Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Top 20 Horror Novels

This October, I celebrated Halloween all month long by ranking my Top 20 Horror Novels and my Top 20 Horror Movies.  These were difficult endeavors and I spent a lot of time narrowing my choices down.  It was also a lot of fun, and I'm pleased to share the results with my readers.

I'm not attempting to rank these novels based on their place in pop culture, but rather their place in my heart.  Isn't that sweet?  Seriously, there are some fine books that didn't make the cut here because there just wasn't room, and there are definitely some well-regarded books that didn't make the cut because I don't really like them.  That also means there are some personal favorites of mine on this list that you may not have heard of.  If that's the case, I promise that I'll reward your trust with a gnarly tale if you give one of them a spin.  

#20) Amok by George Fox (from 1980)

This is one of a few books on this list that straddle the line between thriller and chiller.  In the end, while some may see it as an example of the former, I obviously place it among the latter.  The ending is particularly bloodcurdling, and even if it boasts the plot of a thriller, this novel finds its way into the horror genre by virtue of all the gore and unsettling violence contained on those yellowed pages.  The story concerns an unusually large Japanese soldier armed with a lethal blade and a twisted mind who is still on the hunt in a remote valley in the Phillipines decades after WWII has ended.  Enter Vietnam veteran Michael Braden, whose brother is the latest victim of this virtual killing machine.  Braden returns to the family plantation in the Cagayan Valley that he has been avoiding for most of his life and promptly initiates a manhunt for the renegade soldier.  He is joined on this treacherous undertaking by a handful of men, most of whom are harboring dark secrets.  One of them seeks to make things right--he is the renegade soldier's commanding officer, a man who feared this violent brute so much that he ordered him to remain in the jungle to continue fighting when their orders to return home were issued.  Yet another supposed ally is also troubled by things he did in the war, but he would rather ensure that these sins remain a mystery than attempt to atone for them.  All the while, their prey relentlessly stalks anyone in his path, ruthlessly dismantling any living being that he encounters.  There are a number of themes that Fox explores in this book, but he never sacrifices any momentum along the way.  Amok remains a slick and engrossing ride populated by well-drawn characters that is punctuated by shocking moments of sheer brutality.  I absolutely love this book, and I think it's a great way to kick off this list.

#19) Manstopper by Douglas Borton (from 1988)

Manstopper is one of a handful of novels that I read from cover to cover in a single sitting the first time that I picked it up.  I have revisited it several times over the years and it never fails to entertain me.  This isn't all that surprising, as I'm a big fan of "nature runs amok" fare, with Jaws standing as the obvious high-water mark for that particular sub-genre.  Manstopper takes a different approach and is vastly inferior to Peter Benchley's beloved masterpiece, but it is a fine book nonetheless.  The story centers on a pack of deadly dobermans preying on the unfortunate inhabitants of a quaint little town.  These fearsome animals have been trained to kill, and when they're set loose upon an unsuspecting populace, gruesome terror ensues.  Manstopper features likable characters and an appropriate setting, and Borton does a fine job with all the suspense and outright terror that his killer dogs conjure up.  Each of these fascinating creatures has a name and a personality, and the author's efforts to capture portions of the tale from their perspective are admirable.  There's also a human villain in the mix, and the plot is just complex enough to allow the reader to really sink their hooks in while remaining simple enough to rocket along at a breakneck pace.  The author shows little restraint, but I don't think that the novel ever devolves into trashy pulp--though it certainly toes the line at times.  Manstopper is a thrilling book with a gripping climax that is totally satisfying.  Douglas Borton (who now writes thrillers as Michael Prescott) engineered a nifty exercise in excitement that delivers the goods when he wrote this book with enough bite to match a considerable bark, earning a spot on my list.

