It’s that time of year again. Classic horror movies starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are back in heavy rotation on cable, jack-o-lanterns are appearing on porch steps, and scarecrows are being crucified in front yards everywhere.
This is the one time of year when people want to be scared out of their wits. (Haunted hayrides, gruesome Halloween costumes, ghost stories read just before bedtime…)And as a longtime book reviewer, I inevitably get the same question each October: “Who is the scariest author you’ve ever read?”
It’s a surprisingly difficult question—I’ve read a lot of novels and short stories that have scared the bejesus out of me. The scariest book I ever read was Stephen King’s Night Shift. His first collection of short stories, released way back in 1978, it contained such masterworks as “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “Graveyard Shift,” “The Mangler,” “Children of the Corn,” “The Lawnmower Man,” and “Strawberry Spring.”
But while King is definitely among the scariest writers of all time, is he the scariest? I would throw H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Robert McCammon into the conversation as well.
But while all of these writers are legendary horror masters, in my humble opinion, the scariest writer on the planet has to be Laird Barron.
Yep. Laird Barron.
When I read his collection Occultation and Other Stories back in 2010, I was blown away by the stories’ narrative intensity, dark depth, and unadulterated existential dread. I knew immediately that I had stumbled across an extraordinary writer, and Barron’s 2012 debut novel, The Croning, proved it. It was nothing short of a masterwork, comparable in many ways to Lovecraft’s 1931 classic At the Mountains of Madness. Powered by a luminously dark writing style, a phantasmagoria of nightmarish imagery, and a bladder-loosening mythos, it’s exactly the kind of novel Lovecraft would write were he alive in the 21st century.
The Croning blends together elements from folkloric fantasy, mystery, and cosmic and psychological horror to create a story that is simultaneously epic and intimate, a grand-scale nightmare that grows and darkens as the story unfolds. It largely centers on absent-minded geologist Donald Miller and his secretive anthropologist wife, Michelle. Certain unexplainable events in Miller’s past come into question as he uncovers incredible information about his wife, her frequent research trips to remote areas of the globe, and her mysterious family heritage. The truth, once uncovered, threatens to drive him to the brink of insanity. Like At the Mountains of Madness, The Croning was the kind of read that haunts you long after it’s ended.
And just last month, Barron released his latest short story collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. The book’s nine dark gems include “Blackwood’s Baby,” a bloody little masterwork following an early 20th-century hunter invited to participate in an annual private hunt in the wilds of Washington Stat, and the unforgettable “The Men from Porlock.” Set in 1923, the story takes places in the foothills of Mystery Mountain—a largely unexplored region of the Olympic Range rich with horrific legends and folklore—and follows a group of loggers on a hunting trip gone terribly awry. After witnessing a total solar eclipse, the woodsmen stumble across an isolated village whose residents “venerate the Great Dark.” Unknowingly interrupting the villagers’ holiest of holy days, the group of loggers pays a gruesome price for their trespass…
Like Lovecraft, Barron’s narrative examinations of humankind’s insignificance in the cosmos is both mesmerizing and terrifying. You may not have heard of Laird Barron yet, but I guarantee you this: once you read him, you’ll be a dark disciple, just like me.
Who is the scariest author you’ve ever read?