THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU (1896), H.G. WELLS
Synopsis: A shipwrecked man is saved and brought to an unnamed island, where a mad doctor performs interspecies experiments on humans and animals.
Why it's scary good: Look at the year in which this way-ahead-of-its-time classic was written: 1896. The ideas that Wells flexed in Doctor Moreau (dissection, gene splicing, God complexes) must've blown people's minds back when the tale first surfaced. What's just as impressive is how effectively it reads today; Doctor Moreau is right up there with Joseph Conrad's inimitable 1902 novella Heart of Darkness (filmed as Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola).
Movie adaptations: Island of Lost Souls (1933), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
JAWS (1974), PETER BENCHLEY
Synopsis: A great white shark feasts on dangling human limbs in the waters of Amity, a seaside resort on Long Island. Looking to kill the huge fish, Amity's police chief, Martin Brody, teams up with an oceanographer and a grizzled shark hunter.
Why it's scary good: Steven Spielberg's mega-hit film version is easily the better of the two, but that doesn't mean Benchley's source page-turner is a slog. It's still a vicious bit of aquatic brutality, stronger with its shark attack moments than its character development (Benchley's screenplay, co-written with Carl Gottlieb, curiously pays more mind to the human element).
Movie adaptations: Jaws (1974)
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1983), SUSAN HILL
Synopsis: A young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, heads to a small village in the United Kingdom to attend the funeral of an elderly widow. While there, Kipps begins seeing a black-clad specter believed to be the harbinger of death for children.
Why it's scary good: There's nothing all that original about Hill's The Woman in Black. Spooky old houses, bumps in the night, and a voiceless ghost—fans of supernatural fiction have read it all before. Hill's tale stands out, however, thanks to its wise use of first-person narration, which gives the familiar scares a wicked sense of urgency. And as for its heart-crushing final scene... it'll leave you wanting to hug the nearest little kid in sight. Not like that, perv.
Movie adaptations: The Woman in Black (1989; made-for-TV in Britain), The Woman in Black (2011; in production for a 3D release)
MISERY (1987), STEPHEN KING
Synopsis: Paul Sheldon, a famous romance novelist, is rescued from a car accident by Annie Wilkes, who claims to be his biggest fan and brings him to her secluded cabin for some R&R. After learning that Sheldon has killed off his most popular character, "Misery Chastain," Wilkes turns torturous.
Why it's scary good: King's ability to slowly mold Annie Wilkes into an imposing psychopath is what gives Misery its accessibility. Chances are, however, that the book is scarier for actual writers than casual readers. The idea that one's printed words can drive someone else to insanity is quite the sucker-punch for scribblers. King's Misery was Eminem's "Stan" before Marshall Mathers even started high school.
Movie adaptations: Misery (1990)
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN/LET ME IN (2004), JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST
Synopsis: Oskar, a 12-year-old outcast living in Sweden, befriends peculiar little girl Eli, who's just moved into his apartment complex. Immediately after Eli and her suspect "father" settle in, though, corpses begin piling up, all without blood.
Why it's scary good: Lindqvist's novel is elegantly written and tautly macabre. And it's also much freakier than either film version; in Lindqvist's mind, Eli is a childlike immortal devoid of genitals, while her caretaker makes no qualms about his little-boy-adoring kinks. On second thought, let's thank Hollywood for leaving that minor detail alone.
Movie adaptations: Let the Right One In (2008), Let Me In (2010)
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