What's the creepiest passage in literature?

At The Atlantic, Joe Fassler votes for an infamous passage from Cormac McCarthy's The Road:

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

The key, he adds: "What is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined."


    1. This is the problem with a lot of this creepypasta, they end up with some ridiculous, stupid gimmick that just spoils it and makes it sound just stupid. 

      Give me something that’ll make my hairs stand on end, any day.

  1. There’s a book of short stories with the title “Inspecting The Vaults” by a Canadian author named Eric McCormack (that I am right this minute trying to hunt down), which I read about 20 years ago. Though I don’t remember specific passages, I recall being profoundly shaken by a number of the stories. 

  2. Even though I have not read the book, when I saw that the passage was from “The Road” I knew exactly what it was.  That scene in the movie hit me so hard I had to go outside and get some air, clear my mind.

    And now I know, the written passage is even stronger than the film.

    1. Seriously, that book depressed me properly for a month and that was the worst passage.

      1.  Really? The baby roasting on the spit mentioned in passing actually hit me at least as hard.

        1. “No society is more than three meals away from anarchy.” ~ Someone Who Was Hungry

          1. Deep.

            I have read that The Road was a reflection of McCarthy’s fears in becoming a father. If I had those fears I would have gotten a vasectomy. 

          2. Actually, it’s not deep; just disturbingly true. Having it written out in living gore, however, seems rare, whether because most authors can’t stomach it or just don’t want to visit it.

          3. @boingboing-f1143e86b0f718851b742e7b0a1c5fe5:disqus McCarthy does visit a lot that most other writers can’t stomach. For those with a taste for such things, I recommend “Child of God.” “Blood Meridian” too.

          4. @boingboing-2c4ab9b7954f1c0af3fab408b3290a86:disqus For those too impatient for reading, Blood Merridian is under development for movie production.

      2. I read that on a late winter flight from Hartford to San Diego. Thank god I wasn’t going the other way, if I put that book down & stepped out in to New England winter, I’d probably have just walked straight in front of a truck. Exiting to palm trees & sunshine really helped. Still, a book has never affected me that deeply. I love when mere words can hit that hard, cheap & low. 

        1. Well said, and I’m in total agreement regarding the strength of the book and, especially, when words move me to that degree.  McCarthy done got skillz.

          1. You might not want to read it.  I am a big fan of McCarthy, and think the Border Trilogy is essential reading in US lit, but wasn’t even impressed with The Road as a book, though it still messes with my brain (there’s a local vegetable stall I can’t shop at because they have a grocery cart with a dusty cloth kind of dangling out of it-normally used to shield the produce from the afternoon sun, but just hanging out otherwise-the image takes me back every time to the book and ruins my appetite).  There just wasn’t enough meaning in the Road to make it worthwhile, and while the author’s characters are usually compelling, this was like a long MacGyver-Dad fantasy.  Someone above mentioned that the book was written when McCarthy was anxious about becoming a father, which makes sense.  TLDR post: I vote you skip this one and try the Border Trilogy if you want to read McCarthy.  

          2. As someone who is prone to those things, let me say it depends on how you take “strong” fiction (eg., horror, dystopias, etc). 

            The hardest thing about _The Road_ is the writing style and Cormack’s dogged lack of punctuation, which I still find irritating to this day; it’s a shame.

      3.  The thing about the book/movie is that it basically presents a world with no hope.  In most other post-apocalyptic scenarios there is still some hope for a future: we have lost a lot but we can rebuild.  In “The Road” there’s none of that, humanity is literally devouring its future.  There are a couple scenes in the movie that present a sort of vague shadow of hope: they find the bunker full of food (but how long will that last), and they find one living insect when they reach the ocean (so not all animals have died.)   But again these are pretty meager semblances of “hope.” 

        I look at recent stories about ancient Mayan pyramids being demolished for road gravel, poachers invading elephant sanctuaries, the fracking boom, and I ponder this idea of “humanity devouring its future.”

