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Ranking the Rankings 1: Horror Fiction

Scary book/story rankings: the web is littered with such lists, and there’s even a whole book of them (2008’s THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR). My problems with most rankings of this sort are that they often evince an ill-informed knowledge of horror fiction, and that certain titles tend to recur on every listing (DRACULA, THE TURN OF THE SCREW, much of the oeuvre of Stephen King). Check out the following “Scariest Books of All Time” list, chosen by customers of The Book Depository:

1. THE SHINING by Stephen King
2. IT by Stephen King
3. DRACULA by Bram Stoker
4. THE COMPLETE TALES & POEMS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE
5. THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty
6. FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley
7. PET SEMATERY by Stephen King
8. HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski
9. ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King
10. THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James
11. THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
12. NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell
13. CARRIE by Stephen King
14. MISERY by Stephen King
15. NECRONOMICON by Simon
16. THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill
17. AMERICAN PSYCHO by Brett Easton Ellis
18. GOOSEBUMPS
19. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR by Jay Anson
20. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris

     Note the overabundance of Stephen King titles and lack of anything by Ramsey Campbell, Michael McDowell, T.M. Wright or a myriad of other horror masters. I tend to think those writers might have made the list had The Book Depository’s customers actually read any of them. Likewise, I strongly doubt there would have been an entry for NECRONOMICON if only more of the compilers had bothered to peruse the H.P. Lovecraft stories that inspired that book. I also suspect many of the lists’ compilers let their kids vote (the likely reason for the GOOSEBUMPS inclusion).
     Below are 10 horror fiction listings that are more authoritative in every respect. Appropriately enough, I’ve ranked these rankings from 1 to 10 (and transcribed the listings when appropriate), starting with:

1. The Books by Stephen King
DANSE MACABRE; 1981
     Published as an appendix to Stephen King’s popular nonfiction tome DANSE MACABRE, this is an unerringly thorough and well chosen 100 (or so) book piece that includes everything from THE PLAGUE DOGS by Richard Adams to THE UNICORN by Iris Murdoch and GHOULS IN MY GRAVE by Jean Ray. This list has been widely imitated over the years, if not duplicated outright (see Douglas E. Winter’s suspiciously similar “Best of Horror Fiction” listing at the end of 1985’s FACES OF FEAR), but it remains the definitive horror book listing of our time.

2. HORROR: THE 100 BEST BOOKS by Stephen Jones & Kim Newman
1988
     The only instance here in which the listing in question is a book, with each entry chosen by a famous horror writer who provides an accompanying essay.
     My only caveat is with the title, as the tomes selected are most assuredly not the 100 best horror books. Indeed, not all the selections are even horror-themed (Herman Melville’s CONFIDENCE MAN and Tim Powers’ ANNUBIS GATES in particular), although nearly all are great reads.

3. 13 Neglected Masterpieces of the Macabre by R.S. Hadji
Twilight Zone Magazine; 1983

1. BASIL NETHERBY by A.C. Benson
2. BURY HIM DARKLY by John Blackburn
3. THE DARK CHAMBER by Leonard Cline
4. THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE by Hanns Heinz Ewers
5. THE SHINY NARROW GRIN by Jane Gaskell
6. CHILDREN OF THE BLACK SABBATH by Anne Hebert
7. NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND by Gordon Honeycombe
8. TALES OF THE UNEASY by Violent Hunt
9. A BOOK OF BARGAINS by Vincent O’Sullivan
10. THE HOLE OF THE PIT by Adrian Ross
11. RANDALL’S ROUND by Eleanor Scott
12. THE ACCURSED by Claude Seignolle
13. MEDUSA by E.H. Visiak

     In my view the most potent of the listings that make up the Twilight Zone magazine’s fabled “Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf.” Karl Edward Wagner’s entries are the most popular, but these 13 “Neglected Masterpieces” are the heart of the FFFB. Some great reading suggestions here, and R.S. Hadji provides excellent commentary about each of them.

4. Spooky Stories by David Pelfrey
Los Angeles View; 1995

“The Ash Tree”/“Lonely Hearts” by M.R. James
“The Lame Shall Enter First” by Flannery O’Connor
“The Cicerones” by Robert Aickman
“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood
“Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare
“The Dunwich Horror”/“The Picture in the House” by H.P. Lovecraft
“The New Rays” by M. John Harrison
“The Tuckahoe” by Nancy Etchemendy
“Like Mother Used to Make”/“Trial by Combat”/“Men with Their Big Shoes” by Shirley Jackson
“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen
“The Anchoress” by Beverly Evans/“The Premonition” by Joyce Carol Oates

     A most unexpected gem of a list that appeared in the 1995 Halloween issue of the late Los Angeles View. I like the mixture of big names (Blackwood, Lovecraft, etc) with lesser known talents, and the author’s insightful comments are a further bonus.

