Many people have a very intimate relationship with books. And horror books can get under your skin like no other medium, whether you’re peering at a scary novel under the covers as a youngster or devouring new or classic horror as a grown up. Good horror writing sticks with you.
For Halloween we’ve attempted to round up some of the scariest sentences ever written – and who better to ask for their recommendations than some of the finest horror writers and editors around? We asked some of our favourite experts to tell us the line that scared them most and why. Any suggestions of your own? Let us know in the comments.
To Serve Man by Damon Knight
Scariest sentence: “It’s a cookbook,” he said.
Is there a better whammy of an end line than this? Ten to one you’ll know the story that precedes it: Seemingly benevolent aliens, the Kanamit, arrive on earth, promising peace and prosperity. The aliens are as good as their word, and start whisking “lucky” humans off to their planet for a “ten year exchange programme”. A U.N translator, who (rightly) thinks this is all too good to be true, sets about translating the aliens’ favourite book, which, from its title, “To Serve Man,” is assumed to be an innocent handbook. It ain’t (see the last line).
The story and its funny/bleak ending has haunted me since I first read it as a ten-year-old, way too young to consider that it could be read as an allegory about the horrors of colonialism. Back then all I could think about were the people the Kanamit had lured aboard their ships, unaware that they were destined for the table (or the Kanamit version of Masterchef). It still gives me chills. – Sarah Lotz author of Missing Person out now from Hodder.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
Scariest sentence: “I have no mouth. And I must scream.”
If I tell you the name of this Harlan Ellison story, it’ll give away the last line… “I have no mouth. And I must scream.” I remember when I first read that ending, only to find myself caught in a loop where those two sentences kept echoing through my head. Reading it again right now, it’s still hard not to pinch my lips as tightly together as possible and try giving the ol’ lungs a good bellow. Still sends shivers down my spine. – Clay McLeod Chapman, author of The Remaking, out now from Quirk Books
Cabal by Clive Barker
Scariest Sentence: “She knew what men afraid, and afraid of their fear, were capable of.“
According to some criminologists, the root cause of many violent acts isn’t anger but fear. Fear of rejection, of failure, of abandonment, of loss. In this early novel by Barker, the link between fear and violence is only subtly hinted at–which makes it all the more frightening. He alludes to the heroine’s personal history with violent men, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. – Andrew Schaffer, author of Secret Santa, out 10 November from Quirk Books
The Sibling by Adam Hall
Scariest sentence: “He’s put the clown in her room,” Lorraine said quietly.
As a species, our goal is to keep clowns out of our bedrooms and living spaces and yet here’s some monster deliberately inserting a clown into someone’s room, ignoring the fact that since at least the dawn of time clowns have been mankind’s natural predator. The resigned tone of that “quietly” really drives home the horror because clearly this is not the first time. – Grady Hendrix.
Squelch, John Halkn
Scariest sentence: “It still doesn’t make sense to me. Moths attack sweaters and fly around light bulbs. They don’t devour humans.”
It doesn’t make sense to me, either, but if moths have stopped attacking our clothing and started attacking our bodies then count me out. I’m done. – Grady Hendrix.
Night of the Crabs by Guy N. Smith
Scariest sentence:“What a beautiful night,” Pat remarked, as they passed alongside the barbed-wire fence which enclosed War Department property. “If only we didn’t have to worry about giant crabs.”
Sometimes you just wish you lived in a simpler world. – Grady Hendrix.
The Farm by Richard Haigh
Scariest sentence: “The pigs,” then her control snapped. “Look, they’re coming out,” she shrieked. “Oh, sweet Christ. The pigs!!”
Every time I leave the safety of New York City I fully expect this to be the last sentence I hear as I am devoured by angry livestock. – Grady Hendrix, author of The Final Girl Support Group out July 2021 from Titan Books
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
Scariest sentence: “I’m not going to tell you about this. I refuse to.”
That’s half of chapter 42 from Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. And The Girl Next Door is a novel that, just as Joe R. Lansdale says at the head of his story “The Night They Missed the Horror Show,” doesn’t flinch. So, if the narrator is looking back to having seen something that even he can’t put on the page, then . . . how bad must it be, right?
