Y’all, it’s spooky season. That means nights are coming sooner, they’re getting colder, leaves are falling… and we’re in the mood to be scared. If you’re over horror movies, or you can’t stomach yet another re-watch of Halloween 14: Is Jason Really In Space? Again?, I’ve got the roundup you’re looking for.
Horror novels are less popular than their visual cousins, but can be even more frightening to read and experience. So grab a cup of hot chocolate (extra marshmallows, please), your favorite blanket, and settle in with a great horror book.
“Wait, where is my favorite Stephen King novel?”
If you’re expecting the same 4 or 5 novels you always see on these lists, stop reading right now – you’re probably not going to see your favorite horror novel make the cut. But isn’t that a good thing?
Look, I’m not dissing the classics or the horror stories everyone loves. While long-winded, Pet Sematary may be one of the scariest books you’ll ever read. There is a reason the genre is dominated by these big names, and they have a lot of offers.
But I want you to experience a new horror, not the same old song and dance you’ve read before. Keep reading if you’re interested in learning about a new author, finding a new favorite book, or experiencing a new spine-tingling novel.
If you’re looking for the same Koontz or King novel, well, I’m sorry to disappoint. You won’t find it.
If you like older books, check out…
Don’t mind a little bit of historical fiction in your reading? Then I’ve got two excellent titles for you to check out.
The first is The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. The King in Yellow is a series of short stories by Chambers first published in 1985. The most common collection are the first four – The Repairer of Reputations, The Mask, In the Court of the Dragon, and The Yellow Sign. Of these four, The Mask was probably my favorite. I literally gasped at the end and quickly tried to turn the page, only to realize the story ended there.
You can find this collection pretty much anywhere, as it’s considered public domain. Project Gutenberg has a copy for free that you can find right here.
The second selection is The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, published first in 1908. It’s basically an account of a person going through some serious hallucinations in a remote house, but it’s so much more than that – and I don’t want to give anything away.
The Project Gutenberg copy is right here if you want to start reading now – or you can do what I did, which is order a physical copy from ThriftBooks for around $9.
The reason these two made the list, even though they are over 100 years old? They stand the test of time – and they truly inspired some of the greats of the genre. Terry Pratchett once called The House on the Borderland “the Big Bang in my private universe”, which is saying something. These two authors inspired writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
Bottom line: If you want to see where horror got its roots, check these out first.
Truly terrifying tales
Looking for something that will really scare you? Want something that will make you sleep with the lights on, avoid mirrors, and take the long way home because there are people?
Try The Deep by Nick Cutter first. The premise is that there is essentially a plague, and it’s decimating humanity. People forget little things, like where they left their keys, their phone, their wallet… then big things, like how to drive, the letters of the alphabet, and more. Finally, they forget how to control their body. There is no cure.
While this is happening, a universal healer is discovered deep under the Pacific Ocean. But what happens when the research lab goes dark?
Yes, maybe this one hits a little close to home, I’ll admit – but this one will make you really uncomfortable, which I think is the point of a good horror novel.
If The Deep is a little too real for our timeline, check out The Ruins by Scott Smith. Trapped deep in a jungle in Mexico while searching for a missing companion, a group of friends traveling together discovers something that should have certainly been kept hidden. Sound cliché? Maybe, but it’s good. The mood starts light and you get a feel for the characters before you’re plunged into an ancient evil and seriously looking twice at the woods behind your house late at night.
Bonus: Check out The Troop by Nick Cutter as well. Just as scary, just as hard to put down, just as compelling.
Do you want to be confused and unsettled?
If you love that feeling of being completely unsettled by a horror novel, I cannot recommend House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski enough. This is one that, despite being cheaper to read online, you should absolutely purchase a physical copy of. Why? Because it’s confusing, and having those pages in your hand makes it easier.
It reads almost like a choose your own adventure where you have to jump around the book to different chapters and pages, but there are footnotes that don’t make sense, words scribbled in the margins, and a complete sense of doom and impending disaster. By the time you finish it, there’s a good chance you will not feel good about it.
Parasite by Mira Grant is a little less confusing but certainly disturbing. I talk about Mira more below, but this book deserves special mention. It’s all about a genetically engineered parasite that was created to give humans perfect health. But what happens when the parasites decide they want more than to just keep their hosts alive – they want to live, too?
This is a rollercoaster of emotions, and will really make you think hard about the drugs you choose to put in your system.
Looking for true crime?
Sometimes reality is worse than what anyone can make up, and that’s a sad fact. If you’re not moved by the imagination of a writer, perhaps true crime stories will haunt you more.
Netflix via GIPHY
If you’ve seen Mindhunter on Netflix, you know the story – but it’s based on the book Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K Ressler. A lot of true crime novels paint the picture of the clear-cut ‘good guy’ that always does the right thing and never crosses the line, but in this book, the line is very unclear.
