The Rage of Achilles, The Iliad, Homer (760 BCE)
The opening lines of The Iliad are devoted to the rage of Achilles for a reason, though it takes awhile before we understand why the muses had to be invoked to express it. But Achilles’ arrival on the battlefield is one of the most terrifying moments in all of literature. The very sound of him quakes the spirit of the Trojans. Even the horses, “sensing death,” overturn their chariots. And when he finally lets out his battle cry, their finest fighters fall back and impale themselves on their own spears. Disgusting.
Scylla munches the crew, The Odyssey, Homer (8th Century BCE)
Odysseus finds out from Circe that his best bet is to try to sneak by Scylla, the enormous, six-headed monster also known as “the immortal devastation.” The goal is to avoid making a snack out of his crew. They do not succeed. When they attempt to pass, she munches on six men from the ship. It’s one of the first great and horrifying monster scenes in Western literature.
Apollo possesses Cassandra, The Oresteia, Aeschylus (458 BCE)
How many scenes of bodysnatching are unwittingly based on this moment from The Oresteia, wherein Cassandra’s inflamed godspeak merges both past and future in the highest, most insane poetry of death? Everyone will die!
Oedipus gouges out his eyes, Oedipus the King, Sophocles (429 BCE)
A scene so excessively violent and terrifying that the only way to assimilate it was to turn it into a psychological model. You know the backstory. But did you remember that he uses the golden pins of his mother’s dress to mutilate himself?
Juno summons the Fury, Aeneid, Virgil (29 BCE)
“Baleful Juno and her sleepless rage” is one of the major themes of the Aeneid, so when she summons Alecto, a Fury born from the blood of the castrated Uranus, to cause a war, it’s no surprise that she loses control. Rage begets rage. Alecto boils someone with a torch, steals the dreams of her adversaries, and provokes needless slaughter…
The Flaying of Marsyas, Metamorphoses, Ovid (8 CE)
Marsyas gets flayed alive in a cave for losing to the cheating Apollo in a musical duel. It’s like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” except the devil wins and murders his human competitor.
Rachel weeps for her children because they are no more, Gospel of Matthew (70 CE)
You can pick your poison from the New Testament — the lake of fire, the crucifixion — but nothing terrified me more as a child than the massacre of the innocents at Herod’s decree. It’s also worth mentioning that Herod’s own death was violent. He suffered gangrene of the genitalia.
Mr. Grendel (and his mom), Beowulf (1000 CE)
Feared by all, the monster Grendel has a head so big it requires four men to carry it. Covered in scales and thorny skin caked in blood, his mere mention in Beowulf is a source of terror. To make matters worse, his mother was a “monstrous hell bride” who descended from Cain, the first murderer.
Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull, eats his own children, Inferno, Dante Alighieri (1320)
The arrangement of scenes for Ugolino, whom Dante locates in the second ring of the lowest circle of Hell, is doubly terrifying. For his rage and betrayal, he is forced to gnaw on the skull of his opponent for eternity. How did he end up dead in the first place? He died in captivity after his children begged him to “strip away” their “wretched flesh.” His hunger was greater than his sorrow. He ate them.
Banquo returns to haunt his killer, Macbeth, William Shakespeare (1611)
Whether real or phantasm, the appearance of the ghost of Banquo, along with his descendants, is terrifying enough to drain the blood from the usurper Macbeth (and the reader). It is also fulfills the scary prophecy of the Weird Sisters and establishes a paradigm for witchiness.
This house is haunted… The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole (1764)
A bridge from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth to the gothic novel, or arguably the first gothic novel, Walpole’s book is scary because it is crazy — I’m convinced Walpole was nuts. Still, the best thing about the book is that it achieves its “gloomth” (Walpole’s coinage) mostly through its invention or reinvention of the haunted castle. In this one, things creak and fall from the walls. And mysterious giants roam around.
Graveyard vibes and uncouth nuns, Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)
It takes little more than a scary nun — when you are the psychologically fragile heroine of one of the great gothic romances — to find yourself beset on all sides with fear. It only makes matters worse when she tells you not to forget the open grave you have to cross on your way through the cemetery…
The maniacal laugh that condemns a monk, The Devil’s Elixirs, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1815)
This gothic novel borrows many of the tropes from prior works in the genre, but it extends them to the point of basic craziness. The novel concludes with the discovery that the condemned monk Medardus, who we are made to believe is rehabilitated, actually died from a fit of insane laughter — a disturbing revelation that reveals he was still overtaken by, well, the devil’s elixirs.
The creature and the uncanny valley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1818)
The “abhorred monster” is truly hated by his creator, and Victor Frankenstein’s rageful verbal lashing of the “vile insect” is met with the kind of response that you’d expect from a 21st-century “uncanny valley” AI robot. It sparks horror and revulsion in both directions.
