Skin-Crawling Reads: When Horror Is Nonfiction

Likely StoriesYeah, yeah, sure. It’s one thing for an author to scare you stiff with stuff that might happen, that could happen—when we know it probably won’t. This Halloween, let’s scare ourselves with skin-crawling reads that are terrifying precisely because THEY ARE TRUE. (This all started, by the way, with Booklist editorial assistant Sarah Grant, who had us all dancing the heebie-jeebie with her recounting of Atul Gawande’s hair-raising, horrifying article, “The Itch.”) Read on for stories that will make your skin crawl, and keep crawling, until you are a shapeless, quivering blob of jelly on the floor . . . .

Aftermath Inc by Gil ReavillAftermath, Inc: Cleaning Up after CSI Goes Home, by Gil Reavill

There was a time when so many of these books arrived in the mail (Mop Men, 2009; The Dead Janitors Club, 2010), I was starting to wonder whether crime-scene cleanup was the fast-food job of a new generation. Fortunately, things haven’t gotten that bad (yet) and, fortunately, fast-food gigs are still preferable (for now). Reavill, a writer by trade curious to get his hands dirty, details the carnage with a writer’s eye and very human empathy. We still don’t recommend you read this over lunch.

The Best American Science Writing, 2008, edited by Sylvia Nasar

All of these anthologies are terrifying, or at least partly terrifying. For every story that uplifts you with an account of humankind’s ability to understand and improve our circumstances, there are at least two or three that make you think: a) we don’t really understand anything at all, b) the number of things that can go wrong in the world is uncountable, and c) we’re really just weird bags of meat, aren’t we? Few stories have as much ew-factor as the second one in this volume, Richard Preston’s “An Error in the Code.” You see, not only can some people not control their own bodies, some people’s own bodies attack them. A boy who has bitten off his own fingers and lips, for example. And you’d better not read this if you can’t stomach the idea of self-enucleation. Don’t know what that is? I can’t tell you. It’s TOO HORRIBLE TO CONTEMPLATE.

I was starting to wonder whether crime-scene cleanup
was the fast-food job of a new generation.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston

So you think you’ve got what it takes to survive in the wild—could you cut off your own arm if you had to? With a pocket knife? That’s what Ralston had to resort to when he found himself trapped in a Utah canyon with no hope of help or rescue. There’s a lot more to this book than self-amputation but still, just try to read his chronology—the precise, almost minute-by-minute account that reads with an engineer’s exactitude—without feeling faint. And all you have to do is read about it. He actually did it.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist, by William R. Maples and Michael Browning

As you’d imagine, a forensic anthropologist has to have a pretty strong stomach, and you will, too, if you make it to the end of this. It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing: the stories themselves, or the matter-of-fact way that Maples relates them. On second thought, it’s clearly the stories themselves. Fun fact: did you know that a forensics worker can take the fingerprints of a dead person, merely by removing the skin from the corpse’s hand and slipping it on like a glove?

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

The gosh-darn cheerfulness of the author may help you get past the author’s tales of cadavers’ postmortem perigrinations—or, if you’re the skittish type, it may be the factor that drives you mad, the ghoulish laughter that causes you to start clawing the walls, trying desperately to escape the sight of . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. A whole chapter about reattaching severed heads? A visit to laboratory where dead bodies are left au naturel, the better to study the effects of decomposition? Just imagine yourself as the stiff on the slab, and sobriety will be quickly restored.

That’s all I can come up with without feeling like I need a brain transplant to get rid of the memories. What have YOU got?

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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