By Ambrose Bierce
Peyton Farquhar, a Confederate sympathizer, is tricked by a Union spy into an attempt to burn a bridge at Owl Creek. Caught by the Union Army, he’s taken to the bridge by an execution party; they stand him up on the edge, tie a rope around his neck, and push him off. The rope breaks and Farquhar swims downriver and into a forest, and from there he begins a journey back to his wife and his home. Everything seems a little intense, vivid, almost unreal, but he seems not to notice. Finally, after wandering for an uncertain amount of time, he comes upon his own farmhouse lane. His wife runs to meet him. He reaches out for her--and feels a searing pain in his neck: Peyton Farquhar has reached the end of his rope. I realize now that this story was a major influence on the Merle Zane character in the Niceville series. It’s a perfectly written meditation on life and death and longing. And Bierce wrote it in 1890.
By Henry James
One of the first and best of the “Governess in the House of Evil” themes, unseen powers move through the halls, clocks tick ominously, stillness is everywhere, dread builds upon dread—yet James makes it all so subtle, so ambiguous, and so utterly terrifying that even now scholars debate its meaning. Were there evil ghosts preying upon the children? Or was the narrator, the Governess, simply insane? No severed heads, no zombies from the grave. Just a slow inexorable tightening of cold inescapable dread, ending in bottomless grief and loss. No one has ever done this better. Or even as well.
By Shirley Jackson
I first ran across this story (a young woman arrives in a sinister mansion as part of a group investigating the supernatural) as a black-and-white movie made in 1963, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris, and it scared the hell out of me. In the novel, Jackson uses subtlety and a cold eye for Gothic detail to gradually build a web of claustrophobia, sexual desire, loneliness, and a lasting pervasive miasma of sheer evil that makes Hill House a death trap for Eleanor, who dies while trying to run from it and ends up as another one of Hill House’s captive souls. For a generation raised on slasher flicks and fountains of gibbering gore this film would be an Ativan. For people who savor crawling dread and the feeling that you should not have left your bedroom door open, this is the book for you. It’s better than the film, and the film was a work of art.
By William Peter Blatty
By now everybody knows the trope—a dewy young girl in Georgetown is gradually overtaken and inhabited by Pazuzu, a demon of the Elder Days, a power only challenged by the Christian God. It’s been lampooned often, usually by people who’ve never read the book and have only seen the movie (William Friedkin's film is a brilliant take that contains an absolutely riveting performance by Jason Miller as father Damien Karras). But this book still stands out as a masterpiece. The setting was perfect—I even went to Georgetown and walked up the steps of the novel—and the background of world-weary and doubt-filled Catholicism were perfectly caught and built upon by Blatty. The book is atmospheric, spiritually complex, true to the struggle between Good and Evil that has always defined Christianity, and in the end, redemptive. A powerful book, if you were a Catholic of a certain age, but for the young, perhaps not. I took my daughters to the film and they laughed all the way through it. I, however, did not. And I made them buy the popcorn.
By Stephen King
Well, you simply can’t write a list of your top five horror novels and not include Stephen King. The Shining was his third published work (under his own name), and it remains one of his very best. Putting a troubled alcoholic writer, his delicate but loyal wife, and his telepathic little boy into a massive ’30s-era hotel set on a mountain-top high in the Colorado Rockies, and leaving them alone there while the winter gradually shuts them off from the outside world, was one of the world’s very best plot ideas. Simply genius, and King’s execution of it was masterful. On every page, in careful, patient, and cinematic prose, King sets a terrible machine in motion, designed for the destruction of a man’s soul. Perhaps because I’m a writer myself, the theme carried particular weight—deadlines and an inability to meet them are the personal hells of many writers, including me. The Shining had special powers. But the theme was universal; King likes to take your typical family unit and put it through a shredder.