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A selection of scary books, from a Count to King

A version of this story first appeared on the West Virginia Book Festival blog (http://blogs.wvgazette.com/wvbookfestival/) in October 2010.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- First, I should say that scary books are not my most well-read area. Noir, sports, classics? I'm your man. Horror? Not so much. But this time of the year puts one in the mood for it. Halloween is just a few days away, and the scary-book season is just beginning. As the days grow colder and the nights grow longer, what better time than late fall or early winter to dive into a book that makes you shiver? Here are some suggestions:

Bram Stoker, "Dracula": I love the old stuff: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," the ghost stories of M.R. James. But the Count remains the king.

If there's anything about "Dracula" that hasn't been said, I don't know what it is. But the vampire has become such an archetype, and the film versions of Dracula (including Bela Lugosi, one of the most iconic movie characters ever) are so firmly set in people's minds, the power of the original story may get lost. And it is a powerful story. Stoker's not the greatest writer, and there were plenty of other vampire tales floating around in the late 1800s. But for whatever reason -- almost certainly, those classic film adaptations played a role -- "Dracula" struck a nerve (a vein? an artery?) with readers.

My favorite part of the book might be the first four chapters, which consist of Jonathan Harker's journal as he arrives at Castle Dracula. We know what he's getting into, but Harker only gradually realizes that his host is an undead fiend:

"At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

"What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me. I am in fear, in awful fear, and there is no escape for me. I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of."

Stephen King, "It": No list of scary books in 21st-century America is complete without Stephen King. I've had a love-hate relationship with the man ever since I was 13 or so, found a beat-up copy of "Cujo" in my dad's vacation house at the beach and scared the hell out of myself.

As is the case with many authors, I think much of his best stuff came early, including "Salem's Lot" and "The Shining." But the one I put at the top of the scary list is "It," about a sewer-dwelling clown monster that terrorizes generations of children.

I read it the summer after my freshman year in college, when I was walking home after dark most nights. It wasn't a long walk, but it seemed like there were about 5,000 sewer openings on it, and I had to look in every one.

The scene in the book where a girl sticks a piece of string down her kitchen sink drain, half-knowing what will happen, and something down in the pipe takes it and starts running with it ... man, that gives me chills even now.

Richard Matheson, "I Am Legend": This was a novel long before it was a Will Smith movie (and before Smith's version, it was a Charlton Heston movie called "The Omega Man" and a Vincent Price movie called "The Last Man on Earth"). None of them is as good as the book. A lone man fights against a takeover of the world, and realizes not only that the good guys don't always win, but sometimes, they're not even the good guys.

Although the monsters are called vampires, they act more like zombies, and Matheson's 1959 novel is credited with helping to start that whole movement. George Romero, director of "Night of the Living Dead" and several sequels, has acknowledged his debt to the book.

H.P. Lovecraft, "The Haunter of the Dark": I haven't read a lot of Lovecraft; all the multi-eyed slimy tentacle stuff always seemed a little over the top to me. But he does set a terrifying scene, and when I read "The Haunter of the Dark," I was suitably freaked out by it. After you read it, if your power goes out at night, you'll move for the candles or the flashlights just a little bit faster. As with many Lovecraft stories, the ending is not a particularly happy one.

Sara Gran, "Come Closer": You probably know the other books and authors on my list; you might not know this one. Sara Gran is a terrific writer who's written four very different novels: a modern coming-of-age story ("Saturn's Return to New York"), a noirish mystery ("Dope"), a surreal detective story ("Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead") and "Come Closer," a scary-as-hell novel that's part traditional horror and part psychological thriller. As Booklist said in their review from 2006, "Strange noises that come and go; objects that inexplicably appear, then vanish. Such bump-in-the-night shenanigans are horror-story standard fare, but in Gran's gifted hands, these stereotypes fade away like ghosts."

***

If you have a favorite scary book you want to share with someone, a growing custom provides the perfect opportunity to do so on Halloween. Back in 2010, fantasy author Neil Gaiman put forth a modest proposal on his blog: There aren't enough holidays that involve giving books to people, so we should start an "All Hallow's Read" tradition, where people give scary books on Halloween. This year, there's a website, allhallowsread.com, with recommendations from Gaiman and others.

Reach Greg Moore at gmoore@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1211.


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