#18) Intensity by Dean Koontz (from 1995)
Intensity is the perfect title for this razor-sharp thriller that is guaranteed to scare readers senseless.  Koontz weaves a tight web throughout, thrusting readers into one of his most impressive tales and keeping things red hot until a brilliant climax.  This 1995 effort is one of my favorite books by this author and it may be the finest example of his talent; the premise is relatively simple, but the characterizations, the pacing, and (most importantly) the execution are all sensational.  The heroine, one Chyna Shepard, is gutsy and likable, and as she is pushed to her limit and beyond, it becomes easier and easier to root for her.  Edgler Vess, the villain of the piece, is frightening and calculating in equal measures.  Vess is well-drawn, a curious serial killer with an ample dose of humanity who remains scary enough to stand as an embodiment of unadulterated evil.  These engaging characters spend the entire book engaged in a nerve-rattling game of cat and mouse that makes Intensity damn near impossible to put down.  Though I have often lamented Koontz books for failing to deliver the goods in the conclusion, this one features a worthy ending that underscores the quality of the story.  In short, if you're looking for a horror novel that can scare your socks off without any supernatural elements, you can't go wrong with Intensity.

#17) The Terror by Dan Simmons (from 2007)

Dan Simmons makes my list with this highly fictionalized account of John Franklin's attempt to force the Northwest Passage in 1845.  The disappearance of Franklin's crew remains a mystery, and here Simmons offers up a grim and truly terrifying explanation that is guaranteed to send shivers racing down your spine.  The main character is not John Franklin, captain of the HMS Erebus and the leader of the expedition, but rather Francis Crozier.  Crozier is the captain of the HMS Terror, the ship that accompanied Franklin on his doomed mission.  This engaging protagonist has been rejected by the woman he loves, so he promptly turns his attention to adventure in the Arctic.  Suffice it to say that he gets a lot more than he bargained for.  After Franklin perishes, Crozier is placed in charge of the expedition.  Unusually harsh weather leads to the men of the Eremus and the Terror being stranded in the ice, where they must deal with a dwindling food supply and the brutal cold.  Making matters worse, a vicious and highly intelligent monster is stalking them, and thus Crozier finds himself at odds with supernatural terror, the threat of starvation, hypothermia, and mutiny.  The Terror is rather bleak and some may not enjoy this strange combination of historical fiction and monstrous mayhem.  At the same time, it is exciting and thoroughly engrossing, and I had a great time with this book.  It may not be for the faint of heart, but for those who enjoy a horrific yarn about a dire struggle for survival in the most difficult of conditions, it may be hard to top The Terror.

#16) The Snake by John Godey (from 1978)

John Godey (the pen name used by Morton Freedgood) was a sound writer who excelled at at spinning intense yarns that were incredibly grounded.  The plausibility that he fostered was a tremendous asset, and that realism is certainly one of the highlights of this exciting book.  This is the second (but not the last) "nature runs amok" story to make my list, so my appreciation for that particular sub-genre may factor into my decision to include this one.  Regardless, it's a nifty book that I really enjoy.  Godey mostly worked within the realm of crime fiction, and he puts his knowledge in that arena to great use in The Snake, wherein a curious set of circumstances leads to a deadly black mamba finding a new home in Central Park.  This fearsome predator begins preying on the people of New York and panic ensues in this riveting tale that never becomes so sensational that it defies the author's dedication to realism.  That being said, it's never dull either; the pace is as brisk as the prose is clear.  The characters include a herpetologist who wants to save the snake, a weary cop who has never worked a case quite like this before, and a fearless reporter  who is looking for her next big scoop.  The setting being New York City, a religious sect that sees the snake as a physical incarnation of Satan himself also hits the scene, greatly complicating matters.  Light on terror but heavy on suspense, The Snake is a sound realization of a frightening premise.  It may not be a big hit with those who enjoy audacious fare, but those who appreciate a realistic approach to potent subject matter will greatly appreciate this lean chiller.

#15) Son of the Endless Night by John Farris (from 1985)