    2. I remember this passage well. I have never seen the film, but in a way I’d rather not. McCarthy’s prose leaves a disturbing amount to the imagination and I was most horrified by just how many crevices were filled by my own mind.

  3. From The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, by MR James. The narrator has found the location of the fabled treasure half-way down a medieval well in France:

    “Well, I felt to the right, and my fingers touched something curved, that felt — yes — more or less like leather; dampish it was, and evidently part of a heavy, full thing. There was nothing, I must say, to alarm one. I grew bolder, and putting both hands in as well as I could, I pulled it to me, and it came. It was heavy, but moved more easily than I had expected. As I pulled it towards the entrance, my left elbow knocked over and extinguished the candle. I got the thing fairly in front of the mouth and began drawing it out. Just then Brown gave a sharp ejaculation and ran quickly up the steps with the lantern. He will tell you why in a moment. Startled as I was, I looked round after him, and saw him stand for a minute at the top and then walk away a few yards. Then I heard him call softly, “All right, sir,” and went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck .”

    1. Yeah, M.R. James owned creepy long before any modern horror writers came along. The “face of crumpled linen” in “Whistle and I’ll come to you” creeped me out for years.

  4. I just finished reading Iain Banks’ Complicity, which has some pretty horrendous descriptions in there. Like the mysterious surgical syringe and its contents which its use and purpose can only be horribly, guiltily guessed at, at one point in the series of murders. Worse is the premise that the man who bears the terrible punishment…kinda deserved it? No, no, no, too terrible to bear…

    1. The mention of Banks reminds me of his Culture novel ‘The Use of Weapons’ that made similar use of a that sense of gnawing dread and ambiguity regarding a certain chair.  The moment in which that secret was finally revealed left me deeply unsettled for days.  It still  unnerves me to think about it now.

      Looks like I’ll be picking up Complicity this weekend thanks to you, Ivor…

      1. Complicity is great. Not as virtuosic as Use of Weapons, but arguably more disturbing.

    2. Iain Bank’s “Wasp Factory”, the passage about the baby in the hospital. Yeah, that one.

      I had to stop reading and go sit in the lounge next to my friend for half an hour just to chill out.
      Even thinking about it creeps me out.

      The chair from “Use Of Weapons” is a close second from Mr Banks though.

      1. Yeah, the chair and the baby are both pretty strong stuff, but for me, Banks’ most horrible, “oh shit”, moment is in Dead Air when the protagonist leaves a drunken answerphone message he really, really shouldn’t.

      2. To my shame, I’ve read Banks all back to front, and I literally picked up Hydrogen Sonata and The Wasp Factory today…just started on the Wasp Factory…was hoping for a literary unicorn chaser but it looks like that just won’t happen…

        Complicity is great, if only for the fact that its set where I grew up! Colley’s flat is just around the corner from my house.

        Cannae beat some tar black Scottish fiction…

    1. Oh, yeah!  For me, something about “The Jaunt” is the creepiest thing Stephen King ever wrote.

  5. Creepy, yeah, but I’;m not even sure it’s the most unsettling passage in the literature of Cormac McCarthy. Here’s one from Blood Meridian:

    The way narrowed through rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. . . These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their underjaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky.

    1. I think The Road is harder, because you can understand, even though you hope you would not follow suit, how people could resort to cannibalism to remain alive. By contrast, the Glanton gang, as depicted in Blood Meridian anyway (I don’t know if McCarthy took liberties with the actual history), had rather less understandable motives for their murder sprees, and they never ate any of their victims, AFAIK.

  6. The Road was the hardest book I’ve ever read.  At the time I read it, my son was the same age as the boy in the book and I identified way too much with the father’s angst.  I refused to go see the movie because of this book and normally, I would have been there opening day.

    1. I still haven’t read the book, and maybe never will.  We went to see the movie about 6 months after our son was born.  I cried through the whole damned thing.  Sobbed a couple times.  It’s extremely difficult material for new, newish or soon to be parents.  

