5 Scary Books to Read This Halloween (Plus 100 more)
With Halloween right around the corner it’s inevitable we’re going to be inundated with ‘top horror’ and ‘scary story’ lists. I’m adding to the noise with my own recommendations, but am hoping to provide you with something a little different.
Firstly, I won’t be repeating recommendations from some of the previous lists here at LitReactor. Straight away a whopping thirty (one) titles are ineligible thanks to Kimberly Turner’s fantastic What Scares You? 30 Terrifying Horror Stories Straight Out Of Your Worst Nightmares, including perhaps my favourite novel of all-time The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. My Zombies Aren’t Dead and Kimberly’s The 10 Books Every Zombie Fan Must Read eliminates a further twenty-nine titles. Richard Thomas’s Storyville: 10 of the Scariest Books I've Ever Read removes some prime candidates including The End of Alice by A.M. Homes for ‘scariest story ever written’. It would also seem a faux pas to include any of the referenced titles from my recent column How To Scare Your Reader: 11 Tips From 11 Horror Writers, including one of last year’s scariest novels Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I feel it would be unfair – and of little use – to include some of the more obvious choices, so have also excluded Dracula, Frankenstein, House of Leaves, Carrie, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Rosemary’s Baby, Misery, The Woman In Black, Interview with A Vampire and The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James taking us up to one-hundred ineligible stories.
You may be wondering if there’s much left to read. Well, there most certainly is. So much so that it was very difficult reducing this list to just five. Still, here are five scary books to read this Halloween. Five books that have powerfully impacted and left me a changed, trembling man. Each book is deliberately different in subject matter and presentation. Here goes.
'Let’s Go Play At The Adams’' by Mendal W. Johnson
In rural Maryland twenty-something babysitter Barbara is held captive by the very children she is supposed to be looking after while their parents are on holiday in Europe. Out in the middle of nowhere the children are free to explore and push their sadism, lust and desires.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door (1989) based on the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens. However, you may not know Mendal W. Johnson’s sole novel, Let’s Go Play At The Adams’, based on the same case. It was Joseph D’Lacey (FYI, I recommend his novel MEAT) who first put me onto Let’s Go Play At The Adams’, lending me a dog-eared copy of the book and challenging me to read it. And that’s exactly what Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ is – a challenge, but in the best (and at times worst) possible sense.
It’s not quite as timeless as The Girl Next Door and on occasion comes across as a product of its time, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a master class in tension. Essentially, in its nearly three-hundred pages, it depicts the unrelenting torture inflicted upon helpless babysitter Barbara. Just when you think it cannot go any further or get any worse, it does. On the surface it sounds gratuitous, but it isn’t. Let’s Go Play At The Adams' is masterfully done, it refuses to flinch away from the on-page atrocities, and as such ensures your heart rate is elevated throughout. You would think Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ wouldn’t live up to the borderline ridiculous unattributed praise slathered on the front cover, “a novel more terrifying than Lord of the Flies & The Exorcist combined”. Remarkably it does.
'Piercing' by Ryu Murakami
Piercing follows twenty-nine year old Kawashima Masayuki who suffers from anxiety attacks. A decade ago he stabbed his former lover to alleviate the anxiety. Now, with anxiety mounting once more, he’s scared he might attack his own daughter. So he decides to kill a prostitute instead. Unfortunately for Kawashima, his would-be victim is just as disturbed and traumatised as he is…
If you haven’t read anything by Ryū Murakami you’re missing out. Like a Japanese sex-addicted Jim Thompson, Murakami really is a master of capturing so much in so few words. The juxtaposition of everyday life and Kawashima Masayuki's chaotic mind works wonderfully. The character's comfortable home life and the smell of freshly made bread is interwoven with his ever-increasing anxiety and the constant fear he might bludgeon his own daughter to death. There’s something delightful, too, in the way he casually regales readers with extreme violence and his murderous intentions, as if reading a shopping list. Add to all this the misdirection, self-references and instantly recognisable details about Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures and you have something very special indeed.