This is the first novel from John Farris to make my list, but it won't be the last.  Farris is one of three authors who will have more than one entry in this Top 20, and truth be told, he's my favorite.  Now, I think that Stephen King is probably a better writer, but no one is able to manipulate me quite the way that this impressive southern author with a diminutive public persona does.  Farris has hit me with twists that were so hard that I spent several minutes reading the same paragraph over and over again and trying to figure out if my copy of the book was fucked up before I finally got it.  He has written tales where the guy you believe to be the protagonist for the first third of the book turns out to be the antagonist.  He is an amazing talent, and it's a shame that many who love the horror genre as much as I do are unfamiliar with his work.  Son of the Endless Night is one of his biggest and boldest tales, and it features several of this author's trademarks, to include at least one major twist and several perverse and terrifying sequences.  The characters are robust and extremely entertaining, yet Farris doesn't deal in caricatures, so these vibrant figures are well-defined and believable.  There have been several horror yarns that deal with possession over the years, but there is only one (yes, that one, and it will be featured much higher on my list) that I consider to be superior to Son of the Endless Night.  This book is overflowing with intriguing figures, haunting themes, and shocking moments.  It contains one of my favorite characters ever, one Conor Devon, a failed priest who decided to become a professional wrestler.  There is a part where he decides to find out if a primary character is truly possessed (Conor couldn't cut it as a priest because he doesn't really believe in such things) by touching that character with a Catholic wafer, and this has to be one of my favorite sequences ever put on paper.   One particular subplot involving a pair of bible-thumpers who drive a big rig that is totally pimped out for Jesus is maybe a bit too much, but I enjoyed it.  In the end, Son of the Endless Night may not be the best possession tale out there, but it is a terrifying odyssey into demonic terror courtesy of a true master who deserves a much higher standing in the literary world.

#14) Rockinghorse by William W. Johnstone (from 1986)

Pulpy, crude, and even downright amateurish in spots, this book makes my list because it is undeniably unsettling.  In truth, there are a great many horror novels that I have read in this life that are vastly superior to this rugged gem from 1986 when it comes to the quality of the prose, yet this one really got under my skin in a way that most of those books did not.  Maybe that's because it's so raw, and maybe it's because I didn't really expect such a book to generate such tension and fright.  It doesn't really matter, in the end I wouldn't be putting together a very honest list for you guys if I didn't include this trashy offering from William W. Johnstone, a prolific author who churned out a lot of lowbrow fiction in his lifetime.  The premise is both simple and familiar: a family moves to the old plantation home in the south that the father has recently inherited and it isn't long before strange things start happening and haunting family secrets come to light.  Things really take a turn for the worst when a satanic cult shows up with demented plans for our innocent family.  There's also the rockinghorse of the title, a child's plaything that has somehow become an instrument of evil.  This wicked toy won't stay in the attic and cannot be destroyed.  Johnstone may not show a lot of finesse, but he definitely knows how to keep things popping.  What are those beasts lurking in the woods?  Who can our desperate family trust?  Will anyone survive the gruesome carnage that Johnstone unleashes in this bloodthirsty romp?  This one is solely for those who love a twisted tale with a lot of shock value and aren't easily offended by grisly subject matter.  You know how people say they were so unnerved by a book or a movie that they started checking to make sure that all of their doors and windows are locked?  This is the only such offering that actually inspired me to do that.  I was a teenager at the time, but it happened.  I should probably point out that I have revisited this title as an adult, and while its flaws were more pronounced, it still managed to give me the willies.  In summary, I'm pretty sure that Rockinghorse is easily the worst book to make this Top 20, but it may be the scariest entry as well.

#13) Vampire$ by John Steakley (from 1990)

 First off, I should acknowledge that this book was the basis for John Carpenter's Vampires, one of my favorite director's lesser films.  The movie was entertaining (a lesser John Carpenter film is still a worthwhile spookshow), but it was a far cry from this cinema titan's finest efforts.  I also want to point out that there is very, very little in the way of similarities between the book and the movie.  Honestly, they took the main character (Jack Crow, a wise-cracking anti-hero) and the idea of professional vampire hunters working for the Catholic church, and they proceeded to tell their own story.  Despite its shortcomings, I like the picture, but if is woefully inferior to this tense and exciting book that delivers a lot of terror and a number of thrills.  While the vampire mythos remains popular, vampires that are genuinely scary are certainly a rarity these days.  All too often, they've been presented as heroes of some sort or laughable caricatures in the Bela Lugosi mold.  In 1990, author John Steakley managed to give these creatures of the night some serious bite, and while legions of lovestruck females still have "Team Edward" tee-shirts hidden away somewhere, no one would want to humor the prospect of going on a hunt with Team Crow.  Though the vampire slaying business is booming in Vampire$, it is depicted as a job fit only for the truly deranged.  Thus Jack Crow is aided by a rowdy band of likable lunatics, and their frantic efforts to wage war with the undead are the backbone of this grim tale that manages to generate a few sly laughs along the way as the characters we come to love are slowly but surely destroyed by the crusade they have undertaken.  There is a section in the middle of Vampire$ where a subplot that borders on erotica nearly takes all the life out of the novel, but it is sandwiched between a wealth of carnage that is guaranteed to keep readers invested in the tale.  One can only wonder how awesome a faithful adaptation of this one would play out on the big screen, but at least we will always have this wicked book to sink our fangs into.

