TOP TEN SCARIEST BOOKS OF ALL TIME

We’re not just about prize-winners and underappreciated books here at The Literary Man.  And since Halloween’s only a few days away, we present you with The Scary Book List. We specifically chose the term ‘scary’ and not ‘horror’, or ‘thriller’, or even ‘paranormal’ because like most good lists, ours is inclusive and written to point our readers in the right direction rather than the last word in this or any subject. Discerning readers will point out glaring omissions, of course.  Where are ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’, you ask? Safe and sound in their ancient, seminal places, where they belong. We like Shelley and Stoker as much as you do (possibly more), but we’re not sure if they still have the power to scare us.  The countless film adaptations and re-imaginings have rendered those classics impotent in our amygdalas. And after all, the primary task of a scary novel is to scare. So herewith, The Literary Man’s Top Ten Scariest Books of All Time:

10) The Stand – Stephen King

Cold and flu season is the perfect time to read this post-apocalyptic scenario.  Someone close to you comes down with the sniffles one day and dies in three. Before you know it, almost everyone you know is dead and you’re wandering around the Midwest barefoot and armed, looking for the Messiah.  Scary books don’t get more eschatological than this.

9) Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin

Ordinary (well, extraordinarily beautiful) woman gives birth to the son of Satan. Do we need to explain this more? Besides giving rise to ‘The Mia’ haircut, the story was also responsible for several family planning surgeries in the 70’s (no, not really. But we like to think that it could be true).

8) The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris

Word perfect. Go ahead. We dare you to read the entire novel and present us with a single cliché or tired trope. It’s one of the best-written novels (horror or otherwise) out there, and terrifying to boot. David Foster Wallace assigned it to his students. Not to get all acolyte on you guys, but if it’s good enough for DFW, it’s good enough for us.

7) I am Legend – Richard Matheson

Ok, so you’ve all seen Will Smith drive around an eerily empty Manhattan and marveled at the awesomeness of it all, but have you read the book? Do you understand the terrifying agony of loneliness that can only come from living as a human in a world occupied by vampire-like creatures? No? Then you should read ‘I am Legend’.

6) Red Dragon – Thomas Harris

Again, written with perfection. Thomas’s two Hannibal novels showcase the writer’s talent for keeping his readers on edge without sacrificing good writing. This prequel to ‘Silence of the Lambs’ presents Will Graham, FBI profiler extraordinaire who leads us into a haunting psychological hunt for ‘The Tooth Fairy’. Fans of the movie rejoice. The book is different enough in places to warrant a read even if you don’t particularly care for wonderful words.

5) The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

Almost a prize winner. ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ was a national book award finalist in 1959. What’s amazing about the novel is that it not only features unhinged characters, it actually renders the reader a bit off her hinge as well. By the time you finish it, you’re left wondering if you hallucinated it all. We won’t lie to you. It’s quite possible that you did.

4) House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski

Danielewski once said in an interview that a woman came up to him in a bookstore and said, ‘you know, everyone told me it was a horror book, but when I finished it, I realized it was a love story’. It’s true that ‘House of Leaves’ could certainly be a love story. But for the most part, it scares the living bejeezus out of us. We’re not sure if it’s the excessive use of footnotes or the mirror writing, but constantly having to adjust your perception of what the book is, and what’s going on in it, have the effect of fucking with our minds rather beautifully.

3) Ghost Story – Peter Straub

We’re happy to champion this best seller.  Where to begin? At the motel where a grown man is debating whether or not to kill a little girl he has just kidnapped? With the formation of the sinister Chowder society? Or the sexy Eva who makes advances towards men and then abandons them? No matter where we start, the story stays the same and recurs in terrifying ways. Great title, too.

2) The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty

Here’s another book that’s hard to pick up if you’ve seen the movie and its ten thousand sequels. But bear with us. Despite our love of literature, we don’t always believe the book is better than the movie, but here’s one that really, truly is. Somehow, Satan dwelling inside the body of a thirteen year old girl is much, much more real when you read lines like, “Friday she made us geflite fish, right? Only all week long, the whole week, no one gets to take a bath on account of my mother has the carp in the bathtub, it’s swimming back and forth, back and forth, the whole week, because my mother said this cleaned out the poison in the system! You’re prepared?” There’s nothing like absurd humor to relieve and escalate tension simultaneously.

