What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?

The silhouettes of ghouls and evil spirits spill forth from the pages of a book
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Olaf Simon/EyeEm, CSA Images/Getty Images
AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

Horrors Week 2020 continues with this AVQ&A from associate editor Laura Adamczyk:

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

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Whispers by Dean R. Koontz

Whispers by Dean R. Koontz

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Putnam Publishing Group

I tore through all the Stephen Kings when I was a kid, which led me on a search for more horror fiction, which steered me toward Dean R. Koontz. I guess you never forget your first: Whispers, Koontz’s breaththrough hit about a woman who is attacked by a man and kills him—but then he keeps returning to torture her further. There isn’t actually anything supernatural in Whispers, which just made it scarier. I know Koontz is kind of an also-ran compared to King, but I will never forget that book; Whispers gave my high-school self nightmares for a while. [Gwen Ihnat]

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The Grin Of The Dark by Ramsey Campbell

The Grin Of The Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Tor Books

The Grin Of The Dark is horror for film buffs, a surreal and disquieting novel about a disgraced film critic tasked with writing a book about Tubby Thackeray, a blacklisted silent film star who’s been scrubbed from cinematic history. I’ve always loved tales of haunted media, but there’s something special about the way Ramsey Campbell’s able to float in the liminal space between reality and celluloid, to convey a general wrongness that blurs the two. There’s a sense of confusion baked into this horror, an inability on our fraying protagonist’s part to process the unnatural. As someone who finds disorientation the scariest of all sensations, I had to stop reading this one before bed. [Randall Colburn]

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Harper & Row

By the time most people get around to seeing a movie that critics describe as genuinely horrifying, they’ve already built up a personalized gauntlet of terror in their minds—an experience to which the real thing cannot possibly measure up. But with a book, the human brain’s tendency to fill in the gaps can actually make the experience scarier. Maybe that’s why, despite having seen the movie a half-dozen times, I had to put The Exorcist down on a couple occasions. The book focuses more on Father Karras and his struggle with faith than Regan MacNeil and her movie-star mom, but like the movie, once it gets going, it doesn’t let up. The increased emphasis on religion also gives William Peter Blatty’s novel a creeping sense of encroaching evil, which may be why some readers have reported banishing the book to garages and attics, just in case. [Katie Rife]

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Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Doubleday

The “scariest” book I’ve read is one that’s just so oppressively miserable that I had to put it down multiple times: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. Less about supernatural scares than humans being the real monsters (a hot take for Palahniuk), the book is an anthology of stories being told by writers at a retreat who have come to believe that surviving a terrible experience will make them more successful—which leads to them sabotaging their supplies, killing each other, and telling varyingly horrifying stories (the most famous of which, “Guts,” will not be summarized here because I don’t want to write it out). I wouldn’t recommend Haunted to anyone, but it certainly fucked me up when I read it. [Sam Barsanti]

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House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Random House

It’s pretty tough to scare me these days, though I always love to search out books that will at least give me a nice creeping sense of unease, which has led me to current faves like Paul Tremblay and Scott Thomas. But I have to confess that, for all its cutesy visual trickery, I was actually really unsettled by Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves. As a kid, I would have recurring nightmares of being overwhelmed by vast reaches of open space, so needless to say, a novel about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside triggered some deep-seated fears when I read it right after college. By the time the character is descending down a seemingly endless spiral staircase and the space around him starts to expand, I had to set the damn thing aside and go watch an episode of Frasier to calm down. [Alex McLevy]

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Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Harper & Row

I have to imagine that adults in the ’80s had one goal: to scare the crap out of kids. That’s the only thing that can explain Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. I grew up devouring books, and I vividly recall being gifted Scary Stories at a far too young an age. As I did with all my reading material, I carried it with me everywhere, reading a few pages every free moment. It was on the floor of a department store, where I sat while my mom browsed through Women’s Apparel, that I read the one story from the collection that sticks with me today: “High Beams,” about a high-schooler being followed too closely by a red pickup truck as she drives home down a lonely road. I can still feel my heart racing as one hand flipped the pages and the other absentmindedly rolled fallen clothing threads into a little ball on the carpet in an act of self-soothing. I won’t spoil the ending for those who have not read the story, but let’s just say I still always check my car before getting in at night. [Patrick Gomez]

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2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Illustration for article titled What is the scariest book you’ve ever read?
Image: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus, published in Spanish a year after his death, notably contains a section that details the rapes and murders of hundreds of women surrounding the fictional town of Santa Teresa in Mexico, inspired by the real-life murders of maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez. “The Part About The Crimes” is graphic and unrelenting, but what makes 2666 so frightening is everything that comes in the three parts that precede it, the tension that’s steadily built across 350 pages. It begins with the novel’s central mystery—the unknown identity of an elusive German author—then grows into unease, paranoia, and outright dread. Unsettling dreams of blood and dopplegängers, a film that begins as pornography and ends in horror, a whispered voice in a character’s ear when he’s all alone. For all its brutal violence, 2666 is most terrifying for the way it depicts the fear found in anticipation, just how scary it can be to believe, but not know, you are in danger. [Laura Adamczyk]

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