#12) Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (from 1978)

Stephen King hit the nail on the head: if Raymond Chandler and William Peter Blatty co-wrote a novel, it would probably be something akin to William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel.  This superb effort pits a hard-boiled private dick against 'Ol Scratch himself.  As ridiculous as that may sound, Hjortsberg's stirring prose, keen wit, and steady pace combine to make this one a real winner.  This is the rare gripping yarn that succeeds at more than one thing, as it is both a quality detective story and a blood-curdling horror novel.  The main character, Harry Angel, is a rugged hero who clearly doesn't know what he's getting into when he takes on a missing persons case that will bring him face to face with ultimate evil.  While there is a potent noir flavor to Falling Angel that aids the title in making it seem as though our weary protagonist is doomed from the start, he's compelling and gutsy enough to ensure that we root for him all the way to the bitter end.  This book was the inspiration for Alan Parker's stunning motion picture of the same name and anyone who gives this wicked tale a try will quickly recognize that it was destined to be translated to film.  The movie is a solid adaptation that stays true to Hjortsberg's book while varying just enough from the text to make it difficult to choose between the two.  They're both awesome, and (most importantly) each property is genuinely frightening.  Anyone who digs the pitch should have a great time with either (I love them both), and Falling Angel is a novel that I positively treasure.  I expected this one to crack my Top 10 when I started working on this list, but Harry Angel will have to settle for #12.  We'll certainly see more of the devil as these rankings progress. 

#11) Christine by Stephen King (from 1983)

Like King's best books (a number of which were published during the late 70s and early 80s), Christine is jam-packed with an embarrassment of riches.  It serves as both a thrilling story that is ripe with terror and a meditation on a great many things, to include coming of age, young love, and the insidious manner in which the things we cherish can build barriers between us and the people we cherish.  Christine hooks the reader from the very start thanks to King's stirring prose and his profound ability to craft compelling characters, allowing the horror lurking within the pages of this book to unfold slowly.  This makes the shocking incidents of violence and murder that much more provocative when they arrive.  There's a curious nature to the tale that makes it fresh and original, and far more haunting.  Is it a ghost story or is it a tale of possession?  Is young Arnie Cunningham an innocent victim or does he allow a dangerous obsession to forever warp his mind?  I also have to point out that I love King's use of song lyrics throughout the book to set the mood.  Many of his staples are here, to include despicable human villains to go along with any demonic entities on the prowl.  Christine is a ferocious book that should please anyone who likes a good scare and it is a stellar example of the talent and creativity that have made Stephen King a legend.

#10) The Manitou by Graham Masterton (from 1975)

Graham Masterton can be a little hit and miss and he certainly favors entertainment over plausibility, but when he's on, he can dish out terror with the best of them.  The Manitou is a great example of his talent, and while it may be a bit too bold for some (and far too politically incorrect for others), it is undeniably intriguing from start to finish.  In addition, while some of the terminology and the conclusion ("Red Indians" pops up a lot and a white dude does seemingly triumph over Indian magic in the end) may be seen as an affront to Indian culture, there's also a lot of love for that same culture embedded in the text.  The character of Singing Rock, a heroic medicine man who puts aside his hatred of the white man to battle an ancient evil that he knows he cannot stand against, is a great example of that affection.  I believe that many of the flaws regarding the author's interpretation of both American culture and Indian culture can be chalked up to the fact that Masterton is British--and this was his first novel.  As such, it does have its flaws, but it is also filled with shocking moments and terrifying imagery, perhaps the best example of which is the gruesome "rebirth" scene.  Masterton does a stellar job of summoning a sinister atmosphere that may linger with readers long after they have finished The Manitou.  This debut effort spawned a decent movie that mostly succeeded in emulating the book right up until the wheels fell off during an incredibly ill-advised attempt to depict the novel's climax.  Masterton has revisited Indian culture frequently throughout his career to great effect, and he has written several quality sequels to The Manitou.  The third entry in the saga (Burial, published in 1991) is particularly worthwhile, but this 1975 horror novel remains Masterton's finest offering.