1) The Shining – Stephen King

Naturally, we begin and end with the King. But this one’s so good we’re forced to resort to clichés: “It’s a masterpiece.“ “Gripping from cover to cover.” “Read it once and you’ll remember it forever.” If the vision of dead twin girls and stoically evil bartenders don’t haunt you for the rest of your days, the thought of a topiary coming alive certainly will. You will drop everything to finish this book, if you haven’t already. We did. That’s why it took us so long to finish this list.

81 Comments

  1. As a horror enthusiast, (I’ve mostly read short horror fiction and more contemporary novels–and just about everything by King) It and Pet Sematary top my list. For atmospheric reads, H.P. Lovecraft is a must, although he wrote pulp fiction. The Haunting of Hill House was the most subtly constructed horror book I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. A before-I-realize-it’s-scary-I-have-already-peed-my-pants type of read, as opposed to the ever more popular, “Oh, a room full of blood and some severed heads! I’d better watch my–” too late, book.

    February 2, 2012
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  2. Loved all your choices!

    May I add a couple? Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men scares the crud out of me every time I read it (and I re-read it often, as I teach it in a class)–as does McCarthy’s The Road. The Road kept me up at night and gave me weird, apocalyptic dreams, but maybe that’s because I have a son who reminded me of the boy.

    I teach a 12th grade English class I’ve titled American Gothic, and we read a lot of really scary stuff–Poe, Hawthorne, King, Melville, O’Connor, Oates…. Try reading Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” along with Poe’s “The Black Cat” and King’s “The Cat from Hell” and you’ll never pet another cat as long as you live! ;-)

    February 13, 2012
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    • Urgent update: Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb. Published in 1953, this novel was so frightening that my hands shook as I turned the pages. A largely forgotten masterpiece–just added it to my course syllabus.

      July 27, 2012
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  3. I would like to add “Intensity” by Dean Koontz. As a rule, I don’t read scary books–suspense, yes; scary, no–but a friend recommended this to me when I was 28. I had nightmares for a long time afterwards and have never read another Dean Koontz again.

    February 13, 2012
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  4. Heather said:

    I agree I have to say Intensity is one of the scariest books I have ever read. I love scary books I lean towards King and Koontz. This was the first book I ever read that I had to actually put down and stop reading.

    February 16, 2012
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  5. said:

    I love your list! Great books! And thanks for liking my blog!

    February 23, 2012
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  6. said:

    Read many of them. Thomas Harris is a great inclusion – some of them most terrifying detective fiction I know of.

    February 27, 2012
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  7. Thank you for this Awesome list and excellent commentary. I’ve read Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist & The Shining and now look forward to reading all the others on the list. Thanks also for liking my blog entry Morning Sun.

    March 6, 2012
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  8. Charles Davenport said:

    No arguments with this list from me, but I would have had The Other by Thomas Tryon on the list. Maybe the Bible, too; just saying . . . . :)

    March 20, 2012
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  9. said:

    I recently read The Woman in Black and I couldn’t read it at night or if it was cold – it was that scary!

    March 29, 2012
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  10. said:

    You’re brave! I haven’t dared read one of these.

    April 8, 2012
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  11. Ken or Mike said:

    Why were all but two of these made into movies? Do scary books translate particularly well to film?

    Incidentally, I’d love to see Christopher Nolan’s take on “House of Leaves”.

    April 13, 2012
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    • Damn. Good call on Christopher Nolan tackling House of Leaves. Blair Witch Project meets Dark Knight Returns. That shit would be merciless.

