ROSEMARY'S BABY (1967), IRA LEVIN
Synopsis: A happily married couple moves into a posh NYC high-rise and becomes friendly with the building's elderly occupants. Once the wife, Rosemary, becomes pregnant, paranoia sets in and she fears that her neighbors are occultists after her unborn child.
Why it's scary good: Paranoia can't be easy to capture in written form, yet Levin does just that with his lean narrative style and snappy dialogue. Rosemary's Baby is so fast-paced and engrossing that even the most ADD-prone can hang. Levin is also a master of detail, packing the novel with a few real-life NYC touches (a newspaper strike, a papal visit) to achieve an acute sense of realism. Mission accomplished, sir.
Movie adaptations: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
FALLING ANGEL (1978), WILLIAM HJORTSBERG
Synopsis: Disheveled private detective Harry Angel is hired by a mysterious fella to find a singer named Johnny Favorite. Angel's search uncovers a New York City underworld full of voodoo rituals, devil worship, and mistaken identities.
Why it's scary good: Written in sharp first-person, Falling Angel is a rollercoaster of a read. It has everything lovers of pulp fiction could want in a hard-boiled detective novel, just with the additional smattering of gruesome scenes, such as a Black Mass in a subway during which a baby is sacrificed to Satan. All of the OMG moments are conveyed in Angel's own cynical voice, and his inevitable descent into a cryptic self-realization becomes more frantic with every page.
Movie adaptations: Angel Heart (1987)
PSYCHO (1959), ROBERT BLOCH
Synopsis: Norman Bates—the unhinged proprietor of a roadside motel—has more mommy issues than social skills. His lonely world is disrupted, however, when a pretty girl pocketing stolen money checks into one of the rooms.
Why it's scary good: When it comes to writing about deranged folks with homicidal tendencies, Bloch is one of the greats. Particularly in his many colorful (i.e. gruesome) short stories, the late author (he passed away in 1994) conveyed sick psyches like no other. His penchant for such literary insanity is in full swing throughout Psycho. Bloch's text outweighs Alfred Hitchcock's classic film in one crucial area: how it establishes Bates's mental imbalance through inner monologues and secondary character observations (a brief peek at his bedroom library speaks volumes).
Movie adaptations: Psycho (1960), Psycho (1998)
DON'T LOOK NOW: SELECTED STORIES OF DAPHNE DU MAURIER (COLLECTION RELEASED IN 2008), DAPHNE DU MAURIER
Synopsis: This stellar collection of Du Maurier's short fiction includes two stories of particular note. The first, "Don't Look Now," is about a troubled husband and his wife grieving over their dead child while vacationing in Venice; the second, "The Birds," finds the titular winged creatures suddenly attacking man, forcing a farmer and his family to barricade themselves indoors.
Why it's scary good: The experience of reading a Du Maurier story is equal parts unpredictable, entertaining, and dread-laden. She's not one for happy endings, particularly in "Don't Look Now"; its final image involving a murderous dwarf (seriously) is an all-time great shock. For 1952's novelette "The Birds," Du Maurier ignored the reader's jugular and honed in on the pulse, squeezing tons of pathos and intense attacks out of a simple, claustrophobic setting.
Movie adaptations: The Birds (1963), Don't Look Now (1973)
THE TURN OF THE SCREW (1898), HENRY JAMES
Synopsis: A young governess is hired by a wealthy man to look after his parentless niece and nephew. Not a tough job, right? Sure, if the children's home wasn't haunted by a pair of malevolent spirits.
Why it's scary good: What's so fascinating about James's novella is that the existence of the ghosts is never confirmed, yet their appearances before the story's unnamed governess/narrator are quite eerie. James does a remarkable job of employing an unreliable storyteller, an untrustworthy woman who's off-center enough to envision a 10-year-old boy as her honeymoon partner. Little man must've had crazy game.
Movie adaptations: The Innocents (1961), The Turn of the Screw (1974; made-for-TV film), The Turn of the Screw (1992), Presence of Mind (1999), In a Dark Place (2006)
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