I should probably point out that Masterton blended Indian mythology with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos in The Manitou.  While we are dealing with fiction and I think this is rather badass, in 2015 there are surely those who will view this aspect of the book as culturally insensitive as well.

#9) At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft (from 1936)

The Terror gave us a fictionalized and gruesome account of Sir John Franklin's attempt to force the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.  This mind-boggling tale of a scientific expedition in Antarctica makes the horror that Franklin and his men encountered at the other end of the globe seem rather tame by comparison.  To describe Lovecraft's work as disturbing would be a bit of an understatement, but some may be surprised by how subdued his prose is.  His elaborate but matter-of-fact delivery heightens the plausibility of his work even as his detailed descriptions of horrible entities of incredible evil and might continue to plague readers with nightmares.  While his short fiction is perhaps the best representation of his prowess, this gripping novel is nothing short of remarkable.  As we learn more and more about a doomed journey into the harshest of conditions and the terrible findings that lead to insanity and death for most of the people involved, the tale works its way deeper and deeper under our skin.  While there is a wealth of fantastic content on display throughout, those expecting lots of carnage may find themselves more than a little disappointed.  However, those looking for crisp writing and a formidable sense of unease that steadily grows until it blossoms into something twisted and unspeakable in a nerve-rattling conclusion will go bonkers for At the Mountains of Madness.  While his work will surely be a bigger hit with some than others, anyone who enjoys horror owes it to themselves to sample Lovecraft's unique style, and this terrific yarn is definitely deserving of a spot in my Top 20.

#8) All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By by John Farris (from 1977)

Incredibly strange, incredibly perverse, and incredibly terrifying, All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By is my favorite horror novel from John Farris.  I raved about this vastly underrated author when I discussed Son of the Endless Night, but I think it bears repeating: no one is as daring and as twisted as this marvelous talent who delights in yanking the rug out from under his readers.  Shocking twists, startling revelations, and intense depictions of stark and relentless horror are the norm in his novels.  Few of his works are as potent as this bizarre yet inviting saga that is elevated by the author's gift for sensational plotting and his sterling prose.  The opening details the worst wedding of all time and stands as one of the most frightening sequences that Farris has ever written, and things only get darker and stranger as this tale progresses.  A proud southern family is undone by sinister forces with a terrible need for vengeance in this wild and jarring ride.  Voodoo, snakes, and madness are at the forefront throughout, and there is a strong sexual element to the novel that surely pushes the envelope.  Intriguing characters, dangerous situations, and a wealth of demonic carnage keep things lively even as the book grows wilder and more bizarre with every page that is turned.  Indeed, while there are a great many who cherish this tale as much as yours truly, there are also a great many who found the novel too perplexing or too sensational--or both!  I can't recommend All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By highly enough, nor can I say enough about John Farris, an extremely talented author who never fails to deliver the goods.

#7) Hell House by Richard Matheson (from 1971)

Obviously, my pick for the haunted house novel to end all haunted house novels (sorry, Shirley Jackson) was bound to make my list.  Richard Matheson was an imaginative author with a knack for for grounding his supernatural yarns to such an extent that his work seemed far more plausible than typical horror fare.  His strong characterizations, his clear voice, and his creativity also made his books incredibly worthwhile, and Hell House was surely one of his best efforts.  It has a rather straightforward premise: a physicist, his wife, and a pair of mediums are hired by a dying millionaire who yearns to know if there is life after death.  To find the answer, he sends them into an infamous haunted house where untold perversions and atrocities have unfolded over the years.  Indeed, one of the mediums is the only survivor of a failed expedition into the same house some thirty years prior.  The house has a sinister ability to subtly influence those who enter, essentially allowing them to destroy themselves--with a little push here or there for good measure.  Both a riveting tale of terror and and an intriguing mystery concerning the origins of the evil lurking within the imposing Belasco House, Matheson's novel is a thrilling read.  Hell House is a sound exercise in generating tension and wringing unimaginable fear out of a dim and foreboding setting that is both a locale and a character in and of itself.  Readers will be hooked from the very start, and the conclusion is utterly fantastic.  In my humble opinion, Hell House is a towering achievement in the realm of literary horror.

