(Original Review, 1981-04-17)
“The Mysterious Stranger” by Mark Twain which presented a very bleak and troubling vision of humanity. It had some Huck Finn style youthful frolicking too but this was swamped by that sense that human history and the consequences of moral decision making are a horrible dream that the narrator may be able to escape from but we cannot. I was expecting some jolly progressive waffle about the stupidity of religion but the book went far deeper than that especially when Satan started compassionately bumping people off because he could foretell how awful their lives would be if he didn't. That similar theme in the book of Double Indemnity that didn't make it into the film also chilled me.
I tend to find macabre short stories more terrifying than novels which contain plenty of other textures beyond melancholy or terror. “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson, “Barbara of the House of Grebe” by Thomas Hardy and “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner are three memorable tales of this kind. Guy De Maupassant is probably the king of the terrifying and psychologically probing short story.
My general response to famously explicit shockers like “120 Days of Sodom”, “Juliette”, “Crash” and “The Wasp Factory” tends to be laughter. I regard the first two particularly as a form of sexual surrealism rather than a depiction of actual atrocities. And the misanthropy of “The Wasp Factory” is even somewhat bracing. “American Psycho” is sooo tame and obviously a comedy too and James Herbert is far more of a comic genius than a master of terror.
Perhaps reading The Bible and the historians of Ancient Greece and Rome during my childhood made me somewhat immune to brutal descriptions in novels (I am not immune to the display of emotion in them though and often end a particularly beloved or tragic book in tears). The descriptions of the atrocities of the Assyrians kept me up for nights and the image of that guy who took part in the assassination of Domitian and had his sexual organs cut off and shoved in his mouth haunted me for ages. And these events supposedly happened.
Apollinaire's “11,000 Rods” is the only classic of extreme erotica that has particularly troubled me; it was full of psychological nastiness. And “The Story of O” was pretty bland and suburban; the novel was written for comparing the carryings on of O to slaves wanting to keep their masters in the Caribbean made me feel an urge to vomit.
[2018 EDIT: I haven't read McGrath's "Asylum" yet but thought "Port Mungo" and "Martha Peak" were fantastic. And “The Little Friend” was far more terrifying than "The Secret History." Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger" was also quite chilling as was Susan Hill's "The Man in the Picture"; Venice is always a good setting for a tale of terror (Vernon Lee and Daphne De Maurier thought so too). "The Athenian Murders" and "The Art of Murder" by Jose Carlos Samoza come to mind too. “The Kindly Ones” and “2666” are also great novels but the use of real life atrocities was more of a reminder of how awful the world can be rather than of how shocking they are as literature.]