I’ve talked to other readers of this novel and they’ve told me about chapter 42 as if the narrator actually fleshes it all out for us, and they (myself as well) all flinch as if traumatized from having had to read those words. Except they never did read the words of what actually happened. But that’s Jack Ketchum, for you. He doesn’t need to actually say it on the page to get it into our head. Worse, this is a chapter that never leaves you, either. Worse than that, you kind of become complicit just for reading it. – Stephen Graham Jones author of The Only Good Indians, out now.
In the Hills, the Cities by Clive Barker
Scariest sentence: “In Popolac a kind of peace reigned. Instead of a frenzy of panic there was a numbness, a sheep-like acceptance of the world as it was. Locked in their positions, strapped, roped and harnessed to each other in a living system that allowed for no single voice to be louder than any other, nor any back to labour less than its neighbour’s, they let an insane consensus replace the tranquil voice of reason.”
As a much younger person, reading this story for the first time, I was overtaken by awe at the imagery; not unlike Mick who chooses to hitch a ride on the impossible doomed giant made of city denizens. Re-reading it now decades later, the story and these lines fill me with bone-deep dread. Like the referee/car thief and Mick’s lover Judd, I cannot bear to view the inevitable fall. – Paul Tremblay, author of Survivor Song, out now from Titan Books.
Home Burial by Robert Frost
Scariest sentences: ”Don’t – don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.”
The line here that I consider scary is ‘Tell me about it if it’s something human.’ Because of the implication that people may carry within them things that are not human. In this case, I imagine the ‘it’ that may not be human to be something so deeply felt and instinctive that it is pre-language – and so pre-human, almost. Something primordial that requires translation or mediation – and perhaps in that, change or diminishment – in order to be sensible to another sentient being. It is the suggestion that maybe our most fundamental aspects or thoughts – our most important feelings – cannot be properly communicated that is terrifying, to me. It makes me think of each person as a dark pool, with their lived experience and true feelings becoming manifest at the bottom, and the communication of these things to others being only what is visible through the surface of the water, from above.
As much as I do believe that all communication is imperfect, and that it is difficult for people to know each other truly, I take comfort from two things – one is love, which is, I think, a kind of deep, fundamental knowing and acceptance of each other. The other is fiction, which (in my opinion) is often an attempt at translating ideas and feelings that, coming from our deepest places, we don’t otherwise have the language for. – Tom Fletcher, author The Witch Bottle, out 12 November from Jo Fletcher Books.
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
Scariest sentence: “You’re the herd now, Jacky.”
I read King & Straub’s The Talisman when I was 15, at a time in my life when I’d said goodbye to one bunch of friends and hello to another, and the friendship between Jack Sawyer and his werewolf friend Wolf resonated strongly with me. In Wolf’s culture werewolves are farmers and fiercely protective of their herds who they protect by locking themselves away every month.
The problem is that Jack and Wolf are on the run and Wolf’s change is coming upon him, and there’s nowhere to shut Wolf away. So when Wolf turns to Jack with blazing eyes and says this, it’s simultaneously a promise of protection (‘I will die for you’) but also a warning (‘I will tear you to pieces’). The chill with which Jack realises that his best friend loves him but will probably kill him anyway has stayed with me ever since. – James Brogden, author of Bone Harvest, out now from Titan Books
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Scariest sentence: “The watch had stopped”
I think a lot of us can relate to the feeling of getting caught up in our work and letting the hours pass us by without much thought. In the case of Robert Neville, the central figure in Richard Matheson’s seminal I Am Legend, getting lost in the hours is the most horrific thing he could possibly do. The simple four-word-sentence that has scared me more than any other in all my days of reading is “The watch had stopped.” If you’ve read the story, I’m sure you remember how those words burned into you. – Rachel Autumn Deering, editor of Hex Life, out in paperback from Titan Books on November 10 2020
One for the Road by Stephen King
Scariest sentence: “And I think she’s still waiting for her good-night kiss.”