#6) The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (from 1971)

 It's common knowledge that the book is always better than the movie, and this remains the case even if a film based on a book is a startling success.  In fact, this holds true even if the movie is a legitimate classic, as is the case with William Peter Blatty's defining achievement, The Exorcist.  The movie is a faithful adaptation, so readers who have never experienced the novel won't find any shocking differences.  They will find greater depth and stronger characterizations, and a greater sense of dread that grows steadily until the horrifying conclusion.  One subplot, which concerns the demon that has possessed young Reagan MacNeil toying with Father Karras by making it clear that darkest evil is at work while neglecting to provide him with the necessary proof to clear an exorcism with the church, plays a much larger role in the book.  Yet I think it is safe to say that William Friedkin did an excellent job of translating this powerful chiller to the screen, and both the novel and the movie tell the same story.  It's just that books allow for a more immersive experience, and forging a greater bond with Chris MacNeil and Father Karras only serves to escalate the mind-numbing terror that the author generates with his bold and fearsome story.  The prose is exceptional, with Blatty's gift for crafting compelling characters and his loving descriptions of grotesque developments elevating this classic tale of good versus evil to immortality.  It has often been stated that the film based on this text is the scariest movie of them all, and I happen to agree with that sentiment.  By placing The Exorcist at #6 on my list, I'm letting everyone know that William Peter Blatty's book is worthy of the same sort of  praise, and it is a far richer experience than its cinematic counterpart.

Bonus Points: Blatty's sequel, Legion, is also an impressive novel, and anyone who enjoys The Exorcist should take the time to read it as well.

#5) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (from 1954)

A case study in isolation and loneliness and a genre epic all rolled into one, this book packs a mean punch.  Matheson has an incredible body of work, but this 1954 epic is his best offering.  The tale concerns the last living man's woeful struggle to survive in a world that has been overrun by vampires.  Haunting and insightful, Robert Neville’s gripping saga culminates with one of the most compelling endings in the history of storytelling. That’s high praise indeed, and it may explain why Hollywood has put this tale on film several times now without embracing the bravery and the finesse that bringing the conclusion to life would require.  The clarity and the pace that define this work serve to provide readers with a stirring adventure that unfolds quickly.  Matheson has always believed in shipping the freight, and I Am Legend is a fine example of his ability to paint a vivid picture without any unnecessary brushstrokes. Much like the other books I’ve featured on this list, I would highly recommend this title to any reader, regardless of their feelings on the horror genre. I Am Legend is a legendary book (forgive me) and that climax will stick with you forever.

#4) The Stand by Stephen King (from 1978)

First off, while I would happily include either version of this massive tale on my list, I do prefer Stephen King's expanded and updated version from 1990.  Either way, this epic struggle between good and evil is one of the most impressive books I have ever read.  The Stand's reach extends well beyond the horror genre and it may be King's greatest achievement.  I favor another of his works (more on that later), yet I think those who proclaim this as the finest horror novel of our time have a solid argument on their hands.  Populated by vivid characters (some of whom are good, some of whom are evil, and some who are true wild cards), this devastating tale is overflowing with riches.  Trying to pick a favorite character or sequence is all but impossible, and the book is ripe with terror, suspense, and drama--hell, there's even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  The quality of the writing is a testament to both the power and the charm that King wields, and the imaginative plot coupled with the dark horrors that roam these pages clearly display why genre fans have so much affection for this visionary author.  To read The Stand is to fall in love with it, and this stellar opus set the bar for any attempt to tell a scary story on a grand scale.  New readers will be blown away by the experience, and fans of the book who choose to revisit this one will always find something new to cherish upon their return.  The Stand isn't just a classic horror novel, it's truly one of the best novels ever written.

