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Demons, vampires, haunted houses are top teeth-chatterers
The scariest books of all time
(CNN) -- It's late at night. Your room is dark except for the cold glare of a lamp on your night table. You've sunk deep within your covers; perhaps only your head pokes out from the blanket. Everything is quiet. (Too quiet.) There is only the sound of pages turning, and your heart beating, hammering, echoing in your ears.
Snap! Huh? What? Oh, just a twig breaking outside.
Still, your nerves twitch, tight and tingling, just under your skin, and the question won't go away: What's out there?
You've been there. You've stayed up into the small hours of the morning to read a scary book. You want to put it down, but you just can't; it holds you in a clammy grip that just won't loosen.
But what is the scariest book of all time? What story lingers in your consciousness like an unpleasant dream?
CNN Interactive conducted an informal survey of academics, media people and staffers to find out the answer to that question. Answers ranged from the thoughtful to the whimsical. One person, nominating Richard M. Nixon's "Six Crises," said: "Anyone reading this self-pitying, bitter apologia can see Watergate looming in the distance like the headlights of an onrushing train."
Another participant championed "On the Beach," Nevil Shute's end-of-the-world classic. He remembered, in particular, the horror of the characters' sad futility:
"People taking a pill to kill themselves before the radiation cloud reaches them? Lying down in bed, saying goodbye to each other, going to sleep with the pill under their tongues? No one else left on Earth, just the Australians? Left me weird for days."
Creepy, psychological terror
But "On the Beach" and its cousins were the exceptions. The top choices could safely represent anyone's definition of horror: tales with creepy, out-of-the-way locales; unpleasant characters; a sense of evil in the air; and, always, a constant undertow of dread.
Interestingly, what these books lack is gore, despite the type of slasher-killer horror prevalent in Hollywood nowadays. (Or, for that matter, the kind of slasher-killer horror prevalent in publishing nowadays.)
As one contributor observed, "Your imagination always exceeds special effects."
A roll of the drums, please, and a rattle of the chains. Herewith the top five.
"Dracula" by Bram Stoker. Published in 1897, Stoker's book established every vampire cliche that exists. In late 19th-century Europe, a young lawyer, Jonathon Harker, travels to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count Dracula. He is locked in Dracula's castle, an ominous building with a 1,000-foot drop on one side, and learns the worst: The count is a vampire, a member of the undead who survives by drinking the blood of the living.
The action moves to England, where the count has purchased an estate called Carfax, and introduces several other notable characters: the bug-eating madman Renfield; the eventually noble Dr. Seward; Mina and Lucy, women sucked in by the vampire's curse; and Abraham Van Helsing, vampire hunter.
The count finally meets his well-deserved demise, but not before a great struggle highlighted by howling wolves, shiny crucifixes, unholy soil and a healthy dose of garlic.
Stoker was the business manager of Victorian actor Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre in London and supplemented his income by writing novels. In "Dracula," the native Irishman combined the vampire tales that had been a part of European legend for centuries -- though they had little to do with the actual Dracula, a 15th-century nobleman named Vlad the Impaler.
The book has inspired more than 200 movies, from straight readings to out-and-out parody, and its heavy Victorian/Shakespearean language still has the power to chill.
"The Shining" by Stephen King. This 1977 novel followed "'Salem's Lot" and "Carrie" in the King oeuvre and helped establish him as the king of horror. The book tells the story of the Torrances, a young family that moves into the spooky old Overlook resort hotel as winter caretakers. Jack Torrance is a writer; he plans on taking advantage of winter's solitude to work on his novel. His son, Danny, has "the shine": psychic abilities with which he can see the hotel's horrific past.
As the snow piles up and their isolation grows, the Torrances start to fall apart. Danny is frightened by his visions of the hotel's past, while his father disintegrates in a stew of alcoholism and his own history -- the memories of an abusive father.
According to King, "The Shining" was written in a white heat of inspiration. His family had stayed at a Colorado hotel, the Stanley, and King got the idea while awake late one night. The book has been made into a movie twice: a 1980 feature directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, and a 1997 TV movie.
Though the Kubrick version changed several elements of King's book (to the disappointment of King devotees), it's held up well. Its scariest scene may be one of the most mundane in horror film history: the moment when Duvall examines the book that Nicholson has been working on for several months, and sees just what he has written ...
"The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty. If "Dracula" has been the inspiration for almost every vampire book and movie to come down the pike, then Blatty's 1971 bestseller -- or, specifically, the 1973 movie it produced -- has been the model for almost every devil-related work to follow (Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby" notwithstanding).
Regan MacNeil is the adolescent daughter of an actress living in Washington while filming a movie. A Ouija board fan, she's possessed by a demon that had been unleashed from an Iraqi archeological dig.
After putting her daughter through a battery of physical tests that turn up nothing, Regan's mother contacts Father Damien, a priest going through his own crisis of the soul. Father Damien assists Father Merrin, the old exorcist who accidentally freed the demon at the beginning of the book. Together, the two battle the demon at the risk of their own lives.
Blatty was a comedy screenwriter at the time he wrote "The Exorcist." (Among his credits: "A Shot in the Dark," the 1964 Pink Panther film.) But Hollywood stopped calling, so he took the story of a 1949 Maryland exorcism he recalled from college and turned it into a novel.
Ironically, that put him in Hollywood's spotlight again, and he later won an Oscar for the movie version's screenplay. His succeeding novels, including "Legion" and "The Ninth Configuration," have mined similar territory.
The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In such works as "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe's protagonists often appeared on the edge of insanity -- and 19th-century readers had never been so rattled.
Not all Poe's work is so horrific. He was an accomplished poet, and several of his poems suggest love and longing as opposed to doom and disaster. He also created the modern detective story, featuring sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, who solved crimes with logic and analysis. But the short stories remain his most popular legacy.
Poe did not have a happy life. An alcoholic and a gambler whose parents died before he was 3, he had a poor relationship with his foster father, struggled constantly with debt, and lost his beloved wife to illness when she was 24. No doubt some of his black moods worked their way into his stories, which -- combined with his febrile imagination -- remain horror touchstones to the present day.
"The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson. Lonely and bitter Eleanor Vance is invited by a paranormal researcher, Dr. John Montague, to join him and some companions at Hill House, a haunted mansion. Vance has some psychic powers, and soon is involved in a high-stakes mental game with the house -- with which she has an odd affinity.
Even today, horror writers find their work marginalized, featured in lowbrow magazines and marketed with distasteful covers. But Jackson, who wrote from the '40s to the '60s, was an exception. Her stories were often published in The New Yorker, and carried with them a "literary" cachet. Her best-known work, "The Lottery" (1948), remains a staple of high school reading lists.
"Hill House" came out in 1959. As one critic noted, "the evil in the book is developed to the point of winning the conflict; there is no happy ending for the heroine, because her character is too weak for the battle. She does not choose madness, but is overwhelmed by it." Not a pretty picture, but one that has entranced readers ever since.
Some runners-up titles deserve mention in this list of horribles. Among them were several other Stephen King novels, particularly "Pet Sematary"; Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw"; Jay Anson's "The Amityville Horror"; and various works by H.P. Lovecraft.
All would make excellent choices if you find yourself on Halloween night with nothing to do. And remember: That's just a twig breaking.
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