The Horror of it…The Top Death Scenes in Fiction
SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, The Troop by Nick Cutter, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Hannibal by Thomas Harris, A New Fear by RL Stine, In the Forest Dark and Deep by Carrie Ryan, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, Cleopatra Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand, Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Bleeding Earth by Kaitlin Ward, and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.
People dying in chilling ways isn’t the entire reason I love horror, but I have to admit, it does feel a little bit like the cherry on top of an already sick and delightfully twisted cake. And when it comes to on-page deaths, execution is everything. Something seemingly simple, like someone eating poisoned food and slumping over a la A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, can be written in such a way that turns your bones to ice and makes your heart quiver in fear. I have a number of favorite death scenes in horror novels, each with their own face-melting flair:
In The Troop by Nick Cutter, a crew of boy scouts find themselves without a scoutmaster, battling personal issues, paranoia, and a genetically engineered intestinal hydatid worm outbreak, all while trapped on a small and secluded island. How the parasite gets into its victims varies according to the situation, but the death that haunted me most in the book was when Shelley, the antagonist of the bunch, becomes infected and hides in a cave. When approached, Shelley attacks and then explodes, and gushes of rotting organs and wriggling worms wash over the most lovable character in the book, effectively dooming him to death.
The Haunting of Hill House is a staple in the horror genre—it’s beautifully, brilliantly written, with a quiet sort of creeping horror that is slow to unfurl the claws that will later slash your heart right open. Shirley Jackson was the master of atmosphere, and there is something cold, lingering and strange that stays with you while you turn the pages of the story. Still, there was nothing quite so shocking and chilling as the final scene in the book, when the unraveled main character Eleanor is being forced to leave Hill House, which she’s grown to feel connected to. After a moment of quiet consideration, Eleanor drives her car straight into a tree, killing herself.
I watched the Hannibal Lector movies before I read the books, but that did nothing to take away from the pure joy of getting through the heart-pounding series by Thomas Harris. One scene that will stay with me forever is from the novel Hannibal, when Margot Verger, the twin sister of the insufferable Mason Verger, finally gets her revenge against the twin brother who subjected her to extreme emotional and sexual abuse. How does she do it? Well, she stuffs a live eel down his throat, of course! The eel latches its razor sharp teeth onto Mason’s tongue and refuses to let go, effectively causing him to drown, slowly, in his own blood. A job well done, Margot, well done indeed!
Growing up, I absolutely devoured anything I could by RL Stine—first the Goosebumps series, and then on to Fear Street. The Fear Street books in particular were riddled with wacky yet harsh deaths, some of which still freak me out to this day. The perfect example? How about in Fear Street Sagas #1: A New Fear when someone dies by bread dough. Yes, bread dough! Nick arrives home to find poor Betsy Winter face-down on the kitchen floor, her hands bound behind her back, and when he turns her over, her face is lumpy and deformed. When he opens her mouth, white goo puffs out, and he realizes in absolute terror that somebody stuffed bread dough into Betsy’s nose and throat, then bound her hands and turned the oven on full-force, the door wide open, leaving Betsy to suffocate slowly as the dough rose.
There’s nothing quite like a great anthology, and I more than enjoyed Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, edited by April Genevieve Tucholke. In the skin-crawling story entitled In The Forest Dark and Deep by Carrie Ryan, a girl named Cassidy is haunted by a man-sized white rabbit known only as the March Hare. But the tea parties this hare throws aren’t the kind you remember from Wonderland—instead, guests are killed, posed with bloody teacups, and strung up like a bunch of corpse-y marionettes. Eeek!
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll is a permanent favorite of mine. The illustrations are gorgeous and go so well with the accompanying stories, all of them terrifying, but one in particular features a death that isn’t really a death, but more of a taking over. All is revealed in The Nesting Place, where a girl learns the hard way that her brother’s fiancee has been taken over by a monster that burrowed itself inside of her. I only really have two words to sum up my horror at this one: FACE TENTACLES.
Cleopatra Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand is another anthology story from Poe’s Children: The New Horror, edited by Peter Straub. All of the stories in that collection were damn good, but I really liked how dark and messed up Cleopatra Brimstone was. The story follows a traumatized young woman who moves to England and volunteers at a zoo, only to discover that she has the power to transform men into butterflies. The disturbing deaths come when you discover that she kills and mounts these men in cases for her own viewing, serial killer style. The story has stuck with me ever since I read it.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman blew me away from the first chapter. In this story, the world is invaded by monsters that, if seen by the human eye, cause people to kill each other and themselves. The main character, Malorie, finds herself in a house with a group of strangers who soon become the closest she has to family. The real kicker? Malorie’s pregnant. And when she goes into labor, the monsters from outside make their way into the house. (What timing!) Malorie is forced to listen to all of the commotion and chaos from the attic, where she’s giving birth. What happens next is heartbreaking beyond, but the chilling lines describing the character Cheryl’s death haunts me to this day: “Cheryl’s head faces the first floor, her feet the second. Her body is horribly, unnaturally contorted.”
The bloodiest book of any I’ve mentioned on this list is Bleeding Earth by Kaitlin Ward. In this apocalyptic young adult horror, the earth begins bleeding (as well as discharging thick clumps of hair and bones, ewww.) Eventually, something in the blood causes people to lose their minds, and I’ll never forget how hard my heart was pounding when I read the scene where the main character, Lea, is forced to kill her own mother in order to save herself from being murdered. And it’s not a quick, easy death either—Kaitlin Ward made sure that her readers experienced the horror and tragedy of the situation.
And last but not least, we have The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. The death in this story doesn’t stick out because of how gory it is, but rather how wrenching and casually violent. While the build-up in the story hints that perhaps winning this lottery is a wonderful thing, anyone who’s read this massive hit of a classic knows the truth—the poor woman who draws the ‘winning’ ticket is promptly stoned to death by the entire village, including her own family.