Halloween is less than two weeks away so now is a good time to stack the old nightstand with some books that are best read with all the lights on—or better yet, during the day. The following list contains a little bit of everything, from classic ghost stories to modern psychological horror to the boy next door who turned out to be a serial killer.
I’m Want Something Old School
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
It doesn’t get much more old school than “Frankenstein.” Shelley wrote this now classic novel as part of a ghost story competition proposed by Lord Byron while she, her husband and a friend were vacationing in Switzerland. At the time, the idea of using electricity to stimulate muscles and other objects was a hot topic. So Shelley imagined what would happen if you used electricity to reanimate a corpse and her famous monster was born. And although the book was written almost two hundred years ago Shelley’s prose feels surprisingly modern. Most people assumed it was written by a man since it was originally published anonymously but Shelley proved that a woman has what it takes to write a great horror story. Another reason to be grateful? If not for Mary Shelly we wouldn’t have one of the funniest comedies of all time, “Young Frankenstein.”
I Just Want Classic Ghost Stories
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
“The Turn of the Screw” is the quintessential psychological ghost story. James said he wrote this story as a “trap for the unwary” and it has been described by some frustrated critics as intentionally ambiguous. The story involves a governess who is hired to take care of two young children in an English country house. Soon after she arrives she sees a man and woman wandering around the estate but does not recognize them. The man and woman do not appear to be seen by anyone else and the governess comes to believe they are ghosts. Worse still, she suspects the children may have been corrupted by these ghosts. James skillfully weaves a tale that will have you question the true nature of the mysterious couple and the possibility that the governess is simply going mad.
Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James
Plenty of lists will steer you to Edgar Allen Poe for some old school ghost stories and Poe certainly has his fair share of classic ghost stories in his oeuvre. But M.R. James is considered by many to be the master of the English ghost story. Most of his stories involve the discovery of an old book or object that results in an unspeakable horror being visited on an unlucky victim. In “Casting the Runes,” for example, the narrator reaches under his pillow for his watch but finds instead “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair” and he realizes this is “not the mouth of a human being.” James (no relation to Henry James) was a dean at Kings College, Cambridge and wrote four volumes of ghost stories. Many of his classics can be found in this collection.
The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
Before “The Woman in Black” was a hit movie starring Daniel Radcliffe it was a wildly popular book and the second longest running play in London. The narrator is a solicitor hired to wrap up the estate of the widow at Eel Marsh House. He travels to the house from London and unwisely decides to spend the night while sorting through the estates’ papers. As he uncovers the story of the woman in black, he begins to see things in the house, including the woman herself who is not at all happy that he his there. Of course, it doesn’t end well.
I Want Something A Little More Modern
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson wrote “The Haunting of Hill House” in 1959 and although the prose is modern the story has a clear gothic bent. Remember all those stories about a group of people that spend the night in a haunted house to find out if it is really haunted? Well, they all owe a debt to this story. Three people are invited to spend the summer at Hill House by a professor investigating the supernatural. They soon began experiencing all kinds of disturbing events that cannot be explained. Here, the house is the ghost and it preys on each member of the party with the most terrifying punishments being reserved for the psychologically weakest member of the group. A true classic.
The Shining, Stephen King
“The Shining” has become so well known and makes so many critics’ top ten lists you might be inclined to think it could be drifting toward kitsch. You would be wrong. The story is simple, almost familiar. Jack Torrance is hired to act as a caretaker of a large hotel that shuts down every winter. He is allowed to bring his family with him but otherwise he will be totally alone. Oh, and did I forget to mention the hotel is haunted? Kings’ chronicle of Torrance’s gradual descent into madness would be terrifying enough if Torrance were alone at the Overlook Hotel. The real power of the horror in the novel, though, is the effect this madness has on his family. Like “The Exorcist,” King works the family dynamic with terrifying results.
I Want Something More Hardcore
The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty
“The Exorcist” is another book that most people associate with the movie of the same name. And why not? When the movie was released in 1973 there were stories of people fainting in the theaters while others fled before the film was over. No doubt this was due, in part, to the gruesome special effects of the film. But perhaps the real cause was the disturbing nature of the story itself: a twelve-year old girl is possessed by the devil as her mother struggles to understand what is happening to her. The book captures all the terror of this situation and more. A thoroughly modern horror story with the oldest demon around at its heart.
The Red Dragon, Thomas Harris
“The Silence of the Lambs” gets all the love but this is the better book. A serial killer is murdering entire families, seemingly at random, and the F.B.I is called in to investigate. They discover a pattern of ritualistic killings in which the victims are bitten and cut with broken mirrors. “The Red Dragon” introduces us to Hannibal Lecter, one of the most disturbing fictional characters in recent years, and Jack Crawford, his F.B.I. counter-part. Originally published in 1981, “The Red Dragon” was one of the progenitors of the serial killer genre and is certainly one of the best books in that class.
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
For those who like their horror with a rock and roll flavor, there is Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” the story of aging rock star Jude Coyne. Coyne, like many rock stars, has left a trail of pain, broken relationships and heartbreak over the course of his career. He also has a taste for the macabre and after buying a suit that belonged to a dead man he discovers that the dead man’s ghost has followed him home Haunted Mansion style. Contains plenty of scares but also manages to reflect on the pain caused by our mistakes.
I Want a Challenge
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
At over 700 pages, you may still be reading this one next Halloween. Not because of its’ length but because of how the novel is constructed. A multitude of annotations, the liberal use of different typefaces, pages containing only a single word and multiple narrators all make this book a challenge to read. It has been described as both a horror story and a love story, although the plot is simple and familiar: a family moves into a house and soon discovers something is not right. In this case, the problem is that the house is bigger on the inside than the outside. They find huge staircases, extra bedrooms, numerous hallways and the periodic growl of some unknown creature. A cult classic.