      April 13, 2012
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  12. My top 2 of the 10 are The Stand and The Exorcist (which my children know to refer to as The “E” –it still gives me nightmares). As a teen, I started reading The Stand, but couldn’t finish the last 20 pages for fear of might happen. I have not finished the last 20 to this day. The Exorcist scared the pee out of me! I eat up horror and anything scary but I don’t think I can do either a reread or a rewatch on that one. I am too old to pee the bed! Great list!

    April 13, 2012
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  13. said:

    The Stand is my alltime favorite novel. And I read mostly romance. King is such a great character writer that I’m always drawn into his worlds even though he writes outside my genre.

    Thanks for the post. Fun. I’m going to read I am Legend. Saw the movie and would love to dig deeper in the novel. Thanks for the recommendation.

    April 13, 2012
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  14. The Shining terrifies me, as does Pet Cemetery, but I even find Watership Down a little dark and disturbing in places!

    April 18, 2012
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  15. Your brave…great books though..had nightmares from it..thnaks for the visit..just followed..all the best, Jenny

    April 21, 2012
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  16. […] Z. Danielewski is the author of the behemoth ur-text HOUSE OF LEAVES, one of our Must Reads and Top Ten Scariest Books of all-time. That text alone places him among the greatest living American authors, but it’s really the […]

    April 25, 2012
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  17. said:

    very nice list, i just love reading horror, but i haven’t really gotten scared from reading these books. but then I’m a horror writer so I guess I’m not supposed to loll. exorcist did give a slight dreading fear i guess

    May 4, 2012
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  18. said:

    I LOVE your list. I am huge Stephen King fan. I even read his shitty books. The Stand is a book I read every summer. I don’t know why but there’s something about apocalyptic events that just get my engine revving.

    May 7, 2012
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  19. said:

    Great List! I remember somebody tapping me on the shoulder while I read Stephen Laws ‘Gideon’. I screamed out in fear :)

    May 8, 2012
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  20. said:

    Thank God I’ve read most of those books! I’ve read The Stand twice… probably the only book I’ve ever read twice. Good list.

    May 8, 2012
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  21. scratchatary said:

    Good list….

    May 8, 2012
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  22. rilaly said:

    The House of Leaves? I’ve never heard of it. It’s a great list sir. The only quibble I would have is The Stand at 10, and The Shining at number 1. I would switch the two, but other than that I agree with all of the other nine books you have listed here. I’ll get back to you on House of Leaves.

    May 9, 2012
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  23. I don’t have the guts to read “The Exorcist”. That is, unless I go ahead and schedule counseling first.

    May 9, 2012
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  24. said:

    Thanks. I haven’t read any of them but endeavour to do so (being a coward). How about Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw?

    May 9, 2012
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    • said:

      Yes! This is a classic! Seems the above list is nearly strictly contemporary, and I’m wondering if more haven’t seen the movies than read the books.

      Want a scary short story? “They Bite,” by Anthony Boucher.

      July 12, 2012
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  25. scratchatary said:

    Exorcist, scariest thing ever…

    May 9, 2012
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  26. Really want to read I Am Legend now, it is down on my reading list for my last year at University!

    May 10, 2012
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  27. Thank You for visiting my blog. It really motivates me….

    May 10, 2012
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  28. said:

    i like reading almost as much as i like writing – gppd choice of scary reads

    May 11, 2012
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  29. said:

    Thanks so much for stopping by my blog. I must agree with you on Red Dragon. It is by far the scariest thing I have ever read (except for my credit card statements, maybe), and I couldn’t read it at night for fear of nightmares. Great list.

    May 11, 2012
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    • rilaly said:

      I don’t know about everyone here, but I was introduced to Thomas Harris through the movies. No, not, Silence of the Lambs. I’m talking about Manhunter. I think it was the first movie that William Petersen (the guy from CSI) was in. I don’t know if the movie has aged well for all of you who haven’t seen it, but it scared the living daylights out of me back when I was a kid. I raced out and bought the book it was based on, Red Dragon, and had the living daylights scared out of me again. Harris truly had “it” for awhile.

