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Devilishly Good Books Terrify ... And Delight

by Benjamin Percy
Oct 30, 2009

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Peter Straub's 'Ghost Story' Michael Lesy's 'Wisconsin Death Trip' William Peter Blatty's 'The Exorcist'

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Close your eyes. Imagine a shadow-soaked forest or a spider-webbed basement, the satin-lined belly of a coffin. Glance over your shoulder. Welcome the needle jab of panic.

How long has it been since you felt that way, since you were startled at the thought of a pale face in the window or a long-fingered hand darting out from under the bed to seize your ankle?

When I was a boy, I would use my allowance to buy Tales from the Crypt comic books. I would sneak Stephen King novels from my parents' bookshelves, and I would ask to sleep over at a buddy's house because his parents let him watch R-rated horror movies. In many ways, I am still that boy — terribly, wonderfully afraid because of books like these:

'Ghost Story'

Ghost Story, by Peter Straub, paperback, 560 pages

Peter Straub is a modern-day Henry James, but with sharper teeth and a long black tongue. He writes literary horror, in which the sentences are elegantly crafted, the characters wholly believable and the circumstances menacing.

In Ghost Story, four elderly men gather to swap stories, never speaking of the dark narrative that unites them: Fifty years ago, they accidentally killed a girl and in a panic disposed of the body. Now she is back from the grave, with a mouthful of cobwebs and a heart that pulses with the black blood of revenge.

'Wisconsin Death Trip'

Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, paperback, 261 pages

If you're looking to be frightened by fact instead of fiction, consider Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. First published in 1973, this cult classic is a fascinatingly creepy blend of history, literature and photography. It chronicles life in Black River Falls, Wis., at the end of the 19th century with forbidding obituaries from the local newspaper and excerpts from the record book of a mental asylum, among other writings. Juxtaposed with these are photographs (see a gallery) of an albino horse, grim-faced men wielding razors and pitchforks, dwarfs in cowboy boots, and corpses propped up in chairs wearing their Sunday best. Ultimately we are left with a haunting collage of rural decay.

'The Exorcist'

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty, paperback, 400 pages

You might have seen this next selection coming: The most terrifying novel inspired the most terrifying film, The Exorcist. But there is more to William Peter Blatty's story than demonic possession, more than a young girl named Regan speaking in a deep-throated voice and levitating above her bed. Ultimately this is a book about Father Karras, a deeply troubled priest who has lost his faith and must discover it again by recognizing head-on the forces of good and evil that may tremble beneath the surface of this world.

Most of us spend our lives pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The horror story is curiously counterintuitive, as we willingly put ourselves in a situation where we will feel nervousness, repulsion, terror. This is the same reason we leap out of planes and swim with sharks and strap our bodies into roller coasters that rip along at 70 mph. Nothing makes you feel more alive — nothing makes you cherish the relative safety and normalcy of life — than dangling your foot over the edge of a cliff and then withdrawing it. That is why every October, I make certain that a horror novel creeps its way onto my reading list.

Benjamin Percy is the author of The Wilding.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

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