5. 31 Horror Stories by Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt.com
     Yes, that Patton Oswalt, who it turns out is quite knowledgeable about horror literature. His 31 story listing contains some laudably off-the-beaten-path choices, including Harlan Ellison’s “From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet,” “The Seventh Floor” by Dino Buzzati and the skin-crawling “N0072-JK1” by Adam Corbin Fuscio. Oswalt even includes “The Jaunt,” one of my favorite Stephen King tales.
     The formatting is a bit awkward, with each story profiled in a standalone blog entry, but taken as a whole this is about as potent a scary story listing as nearly any you’ll find.

6. A Century of Horror by Paula Guran
Dark Echo; 1999
     The intent here was not, Dark Echo’s Paula Guran claims, a “best of” listing, but rather “a list of 100 meritorious books of horror published between the years 1900 and 2000.” Furthermore, “Anthologies are considered separately” and “Authors are mentioned only once” with titles that are “indicative of their writing”--hence the many short story collections on the list. That’s an awful lot of rules, and explains why the listing overall isn’t as strong as it could be.
     There are strong choices though, beginning with Robert Aickman’s SUB ROSA and concluding with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, and goodies like THE WASP FACTORY, HEART OF DARKNESS, GEEK LOVE and JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN contained in between.

7. Books at the End of the Night by Bartok Kinski
Amazon.com; 2011
     One of those Amazon “Listmania” rankings, this one dedicated to horrific and surreal literature from outside the US. It’s a terrifically eclectic 39 item list that highlights authors like Gustav Meyrink, Gaston Leroux and Hermann Ungar, and books like Vitezslav Nezval’s VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS, Blaise Cendrars’ MORAGAVINE and Jose Donoso’s OBSCENE BIRD OF NIGHT. My only real complaint is with the ordering--Alfred Kubin’s THE OTHER SIDE, for instance, is ranked at #13, and I feel it should be placed much higher.

8. Robert Bloch’s Ten Favorite Horror-Fantasy Novels
THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR; 2008

1. DRACULA by Bram Stoker
2. FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley
3. CONJURE WIFE by Fritz Leiber
4. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson
5. BURN, WITCH, BURN by A. Merritt
6. THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS by Guy Endore
7. LA-BAS by J.K. Huysmans
8. TO WALK THE NIGHT by William Sloane
9. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Gaston Leroux
10. A MIRROR FOR WITCHES by Esther Forbes

     A very old-mannish ranking, obviously, with the most recent entry (CONJURE WIFE) published in 1943! That, however, is precisely what makes this list so refreshing, seeing as how most scary book rankings are top-heavy with modern-day entries.

9. Untitled by Jack Ketchum
Jackketchum.net
     The talented Mr. Ketchum posted this informal 12-book list on a (since deleted) message board entry back in the early ‘00s. His choices, which I’ve taken the liberty of alphabetizing, went like this:

THE AUCTIONEER by Joan Sampson
BLOOD SPORT by Robert F. Jones
THE CEREMONIES by T.E.D. Klein
DEAD OF WINTER by William H. Hallahan
DEATH TOUR by David J. Michael
THE DREAMING JEWELS by Theodore Sturgeon
THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR by Anne Rivers Siddons
MONTANA GOTHIC by Dirck van Sickle
The RATS trilogy by James Herbert
THE SEARCH FOR JOSEPH TULLY by William H. Hallahan
SOME OF YOUR BLOOD by Theodore Sturgeon
THE WELL by Jack Cady

     Ketchum has provided an excessively seventies-centric listing that’s hardly indicative of the full scope of the horror genre. However, this is still a strong and highly eclectic bunch of books, all of them must-reads.

10. Kirby McCauley’s Ten Best Horror Anthologies
THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR; 2008

1. THE OMNIBUS OF CRIME edited by Dorothy L. Sayers
2. SLEEP NO MORE edited by August Derleth
3. THEY WALK AGAIN edited by Colin de la Mare
4. NEW TERRORS by Ramsey Campbell
5. GREAT TALES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL edited by Herbert A. Wise, Phyllis Fraser
6. THE FONTANA BOOK OF GREAT GHOST STORIES edited by Robert Aickman
7. TERROR BY GASLIGHT edited by Hugh Lamb
8. TERROR IN THE MODERN VEIN edited by Donald Wollheim
9. AND THE DARKNESS FALLS edited by Boris Karloff, Edmund Speare
10. THE DARK DESCENT edited by David G. Hartwell

     As editor of the legendary DARK FORCES and a number of other landmark horror anthologies, Kirby McCauley is definitely the right guy to compile this listing. I’ve only read two of the selections thus far (NEW TERRORS and THE DARK DESCENT), but I’m more than willing to trust McCauley’s judgment.
     The problem? None of McCauley’s own anthologies are included, which is a shame, as without them any listing of “Best” horror anthologies is suspect.

 

--10/19/13 

     

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