50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Horror

“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.”

—from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
‘The horror! The horror!'”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


Hello again, class.

Most of the novels on the list require a bit of work—especially the older ones. This 50-books library is the kind of selection that focuses on the great works, not the most entertaining ones. There’s entertainment in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet, but that’s not why you need to read them before you die—you need to read them because they do what no other piece of entertainment did before, and significantly changed what literature was and could be. In almost every book on the list, entertainment may be there, but it’s always secondary.

Rebecca is one of the exceptions to this trend—it seems to be entertainment first. It delights in its own extravagant writing and startling twists, and the story is melodramatic and absorbing. It’s not a happy story—it’s more like a nightmare, honestly—but it exists somewhere between a classy horror movie and a turbulent romance. It’s not great art—but it’s not simple, either. It plays with its plot for dramatic effect and was more engrossing than I could have predicted. Rebecca belongs on the list because of the simplest reason of all: it’s exciting and suspenseful, and it made its mark on literature and popular culture of the time.

With most of the novels from the list, I don’t worry much about spoilers—I couldn’t really “spoil” The Divine Comedy, if you know what I mean—but I have to be very careful about Rebecca. This is the story of a newly married woman, who is beginning a new life with her husband. One thing I appreciated early on: this woman goes unnamed for the entire novel. I can barely imagine how difficult that might have been for the author—her protagonist is referred to ambiguously for the opening chapters and, after marrying, is referred to by last name only: Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her first name or her maiden name, and all we know of her identity is in character traits, not details. She is a complete character, but one without identity.

Actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter in the movie adaptation of Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This nameless woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, whose first wife is the eponymous Rebecca. Rebecca died before the narrator met Maxim, and Rebecca is some hideous unspoken secret in their new marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to live happily in de Winter’s estate of Manderley, a large and beautiful house that is as much a character as the narrator—it’s given personality and even agency in what happens to the characters living there. The servants and guests at Manderley all seem to know something about Rebecca that they want to keep from the narrator, and because of that, Rebecca herself seems to haunt Manderley. She is around every corner, threatening to ruin the narrator’s marriage and life.

More than once, I wondered if this was a supernatural thriller—a literal haunting, with Rebecca’s spirit poisoning the house. While the narrator never sees the ghost of Rebecca walking down the halls, that seems to be the only difference between the haunting in Rebecca and something like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. This story is the closest you can get to the supernatural while still existing in the real world.

Author Daphne du Maurier

And even though it’s not quite fantasy, either, it’s got a healthy dose of the unrealistic. Everything is hyper-characterized and played for drama or suspense, not to the point that it’s unnecessary, but entertaining for certain. It uses melodrama like it uses hints of the supernatural—instead of getting in the way of the story, they make the story fuller.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, seems to have gone to the Stephen King school of storytelling (or, rather, King went to the du Maurier school of storytelling). King believes that story matters above all. The best stories aren’t about character pieces or technical brilliance, but about telling the best story you can. Rebecca is the perfect example of an author telling the best story she can, and it’s such a good story that it earned its way onto the list of 50 books to read before you die.

Next up, I’m finishing Catch-22, which does exactly what Rebecca doesn’t—and to fantastic result. Catch-22 is almost an anti-story, with plot that folds in on itself and character-driven vignettes that refuse to bear a story. And yet, it’s every bit as thrilling as Rebecca, and infinitely funnier. Though I certainly loved RebeccaCatch-22 is more my speed—but let’s drive down that route next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Lord of the Flies

Welcome back, class. It’s time to weep for the end of innocence.

A while back, I wrote about The Shining by Stephen King, claiming that it should be on the 50-books list as a representative of the horror genre, because horror didn’t feature much on the list. After reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I realize that I spoke too soon . . . Lord of the Flies is one of the spookiest, goriest, most uncomfortable novels I’ve read in a long time, and that’s clearly one of the reasons it made the list.

It’s a basic concept of a story: a group of boys is involved in a plane crash on a deserted island, and there are no grown-ups to lead them. They start out well enough, organizing themselves, electing a leader, establishing a hunting team—but a childish tension erodes it all. To top it off, they start to imagine a beast somewhere on the island, that it may be hunting them and planning to kill them all. Their fear and resentment against each other soon become hatred, anger, revenge, and eventually murder.

Ralph, the boy elected as “chief,” is somewhat charismatic, and older than most of the boys there—in the boys’ eyes, this makes him an excellent leader. Jack, the boy almost elected, is similar to Ralph at first, but he ultimately resents not being elected; he divides the group between those who voted for him and Ralph, and releases his inner savage when things don’t go his way. Then there’s Piggy: an overweight asthmatic boy who wears glasses, and who is never once taken seriously, even though he is clearly the smartest of the group. Between these three characters, this group of boys is transformed into a group of dangerous killers.

