It’s the most wonderful time of the year…to scare yourself silly: Halloween, of course. Your autumn bucket list may include pumpkin spice everything—is there a pumpkin spice toothpaste yet? I bet someone is working on it now—crunching dead leaves under your new boots, and, hopefully, spending a dark and stormy night reading something in the spirit of the season. Every October, blogs near and far give the horror genre a bit of extra love, and that’s fantastic—but one can get the impression the genre suffered an unceremonious death two decades back as one list after another trots out the same (undeniably worthy) names. Sure, Stoker, Shelly, Shirley Jackson, and Lovecraft’s books are considered classics for a reason. And no, you can never go wrong with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, or William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, or Stephen King’s [insert ’80s King novel here].
But as times change, so too do the things that unsettle us. Horror is all about readers taking an unflinching look into a dark reflection of the world around them. These 10 contemporary horror novels offer a great introduction to a genre that’s never truly left us—and find more terrifying reads on our list of 2016’s best horror novels.
Occultation, by Laird Barron
Technically, Occultation is not a novel, but a short story collection. Before you head for the hills, know that this is widely considered one of the best horror collections since Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Barron is a modern master of the New Weird genre and plays with the best bits of Lovecraft’s mythos: dark, cosmic forces punching their way into our reality and reminding humans just how puny they are. An Alaskan native, Barron infuses many of his stories—like the award-winning “Mysterium Tremendum”—with wilderness settings that host profound dangers, bone-deep isolation, and an inevitable violence that blots out even the smallest spark of certainty or hope. It’s heady, horrible, and a voice that’s oft-imitated by less skilled storytellers.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
A divisive choice, some readers found this haunted house game-changer more gimmick than grim, but its central conceit remains deceptively simple with huge, awful implications. Told as a tale surrounded by a tale, with margin scribbles and page-hopping footnotes, astute readers can maybe figure out the cosmic “wrongness” of a house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Trust me, the house is definitely not a TARDIS. But it does contain nightmare creatures, disembodied children’s voices, and a creeping, inevitable madness.
Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes
Some might argue for Beukes’ other genre-defying serial killer novel, The Shining Girls, and that’s totally fair—it is a more intimate game of cat and mouse. But Broken Monsters is bigger in scope and eyeball kicks, beginning with the opening image of a dead child’s torso sewn onto the lower half of a fawn. Things only get more disturbing and more memorable from there.
Experimental Film, by Gemma Files
Last year’s winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel is a cerebral celluloid love letter containing one hell of a great haunting at its core. Lois Cairns, a divorced, unemployed film history teacher, throws herself into researching the mysterious early 20th century filmmaker Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb, who disappeared—or spontaneously combusted, or was abducted—on a train trip through Ontario. Files is one of horror’s best and her own love of film gives her protagonist an authentic passion and drive to find answers at all costs. Add in a believable portrayal of Lois’ autistic son and the stakes become sky-high and terrifying.
Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill
An aging, fading rock star gets more than he bargained for from eBay: a haunted suit. Sounds like a cheesy, worn premise, but Hill turns his debut novel into a nightmare of insanity and culpability and regret. It’s a well-crafted story from an author with a lot to prove; when you’re Stephen King’s son, your horror is probably being held to a higher standard, and Joe Hill’s talent stands all on its own. Horns might be more technically polished, and NOS4A2 more epic, but Heart-Shaped Box shows more raw power.
Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones
This is without a doubt one of the all-time best werewolf novels around. Jones approaches lycanthropy with painstaking detail that never fails to captivate, so clear is his love for these misunderstood monsters. A young boy lives with his aunt and uncle, desperately hoping he, too, will be stricken with the family curse, as his guardians try to live and hunt on the dangerous fringes of society. It’s S.E. Hinton with bite, and one of the more tender entries on this list.
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Kiernan doesn’t consider herself a “horror” author and I want to respect that. But I couldn’t possibly exclude this Irish-American master of New Weird, Southern Gothic, and Lovecraftian terror. She is essential reading for anyone who loves evocative prose and truly frightening elements of existential awe. The Red Tree is a later work, combining several hallmarks of Kiernan’s distinctive wheelhouse: corrupt history, madness, and unreliable narrators that will force you to question everything. But, really, you should read as much of her bibliography as possible. And never feel safe again.
The Missing, by Sarah Langan
Terror comes to a small, wealthy community in Maine…and this is where any comparison to Stephen King must end. Langan’s Corpus Christi escapes an environmental disaster only to have the town come under the spell of an infectious evil that drives hosts to homicidal frenzy. This is not your typical zombie apocalypse story and Langan’s characters are not your typical good guys in white hats. They are just as messy and damaged as the infected. Langan’s greatest skill is her lovingly lurid prose; you’ll likely lose your appetite after this read.
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
Which is worse: hate or indifference? In 1920s Harlem, musician Tommy Tester helps recover an occult book for a wealthy white patron and falls into a deeper conspiracy that could break the seams of the world. You will definitely root for Tommy as he navigates a society that fears and hates him, and as he starts to understand that that the terrors from out of space are not so different from the terrors here in New York City. It’s a brilliant, powerful, and creepy read, with a small page-count that leaves lasting impression. This recent winner of the British Fantasy Award ushers in a new wave of Lovecraft revisionism that tackles the original author’s racist ideas head-on.
A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay
Stephen King himself said this novel “scared the living hell out of me,” so, what more do you need? But, really, this is a terrifying, compelling mix of family drama, exorcism, reality television, and an unforgettable ending seen through the eyes of a young girl named Merry watching her family implode. If you love Shirley Jackson, if you hate getting sleep at night, this is definitely the novel for your Halloween season.
What fresh horror favorites do you recommend?