I’m not easily scared, but occasionally I get a real chill up my spine. Shirley Jackson did that with the last line of The Haunting of Hill House. But if we’re talking about one line that lingers, that still makes me remember the way it felt the very first time I read it, I have to go with the last line in Stephen King’s short story “One for the Road,” from his collection Night Shift. It’s a vampire story, a sequel to ’Salem’s Lot, about a family whose car is trapped in a blizzard on the outskirts of a town plagued by vampires. That last line is “And I think she’s still waiting for her good-night kiss.” There, I just felt it again. That shiver. All these years later, it still works on me. – Christopher Golden, editor of Hex Life, out in paperback from Titan Books on November 10 2020
The New Mother by Lucy Clifford
Scariest sentence: “Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near to the home in which they once were so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.”
The scariest sentence ever is from The New Mother by Lucy Clifford. The strange tone of the writing, the situation in the story and the fact that the new mother is not in any way human… – David Quantick, author of Night Train, out now from Titan Books
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Scariest sentence: “God God! Whose hand was I holding?”
This scene perfectly conjures the feeling of being afraid in the night. Distance, time, sound – all the natural laws of the daylight world grow slippery and loosen. It’s a unique sensation – no other fear has the visceral, unhinged quality of cold terror in the dark. Shirley Jackson puts all of this on the page – she takes Eleanor and the reader into that same heightened, accelerated state, she makes our hearts race, she makes us feel alone, disoriented, lost in the night with only a friend’s hand to cling to. And then she saves us – the lights come on, our heart rate slows, and the rational world seems to settle into its proper channel again. And at last Eleanor sees: the friend whose comforting hand she held in the dark has been on the other side of the room all along. – Catriona Ward is the author of The Last House on Needless Street out 18th March 2021 from Viper Books
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Scariest sentence: “God god – whose hand was I holding?”
It’s from a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel. Eleanor and Theodora go to sleep in their adjacent beds in one of the many bedrooms in Hill House. They sleep with the lights on because of previous frightening incidents. But Eleanor wakes in the night to find the room plunged in darkness, and hears an eerie voice muttering from the next room. The darkness and the frightening sounds go on endlessly, and Eleanor is filled with a mounting sense of dread. She reaches out blindly for Theodora’s hand and holds on tight.
But when the lights finally come back on, Theodora is several feet away, sitting up in her own bed, too far away for Eleanor to have touched her. So the hand she was holding belonged to someone or something else. It’s a brilliantly oblique bit of horror – the realisation that the monster was right alongside you, inside your guard – and every adaptation of the novel references it in some form or other. But I don’t think you can beat Jackson’s chilling, deadpan prose. – Mike Carey author of The Trials of Koli, out now from Orbit Books
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Scariest sentence: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
I’ll be surprised if no one else has picked these sentences, although maybe not, because I’m blatantly cheating for choosing the entire first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House. It is a classic of looming dread, and it’s probably generated more commentary and criticism than any other first paragraph in a horror novel. I love it. – Ellen Datlow, editor of the Best Horror of the Year annual series.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Scariest sentence: “It was so dark it was like nothing was there in the room but us. Only the nothing was actually something because it filled my eyes and lungs and it sat on my shoulders.”
Paul Tremblay perfectly captures our universal fear of the dark in these two lines from A Head Full of Ghosts. That made the flesh on my skull crawl when I read it. The wording is simple but so effective: in one, two, three increasingly creepy instances Paul transforms what’s simply darkness into the tangible, the intimately dangerous… as darkness tends to do. – Thomas Olde Heuvalt, author Hex and Echo, forthcoming from Nightfire in 2021
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Scariest sentence: The Black Meat is like a tainted cheese, overpoweringly delicious and nauseating so that the eaters eat and vomit and eat again until they fall exhausted.
I read Naked Lunch in high school and it was a mind-destroyer. Thankfully, it is also a mind rebuilder. You can turn to any page and find sentences that bewildered, disoriented, horrified, and excited me. So that’s exactly what I just did: I opened the book randomly to page 55 and found one. Disgusting, delightful decadence! – Daniel Kraus, coauthor with George A. Romero of The Living Dead, out now from Tor Books.
