Halloween is upon us again, and that means three things: one, we all get to dress up in costumes and pretend to be something else for a little while; two, all the candy we can eat before going into some sort of sugar-shock coma; and three, scary stories.
Scary is a moving target, of course. Some of us are terrified by old-fashioned ghost stories, some of us need something a little gorier and psychologically damaging—but whatever your specific taste, Halloween is the ideal time of the year to rediscover just how absolutely terrifying a good book can be. So start a fire (or put that streaming fireplace thing up on Netflix), grab a delicious beverage, turn the lights down, and read one of these ten super scary books.
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Straub’s 1979 novel is a perfect combination of classic ghost stories and modern technique. Five old friends gather regularly to share ghost stories for their own amusement. When one of them dies, the surviving four are plagued by nightmares of their own deaths—and slowly start to believe that a horrific shared moment from their past is literally haunting them. If you’re looking for a traditional scare with a sharper modern edge, this is your ideal Halloween read.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
On the other end of the tradition-versus-modern spectrum is Danielewski’s absolutely mind-breaking novel, in which several overlapping storylines and narratives spiral downward into madness. Starting off as a more-or-less straightforward tale of a house that is impossibly larger on the inside by a few inches, the novel drags the reader down a dark hallway, with reality slowly fading away as you progress.
The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allen Poe
You literally cannot have Halloween without at least one Poe story or poem. It’s a law, we believe. The Fall of the House of Usher isn’t always the most name-checked of Poe’s works, but at Halloween it should be; it’s expertly constructed, drips with dread, and will scare the socks off you no matter how many times you’ve read it before.
Hell House, by Richard Matheson
Matheson’s most famous book is I Am Legend, but Hell House is scarier. Using a familiar premise—paranormal investigators seek proof of life after death by studying the titular house, known as the most-haunted house in history—Matheson expertly undermines your sense of security and grip on reality as he undermines the sanity of his protagonists. The effect is subtle at first, and you won’t even realize how white your knuckles have become until a sudden noise somewhere makes you jump out of your skin.
The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker
Barker’s story of a puzzle box and the delighted demons it summons has been long overshadowed by the creepily effective film adaptation Hellraiser, but the original story is Barker at his best. The most terrifying aspect of the story is the utter implacability of the Cenobites, who cannot be dissuaded from their “experiments” once engaged by anyone who summons them. Of course, having the film visual of Pinhead in your mind’s eye as you read doesn’t hurt, either.
Jaws, by Peter Benchley
Jaws is one of those books that has been shifted into a kind of bland half-memory in pop culture. The Spielberg film is what most people remember, and even then a lot of the absolute horror of the story is rubbed down by nostalgia. Re-read Benchley’s original novel, however, and what you’ll find is a shot of pure 1970s horror that spins on one of the classic human terrors: the natural world, and its many, many ways of killing us.
Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco
A horror novel that deserves a much wider modern appreciation, Marasco’s story turns on a classic horror trope: the too-good-to-be-true offer. In this case, the Rolfes are offered a way out of their small, hot Brooklyn apartment: for a small amount of rent, they can live in an upstate mansion for the summer. All they have to do is prepare meals for the mansion’s owner, the elderly Mrs. Allardyce, who never emerges from her bedroom. Over the course of the summer, of course, the Rolfe’s learn the fundamental rule of horror stories: too-good-to-be-true is always a doorway into a hell.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer, by Thomas Ligotti
Ligotti is slowly getting the attention and acclaim he deserves, but remains sadly under the radar. This collection of short stories contains some of his most terrifying work, and being broken up into stories means you can read them in short bursts, then turn on all the lights and TVs in the house in-between to get rid of that dreadful sense of horror. One thing is certain: your grip on what’s real will be slightly looser by the end.
White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
This complex, sensational modern classic of horror layers on several themes and narrative voices—including, unusually for a story that’s in part about a haunted house; the house itself. When a house declares it can only be as good as the people who inhabit it, you know you’re in for a dark ride. Twin sisters Miranda (who suffers from a compulsion to eat non-edible things) and Eliot come to the house in an unhappy way—and the story will absorb you, and scare the pants off of you.
Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
Pessl combines modern technology with a classic story of an underground artist whose cult-like following has spun up several impenetrable legends about both their lives and their work. As a writer investigates the death of a cult filmmaker’s daughter, the films themselves—legendary and difficult to view—may be the most disturbing aspect of this twisting descent into madness. A much better choice than watching horror movies—none of which will approach the dread of the fictional films within.
What novel scares you the most?