October is my favorite month of the year, and Halloween is definitely my favorite holiday. Every year, I’m torn between excitement as Halloween approaches and sadness that I’m going to have to wait another year to celebrate it again.
Well, at least to celebrate it officially. Being goth means that what most people call ‘Halloween decorations,’ I think of as ‘year-round bedroom decor.’ Thanksgiving isn’t a major holiday in my household, so for me, October is only the first month of a two month Halloween celebration, the next big holiday being Christmas.
Taking a break from heavier topics after my last blog post is a necessity, so I’m falling back on my first love: books. Halloween has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the spooky spirit has to be sidelined for another year.
Whether you’re a Halloweenie like me or just love a good scare every now and then, I know you’ll find something on the list of my all-time favorite bone-chilling reads. So grab yourself a pumpkin spice latte, open up Amazon or Thrift Books in another window, and be prepared to add a few bloody good books to your library.
1.) HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: In a thoroughly modern tale with folk horror roots, Heuvelt (a Hugo nominee) depicts a seemingly idyllic town in the Hudson Valley. But Black Spring is also home to the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth have been sewn shut. The witch (sarcastically referred to as “Grandma” by the town’s younger inhabitants) enters homes at will, often looming over beds and lurking in corners. When a group of teenagers decide to break Black Spring’s rule against telling outsiders about the curse by releasing footage of their prank on the witch, their picturesque town is plunged into turmoil. Filled with hauntingly beautiful prose intertwined with dark humor, HEX will keep you on edge from beginning to end.
2.) Dracula by Bram Stoker: You can’t write a proper list of horror novels without including this classic. While Stoker didn’t invent the vampire, he undoubtedly shaped its modern incarnation. For the uninitiated, the novel follows the mysterious Count Dracula as he journeys from Transylvania to England in search of a new home. And, of course, new blood. Written in the form of personal diaries, letters, and even newspaper clippings, Stoker’s unique style allows readers to delve into the minds of those who encounter Dracula. There are no sparkling vampires here; Stoker’s vampires are cold and brutal. Jonathan’s histrionics are often cringe-worthy, and the novel’s ending leaves much to be desired, but the overall mood of the book is lovely and dark, perfect for a chilly autumn night.
3.) We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: Deeply unsettling, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by an unusual woman called Merricat, who invites us to take a closer look at her isolated, ostracized family and the drama that unfolds when a cousin enters the picture. Jackson’s last novel is a short, chilling page-turner that’s impossible to describe in detail without giving away important plot points. As with all of Jackson’s work, the ordinary can become macabre at a moment’s notice, and nothing is ever as it seems.
4.) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova: After a young woman finds an ancient book and letters addressed to ‘my dear and unfortunate successor,’ she finds herself in a labyrinthine world where her father’s secret past and her mother’s mysterious disappearance intersect with a centuries-old quest to discover the truth about Vlad the Impaler. Joining her father on a hunt for the source of Dracula’s preternatural origin, our narrator (whose name is never given) takes us from Istanbul to Budapest to remote villages in Eastern Europe. Unlocking codes and facing adversaries who will stop at nothing to protect the Impaler’s secret, she discovers the horrifying truth of her own past and her mother’s disappearance. While Kostova’s Historian is an homage to Stoker’s Dracula, it blends his epistolary style with utterly modern suspense. A must-read for anyone interested in the real-life inspiration for Dracula.
5.) It by Stephen King: Twenty-eight years ago, the Losers’ Club, a group of gangly teenagers in Derry, Maine survived an encounter with a nameless entity known only as It. Twenty-eight years later, they have all moved on, repressing their memories of the terrifying ordeal. But the killings have begun again, and their pledge to put a stop to It once and for all draws them home to Derry for a final battle against unspeakable evil. Undoubtedly King’s most imaginative and terrifying novel, It is not something to read after dark.
6.) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Written for a friendly challenge to see who could create the most frightening story, Shelley’s blend of Gothic horror and Romanticism is considered by many the first true science fiction novel. Eccentric scientist Victor Frankenstein vows to create life from death, and while he succeeds using unorthodox methods, the results leave him horrified. Shunned by his creator, who believes he is evil, the monster offers to disappear if Frankenstein will create a mate for him. When Frankenstein denies him, the creature makes good on his threat: “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” A heart-breaking read that will leave you pondering if what makes a man is really so different from what makes a monster.
7.) Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice: This is the story of Louis and his life, both mortal and immortal, in his own words. Serving as our maudlin narrator, Louis tells an intrepid reporter of the events that led him to unwillingly becoming a vampire and recounts his tumultuous relationship with the playful yet vicious Lestat and their child-vampire companion, Claudia. Consumed by their hatred for Lestat, Louis and Claudia flee to Europe and find themselves in Paris. There they encounter the mysterious Armand and his coven of vampires, and painful truths are revealed. Rice’s lyrical prose weaves a world so vivid you can smell the iris-perfumed streets of New Orleans, even hear the wind in the cypress trees.
8.) The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell: Life seems picturesque for Elsie when she marries the wealthy Rupert Bainbridge. It all falls apart when she is left pregnant and widowed mere weeks after the wedding. Left surrounded by hostile servants and angry local villagers, Elsie’s only companion is her late husband’s hopelessly awkward cousin, Sarah. When Elsie discovers a locked room in the estate, curiosity bids her to unlock it. Inside is a painted wooden figure (known in folk art as a ‘silent companion’) that resembles Elsie herself. While the figure terrifies the residents of the estate, Elsie attempts to shrug it off. Until more figures start to appear. Genuinely creepy and atmospheric, Purcell has a knack for keeping you up all night — mostly to see how the story ends but also wondering about the source of that sound you just heard.
9.) Penpal by Dathan Auerbach: Originally published in the form of short, interconnected stories on a horror forum, Penpal follows a man investigating the series of seemingly unrelated, tragic circumstances that have plagued his life and the lives of those closest to him. Auerbach has a visceral way with words that easily puts him on par with horror genre giant Stephen King. His words carry a strange sense of nostalgic foreboding that calls to mind the scent of decaying leaves in a deep, dark forest you should have left hours ago. As unforgettable as it is difficult to describe, Penpal is not for the faint of heart. (Seriously, do not read this book if harm to animals is especially traumatic for you; I had a difficult time with it for this reason).
10.) House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: “This is not for you.” So begins a sprawling, seven-hundred plus page epic, and if you like to skim-read or skip ahead, the warning is true. For those with the endurance to follow along, House of Leaves is two novels in one, interconnected by our unreliable narrator’s footnotes. Johnny Truant describes finding the body of a blind recluse named Zampano and his manuscript of a film called The Navidson Report, which Johnny takes to read. The Navidson Report is a horrifying account of a young couple who moved into a house that is, much like the Doctor’s TARDIS, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Unlike the TARDIS, this is a house of unspeakable horror that has driven men to madness. A cult classic, House of Leaves is not to be missed if you love subtle, pervasive horror that stays with you long after you’ve put the book down.
There are so many truly brilliant horror novels out there, but I thought I’d make it easy for everyone and start with my (current) top ten. What’s your favorite scary book?