The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
Scariest sentence: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.“
It’s ‘illimitable’ that does it for me, though the capitalisations and the against-the-advice-of-grammarians superfluous first and second usages of ‘and’ add quite a bit. That first ‘And’ – the one your teacher told you not to start a sentence with – is a pointed touch and does a lot of work, indicating that all the bad stuff in the rest of the sentence is a consequence of what’s gone before in the story … which, this season, seems like the most pointed tale of mystery and imagination ever written. – Kim Newman author Anno Dracula 1999 Daikaiju out now from Titan Books.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Scariest sentence: “In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”
Discussions of the prose of Shirley Jackson’s monumental The Haunting of Hill House tend to focus on its famous opening paragraph. Certainly the beginnings of both the novel’s first and second chapters offer a wealth of riches for scholarly consideration, rhetorical analysis. Yet it’s this long sentence from the novel’s second-to-last paragraph that comes to mind if I’m asked to name the most frightening line in the book. Indeed, it seems to me one of the most frightening sentences of any novel or story I’ve read.
Obviously, there are lines whose immediate impact is greater, which have a more substantial visceral effect (Clive Barker’s fiction is rife with these). But I’m not sure any echo in quite the same way. At this moment in Jackson’s narrative, Eleanor Vance is being made to leave Hill House, the dwelling with whose structure her personality has become entangled and confused. Seemingly unwilling to be separated from the place, she steers her car straight toward an enormous tree at a curve in the driveway and steps on the gas.
“I am really doing it,” she thinks, “I am doing this all by myself, now, at last.” This would be an awful enough end for Jackson’s protagonist, but with the sentence that follows and finishes the paragraph, she gives the screw a final, diabolical turn. Eleanor experiences a moment of clarity, which tells us that her thoughts of just a line before were not clear. She is not accelerating toward the tree of her own volition—or, not only of her own volition. Something else is at play here, some other factor.
Is it the “whatever” Jackson has described walking in Hill House, the unspecified, (possibly) supernatural force (which might be any one of a number of ghosts, or an aggregate of those ghosts, or the house itself, brought to occult life by the peculiarities of its design)? Or is it some submerged part of Eleanor—guilt at her role in her mother’s death, or anger at her expulsion from the group brought to Hill House to study it? She doesn’t know, and she is trapped in her unknowing, as the final instant of her life stretches on and on, “unending.” Her ultimate motivation obscure to her, all she can do is wonder why no one is stopping her.
With hideous irony, the power, the control Eleanor was celebrating a moment prior turns on her, her freedom becoming the freedom of death. The line passes as quickly as the crash it describes, and in its speed, it’s easy to miss everything going on it. To say it’s another example of Jackson’s skill as a writer feels somehow inadequate, as it doesn’t get at the way the sentence braids claustrophobia, terror, and confusion. It’s the kind of writing that haunts you in quiet moments, long after flashier, louder lines have faded into silence. It’s the kind of writing that reminds you of the horror story’s particular power, its reach and its resonance. – John Langan, author of The Fisherman, out now.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Scariest sentence: “Sometimes dead is better.”
Nobody says this line better than that guy in the first Pet Sematary movie who used to play Herman Munster. Although John Lithgow did his best. King struck on an age-old wisdom when he showed us the folly of trying to bring people back once they’re gone. Just as WW. Jacobs did in The Monkey’s Paw and Shelley demonstrated (albeit piecemeal) in Frankenstein. You’ve got to be careful what you wish for. Sometimes, dead really is better, and far less likely to come back and stab you to death with a scalpel. C.S. O’Cinneide is the author of Petra’s Ghost, out now from Titan Books.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Scariest sentence: “Darling,” it said
This line has to be read in the context of an entire, brilliant novel that went before. It’s really not something I want to give away, because of spoilers, but if you’ve read this one, even hearing the final line again should send a shiver through you. The writer was at the top of his game – and that’s saying something – and it remains his most terrifying novel. Here’s the line: “Darling,” it said. – Tim Lebbon, author of Eden, out now from Titan Books