Ressler talks about what happens when you look into the darkness of a serial killer: and the darkness looks back at you. Doing this sort of work day in and day out can take its toll, and you learn that through Ressler’s storytelling.
If you like serial killers, be sure to check out American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan. The book tracks the story of the Israel Keyes case, a serial killer that – many would argue – would have been caught much sooner, had it not been for the poor work of the police involved.
This really gives you an idea of what goes into hunting a serial killer, and how dangerous they can truly be. Callahan describes Keyes as “a new kind of monster” who is likely responsible for the greatest string of murders in modern US history. That’s… quite terrifying if I’m being honest.
Looking for bite-sized reads?
Interested in something easier to digest? Perhaps a series of short stories, to read on the train, bus, or just when you have a few minutes without being sucked into days or weeks of commitment?
The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Horror by Joyce Carol Oates is a collection of six stories that are truly unsettling, in the absolute best way possible. My favorite is the title story, where a young boy becomes unhealthily attached to a doll that belonged to his cousin, who has passed. The obsession grows, and so does his collection. Dolls are creepy, and this story truly demonstrates that.
If you’re looking for a variety of writing styles, check out A Commonplace Book of the Weird: The Untold Stories of H.P. Lovecraft. According to the forward, Tumblr once shared a huge list of unfinished notes and ideas Lovecraft had for stories. From two-line blurbs to full outlines, they were all numbered and organized.
Taking the idea and running with it, a handful of writers were randomly assigned numbers that corresponded with their Lovecraft writing prompt. The result is a collection of short stories that are sometimes spooky, sometimes haunting, and often unsettling.
Finally, a special nod to Haunted, a Novel by Chuck Palahniuk – yes, the Fight Club guy. Palahniuk has such a weird and interesting point of view, and this collection of 23 short stories really shows off the best of his horror writing. Each story gets a little bit more until you’re left feeling unsettled and uncomfortable.
Want something funny?
Okay, sometimes horror can be funny, too. These two aren’t mutually exclusive!
My favorite weird, creepy, and funny book is hands down John Dies at the End by David Wong. No, I’m not talking about the movie, which frankly… wasn’t amazing. It was fine, but the book is so much better.
The book follows John and Dave, two long-time friends, and the strange things that happen in their town. And let’s be clear… weird stuff happens. It all sort of centers around a strange drug, ‘Soy Sauce’, and what it does to the users. But it’s so much more.
David Wong has a fun and easy writing style, and the book is as charming as it is weird. I highly recommend this book. Don’t watch the movie, don’t read a plot summary, just pick it up. It’s weird and funny and really, really compelling.
If you’re not emotionally over zombies (it’s an overplayed genre for sure), check out Feed by Mira Grant. Honestly, read anything she’s written – Into the Drowning Deep is an excellent horror novel, especially if you hate the water. Feed follows two siblings reporting the news while a horrible virus eats the minds of the living. The setting isn’t funny, but their witty back-and-forth kept me chuckling and reading along. I’m usually great at guessing how a book is going to end, but this… I was not prepared.
Want to read something scary right now?
Okay, so you don’t want to go to the bookstore. You’re not interested in paying money for an eBook, and you’re impatient – shipping isn’t an option. Let’s briefly touch on creepy stories available for free on the internet right now.
The classic is, of course, CreepyPasta – a website dedicated to creepy, scary, and downright unsettling stories. Some of them are… well, let’s just say, not good. But there are some excellent CreepyPasta’s out there that will make you truly frightened.
Top CreepyPastas on the site by rating include If You’re Armed and at the Glenmont Metro, Please Shoot Me, A Shattered Life, and My Father Punished Me When I Talked to Ghosts. My personal favorite? I’ve come back to Ted the Caver multiple times, and I still sometimes think about it when I read about going into caves, or any dark, small spaces.
If you’re familiar with Reddit, you may have heard of NoSleep, the subreddit where users share their own creepy stories. One of the most important rules of the board is to suspend disbelief. Everything there is to be believed as true, hands down. It gives it a fun, almost role-play quality, and while some of the stories are duds, there is some really wonderful content and incredibly talented writers.
If you want a variety of stories, sort the subreddit by Top of All Time. My favorites among the first few selections are My sister discovered a universal language, but she hasn’t spoken a word since 2003 and The previous tenant of my new flat left a survival guide series. One of my all-time favorites is the Search and Rescue Officer series, which is truly compelling to read and really makes me think twice about long camping trips… and I always look for stairs when I’m out hiking.
Do you feel prepared for Halloween yet?
I hope this collection of my favorite reads has given you something to check out! There are far too many books fit for October to go into just one piece, but this is a fun tasting of what is out there.
Horror as a genre is often overlooked. If it’s not Stephen King, the king of the horror world, then it doesn’t matter to most people – but there is something absolutely thrilling about the power we give to books, and words, and how they can affect us.
Horror isn’t just for October, but this certainly is the best month for it. Treat yourself to a new book and a nice, long read. Just be sure to leave the night light on.
Just in case.