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With Halloween just around the corner, what better time to celebrate the terrors and spooks that live between the covers of books? Star2 shares the scariest book characters we’ve had the dubious pleasure of curling up with; we take no responsibility for any ensuing nightmares.
Margaret White, Carrie by Stephen King
I first encountered this disturbing religious fanatic in the 1976 Brian De Palma movie version, where she was played by Piper Laurie and terrified the heck out of me almost as much as that jump-scare ending. When I finally read the book years later, I found Margaret’s demise a little less satisfying than the movie version, but I guess it was just as appropriate. She considered nearly everything in life to be a sin and took the trauma of her early life, as well as her own cumulative guilt, out on her daughter. Carrie’s early manifestations of her psychic abilities were considered witchcraft and Margaret set aside a special place – the “prayer closet” – where she would lock the child for days on end to pray for guidance and forgiveness. For all her hateful actions, though, Margaret is not really evil, but she is a chilling character because she represents the worst extremes of ignorance combined with religious fervour.
Chojira Uchida, or “Old Cho”, Domu: A Child’s Dream by Katsuhiro Otomo
Old Cho is the main antagonist of this graphic novel from the creator of Akira. It’s a murder-mystery set in an apartment complex – but what a tale! Detectives looking into a series of apparent suicides uncover the bizarre truth: a senile old man who lives alone in one of the apartments actually possesses incredible psychic powers that he uses to claim his victims. But to Old Cho, as he is known among the residents, it’s all some kind of childish game – he takes a shine to someone’s possession and claims it as a trophy after getting rid of its owner. This makes him an even more chilling entity: one that commits unspeakably evil acts without even realising they are evil. He meets his match when Etsuko, a young girl with immense powers of her own, moves in nearby and decides to stop his reign of terror. Riveting stuff, with Otomo turning the stark, endless corridors and grey facades of the apartment buildings into forbidding settings as the creepiness factor mounts.
The Joker, created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson
To be frank, I find The Sandman’s Corinthian (teeth for eyes!) and Hellboy’s the Crooked Man scarier, but the Joker wins for combining different versions of scariness into one character. He’s a murderous lunatic who is just out to create chaos, but also an insane genius who, despite his apparent erratic behaviour, is quite capable of putting together some of the most devastatingly ingenious plans that Batman has ever had to face. Plus, he dresses like a clown. Now that’s seriously scary.
Skinner Sweet, American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque
This is a vampire story like no other. It’s about a new breed of “American vampires” that are completely different from the conventional Dracula-type ones. They have scary long fangs and claws, are faster and stronger, and crucially, are not affected by sunlight at all. Western outlaw Skinner Sweet is the first of these new monsters. With a murderous personality and moral compass that points directly to hell, it’s scary and horrifyingly compelling to watch him use his powers across the different eras of American history. Credit also goes to Albuquerque, whose visceral artwork really makes Skinner one scary bloodsucker.
It/Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It by Stephen King
There’s a reason I’ve only ever read this book once: I cannot face It again, especially not within the pages of King’s terrifying book. This demonic entity terrorises and feeds on children in a small American town by taking on the form of their greatest fears, the most common of which is Pennywise the Dancing Clown. And as if the visuals King conjures up weren’t scary enough, they had to go and make a movie so that we now have a horrible, grinning face to put to our nightmares. I actually used to like clowns before I read of Pennywise!
The Grand High Witch, The Witches by Roald Dahl
While much of Dahl’s The Witches is laced with dark humour, the Grand High Witch is one character I could never quite laugh at. Quentin Blake’s illustrations are partly to blame: the image of her removing her human mask to reveal the rotten face beneath is one I haven’t been able to shake since childhood. The fact that she would go to any length to kill all the children in the world doesn’t help. And finally, that this diabolical creature hides in plain sight beneath a kind and sweet face is just the sort of idea to make you never want to leave your house again.
Ozymandias, Watchmen by Alan Moore
When I first read/watched Watchmen (apart from one element, the movie was so faithful to the graphic novel that there is actually very little difference between those two activities), Ozymandias was just another villain – grandiose plans, twisted ambition, crazy morality. Just a man, albeit a brilliant one. But since then, the actual world seems to have degenerated very fast into a sort of craziness of its own, and the true terror of Ozymandias is that there are days now when I understand him and what he was trying to do seems quite rational, and I think ... eh, maybe that could work. THAT truly does scare me.
The Brixton Cannibal, Lockwood & Co.: The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
So Lockwood and Co are a crack team of ghost hunters – all young, because only young people have the psychic abilities to detect the ghosts which have proliferated across an alternate Victorian London. The Brixton Cannibal isn’t the Big Bad of the book – he’s kind of the Medium-sized Bad that shows up mid-way. There’s actually very little direct physical description of the fella except for his size (extra, extra-large). Instead, Stroud builds an image of him out of overheard movements (ghostly and threatening and quite horrible) in a haunted house, and a character’s insistence on proclaiming what body part of his victim was found in which room. It’s like the build-up in a Hollywood horror movie, which usually ends up with me then screaming at the appearance of a cat, a curtain blowing, or nothing-which-I-thought-was-something. By the time the ghost was about to manifest to the team, I was interrupting my own reading with constant nervous glances over my shoulder. And I was leaning on a wall.
Charles Manx, NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
What’s worse than a child kidnapper? How about a supernatural one? Charles Manx is a terrifying mix of Charles Manson, Ebenezer Scrooge and Dracula, a sinister old man who abducts children to Christmasland, a wonderful (but terrifying!) playground of whimsy. There, he turns them into monstrous shadows of their former selves. The worst thing about him, however, is that he thinks he is doing this for their own good, as a way to protect their innocence forever. He may seem charming, but don’t be fooled: beneath his grandfatherly facade lurks the soul of a monster. Imagine if Santa Claus was a serial killer, and you get Charles Manx.
Marvin Burke, Scowler by Daniel Kraus
Teenager Ry Burke has spent most of his life in the shadow of Marvin, his physically and mentally abusive father. Marvin seems to want nothing more than to destroy his entire family: in one of the most gruesome parts of the book, he literally sews Ry’s mother to her bed, and reading about his callous, cruel actions will make many readers squeamish. Ry manages to put his father away: but Marvin escapes, and is now back for revenge. As scared as Ry is of him, however, what he fears most is turning into him: if your father is a monster, doesn’t that make you a monster too?