A Short List of Spooky Stories

Tis the season…for Cracked.com’s true urban legends lists, Halloween costume idea lists, and horror recommendations lists. I was thinking recently about how a lot of horror writing leaves me fairly cold, despite my love for the genre in concept. A good scary book thrills me like few other things, but sometimes a good scary book can be hard to find – particularly when the horror section in many bookstores is colonized by paranormal romance (nothing against paranormal romance! Although I’m still waiting on my lesbian werewolves story.).

In honor of Halloween, then, one more blogger’s list of a few stand out horror books (mostly novels, with an odd graphic novel/short story collection thrown in there).

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. A classic ghost story that reads like it was written in the 19th century, this book appears on almost every horror “best of” list, and with good reason. Short, sweet, and spooky, The Woman In Black hits all the right notes. The kind of story that should be read by a crackling fire with a mug of hot chocolate.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I love Caitlin R. Kiernan’s writing in general, but this one might be both my favorite and the scariest to me because so little is explained and so much of it relies on the unreliability of perception. Much of Kiernan’s horror deals with mental illness – which is not to say the horror of mentally ill people (the crazy person in the dark) but rather the horror of being mentally ill; of being uncertain of your own mind and not quite able to trust yourself. This book, told in the form of a manuscript written by a woman who moved to a rural house to get away from a difficult life and attempt to recover, is deeply creepy.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. This one feels like cheating, since it’s a true story, but it’s also one of the few books that kept me up at night after I finished it because it was creepy as fuck. It is about infamous serial killer Ted Bundy and his nationwide killing career, told by Ann Rule, who was friends with him when he lived in Seattle, Washington, and worked on a suicide hotline. Genuinely terrifying, the more so because it’s real. One of the first true crime books I read, and it’s yet to be surpassed in terms of sheer horror.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. I recommended Beukes’ other book, The Shining Girls, in my Best of September Reading post, and I’m going to recommend this one here. Set in Detroit, it is about the pursuit of a killer who leaves surreal, horrifying “works of art” behind. Beukes’ writing is eerie and her use of the grotesque is effective without being gratuitous. Including this book feels a little like cheating as it is probably, strictly speaking, more of a mystery or thriller than straightforward horror, but the weird and creepy touches were truly what sold this for me.

The Terror by Dan Simmons. Honestly, the thing that scared me most about this book was probably the detailed descriptions of death by scurvy. Inspired by the doomed Franklin expedition, Simmons writes a masterful piece of claustrophobic, suspenseful horror in the Arctic, where one monster remains largely unseen and unknown and the other is nature itself.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. John Ajvide Lindqvist is probably my consistent favorite horror writer writing today, and it was difficult for me to choose between this book and Handling the Undead – two books that take on subjects that could be tired and cliche (vampires and zombies, respectively) and manage to make them both fresh. Ultimately I chose Let the Right One In, about an isolated boy Oskar who makes friends with his odd neighbor Eli. The horror is interwoven with the story of these two children, and Lindqvist excels at dropping moments of beauty in the midst of blood and destruction.

Locke and Key by Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez. It’s a graphic novel series, now collected in six trade paperbacks – and you should read it even if you’re not usually a comics fan. Hill – a strong horror writer in general – does in my opinion some of his best work here, and Gabriel Rodriguez’s art pops off the page, vivid and powerful. This story, about a family drawn back to an old house in Lovecraft, Massachusetts after their father is murdered, is full of twists and turns – and of course, plenty of creepy weirdness. Despite the above synopsis, this isn’t “just” a haunted house story by any stretch of the imagination.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King. The book Stephen King infamously found almost too creepy – and, incidentally, my first Stephen King. If you’re sensitive to things like child death, this is definitely a rough one. Much of King’s gift for horror comes from blending the mundane with the supernatural, and he does so extremely effectively here – even before anything goes obviously wrong, the family is coming apart at the seams, struggling to deal with death. Also, I am never going to think about Oz the same way again. “The gweat and tewwible Oz” indeed.

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft. Despite all of his (many) shortcomings, H.P. Lovecraft remains one of my favorite horror writers, and one of the best writers of cosmic horror out there – the kind of horror that terrifies by suggestion rather than outright description. This collection is a solid starting place for any Lovecraft newcomer, including all of the classics and many of the stories I find scariest, like “Dreams In the Witch House” (which I still haven’t reread). It’s only missing “The Hound” of my personal favorites – which you can read online, and should.

There are of course others, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few which could have made this list. For the nonce, however – go forth and read. Be scared. This is Halloween.

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