      May 11, 2012
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  30. Can we add the book of Revelation in there somewhere? It’s the granddaddy of all horror. And what about Lovecraft’s stuff? Arthur Machen? What I’m really saying is that this whole late-20th century cult of writers is just not a good cross-section of Horror literature. Here’s my top 10 list:

    The Revelation of Jesus Christ by John of Patmos
    The White People by Arthur Machen
    The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
    The Complete Short Stories by Edgar Allen Poe
    The Complete Short Stories by Ambrose Bierce
    In A Glass Darkly by J. S. Le Fanu
    Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire
    A Crazy Child Called Pinprick by Skadi meic Beorh
    Genesis (Bible)
    The Best of H. P. Lovecraft

    May 14, 2012
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  31. I agree with this list 1827467.99%! Wow!! Fabulous. Just fabulous.

    May 17, 2012
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  32. said:

    Thanks for recommending these. I’ve read most of them and the others will go straight on my list!

    May 17, 2012
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  33. What a great list. I’ve never read Thomas Harris, but I’ll have to check him out now, since I’ve read everything else on the list and agree with most of your other choices, especially The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House. I’d probably also add another Shirley Jackson book – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And I agree with Bryce that HP Lovecraft belongs on the list. He wrote some wonderfully disturbing stories.

    May 17, 2012
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  34. Thanks for the like! I will likely never read any of these (although I’ve read King’s Dark Tower cycle), because I have neither the head nor the heart for horror… but I loved reading your pithy reviews!

    May 17, 2012
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  35. said:

    The Stand is my favorite book ever. And The Shining is DEFINITELY the scarest book ever. Long live the King!

    May 17, 2012
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  36. Great choice of books – thanks for sharing and thanks for stopping by my blog, too.

    May 19, 2012
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  37. said:

    You featured some of my favorite authors! I’ve read a lot of these books. They are always better than the movies. Thanks for the list! It’s great!

    May 21, 2012
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  38. said:

    the only name missing is some of clive barker and john saul’s works. i suggest reading them if you are like me and can read exorcist at 3am and afterwards go to sleep with no bad dreams or anything.

    May 22, 2012
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  39. chrissy50 said:

    I LOVE this!! I’ve read all of these (sometimes thrice) except House of Leaves, which I shall do so right away. Btw, I played Mrs. Montague in a college running of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. That was fun. :)
    -Chris

    May 24, 2012
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  40. I love this list, but I have to say I am disappointed that Alien wasn’t on it. That book had me trying to hide my face in a pillow and trying to peek out at it and read at the same time. Thanks for liking my blog, I appreciate it. –
    Jesse

    May 29, 2012
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  41. I love the list! I would have had to include Alien though. I was young when I read it and I remember being TERRIFIED. Thanks for liking my blog – Jess

    May 29, 2012
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  42. said:

    Thanks! Been looking for a new direction as far as reading goes. House of Leaves looks particularly intriguing.

    May 30, 2012
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  43. I agree! Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon were terrifying. I believe I read Silence in 2 days, up `til 3 in the morning. And I loved the Haunting of Hill House; that was so long ago, I should read it again. I’m not so crazy about being that scared nowadays, but this is an excellent list. Thanks for stopping by my blog, too.

    June 8, 2012
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  44. Forgetting irritating Daniel Radcliffe, what about The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. It makes my skin prickle just thinking about the swish of her dress at the end…Argh!
    Have just finished University and am now looking for books to add to my reading list which is already as long as my arm… The Shining is supposed to be terrifying, and a classic. Should I wait until it gets cold so I can get really spooked?
    Thank you for liking my Peachy-Keen Cake! Will keep following your entertaining blog.
    Rosie x

    June 9, 2012
    Reply
  45. said:

    Excellent list, some I wouldn’t expect. Personally, Orwell’s “1984” still scares the bejesus out of me.

    June 9, 2012
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  46. The Shining, of course, and Ghost Story both kept me up at night. The one that really did me in though, that I don’t know if I could even read again, was Salem’s Lot. Years later, I still shiver, covered in goosebumps at the thought of the boy scratching on the window, “Danny, let me in,.,.”