Author William Golding

If these characters weren’t children, the story would still work remarkably well. They disagree about the best methods of survival, hesitate to abandon rules, and eventually succumb to their more primal instincts. Part of Golding’s message is that the human race functions like this, on a larger scale . . . that within even the most composed and humane individuals lies a beast, waiting to lash out at the opportune moment. If a group of fully grown adults were trapped on this island, the societal breakdown might have taken longer, but it would have happened all the same (i.e., the TV show Lost).

But the simple fact that these are children makes all the difference. As Jack slips slowly into vengeance and savagery, it’s easy to hate and fear him, until you get the gentle reminder that he’s no older than 12. But he is wrapped up in the same horror as the rest of them—within him lies the beast within all of humanity, and his power over the others causes it to lash out ravenously.

There is one other boy who deserves mentioning: Simon, the quiet boy younger than Jack, Ralph, and Piggy, serving as a kind of bridge between the “biguns” and the “littluns.” He’s smart—not in the same way as Piggy, who is rational and critical, but in a more creative and reflective way. Simon doesn’t say or do much, but he is the only boy on the island who sees and understands who (or what) the Lord of the Flies really is.

After Jack’s hunting party slays a pig, they victoriously stake the pig’s head on a sharpened stick and post it in the ground. As they leave, Simon is enamored by it and stays behind, staring at the pig’s gory smile and hearing nothing but the cloud of flies attacking the bloody corpse. And then the scene becomes a mirage, or maybe a nightmare, as the pig’s head—the Lord of the Flies—begins to speak to Simon, naming himself the beast the children are all afraid of. The Lord of the Flies is the Devil itself.

Simon is the only boy who realizes that the beast they are all so afraid of is harmless, because it lies within—the only one who learns the message Golding is writing. The Lord of the Flies is a part of all of us, and all it needs is a push to escape the confines of something as simple as society.

In continuing the theme of savagery, I’m following up Lord of the Flies with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’m surprised that the list features 1984 and Brave New World together, both heavily influential dystopian novels. I look forward to discussing the differences between them.

Until then, enjoy your week. And keep an eye out for your inner Lord of the Flies.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Shining

Good morning, class.

The 50-books list doesn’t provide a lot in the realm of horror. Sure, there’s Frankenstein and Hamlet, which both at least count, and even my current book The War of the Worlds portrays the horror element of classic sci-fi. But still, I don’t see much that’s horror, first and foremost.

There could be a good reason for that . . . horror is usually low quality; cheap thrills, shallow characters, bad storytelling. But there are exceptions to the genre, and Stephen King proves that with The Shining—so much so that it deserves a place on the list of books you should read before you die.

The story: a small, struggling family watches over the Overlook Hotel through the winter, as supernatural forces try to tear them apart. The father’s alcoholism leaves him vulnerable to the violent spirits in the hotel, and he becomes monstrously abusive. His wife tries to protect their little boy, who just happens to have the ability to communicate with the spirits around them—an ability called shining.

It’s a bad situation . . . and bad becomes worse. They are trapped by the snowstorm in a maze of a building that is crawling with fear, paranoia, rage, and evil. Of course, with Stephen King as the writer, tension smothers every page.

King’s novels are not high literature, in my opinion . . . but this is more compliment than complaint. Of the handful that I’ve read, his novels don’t have that air of pretentiousness found in most English-class pieces of literature. He is an entertainer, and he performs really well with tools like horror and suspense.

Author Stephen King

He’s said that his ideas are situational; the what-ifs inspire the story. “What if . . . a family is trapped in a haunted hotel?” Everything stems from that. So his characters are like pawns in a chess game, and we wait to find out who wins, who is sacrificed, and who makes a narrow escape. One of the reasons King’s stories are so well-received is because his approach is both the key to successful suspense and the essence of storytelling: the question “what happens next?”

If there’s any reason The Shining shouldn’t be on the list, it’s because horror isn’t for everyone. I might agree, if it wasn’t an amazing novel. The Shining handles fear in a way that is important to experience—fear of people who we think love us; fear of people who are under something else’s control; fear of large and imposing forces, and conquering that fear not through blindness or ignorance, but through courage and accepting fear.

Because The Shining handles fear better than any other book I’ve ever read.

It is important to mention that the abusive father character is spending most of his time trying to write a novel, and meanwhile Stephen King has suffered from alcohol abuse. So King isn’t approaching these characters by glorifying a real social problem. In fact, he’s pouring out his soul. That might be the one common denominator between all great works of literature. Food for thought.

See you next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

“And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.”

—from The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells