Halloween is only a few days away! In case you aren’t yet in the spirit, or if you are and you want to add a bit more scary fun to these last few days, consider picking up one of these classic horror books!
There are a lot of scary stories out there, too many to read. However, if I have to recommend some good scary books, I’ll recommend the following eight classics of the genre. These books are essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in horror fiction because they are 1) thoughtfully written and well-crafted; 2) unsettling, creepy, and horrifying; and 3) insanely influential. Stephen King wouldn’t be famous at all if it weren’t for Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, and Robert W. Chambers.
Also, its worth noting that while you may “know” about these classics, if you haven’t read them, you’re missing out. So run to your nearest bookstore, library, or Amazon account and get yourself any one of these for a spooky read. If you’re pressed for time, you might like some of the short story collections, which are quick, morbid reads. Enjoy!
*Beware of some spoilers!*
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”
I am so very biased towards this novel. It’s one of my favorite books ever, across the board. No movie adaptation has been able to adequately capture (in my opinion) the heartbreaking horror and existential turmoil of the novel. Frankenstein plumbs the depths of the human experience as only a Gothic Romance Novel can.
Even if you haven’t read it, you know the general plot: Dr. Frankenstein, obsessed with creating life and reversing death, succeeds in resurrecting a corpse. But now that the Monster needs him, Frankenstein is deeply repulsed and regrets the whole morbid experiment. He is eternally haunted, literally and figuratively, by his creation. The Monster, who is never named, starts off wanting nothing more than love and acceptance from his creator, but is driven to endless rage when Frankenstein rejects him. He vows to torment his creator by killing every person Frankenstein loves. These two wretched creatures are bound together, cursed to chase each other across the globe until one of them dies.
Frankenstein is tragic and scary and moving as hell, and you should read it for those reasons alone. It’s a true classic and I cannot recommend it enough.
The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe
“One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” – from The Tell-Tale Heart
For spooky and demented stories, you cannot go wrong with Poe! He lived morbidity. He embodied the macabre. He did it all—long fiction, short fiction, and epic poems. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on my favorite of his short stories—The Tell-Tale Heart.
So grim. So deliciously ghastly! So cray-cray! The plot is pretty straightforward: the narrator decides to kill an old man because the old man, who seems nice enough, has a weird-looking eye. The narrator thinks it looks like a vulture’s eye, and this is unbearable to him. Consequently, he resolves to murder the old man. But don’t worry! The narrator is totally sane! Would a crazy person talk like that? Would a madman have been able to carry out such a careful murder? HA HA HA NO!!! Obviously, the narrator is insane. And it’s the best part of the story.
Poe was supremely gifted at portraying the descent into madness and all the havoc such a psychological break unleashes. He used some incredibly insightful and modern tactics to portray the horrific not just through the plot but from the artistry of his stories. He’s a huge influence for a reason, y’all.
Dracula – Bram Stoker
“The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth chomped together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered […] as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake.”
This book is a literary classic. One of the most adapted works in western literature, Stoker’s novel created the seminal depiction of the modern vampire. Every vampire book or movie that came after Dracula is either consciously attempting to rework Dracula, reinvent it, or subvert it. I don’t think there is a single modern vampire story that escapes the influence of Dracula.
Despite its many adaptations, films struggle to capture the essence of Dracula. The novel is rich and complex, packed full of action and suspense. There are plenty of creepy moments and terrifying sequences.
The thing I like the best about this novel is that the plot is solid—an evil being of unparalleled power sets his sights on London, England, where he plans to kill men for advancement and corrupt women for his own enjoyment. He’s a formidable villain and Stoker wisely chooses to present him as such. Sometimes you just want a clear-cut good guys vs. bad guy story; we don’t always need a sappy backstory to humanize the monster. And this Dracula is a monster! He doesn’t give a f*ck. He’ll take what he wants because who’s going to stop him? He brazen and horrifying, but I can’t help but admire his tenacity. It makes for a great story.
Also, it’s goddamned entertaining. You can’t put it down. It’s scary and exciting melodrama, but very well-executed melodrama, which hits all the right notes.
Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce – Selected and Edited by E.F. Bleiler
“Now ensued a fearful scene. The man, prone upon the floor, within a yard of his enemy, raised the upper part of his body upon his elbows, his head thrown back, his legs extended to their full length…every movement left him a little nearer to the snake.” – from The Man And The Snake
But really, this guy was gifted and haunted, bringing his talent and life experience to his writing. When he was 19 years old, he enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. The fighting was brutal. Bierce carried those experiences with him for the rest of his life. He’s not the most well-known American writer, but he looms large for those who are familiar with his disturbing ghosts stories. Even the New York Times said Bierce was “arguably the most powerful American writer of horror fiction between Poe and Lovecraft.” Lovecraft himself, who was a Bierce fanboy, greatly admired Bierce’s talent for atmospheric creepiness. When the greats point out their influences, we would all do well to listen.
Personally, I love these stories because even though they feel old-timey, they read easier than the work of some of Bierce’s stuffier contemporaries. Bierce is very good at showing the read a fairly innocuous scene and then slowly, deliberately, dementedly, twisting the plot until he springs the trap shut. Boo! It’s like being a lobster in a slowly boiling pot of water—the lobster doesn’t realize what has happened until it’s too late.
One of my favorites is “The Man and the Snake.” The title is pretty self-explanatory (or is it?) so I don’t want to give anything away by providing too much detail. Just know that the last sentence literally made me shout, “Oh, snap!” to the empty room. Definitely unsettling. It was a mistake to read this in my empty house.
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
“…Then Theodora screamed.
‘Don’t look back,’ she cried out in a voice high with fear, ‘don’t look back—don’t look—run!”
Running, without knowing why…they ran across the garden that was nothing except weeds growing blackly in the darkness, and Theodora, screaming still, trampled over the bushes where there had been flowers and stumbled, sobbing, over half-buried stones.”
I adore Shirley Jackson’s writing—it’s lush and imaginative and completely draws you in. She’s incredibly gifted at writing measured, macabre stories. She wrote The Lottery, which is that short story from high school English class where a small town’s seemingly innocent gathering devolves into a horrifying ritual. She also wrote the insanely weird and grim novella We Have Always Lived In The Castle, about two co-dependent sisters living with their decrepit uncle in a sprawling mansion that harbors a dark family secret, isolated from the nearby town and all the people who hate them.
The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite of Jackson’s works. She shows great skill as a writer, weaving a deep sense of unease throughout the novel as her characters find themselves increasingly at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The novel follows Nell, a mentally fragile young woman who has been invited to join a paranormal investigation at a local haunted house. She, along with several other strangers, endeavor to explore the ghostly phenomena of Hill House. Sure enough, strange events and terrifying encounters plague the group almost immediately. Is Hill House really haunted, and if so, what is it? Or is some other, more human force at work?
This book isn’t gory or action-packed, but it is a wonderful slow-burning psychological horror story. I recommend it, but I’m also pretty biased towards psychological horror.
There is a film adaptation which is very worthwhile–you can find it on Amazon Prime. I won’t say the film is better than the movie because they both have their strengths, but you should read the book for the simple reason that it communicates dreadful moments in a way the film couldn’t depict. For example, the scene I quoted above, where Nell and Theordora encounter something frightening in the woods, was not shown in the film. Why? Because I don’t think there was way to film this moment without destroying the fear and tension Jackson so artfully created with words.
Hell House – Richard Matheson
“You have to go,” she told him. “You were given your release.”
“It’s not the release I seek.”
“What is, then?” She became more conscious of the battle to awaken. She had to separate herself before it was too late.
“You know what it is,” he said.
She did know, suddenly. The knowledge was a chilling wind across her heart. “You must go on, ” she said.
“You know what you must do,” he answered.
“I need it, or I cannot leave.”
“No!” she answered. Wake! she thought.
Daniel said, “Then I must kill you, Florence.”
Richard Matheson was a prolific and talented horror writer. He wrote numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone. He produced many, many short stories, many of which were then made into episodes of The Outer Limits, anthologies, or movies. And most importantly, Matheson authored numerous novels, among them some of the most influential horror novels. Stir of Echoes, The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, and Hell House are all classics of the genre.
I am Legend is one of my favorites, but for this list, I wanted to shine a spotlight on Hell House. I think it functions as a worthwhile counterpart to The Haunting of Hill House. The two novels share the same where a supposedly haunted house draws in a team of academics and psychics, who then find themselves at the mercy of the house. Even the treatments of each haunted house are starkly different, as are the characters. Where Jackson’s The Haunting of Hell House carefully and slowly ups the tension, Hell House revels in throwing ghosts and poltergeists and blood in your face as soon as it can.
Unlike The Haunting of Hill House, there isn’t any doubt that a diabolical presence haunts this house. It’s almost amazing watching how each character’s weaknesses are masterfully exploited, how each one tries in vain to resist the corrupting influence of the house. You want angry ghosts, violent poltergeists, nasty gore, and brutal deaths? Look no further. This book doesn’t mess around.
The King in Yellow – Robert W. Chambers
“At the same moment he raised his head and looked at me. Instantly I thought of a coffin-worm. Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.” – from The Yellow Sign
A lot of people have heard of H.P. Lovecraft, but not nearly enough people know about Robert W. Chambers, one of the godfathers of “weird” horror fiction. Maybe you know him because you watched the first season of True Detective (the only season I acknowledge). Or maybe you know about Chambers through your own reading of Lovecraft. He was a huge fan of Chambers, and much of Lovecraft’s work was heavily influenced by Chambers’ stories. You know about Carcosa and the Yellow Sign from Lovecraft’s work, but Lovecraft got those from Chambers (who in turn cribbed Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce). To his credit, Lovecraft couldn’t stop gushing about Chambers: “I think The Yellow Sign is the most fascinating product of Chambers’ pen, & altogether one of the greatest weird tales ever written. The brooding, gathering atmosphere is actually tremendous.”
Yeah, this story is weird and disturbing and I found myself asking aloud, “What the f*ck?” the whole time I read it. It tells the story of a man who becomes utterly obsessed with the Yellow Sign, an enigmatic sigil that invades his life. No matter what he does, he can’t stop thinking about the mysterious symbol. Worse still, a repulsive church watchman seems to be stalking him. His obsession worsens until it consumes him.
I like to think of myself as a smart person, and capable, which is why The Yellow Sign was so frightening. I like to think that I have the mental fortitude to avoid such an obsession, or that I have the constitution to resist a cryptic, corrupting sign that embodies an unspeakable evil. But maybe I’m not. That’s a frightening thought. Maybe I’m not strong. Maybe I am, but I’m weaker than the uncontrollable, destructive force that has me in its crosshairs. Also, the story is wonderfully written and deliciously creepy. Great choice for Halloween!
Books of Blood, Vol. I-III – Clive Barker
“’It startled me,’ said Quaid, ‘how suddenly she gave in. One moment she seemed to have as much resistance as ever. The monologue at the door was the same mixture of threats and apologies as she’d delivered day in, day out. Then she broke. Just like that. Squatted under the table and ate the beef down to the bone, as though it were a choice cut.’” – from Dread
Clive Barker is a mad genius. The man does not pull any punches. Why? Because he’s trying to get to the heart of this darkness we all carry inside. If you don’t like his answers, why should we even ask the question? Also, pulling punches isn’t fun for anyone. That’s what I love about Barker’s stories—his writing is provocative and fun. It hits all my buttons. No matter how queasy I feel, I can’t stop reading his stories. He loves to pick at the crusty scabs covering all our horrifying wounds. He won’t stop until he’s picked it clean.
Take “Dread,” one of my favorite Barker short stories. It tackles the notion of fear and acts as a sort of manifesto on the genre of horror. Why do we fear? What is it that we really fear? Should we even pursue those answers? But don’t worry, this story isn’t a slow-paced meditation on the philosophical side of horror—that is there, but there’s enough nastiness that you won’t get bored. I know I wasn’t really sure where the story was going, but I was intrigued enough to keep going, and I’m glad I did. Not only does this story have blood and guts, it has straight-up existential horror. There’s the threat of bodily horror, and then there’s the threat of experiencing something so terrifying, debilitating, and appalling that the threads holding you together will unravel and you’ll be the same.
Barker loves depicting these moments. He’s a master and not to be missed.
BONUS: Classic Horror Stories
If you want to get more bang for your buck, check out your nearest Barnes and Noble for this amazing anthology of horror stories. For only $18, you can get classic scary stories like H.P Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body-Snatcher,” William Fryer Harvey’s “August Heat,” and W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” And the cover design is pretty spook-tacular.
Did I leave anything out? Leave your scary-reading suggestions in the comments!