      1. I made the mistake of reading it while on a business trip 1000 miles away from my 3 year old son. I sobbed. I wanted to be a better father.

        1. Ouch.  At least we were just a few miles from home, and could give the little guy hugs when we got home.

    2.  The film isn’t as visceral as the book imho, and I know that’s a cliche…
      It was really good, but just couldn’t capture the amazing darkness of the book, which may be impossible. I was very excited when it came out too, especially when I found out that John Hillcoat (The Proposition) was at the helm, and that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis were scoring.

  7. There’s a passage in one of Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” where a vegetarian locked in a cell with a rotting steak finally snaps. That’s stayed with me for about 25 years now. Brrrrrr!

    Also the scene in Hannibal with the brain eating and the messing up of the memories freaked the bejeezus outta me.

    1. Yes, Barker’s stories were chock-full of fairly disturbing lines. The story about the 2 city-giants fighting each other? ~shudder~

      1. I know it was supposed to be horrible, but that story (In the Hills, the Cities)
        cracked me up. Human Voltron! Let’s go, Voltron Force!

  8. You know that we can’t give it a good judgement without having read, like, all of literature?

    1. This is the internet. We aren’t looking for GOOD judgement, just judgement – whether we’ve read the books or not.

  9. Just as heads up, it’s actually the author Benjamin Percy voting for this passage as the scariest of all time. Joe Fassler was who interviewed Percy about it.

  10. Here is another fantastic creepy Cormac McCarthy passage, my personal vote, from my favorite of his, Suttree: 

    He closed his eyes. The gray water that dripped from him was rank with caustic. By the side of a dark dream road he’d seen a hawk nailed to a barn door. But what loomed was a flayed man with his brisket tacked open like a cooling beef and his skull peeled, blue and bulbous and palely luminescent, black grots his eyeholes and bloody mouth gaped tongueless. The traveler had seized his fingers in his jaws, but it was not alone this horror that he cried. Beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, for his surgeons move about the world even as you and I. 


  11. Alan Garner’s, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, has a passage where characters are crawling through an underground tunnel in an escape attempt. Read the children’s fantasy as an adult, but whew, that scene left me with the hebegebees.

    1.  Good call. Whenever I read that passage I always think “I’d rather just stay where I am and starve to death, thank you”.

  12. Not exactly literature, although one could probably argue that any written word is literature … anyway: If you want to be creeped out beyond belief, read up on Albert Fish. But seriously, don´t do it, especially if you have children. I regret that I did.

  13. Amateurs.

    Since Bovary’s death three doctors have followed one another at Yonville without any success, so severely did Homais attack them. He has an enormous practice; the authorities treat him with consideration, and public opinion protects him. He has just received the cross of the Legion of Honour.

    Now that’s fucking creepy.

  14. Interesting that billions of animals in the United States alone are condemned to similar fates as described by McCarthy, yet most of us don’t give it a passing thought. An entire sub-genre of horror could be created by crafting stories that substitute humans for what actually takes place on factory farms and in laboratories. Done to us it would be a ghastly proposition, but for the animals it’s just food production and research.

  15. Not even a passage, just two simple words:  ”compassionate conservative”

    A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House

    George W. Bush

  16. The scene in Gravity’s Rainbow where Brigadier Pudding revisits the trenches via coprophagia deserves an honorable mention, I think.

  17.  Not creepy in the gross-out sense but I was creeped out when the protagnoist in The Yellow Wallpaper wears a mark in the wall with her shoulder from crawling around the perimeter of her room/cell.

  18. The very end of “Perdido Street Station” where you finally find out the circumstances of Yagharek’s wings being cut off.  

  19.  That was a doozy.  But the passage that stayed with me most from the novel, and one that wasn’t depicted in the movie, is the one that made me look up what “catamites” were:

    He wallowed into the ground and lay watching across his forearm. An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three-foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon. They clanked past, marching with a swaying gait like wind-up toys. Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. Shh, he said. Shh.  The phalanx following carried spears or lances tassled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of trucksprings in some crude forge upcountry. The boy lay with his face in his arms, terrified.
    They passed two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly.  Tramping. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked to each other.  All passed on.