There was no way to be one hundred per cent sure of not getting caught – this had been his first thought on waking – but merely wounding some woman was out of the question. If she lived, she’d surely go to the police, and that would be it for him. He’d mulled over such problems while brushing his teeth and washing his face.
–Ryū Murakami, Piercing
'Hell House' by Richard Matheson
Rolf Rudolph Deutsch is going die. But when Deutsch, a wealthy magazine and newspaper publisher, starts thinking seriously about his impending death, he offers to pay a physicist and two mediums, one physical and one mental, $100,000 each to establish the facts of life after death. Dr. Lionel Barrett, the physicist, accompanied by the mediums, travel to the Belasco House in Maine, which has been abandoned and sealed since 1949 after a decade of drug addiction, alcoholism, and debauchery. For one night, Barrett and his colleagues investigate the Belasco House and learn exactly why the townfolks refer to it as the Hell House.
I’m surprised Matheson’s haunted house masterpiece hasn’t made the cut in any of the previous LitReactor ‘best of’ lists. Stephen King has praised it on several occasions, too. He writes, “Hell House is the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills.” Despite numerous contenders such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door (technically a haunted apartment novel) I’m inclined to agree with King. Much like Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, Matheson’s Hell House refuses to draw definitive conclusions, forcing the reader to choose which characters’ interpretations of Hell House they believe. With short chapters and a pace that mirrors Matheson's The Twilight Zone episodes, you may just find yourself reading Hell House in a single-sitting.
If you only knew the beauty which awaits you, Daniel. If you only knew how lovely are the realms which lie beyond this house. Would you keep yourself locked in a barren cell when all the beauties of the universe await you on the outside?
–Richard Matheson, Hell House
'Disintegration' by Richard Thomas
A suburban husband and father loses everything. He retains only a few keepsakes of his former life. Memories of a man who no longer exists. Booze and an affair with a beautiful woman provide little relief, with the only meaning left in his life coming from his assignments. An envelope slipped under the door of his apartment with the name and address of an unpunished evildoer. The unspoken directive to kill. And every time he does, he marks the occasion with a memento: a tattoo. He has a lot of tattoos.
On the surface Disintegration by Richard Thomas might appear the odd one out on this list. After all it doesn’t fit so snuggly into the ‘horror’ box. Dig a little deeper, though, and the horror is abundantly clear. If I could describe Disintegration in a single word it would be ‘heavy’. This mirrors the weight the story’s protagonist has to carry. His wife deceased, but for her final answer machine message, the unnamed anti-hero has nothing left to lose. His grief transcends sorrow – devoid of feelings. He’s a serial killer but one with rules, though he’s nothing like Dexter and for the most part the novel contains neither humour nor light relief. If you want to feel darkness, to experience the essence of an utterly broken man, this is for you. Disintegration works so well and is scary because the unnamed narrator could be anyone and everyone. It makes us consider our own existence, to question just how far we are from losing it all and what we would do.
There is no past. My heart was ripped from me in a rush of flashing lights and sticky yellow tape. There is no future. Vision would require hope, and that stealthy whore eludes me at every turn. So I float in the ether, pasty skin crawling with regret, eyes gouged out by my own shaking hands.
–Richard Thomas, Disintegration
'NOS4A2' by Joe Hill
Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go. Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls Christmasland. Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.
As far as I’m concerned Joe Hill has released four must-read books, and if this were an ‘essential reads’ column any of the books could have easily made the list. Horns is more grounded in dark fantasy than outright horror, and as a varied story collection that transcends genres and styles 20th Century Ghosts would have been an odd pick. That said it was difficult deciding between his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and his latest, NOS4A2.
