Dear Readers,

I now consider this blog to be my Juvenelia. Have fun perusing the archives, and find me at my new haunt, here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Question of the Weekend: Scariest moments in literature?

Happy Halloween!

As an overly-imaginative reader, I've never found it very hard to get creeped out by a book I'm reading. This has been true from the early days when I used to read Alvin Schwartz' "Scary Stories to Read in the Dark" children's series in bed with a flashlight to spook myself out.

Still, it's harder for books to truly frighten their readers than it is for films , and writers often do their work on us not by mood music or lighting or camera angles, but by presenting something uncanny:

From Wiki; The Uncanny (Ger. Das Unheimliche -- literally, "un-home-ly") is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.

If you go back to classic gothic lit and read the narrator's description of the various monsters: Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, Mr. Hyde, they all describe that feeling, noting that the evil creature bears a resemblance to something familiarly human in form-- but is also so strange as to cause a feeling of phyiscal revulsion or illness in the viewer.

Playing with twins, doubles or dopplegangers also contribute to that uncanny effect.

Here are a few of the creepiest moment I can recall from my reading career--I'll try to avoid spoilers. What are your most fright-filled reading memories?

  1. An empty boat runs ashore in England, with all its crew members missing except for the dead captain, who is tied to the ship. A wolf jumps off the ship. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Nothing like an empty ship to send chills down the spine.
  2. And speaking of ships and dead men, the reanimated corpses of the dead sailors in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner pick up their oars and row home. Ick.
  3. Mrs. Danvers stands behind the second Mrs. DeWinter, urging her to jump. Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier. Psychological terror at its finest.
  4. The second black cat appears, missing the same eye as the cat the narrator killed, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe. The Doppelganger effect in this tale freaks me out more than all of Poe's other stories put together.
  5. Marian Halcombe makes a surprising discovery while visiting the mysterious "Woman in White" at an insane asylum, in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Revealing more than this constitutes a spoiler (and if you read this book as an adult you'll likely guess the twist) but this is one of those shocking moments that I encountered early at a credulous enough point in my reading career so not to predict it beforehand. Readers, it blew. my. mind!
Have a spooky but safe All Hallow's Eve!


  1. Anonymous1:16 PM

    I'm still creeped out by the graveyard scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!

  2. Stephen King can find the right button to push. His short story One for the Road still haunts me. Also Stephen King's It ruined clowns, balloons, and drainage pipes for me.

    Let's also not forget the genius of Mr. Edgar Allen Poe. His work is wonderfully eerie. Excellent stuff there.

  3. There's this one ghost story by M.R. James...while this dude's walking around a ruined cathedral near the sea, he stumbles upon an ancient whistle in a box. He blows it, nothing happens...till that night...when the bedsheets in the bed next to him, rise up, twist together in a human-but-oh-not-so-human-form-with-no-face and start to feel around the darkened room for him. It manages to chase him all the way down to the sea because despite the fact it cannot see, it has its other senses and it continues to feel about for him everywhere.

    I still get shivery when I think about that one!

  4. Anonymous2:27 PM

    I agree with Catherine, M.R. James is amazing at sending a shiver up his readers' spine! His story called "The Tractate Middoth" is my favourite.

  5. I attract horror, yet strangely it seems boring to me when I try to recount or narrate it. I guess the terrible things to me are pedestrian to others. The effect I grok best is social disenfranchisement. I almost read it into any book I read, and scorn those that don't try to provide a sense of it.

    The most disenfranchising "moment" I've felt in reading is more actual than narrative. It's Quentin Compson. (Maybe it was just that I was taken to wearing white tees at 18.)

    I'm really country.

    Happy Halloween!

  6. Maggie11:45 PM

    Its funny that I saw this post today as I was thinking about the Alvin Schwartz's books and how those illustrations gave me nightmares when I was younger. Wait-they still do! I am so glad to see Dracula's arrival at the top of the list as it did really fill me with dread as I read it. I want to say there was a rather creepy short story by Stevenson about cadavers that frightened me a lot more than I expected. And yes- Woman in White-talk about a page turner- I think I gave myself a headache by reading non-stop.