    I was blown away by how much that passage says about the book’s world, in so little space, not one wasted word.  Every other description of the post-apocalypse ever written or filmed is superfluous in comparison.

  20. Yeah, “The Road” wins; at least among the things I’ve read. Before that, I would have said “The Stand”, specifically when Stu Redman is trying to escape from the CDC:
    “Come down and eat chicken with me, beautiful… it’s sooooo dark…”

    That single line went into the vault the moment I read it. I’ve never forgotten it.

  21. Also, Stewart O’Nan’s Prayer for the Dying is downright chilling, written in second person for added effect.

  22. A lot of what goes on in “Let the Right One In” (I’m referring to the book here, not the movie) is very creepy. I remember reading it on the train to work and started to become very self-conscious that someone might peek over my shoulder and read a passage or two then proceed to either knock me upside the head or call the police. Zombies and pedophilia in such close proximity made me feel awfully creepy over the course of numerous passages (the book is MUCH more graphic than the book).

  23. I had read Blood Meridian a few times and most of everything else that McCarthy had written before reading The Road, so it might not have been as intense for me as it would otherwise have been. Still, it’s probably the only novel of his that I am pretty sure I don’t want to read again. What I find crazy is that McCarthy wrote The Road as a way to process fatherhood while my way is to take my kids to the park, get them worn out, put them to bed, and share some single-malt with my wife in front of the fire.

  24. Horacio Quiroga’s “El almohadón de plumas” has the creepiest twist ending ever. If you can find it in English (or if you read Spanish), do yourself a favor and read it.

  25. I think _Nineteen Eighty-Four_ still wins, and ought to win, a lot of such competitions like this. Most, if not all of it, actually, not just any one passage.

  26. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out Of Space has always haunted me – it provides a number of examples of how showing very little can be more distressing than showing a lot.  The passage involving finding the farmer’s wife in the attic was what I initially thought of when I thought of a creepy passage:

    “As it was he thought only of the blasphemous monstrosity which confronted
    him, and which all too clearly had shared the nameless fate of young
    Thaddeus and the livestock. But the terrible thing about the horror
    was that it very slowly and perceptibly moved as it continued to crumble.

    Ammi would give
    me no added particulars of this scene, but the shape in the corner does
    not reappear in his tale as a moving object. There are things which
    cannot be mentioned, and what is done in common humanity is sometimes
    cruelly judged by the law. I gathered that no moving thing was left
    in that attic room, and that to leave anything capable of motion there
    would have been a deed so monstrous as to damn any accountable being
    to eternal torment.”

    But looking back, the following paragraph strikes me as particularly well crafted as well:

    “All at once one
    of the detectives at the window gave a short, sharp gasp. The others
    looked at him, and then quickly followed his own gaze upward to the
    point at which its idle straying had been suddenly arrested. There was
    no need for words. What had been disputed in country gossip was disputable
    no longer, and it is because of the thing which every man of that party
    agreed in whispering later on, that the strange days are never talked
    about in Arkham. It is necessary to premise that there was no wind at
    that hour of the evening. One did arise not long afterward, but there
    was absolutely none then. Even the dry tips of the lingering hedge-mustard,
    grey and blighted, and the fringe on the roof of the standing democrat-wagon
    were unstirred. And yet amid that tense godless calm the high bare boughs
    of all the trees in the yard were moving. They were twitching morbidly
    and spasmodically, clawing in convulsive and epileptic madness at the
    moonlit clouds; scratching impotently in the noxious air as if jerked
    by some allied and bodiless line of linkage with subterrene horrors
    writhing and struggling below the black roots.”

  27. The airport (I think airport; it’s been 25 years) scene at the end of Song of Kali by Dan Simmons is roooough. For a long time I said it’s the best book I never want to read again.

  28. For gothic creepiness William Styron would have to be in there somewhere, although his builds it one layer at a time. 

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