#3) Jaws by Peter Benchley (from 1974)

Jaws is a different kind of horror novel, but that's precisely what makes it so powerful.  There are no supernatural entities or terrifying madman on the loose, merely a big fish that Peter Benchley presents as a deadly force of nature.  Any allusions to this actual sea monster's intelligence or nature are slight enough that we're never asked to believe that it is on a diabolical rampage.  It's just a really big shark with a really big appetite that decides to camp out in the same area for a little while.  Benchley's considerable knowledge and experience gave him the authority to present a believable account of what might happen if such a predator were to linger in the waters off a quaint little seaside community.  It's that realism that makes his novel so terrifying.  I love Dracula, but I'm not afraid of vampires because they don't really exist.  Yet, like many, though I enjoy the ocean greatly, I do fear that one day a shark might decide to see what I taste like.  It's an awful prospect, and Benchley had the talent to match his expertise--his brisk writing paints a vivid picture of the awful carnage that a massive great white shark could inflict on a human being.  Benchley also gave us a wonderful setting for his tale, the lovable town of Amity, and his characters spring to life as we sink deeper and deeper into his robust tale.  Those who know the movie well but have never experienced the book will discover a pair of exciting subplots that didn't make it to the screen, namely the stubborn mayor's ties to the mob and Ellen Brody's fling with Hooper.  Chief Brody is never certain of his wife's infidelity, but he knows something is amiss, and this particular subplot creates a wealth of tension when he and Hooper take to the sea alongside the salty sailor Quint in a rousing third act.  Primary characters who survived the movie perish in the novel, and the conclusion of the book is far different (and vastly superior) to the exciting climax that Spielberg chose for his film.  There's also a lot of warmth and character development that serves to keep readers thoroughly invested.  Honestly, my favorite scene in the book is a dinner party where Brody has a bit too much to drink.  In closing, Jaws is one of the best books ever written, and it still has enough bite to scare people away from the ocean.

#2) 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King (from 1975)

'Salem’s Lot was Stephen King’s second published novel, and even the master himself has gone on record as stating that it is his favorite.  Ben Mears is a fabulous hero, maybe the finest protagonist aside from Roland that King’s fertile mind has given birth to, and the town of Jerusalem’s Lot is so well-defined and utterly fascinating that it becomes a character in and of itself.  As this masterpiece unfolds, we come to know and love both the characters and the setting for this dark epic.  By the time the tale draws to a close, nearly all of the players and the town itself have suffered a grisly fate.  This is just my kind of book: King takes his time with the story, building a strong foundation before unleashing hell in a frantic third act that takes no prisoners.  No one is safe in ‘Salem’s Lot, and the action is both brutal and realistic, giving the supernatural yarn an air of authenticity.  The basic premise is rooted in the absurd, yet this feels like a poignant character study of the highest order.  If I’m gushing, that’s probably because I truly love this book.  I read it every year, typically in the fall, and it only seems to grow larger and more wonderful each time I return to 'Salem's Lot.  It's the type of book that I would recommend to those who don’t really care for stories about things that go bump in the night as well as those who cherish the horror genre as much as I do.  I have often said that King’s work is typically equal parts blood-curdling terror and thoughtful meditation on American culture.  This 1975 smash hit is no exception, and I believe it stands as the maestro’s finest hour. 

#1) Dracula by Bram Stoker (from 1897)

First off, let's be clear: the story that is told in Dracula is a stellar combination of fright, romance, and adventure that has stood the test of time, inspiring plays and movies that are nearly as famous as Stoker's groundbreaking novel.  The character at the heart of the tale, the fiendish Count with a thirst for blood, is woven into the very fabric of the horror genre, and in the realm of fiction, he has proven immortal.  Yet I think what's often missing from praise for this thrilling book is commentary that underscores just how impressive Bram Stoker's writing is.  The style he chose for Dracula is epistolary, meaning this classic is composed of various journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings.  The notion of telling a grand tale in such a fashion is daunting to say the very least, yet Stoker absolutely slayed it.  Various voices come into play and an engrossing plot unfolds with style.  Dracula is a fantastic yarn that is granted plausibility by the approach the author adopted, but he didn't sacrifice any momentum or flair by telling this invigorating story with a series of articles.  His ability to spin a yarn that is both haunting and seductive, much like the titular menace who remains at the forefront of the vampire sub-genre, remains a pleasure to behold.  Better than a century after he was set loose on our world, Dracula still reigns supreme in the realm of horror literature.  Those who have read this bold and enticing tale of terror will undoubtedly share my enthusiasm for Stoker's defining work, and those who haven't should pick up a copy and start their trek into the dark heart of Transylvania.

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