    June 11, 2012
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  47. Wonderful post with outstanding selections. I’ve read (and loved) nine of the ten. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never gotten around to The Exorcist, but I’ll rectify that this summer.

    Ghost Story is my favorite horror novel of all time, and Stephen King is my favorite author regardless of genre. So…I guess it stands to reason that I loved your list!

    June 12, 2012
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  48. said:

    I was glad to see I AM LEGEND on the list! It scared the crap out of me.

    June 13, 2012
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  49. said:

    In 1965 I read Brahm Stoker’s “Dracula” by flashlight in my bed at night while attending prep school. My window opened up to the functional courtyard of the main dormitory on campus, where the garbage and milk trucks came to take and deliver respectively. That courtyard was dimly lit by a few outdoor lights, and was often filled with billowing mist. Cats played out their games of dominance, and their growls and spits echoed up to my window, which I kept cracked open.

    The scariest thing I ever read was of Harker, while in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, looking out his bedroom window and spying the count skittering up the exterior wall with an infant in his mouth.

    As talented as Steven King is, I think Stoker needs to be on your list, and very high up.

    July 12, 2012
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  50. Thanks for making this list. Some books I have not yet read. Will have to try them out. Glad you like my poem about friendship, love, lost, etc. I wrote that many years ago when in a “different place”.

    July 16, 2012
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  51. The Stand! By all means! I remember reading that until about 4 in the morning and sneaking it onto my desk at work. One of the few books I couldn’t put down until I had read it cover to cover.

    July 20, 2012
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  52. jennifer cart said:

    I just finished “the shining” and I don’t recall any little girls. Maybe you’re thinking of the movie version.

    July 24, 2012
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  53. said:

    An excellent list. I would humbly like to add “Naomi’s Room” by Jonathan Aycliffe – a really chilling ghost story. Thanks for liking my poetry blog.

    July 26, 2012
    Reply
  54. said:

    Love this post! I’m going to be checking out one or two of these from my local library for sure! Thank you.

    September 13, 2012
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  55. said:

    I’m a huuuuge King fan — he’s my fav — and I’ve read both of the books on this list. I have to say, “The Dark Half” scared me more than “The Stand” and “The Shining” combined.

    September 19, 2012
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  56. said:

    What an awesome and complete list you have, well nearly. In my opinion Mr.King has not written anything than our resident nightmare clown found in the pages of “It”.

    September 21, 2012
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  57. KittyKutter666 said:

    im going to try and read these books they all look good but The Haunting Of The Hill House looks like it would be the best…….WISH ME LUCK!!!!!1

    October 1, 2012
    Reply
  58. […] just a few days away, so here’s a list of the top 10 scariest books of all time, from the Literary Man. You reading something scary to get yourself in the […]

    October 26, 2012
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  59. said:

    Epic fail on saying that the twins are in the novel of The Shining.

    December 17, 2012
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  60. said:

    Scariest books of all time are the boriest books of all time. To be bored to death is scary!

    December 18, 2012
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  61. said:

    Love the list. For me The Stand was brilliant. Didn’t think the unedited version added that much but loved the book

    December 19, 2012
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  62. Anonymous said:

    In the book version of the shining the twin girls are rarely even mentioned….that was something Kubrick added to the movie.

    June 8, 2013
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  63. Jonee said:

    Nice list. I never felt like The Exorcist was a scary read though. Blatty has an eloquence to his writing that is so soft in many parts of the story. I found the main theme to be the inner struggle Of Father Karras and his faith. Regardless, it’s a wonderful read!
    I agree with an earlier post about McCarthy’s The Road. Naomi’s Room by Johnathan Aycliffe terrified me as a teen! That one would top my list.

    July 26, 2013
    Reply
  64. Elizabeth Gaucher said:

    Silence of the Lambs terrified me so much that I threw the book away. I put it under existing garbage in my parents’ kitchen so someone would take it away. I still remember the exact moment when I thought the next chapter might describe a person being skinned alive and I freaked out.

    To this day I don’t know if that is in the book.

    August 10, 2013
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