5 of the Scariest Characters in Horror Lit
Tuesday, May 16th, 2017
By Christopher Carlson, Resident Horror Buff
Let me start with a declaration: I absolutely love horror. I have not one tiny iota of shame, despite the unfortunate fact that a lot of this type of writing gets shuffled off to the slums of the worst genre fiction. I'll admit, some of it deserves that treatment, asks for it, freaking begs, but as with all writing, so goes horror: there's some bad, some middling.
And then there's great horror.
It's not all about ghosts and monsters...although sometimes, yeah, it's ghosts and monsters, but in the hands of skilled writers, they’re the tool used to disrupt reality. Horror is the nauseating moment when you realize that the faith you'd placed in The Way Things Work is completely without merit. The axis shifts, you've lost your balance, and you may never get it back. One of my joys as a bookseller is not to bring solid, professional horror lit into the light, but to escort others down into the dark places where it lives—under rocks and rotten logs, in the unlit corners of shoddy basements, in the abattoirs and dark alleys, in diseased minds and fascist institutions.
And in those places, you'll meet YOUR monsters, sometimes obviously horrific, mangled and warped in body and mind; sometimes just a little off, a bit uncanny, bringing with them a sense of increasing unease when they visit—a creeping suspicion you can't quite pinpoint, but can't (and shouldn’t) ignore. These are the characters that make the stories haunt you, like these five have for me. They're the ones who still live beneath my eyelids, who hide behind trees in the forest at night, who whisper my name at the moment I’m about to float into sleep.
Satan (Pazuzu), from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist – I read this book when I was way too young. I mean, it still freaks me out, but in my less cynical years I was easy prey for this level of terror. I stealth-bought it at a garage sale when I was in late grade school (I can’t imagine my mother letting me read that, had she known), read it non-stop, and didn’t sleep well for a month. The thought that the spiritual embodiment of evil would possess and rapidly destroy a random 12 year old girl and, by proxy, her family as part of some cosmic chess game was, well, utterly horrible. My stomach still lurches at mysterious burning smells and random thuds. GUH!
The Men in Black, from John A. Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies: A True Story – The Mothman is bad and weird enough, but the real terror in this book are the black-suited “men” who plagued the residents of Point Pleasant, WV during the era of the sightings. They weren’t people: they didn’t know quite how to properly behave during their relentless interrogations of the townsfolk. They spoke as though they’d learned how people talk from only a cursory training session, they wore ill-fitting wigs, they walked and gesticulated strangely, and everything about them suggested that they were trying really hard to act human but just couldn’t pull it off.
Quentin P, from Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie – Based on Jeffrey Dahmer, the most frightening thing about Quentin is that he’s getting away with kidnapping and murder despite not being all that intelligent. His role as protagonist puts you right inside his skull as he sloppily plots his horrific crimes without possessing the ability to truly understand that what he’s doing is evil: an experience not easily forgotten.
The Misfit, from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – The scariest thing about the Misfit is the utter banality of his homicidal sociopathy. His quiet resignation of murder being an unavoidable and almost boring chore is completely disquieting. And perhaps the real terror lives in the fact that he’s the most reasonable and, frankly, likeable person in the story.
The Overlook Hotel, from Stephen King’s The Shining – imagine being trapped in a giant abandoned hotel that isn’t just haunted, but it itself an evil, devouring entity, one that capitalizes upon its residents’ weaknesses while feeding on their increasing terror. Now imagine being a little kid with a gift that allows you to understand this but without the means to convince your parents to get the hell out.
That’s a start. There are far more, but to me these characters stand as glaring examples of a writer’s ability to greasily birth a lasting horror that lives deep within your synapses, pulses in your marrow, dryly cackles during the dead space between heart beat and breath.