Literary Up: The Scariest Writers, and Why

1. H.P. Lovecraft. In an age of pulp thrillers, he was scarily anti-sensationalist. His horrors tend to come in the form of first-person memoirs by people who are only just feeling that they’ve recovered from horrors which happened months or years earlier. They set pen to paper in order to set the record straight, or to prove to themselves they’re not insane.
2. Joseph Payne Brennan. He was a nationally known figure in the horror realm for a generation—as a novelist, as a short-story writer, as a horror fanzine editor and even as a horror poet. Joseph Payne Brennan is too little known now, even in his native Connecticut. His stories are particularly shocking to locals because they use the real streets and social issues of New Haven to elicit their shrieks. Brennan was appalled by the urban renewal which overwhelmed New Haven in the 1950s and ‘60s. He turned his dissatisfaction into stories where ghosts from the oldest parts of the city succumbed to the terrors of city planning. Brennan also created “Slime” (the obvious, uncredited inspiration for the film The Blob), “Canavan’s Back Yard,” “The Calamander Chest” and “Levitation.” But it’s New Haven stories which hit closest to home, coming from the haunted houses in his own neighborhood.
3. Cornell Woolrich. He’s considered a noir or mystery writer, but many of his novels involve spiritualism, the supernatural, or at least such avid beliefs in prophesy that the protagonists might as well be possessed. The deaths and tortures are highly disturbing, not the puzzle pieces they can be in a lot of mysteries. Woolrich characters are horrorstruck by nature. Their loved ones have suddenly disappeared. They’ve been told they’re going to die. They live in constant fear of past sins being discovered.
4. Dr. Seuss. When I was six years old, I carried The Sneetches and Other Stories with me everywhere, and could literally recite it forwards and backwards. The story which most captivated me, What Was I Scared Of? earned its own stand-alone glow-in-the-dark reprint a few years ago. (I purchased it at RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison along with a crafts book on how to fold origami werewolves.) My kids are terrified of it.
5. Thomas Ingoldsby. The model of mid-19th century European fantasy fiction. Where others would dabble, Ingoldsby wrote a whole huge volume of poetic, tragic, dreamlike horrors. For me, The Ingoldsby Legends outdoes even the creepy E.T.A. Hoffmann and his savage toy-terrorizing mice.
Quickly now, here’s another five:
1. Michael McDowell. From Alabama, he knew his swamps.
2. Richard Matheson. Such a confident storyteller, you follow so willingly that you’re completely vulnerable to his twists and shocks.
3. Robert Bloch. Effective because the writing is so feverish, edgy, unhinged.
4. Clive Barker. A clinical obsession with human anatomy and peeling flesh.
5. Stephen King, of course. Recent stuff like Blockade Billy and Under the Dome are as surehandedly suspenseful as any of his classic ‘70s novels. Personal all-time faves: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Hearts in Atlantis, Pet Sematary, It, Misery, Needful Things, The Stand and Cell.

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