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Thursday, October 29, 2009

13 Days of Halloween: The scariest novel


For sheer literary merit and respectability, Frankenstein has cast a shadow over all horror novels published over the two subsequent centuries. Picking Mary Shelley's 1818 classic seems like an easy out, though, which ignores more recent landmarks of the genre like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. The new century has already seen some excellent horror novels, including Dan Simmons' huge, Victorian-era chillers, The Terror and Drood; Scott Smith's disturbing vacation-from-Hell The Ruins (hey, anyone see the movie?) and China Mieville's genre-busting Perdido Street Station.

Still, evaluating the scariest of everything for the 13 Days of Halloween series has reminded me of the subjectivity of fear-based entertainment and the fact that the most lingering scares date back to youth. For the novel that scared me most, I have to back to vintage Stephen King, who penned several heart-stopping books before I was old enough to drive. Salem's Lot and The Stand would be satisfying choices, not to mention his "Monkey's Paw" homage Pet Sematery). His novel that scared me most, though, wasn't even a novel.

King's novella The Mist depicts a random group of people held under siege in a grocery store by an unearthly mist filled with unseen monsters. Arguably the tale links H.P. Lovecraft's extra-dimensional horrors and "The Twilight Zone's" allegorical fantasies (like "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street") with King's trademark vision of fear let loose in the middle American heartland. The Mist first appeared in the Dark Forces anthology in 1980 which, coincidentally, also included T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom,” probably the second scariest novella ever.

When I read The Mist, I had one of those what-were-you-thinking moments. I had to tear through the book in a single sitting, which meant I didn't finish it until well after midnight. Consequently, I had to try to go to sleep with the memory of half-glimpsed monstrosities and the open, ominous ending fresh in my mind. I've had more restful nights, believe me. (I had a similar experience a few years ago when I stayed up late to watch the Dawn of the Dead remake on DVD, and discovered that it's closing credits are more disturbing than the whole rest of the movie. Oh well, bed-time!)

Incidentally, Frank Darabont's 2007 film version offers a respectful, well-intentioned attempt to do justice to the book. Not unlike the recent Watchmen movie, it falls short partly by being too faithful to the book and embracing some ideas that aren't as effective off the page. The scene below, for instance, is hauntingly effective, but can't measure up to the book's deliberately sketchy description of the lumbering beast that fires the imagination.

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