So often, when we look back on our formative years, the memories which scream loudest are the ones marked by fear, death, and adolescent angst. Some of these memories are grounded in reality while others, we’re told to believe, are pure fiction. Yet for many of us, the scary stories we encountered in the books of R.L. Stine, Stephen King, Alvin Schwartz, Anne Rice, and H.P. Lovecraft, among other authors, haunt us still.
Below, eight terrifying books that kept us awake as kids.
In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
The scariest book I read as a kid, by far, was a children’s anthology called In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. I was specifically terrified by the first story, “The Teeth,” about a boy who encounters a series of strangers who have progressively larger teeth. There’s almost nothing to it—he sees a guy with big teeth, then a guy with bigger teeth, then a guy with even bigger teeth, then he runs home—but it was subtly and psychologically frightening to me in a way that most other kids’ stories weren’t. The illustrations by Dirk Zimmer had an almost Robert Crumb-esque grotesquerie, which probably helped a lot. —Andy Cush
IT by Stephen King
The Bible by Various Authors
Is The Bible a legit answer? Oh man. That book scared the shit out of me. Especially Revelation. I was somehow afraid to take a bath because I didn’t want to get Raptured. I don’t know—it made sense to kid me.
Otherwise? There was a Goosebumps about a toy clown with a light up nose. I owned a toy clown piggy bank with a light up nose. The batteries got low and it started speaking in a weird demonic voice and I buried it in my backyard to put its spirit to rest. —Vann Newkirk II
Stories That Even Scared Me by Alfred Hitchcock
Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
This probably isn’t even a scary book, I don’t remember much of the plot, to be honest. But there was one scene in Where The Red Fern Grows that really stuck with me. One of the children in the book falls onto an axe, and the description was of a red bubble of blood emerging from his mouth as he died. It scared the hell out of me when I was a kid and still think of it sometimes. —Jim Cooke
Moonlight Becomes You by Mary Higgins Clark
When I was a kid, I’d bike to the library every other day during the summer. It was a small outfit—a little baby branch library in the generic, sprawling Houston suburb I grew up in—and by around fourth grade, I’d read the entire kids and young adult section. What would be easiest to read next, I wondered. I tried romance, couldn’t stand it; I tried the classics, but most were too stuffy for summer, or over my head. So I moved to the grocery store potboiler section of the library, and the first book I picked up was Mary Higgins Clark’s Moonlight Becomes You. It opens with a scene of a woman who wakes up in a coffin with a string tied around her finger. She pulls it, knowing that it’s connected to a bell aboveground—an old Victorian custom, for people who were afraid of being buried alive. The book’s eye pans up to the silvery surface of the bell and the graveyard, and there’s NO FUCKING CLAPPER IN IT. And I have been afraid of that exact situation, ever since, for give or take 18 years. —Jia Tolentino
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Atmosphere scares me more than plot. If you tell me that there’s a ghost that lives in the corner named Arthur who’s chill as fuck and loves carrots, that’s fine. If you show me an attic with shadowy corners, a dusty mirror and a weird chest with a broken lock, there’s no way in hell I’m going in there. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark scared the living daylights out of me as a child and most likely as an adult, too, not because of the illustrations, but because of the atmosphere. The unknown is terrifying in its very nature, nebulous and shifty and full of things you can’t predict. I like to see what’s coming ahead of me at all times, as a way of exerting control over the very nature of life. That’s what scares me the most. —Megan Reynolds
The Witches by Roald Dahl
I was afraid of pretty much everything as a kid, so I tried to avoid scary books for the most part. But I do remember how much Roald Dahl’s The Witches scared me. I read it because I was like, “a funny guy can’t be scary, too, right?” On the first page, Dahl writes, “REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and work ordinary jobs.” Then he lists all the ways witches go about squelching children, in this super deadpan, British way. That was so terrifying to me. Plus, it took away the possibility of my mother comforting me because she dressed in ordinary clothes and worked an ordinary job, so I couldn’t be too cautious. —Lucas Mann, author of Lord Fear
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]