Far Out: Best First Lines of Sci Fi and Horror Novels (that I Think You Should Read)

The modern American reading public has the collective attention span of a stressed-out, sleep-deprived gnat with ADD. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom would have us believe. English teachers, editors and published writers all seem to tell aspiring writers every day that they’ve got to hook readers with the first line or they’ll lose them. Disgusted editors, they are told, will fling their manuscripts disdainfully into the slush pile if they’re not captivated by the opening lines. As a member of the reading public, I find these assumptions vaguely insulting.

And a little true – though I tend to give an author a few paragraphs or pages before I make any summary judgments about his or her skill. So I don’t require that a “hook” be buried in that first line to keep me engaged. But I have to admit, I love a good opener.

So here are a few of my favorite first lines from my two favorite genres, science fiction and horror. Not only are these intriguing sentences, but each begins a book that I would highly recommend reading. See what you think:

 “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984, George Orwell
  
 
 
 
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
 
 
 
 
“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
2001 – A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke.
 
 
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.””
The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
(Okay I know this is two sentences but it could have been one and it’s one of my favorite openers.)
 
 
 
 
 “No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
 
 
 
 
 
 “The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The Restaurant at the End of the UniverseDouglas Adams
(Two sentences again, I know. But it’s my list and I can cheat if I want to.) 
 
 
 “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
 
 
  
 
 
“My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I’m not sure you should care who I am or that I exist.”
Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
 
“Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.”
Night WatchTerry Pratchett
 
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
The Golden CompassPhilip Pullman
 
 
 
 
  
 
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
ITStephen King
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
 
  
 
 
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
War of the Worlds, HG Wells
 
 
 
 “The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”
Life, the Universe and EverythingDouglas Adams
(Nobody opened a story like Douglas Adams.)
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22 Comments

  1. Totally cool idea for a post, Tori. Now—I’m waiting for you to use those covers in an art project. Decoupage them to a table top, perhaps? Remember? LOL
    Hope you all have a wonderful weekend, my friend!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    Reply
    • Funny you should mention it! I just found some great old science fiction paperbacks from the 1950s at a thrift store the other day to add to my stash. I really am going to try that project one day. Just need to pick up a table. Thanks, Kathy.

      Reply
  2. cage3

     /  September 29, 2012

    Great post and a great selection. I am a total Douglas Adams fan. When I am down or confused in a choice or just feeling totaly negative about the world I will pick up one of his books and read something from a radom page. It always lifts me up and puts things back into perspective.

    Reply
    • I’m also a big fan (just in case you couldn’t tell)! And that’s a great idea for a pick-me-up or perspective-refresher.

      Reply
  3. Love it!!! 🙂

    Reply
  4. You hit a number of my favorite books on your list — especially Douglas Adams!

    Reply
    • It’s a shame he left us early, isn’t it? Yes, I’m a big Douglas Adams fan. Also love Terry Pratchett who is also an awesomely funny Brit. Glad you enjoyed the list.

      Reply
  5. Paul J. Stam

     /  September 29, 2012

    OK, here are the first 2 sentences from my new novel, Death On the Church Steps. “She was young, exceptionally beautiful, and except for her sheer lace panties, completely naked, and very dead. She lay in a curve on the top of the steps that led up to the front of the church.”
    Will that hook them? ;~}

    Reply
  6. Totally awesome list. Hooray for Terry Pratchett! I would guess most of his books have zinger openings. My favorite on your list has to be Fahrenheit 451.
    My favorite book of all time: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
    A Wrinkle in Time. Madeleine L’Engle

    Reply
    • I love Terry Pratchett! I wait impatiently for each new book and reread the old ones periodically while I’m waiting. Thank all the gods of Discworld that he’s prolific. And I agree, that first line of Fahrenheit 451 is wonderful. Ray Bradbury was such a gifted storyteller. I loved A Wrinkle in Time too, though it’s been more than 30 years since I read it. I remember my teenaged self thought it was amazing. That would have been a great one for the list.

      Reply
  7. Ever see “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”? Very funny and creepy.

    Reply
  8. ahaha, what a thoughtful and clever post. well done. something about how authors begin to engage our attention… btw, what about O. Henry? he writes his stories rather well, too. and yes, his opening lines are cool (though I doubt if his stories are the type you like or prefer, Tori). and there’s O’Connor? he’s Irish, I believe – the one who wrote a cool story about pulling teeth (doc’s viewpoint). ^^ William Golding also has very good opening lines, a cool storyteller, as I recall. ^^

    ah, your selection is select indeed. you seem to be fond of suspense told in the way of children’s stories. ahaha, who would outgrow that? children’s stories rock!… 🙂

    btw, Shirley Jackson is the one who wrote The Lottery, ‘no? i could have sworn that the Hunger Games plot took a huge chunk from it, ahaha (the author, Collins, denies such allegations, though) i think i read a book by S. Jackson two years ago, something about looking up a house…

    thank you for this post. made me think of the books that got me at hello… cheers… 😉

    Reply
    • Hey San! I do like O. Henry though I’ve only read a couple of his stories, The Gift of the Magi and the one about the little obnoxious boy who gets kidnapped. Not sure I know the O’Connor story (or which O’Connor?) – my partner is a fan of Flannery O’Connor but I have not read any of her stories (yet). And yes, Shirley Jackson who wrote The Lottery, what a great story, yes? I hadn’t thought about it in relation to The Hunger Games, but now that you mention it, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? I should do a list of short stories, but I think it would take me forever to choose. So many…

      Reply
      • hello, Tori… O. Henry is a master storyteller, I guess. i like his story about a stockbroker who has forgotten that he has married his secretary (can’t remember the title). yes, his stories are full of obnoxious characters. so engaging…

        yes, thanks for reminding me – there are so many O’Connor authors (the last one, being the author of Angela’s Ashes), darn… no, am afraid i wasn’t referring to Flannery O’Connor, my bad… the one who wrote about pulling the teeth of a boy was William Carlos Williams (ah, i hope i got it right this time).

        i was referring to Frank O’Connor (not Ayn Rand’s husband) who wrote about a naughty boy’s first confession. yes, that’s his story that i really like – so clever and funny…

        yes, Shirley Jackson wrote swell stories and The Lottery is on top of them, if not the best. oh, there are books listing the world’s “greatest” short stories. but it would be interesting to read your picks, your list. yes, why don’t you do that? that’s a tall order but quite challenging… btw, i really like Max Shulman’s Love Is a Fallacy. so cool…

        cheers and regards to you and yours. have a good weekend ahead… 😉

      • I love William Carlos Williams’ poetry but I didn’t even know he wrote short stories until the other day when I came across a book of them at my favorite used bookstore. But I didn’t buy it! I thought the pile of books waiting on my nightstand was getting too high. But now I have a happy excuse to go back and get it. Thanks, San! I get the Irish writers’ names mixed up too. No worries. I will check out Max Shulman, not familiar with him. Thanks for the recommendations. A happy weekend to you as well. Best, T.

  9. spool2spool

     /  October 3, 2012

    What a marvelous comparison!

    Reply
  10. hey, another mistake. the Angela’s Ashes author isn’t an O’Connor but McCourt. what a dumb! 😉

    Reply
  11. The opening line may not be any good (I don’t remember) but if you are recommending sci-fi books for people to read, you can’t leave out “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

    Reply

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