...one strand at a time...
by Dean Patrick
The ten stories summarized here are my own top picks from decades of reading, researching, and writing about horror. Enjoy, as you think about your own list of what has scared you most.
MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (Frankenstein; or, a The Modern Prometheus)
I believe that Shelley’s novel is the greatest of all horror tales. Even the history behind it gives is a horror’s backdrop delight. One dark and grim evening at candlelight at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron suggested that ghost stories be written. Among that group were Percy Shelley the poet, Mary Godwin (who would become Mary Shelley after she and Percy married later that same year), and John Polidori (who wrote The Vampre which influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
The evening had such an influence on Mary that she must be quoted here: “Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
Shelley was 18 years old when she wrote Frankenstein. It is a novel of terrifying power in tone and tragedy of the tale of Victor Frankenstein giving life to a his own creation. A creature who ends up seeking murderous revenge on life itself.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
Hands down the best vampire novel ever written. Stoker’s story of Jonathan Harker’s venture to Transylvania to complete a property transaction at Castle Dracula is almost Shelley’s equal.
Things quickly turn awful as soon as Harker hears the cry of wolves howling before he meets The Count. After Count Dracula lunges for Harker’s throat after a shaving cut, Harker manages to further escape the seduction of three female vampires. Harker’s then fully aware of the horror taking place.
Meanwhile back in England, Harker’s fiancé, Mina, discovers one night while searching for her friend, Lucy Westenra, a shapeshifting presence that hovers over Lucy. Of course Lucy has been bitten and dies. We soon meet Van Helsing, and the rest is some of history’s greatest horror.
DAM SIMMONS CARRION COMFORT
Simmons horrifying novel opens in the concentration camps in Chelmno in 1942. Saul Laski, just a child, searches for a way to escape. This is the tale of “mind vampires” that hurls the reader through nearly 800 pages of time and space. Simmons uses both 3rd person and 1st person narratives where we follow Saul’s battle to end a group of monsters who have been "mind raping" victims for centuries.
EDGAR ALLEN POE’S “THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH”
Poe’s gothic tale of a terrible plague that has ruined a landscape where victims suffer “profuse bleeding at the pores.” Poe’s timeless short story of Prince Prospero and his thousand nobles who attend a masquerade ball where most guests are terrified to enter a 7th room of the 7-room banquet is Poe at this greatest.
It is at the stroke of midnight when everyone discovers a scarlet-robbed figure is identified and terror strikes next when the Prince pursues the figure and ends up dead. When an enraged mob of the nobles removes the mask and robe of the figure, there is nothing underneath as Poe ends the horror with, “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
H.P LOVECRAFT’S AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS
Lovecraft’s cosmic horror novella, and what he called “weird fiction,” is one of Lovecraft’s many tales that rely on the intense anxieties of our place in the universe. What scares us the deepest, what scares us the longest.
The story takes place in the Antarctic where a research team has discovered a lost city. It is a warning to the reader - to any reader - to never venture to Antartica. The team lead, Professor Lake, makes claim to an unknown life form. Many life forms, to be exact. The city that is discovered behind the mountain range consists of building that could be tens of millions of years old that were crated by these life forms known as Shoggoths. Other members of the team, Dyer and Danforth, fill the story with a sense of perpetual dread where giant blind penguins are found to be food sources for these creatures. The entire account is a warning to stay away.
OSCAR WILDE’S THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
Oscar Wilde’s vivid account of the life of Dorian Gray, a 19th century aristocrat who is painted by Basil Hallward. The portrait is so stunning Dorian falls in love with himself. In fact it is a beauty that he finds in himself so grand that he will sell his soul to retain it.
When Dorian falls in love with the actress, Sybil Vane, she loses her passion for acting and Dorian loses his love for her. She commits suicide and her brother, James, vows to kill him. As years pass on we see Dorian’s endless physical beauty retained, but the painting of him from Hallward grows increasingly ugly, old, and more more wicked. Dorian himself grows more and more paranoid and turns to opium.
This is the ultimate tale of the horrors of vanity, and why it’s never a good route to continually look in the mirror for perfection.
STEVEN KING’S IT
The story has become so well known it is now commonplace. Pennywise the clown is also just as well known of a villain as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster.
The tale of a ragtag team of teenagers who are tormented by the clown, and who band together as adults to kill it once and for all is King at the peak of his powers.
PETER STRAUB’S GHOST STORY
Straub’s novel is the best ghost story. Period. See my blog, here.
The novel is the dreadful tale of the remaining members of The Chowder Society, a group of four men who meet annually to tell each other ghost stories. And I use the word “dreadful” purely to honor Straub in what I find to be the one of the most terrifying openings of any horror novel.
“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”
From that deeply chilling intro, Straub creates a harrowing story where the memories of a woman the men all knew 50 years ago is a mesmerizing and terrifying woman they all loved. A woman they thought they’d killed by accident known as Eva Galli, where one night soon after Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed, Eva comes to visit the men. To belittle them. To seduce them to the point where a struggle takes place and she ends up dead.
ANNE RICE’S INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
Anne Rice had serious doubts about Tom Cruise playing the Vampire Lestat due to the character’s immense power of evil. When she saw the film she had this to say: “From the moment he appeared Tom was Lestat for me. He has the immense physical and moral presence; he was defiant and yet never without conscience; he was beautiful beyond description yet compelled to do cruel things. The sheer beauty of Tom was dazzling, but the polish of his acting, his flawless plunge into the Lestat persona, his ability to speak rather boldly poetic lines, and speak them with seeming ease and conviction were exhilarating and uplifting.”
The novel is Rice’s debut, and thus began the saga of one of horror’s great villains, as well as vampires. I will leave it here for you to decide, and to enjoy.
BRET EASTON ELLIS’ AMERICAN PSYCHO
Here is yet another villain whose silver screen presence is just as memorable as the novel’s character. Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman captures all the raw energy and menace of Ellis’ modern-day rich YUPPIE psycho who kills for pure entertainment.
Ellis is a master at creating modern characters who are powerful, entitled, and as sick and twisted and any classic monster. American Psycho is a full-throttle thrill ride of joyous murder and mayhem, and remains his crowing achievement.
NICK CUTTER’S THE TROOP
Steven King himself said this novel scared the hell out of him. I only just discovered it this year, and I know what he meant. Nick Cutter’s The Troop is not only scary as hell, but it is so disturbing in its portrayal of a bioengineered horror, it’s hard to shake it off.
This is the tale of a Boy Scout Troop that must learn to deal with killer tapeworms as well as a homicidal maniac of their own, that takes place on a small island where the scouts run into a gaunt stranger late one night by the campfire. When he dies, and the the horrifying experimental tapeworm is cut from the gaunt stranger’s belly, the story catapults the reader into a world where science has created such tapeworms as bioweapons.
What Cutter does so chillingly is describe in medical detail of what can go wrong with the human body when such a parasite finds its way inside.
If you’re afraid of COVID, stay away.