By the slimmest of margins, NOS4A2 scrapes ahead—it takes place in a fully realised world and the characters are that much more memorable. Like a modern-day Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Charles Manx—complete with his Rolls-Royce Wraith—is a larger-than-life maniacal genius practically begging for a film adaptation or spin-off television series. Of course, the promise of Christmasland for the unlucky children Manx lures into his car only adds to the sense of unease, given the prevalence of child abduction headlines today. Certainly not a slender read, at seven-hundred-plus pages, a lesser writer may have produced a flabbier book with unnecessary exposition and filler. This is not the case with NOS4A2. Instead we are given a dual narrative flashing between 1986 and the present day, and meaningful subplots. Like protagonist Vic McQueen, we’re always on-edge wondering when and waiting for Charles Manx’s Wraith to appear over the horizon…
I said in opening it was difficult reducing the list to five. So here, without comment, are a few other books I recommend you consider this Halloween: The Ritual by Adam Nevill, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Twilight by William Gay, and The Cipher by Kathe Koja.
100 More Scary Books To Read This Halloween
1. It by Stephen King
2. Spiders by Richard Lewis
3. The Web by Richard Lewis
4. A Feast Of Snakes by Harry Crews
5. The Snake by John Godey
6. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
7. Child Of God by Cormac McCarthy
8. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
9. The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
10. Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe
11. Ghost Story by Peter Straub
12. Tick Tock by Dean Koontz
13. Satan’s Toybox: Demonic Dolls edited by Stacey Turner
14. The Rising by Brian Keene
15. The Masque Of The Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
16. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
17. The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
18. Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
19. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
20. The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber
21. Cujo by Stephen King
22. Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon
23. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
24. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
25. Summer Of Night by Dan Simmons
26. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
27. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
28. The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott
29. Dead White by Alan Ryan
30. Mayday by Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block
31. Pandora’s Clock by John J. Nance
32. The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones
33. Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory
34. The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
35. Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon
36. Outpost by Adam Baker
37. Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry
38. Plague Town: An Ashley Parker Novel by Dana Fredsti
39. Flu by Wayne Simmons
40. Plague of the Dead by Z.A. Recht
41. Day By Day Armageddon by J.L. Bourne
42. This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs
43. ‘The Things He Said’ by Michael Marshall Smith (taken from Everything You Need)
44. Autumn by David Moody
45. Hater by David Moody
46. As the World Dies: The First Days by Rhiannon Frater
47. Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
48. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
49. Breathers: A Zombie's Lament by S.G. Browne
50. Feed by Mira Grant
51. World War Z by Max Brooks
52. The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell
53. The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman
54. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
55. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahme-Smith
56. The Aftertime trilogy by Sophie Littlefield
57. Monster Island: A Zombie Novel by David Wellington
58. The Deadworld series by Joe McKinney
59. Zombie Fallout by Mark Tufo
60. The Morningstar Saga by Z.A. Recht
61. The Shining by Stephen King
62. Come Closer by Sara Gran
63. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
64. The End of Alice by A.M. Homes
65. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
66. The Stand by Stephen King
67. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
68. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
69. The Long Walk by Stephen King (originally under the pseudonym Richard Bachman)
70. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
71. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
72. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
73. The Omen by David Seltzer
74. Swan Song by Robert McCammon
75. Phantoms by Dean Koontz
76. Whispers by Dean Koontz
77. Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
78. All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones
79. The Ruins by Scott Smith
80. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
81. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
82. Chalk by Pat Cadigan
83. The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud
84. Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie
85. A Cold Season by Alison Littlewood
86. Bird Box by Josh Malerman
87. Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan
88. Burnt Black Suns: A Collection of Weird Tales by Simon Strantzas
89. The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth
90. Gifts for the One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall
91. Dracula by Bram Stoker
92. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
93. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
94. Carrie by Stephen King
95. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
96. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
97. Misery by Stephen King
98. The Woman In Black by Susan Hill
99. Interview with A Vampire by Anne Rice
100. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James
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