Murder by head, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (1820)
Poor Ichabod, his mind overawed by the power off horror stories, has his “cranium” “crashed” by the goblin’s “horrible missile” — his head. Maybe the whole thing is a parable about avoiding horror literature, which means you should probably stop reading this list.
The pyromaniac in the attic, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brönte (1847)
Look, some strange stuff had been going down at Thornfield, but it was the news that a guy’s crazy first wife had been locked in the attic that chilled my child bones. Arson and suicide didn’t ease the burden of Bertha Antoinetta Mason.
The painting of the man with the scythe, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Edgar Allan Poe (1842)
The hypersensitivity to sound caused by the story’s darkness is terrifying until the condemned man notices the painting of a man with a scythe — a work of art that symbolized his impending death by scythe. This fact debilitated me as a reader. Did the story itself, a work of art, forecast my own death by torture?
Terrifying nonsense of the Jabberwock, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll (1871)
The Jabberwock “monster” presented in the famous mirror-reversed poem (“Jabberwocky”) is more an expression of epistemic dread. If “The Pit and the Pendulum” relies on “literal” darkness to scare its reader, the Jabberwock relies on the lingering creature of mental darkness. You know it’s there, but you can’t see it or describe it.
Hyde canes old man to death, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
The more I think about it, the more this novel — with its doppelgängers and potions — resembles E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs (see above). Either way, Hoffmann’s novel doesn’t have a scene where a man beats an oldster to death with a cane, brandishing an “ape-like fury” to “audibly shatter” his bones for no reason.
Vampire capitalist goes nutzoid, Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
When Harker whips out his Kukri knife and tries to slice the Count, he cuts at his coat instead. Guess what happens next? “A bundle of banknotes and a stream of gold” fly out. The Count’s face gets “so hellish” because… why? He lost some money.
The heads on stakes under Kurtz’s window, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
The inexplicable creature Odradek, Franz Kafka “The Cares of a Family Man” (1919)
A mysterious creature that “looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed… does seem to have thread wound upon it,” the Odradek has resisted interpretation for almost a century. Somehow the creature’s utter purposelessness and uselessness mocks my own, making it, in my estimation, Kafka’s most terrifying creation.
A woman becomes a dog? Nightwood, Djuna Barnes (1936)
T.S. Eliot praised this novel for its “quality of horror and doom related to Elizabethan tragedy,” and he was right to do it. It’s far scarier and better than The Waste Land, to name one example. Considering that it’s an explicitly queer novel, the ending — where a woman transforms (or does she?) into a dog — should be carefully interpreted. Still, the atmosphere it evokes, with its perfect phrasing, is hard to shake.
Electroshock and lobotomy, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)
This novel (like the above Nightwood) is more legitimately terrifying than The Waste Land, its partial inspiration. I know of no moment in American literature that epitomizes the violence that hides in racist language more than the scene where the protagonist is subjected to the discussion of doctors, who would lobotomize him with electroshock therapy. “But what of his psychology?” one of the doctors wonders. “Absolutely of no importance.”
Picnic of ghosts and ghost puppies, The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (1959)
After escaping from a picnic of ghost puppies and ghost parents and ghost children in broad, blinding daylight, Eleanor, clutching Theodora and rocking crazily, might have lost her entire mind.
“The Eyes of God run all over the Earth,” The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Nearly everything about The Handmaid’s Tale has made its way into the 21st century — or tried to. But now when I read Offred’s description, taken from 2 Chronicles, of Gilead’s secret police, it hits home that they represent the total confluence of patriarchal violence, surveillance, and religious conservatism dreamt up by today’s most active political minds.
A double revelation, Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
“I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to,” Sethe says of Beloved. “How if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her.” It’s hard to think of lines in fiction that speak to the horror of America’s white supremacist history more forcefully.
Sex with an alien, Dawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Would you have sex with an alien who is “more evolved” (whatever that means) in order to help save the human race? And what if that alien had no smell? What if you still found it repulsive? What if you still found it strangely attractive? These are the scary questions asked by Dawn.
The rats, American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
It’s just an impossibly horrifying scene that involves rats and a soon-to-be dead woman. If I remember correctly — there is no way I could ever read it again — Patrick Bateman goes to a new restaurant afterward.
“The Part About the Crimes,” 2666, Roberto Bolaño (2004)
A dirge of pure literary hell, a death fugue stretched out over an entire chapter (or book), “The Part About the Crimes,” which takes place in the notoriously violent Ciudad Juarez, is an epic list of femicidal murder and a marvel of literary stamina. It’s the most impressive section of any book written this century. And it’s the most disturbing.