited to welcome author Laura Marks to the site today. She’s sharing the ten horror tales that scarred her for life. Take it away, Laura!]
Back when I was working as a staff writer on the TV version of The Exorcist, a religious friend of my mother’s asked her, “But aren’t you worried about Laura doing that job?” Meaning, “Aren’t you afraid that if she spends all of her time writing about demons—which are very real, BTW—one of them will decide to hitch a ride?”
For the record, no demons stopped by my Echo Park sublet that summer. I am not, to my knowledge, possessed. Yet a great horror story does confer a kind of possession on the reader. A foul, disturbing image or an existential question too dreadful to contemplate can get in your head and live there rent-free for years.
I won’t claim that this highly personal list contains the “best” or “scariest” horror literature ever. But these are the stories that hooked themselves into my head and have never let go. Like the literary version of an earworm… if an earworm could lay a thousand eggs.
Being buried alive is a perennial worst fear, for sure. But it’s recounted here with a diabolically methodical precision that makes it almost unendurable. Poe’s best trick is to tell it from the perpetrator’s POV, so that you actually find yourself rooting for him to succeed. It’s never quite clear what the drunken boob Fortunato did to deserve this. But I’m pretty sure he had it coming.
“A True Story” was the subtitle on the cover. I read it in a single, sleepless night during middle school and returned it to the library the next day with shaking hands. The librarian, bless her heart, looked at me and said, “You know it’s not real, right? They proved that it was all made up.” The controversy about what really happened (or didn’t happen) to the Lutz family is almost as interesting as the story itself. But this disturbing tale of evil overtaking a family home has spawned dozens of imitators, leading countless readers and moviegoers to wonder, “Why don’t they just LEAVE the house? What’s wrong with them?” (Today I’m a mortgage holder intimately acquainted with the sunk cost fallacy, so I get why people stay in haunted houses.)
Are you as terrified of the Singularity as I am? The idea that self-replicating AI will eventually dominate humanity has fueled two massive film franchises (The Matrix and The Terminator). In those stories, the good guys win. But what if they didn’t? This story is a snippet of unending despair that will stay with you forever.
Some might call this a love story, but I’d argue for a spot on the horror shelf. Locked in a haunted “red-room” as a little girl, and tormented by a livid, laughing ghoul on the eve of her wedding, our poor heroine constantly meets with terrors that seem supernatural. Yet her boss-slash-boyfriend has the gall to keep calling her the scary one (“malicious elf” is a typical endearment). Sadly, in Jane’s version of The Bachelorette, her only options are the guy who neglected to mention his crazy wife in the attic, and a creepy cousin who wants her to go on his Mormon mission. Girl, you could do so much better. But it’s the 19th century. So you can’t.
I highly recommend the audio version of this story, narrated by the author, available on PseudoPod.org. It’s produced to sound like a scratchy old instructional cassette tape. You don’t even notice the horror creeping up on you until you’re neck deep in it.
If the tropes of vampirism feel stale to you, you need to pick up this book—which technically isn’t even about a vampire. The curse of immortality is described here with so much intimacy and insight that it puts most vampire stories to shame. (And this is only Book One of the sweeping African Immortals saga.) The heartrending climax is a reminder that the horror you bring upon yourself is the worst horror of all.
The famous line attributed to Margaret Atwood—“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”—would have rung true to Alice Sheldon. This 1977 short story about a pesticide gone wrong, causing men to slaughter women (#yesallwomen), hasn’t lost its relevance yet.
When it comes to Roman Polanski’s movie version, frankly I can no longer separate the art from the pedophile artist. It’s on my no-fly list for now. But I can still love Ira Levin’s novel. As Rosemary’s belly grows, Levin builds a creeping tension that has extra resonance for anyone who’s ever been pregnant.
There are so many great Ray Bradbury stories to choose from, and many are arguably more horrifying than this. But the casual cruelty of the children in this story is heartbreakingly believable, and the ending is a visceral punch that has stayed with me for years.
This series of graphic novels was my first introduction to the twisted yet humanist mind of Joe Hill. He’s now better known as a novelist, short story writer, and progenitor of two TV series, but these deeply personal horror comics put him on the map. The three Locke children are the heroes of the story. But I identified with their poor mom, Nina, who knows that evil is threatening her children but is powerless to save them. These were the books that made me say, “Huh… Comics are a great medium for character-driven horror. I’d really love to write one someday.” And thanks to Joe and his new imprint at DC Comics, I got a chance to do exactly that.
Laura Marks is a television writer and multiple award-winning playwright whose on-screen credits include The Good Fight, The Expanse, The Exorcist, BrainDead, and Ray Donovan. Her graphic novel, DAPHNE BYRNE, with art by legendary comics artist Kelley Jones, will be published by Joe Hill’s Hill House imprint with DC Comics on November 3, 2020.
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