Masters of Horror: Classic & Contemporary Reads to Terrify You This Halloween

A hand emerging from the cemetery ground soil at night.

Photo: Marc Mateos/Getty Images

“Horror fiction shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” — horror writer Clive Barker

Sure, there are the costumes, candy and jack-o-lanterns, but the best part of Halloween is that it gives us an excuse to indulge in a scary read and flirt with the heebie-jeebies. And whether you prefer your horror filled with malevolent spirits, the everyday-turned-terrifying or the glamorous and immortal undead, there’s a book for you. 

Dracula

Classic: Dracula by Bram Stoker 

“Denn die Todten reiten Schnell. (For the dead travel fast.)” —from Dracula

Originally published in 1897, Dracula is the genesis of the modern vampire tale and possibly the most-embedded horror story in American culture, offering an intoxicating mix of gore, horror and romance. Derived from vampire legends, Dracula is a Gothic novel told using a mix of journal entries, letters, and telegrams written by the main characters. Castles, blood-sucking immortals, sleeping in coffins, undying love — with Dracula, Stoker established some of the most enduring elements of the vampire trope. 

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Recent: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The teeth, the blood, the hunger, the immortal union with darkness — what if these things weren’t fantasy but recollection or even instinct, a feeling etched over eons into human DNA, of some dark power that lay within the human animal?” —from The Passage 

If you think all recent vampire books involve sparkly immortals romancing teen virgins in the Pacific Northwest, it’s time to read The Passage (and its follow-ups The Twelve and The City of Mirrors — all published between 2010 and 2017). The series follows an abandoned six-year-old named Amy as she becomes the latest test subject at a government-run lab trying to turn prisoners recruited from death row into super soldiers. The problem? They’re using a rare virus discovered in South America that may be the source of the vampire myth. Let’s just say that things go really, really wrong, and Amy might be the only person who can save humanity. 

 

The Turn of The Screw by Henry James
Photo: Amazon.com

Classic: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James 

“It may be, of course, above all, that what suddenly broke into this gives the previous time a charm of stillness — that hush in which something gathers or crouches. The change was actually like the spring of a beast.” ―from The Turn of the Screw

Published in 1898, The Turn of the Screw features an unnamed young woman, a parson’s daughter, who is engaged as governess to two angelic children, Miles and Flora, at a remote English country house. But what initially seems like a pastoral way of life turns harrowing as the young governess becomes convinced a pair of malevolent spirits — ghosts of a former valet and a previous governess, fired for their illicit affair — are stalking the children. 

 

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Recent: Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

“We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.” —from Imaginary Friend

As far as horror tropes go, children being creepy might be one of the scariest things out there. In Imaginary Friend, the brand new novel from Steven Cbosky, seven-year-old Christopher begins to hear voices from the clouds, who lure him into the woods, where he hears the voice of another little boy crying. Christopher is not seen for seven days and when he returns, he is changed. As The Washington Post wrote in its review, “Imaginary Friend is an all-out, not-for-the-fainthearted horror novel, one of the most effective and ambitious of recent years.”

 

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Classic: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.” —from Frankenstein 

The genesis of 1823’s Frankenstein is literary legend. Mary Shelley was spending time in Geneva with her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her stepsister Claire and Claire’s lover, Lord Byron. Byron suggested they have a competition to write the best ghost story, and Shelley won with her gothic tale of Frankenstein’s monster. In it, Swiss scientist Victor Frankenstein wishes to create intelligent life. But when the creature awakes, it is an inhuman beast who follows Dr. Frankenstein with murder and horrors. 

Broken Monster by Lauren Beukes

Recent: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

“An army of the beautiful deformed, from miniatures to monsters in every medium imaginable.” —from Broken Monsters

In Broken Monsters, South African writer Lauren Beukes touches on some of the unsettling body horror of Frankenstein. It begins with the discovery of a body in a Detroit tunnel — actually two bodies as it’s the head and torso of a young boy, and the rear half of a deer, fused together. But like the best works of horror, the book also has careful plotting, realistic characters and a foreboding atmospheric creepiness. As the Guardian says, “This tale of a possessed killer in a town of repossessions shows that horror can be the best way to explain our unbelievable reality.” 

 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Classic: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?” ―from The Haunting of Hill House

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is considered the greatest ghost story ever told, redefining the genre. This unnerving work is a masterclass in psychological terror. The story follows a psychic researcher and his recruits as they move into a haunted house to study it. Their stay seems like it may just entail some spooky encounters, with strange noises, unexplained events and writing appearing on the walls. But it soon becomes clear that the house is harnessing its power, and they might not all get out of it alive. 

 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Recent: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“And then the nightmares will begin.” —from House of Leaves 

The story at the heart of House of Leaves is fairly creepy in its own right: a modern family discovers that, not only is their house slightly larger on the inside than it is on the outside, but doors have mysteriously appeared where there were no doors previously. One of these doors — on an exterior wall — leads to a passageway and into a subterranean world. But it’s not just the story that’s truly chilling, it’s also how it’s told. Danielewski layers levels of transcript and interpretation, text and footnotes, concerning a (possibly fictional) clip of film about the house, a film which may not exist. Words slip across the page, windows appear in the text and there are passages that can only be read with a mirror.

It may be experimental, but at its dark heart, House of Leaves is perhaps one of the scariest books you will ever read.

Pet sematary by Stephen King

Classic: Pet Sematary by Stephen King

“Sometimes dead is better.” —from Pet Sematary 

You know a book is truly scary when it even disturbs its author. Rumour has it that King — despite the other horrifying things that he has written — thinks Pet Sematary may have crossed a line. (He only published it in 1983 to escape a book contract.) 

In the book, Dr. Louis Creed moves his family to Maine. After the Creeds’ cat is accidentally killed, they bury it in the ground near the old pet cemetery. But the cat comes back to life, although it has been changed. When Louis’s son Gage is killed, Louis decides to bury the boy’s body in the same ground in the hopes it will bring him back to life. 

 

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle

Recent: The Changeling by Victor LaValle 

“This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike.” —from The Changeling

There is a creeping unease in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, almost from its first words. Apollo’s father disappeared before he was four years old, leaving him with his mother, a box of books and strange, recurring dreams. All that is background, though: The Changeling focuses on Apollo as an adult, a new father, struggling to help his wife, Emma, as postpartum exhaustion and anxiety begin to build. When Emma commits a horrific act, however — and the scene is truly, truly horrific — and disappears, Apollo is plunged into a world of mysteries, myths and secret societies, a world where, maybe, the dead can live again. To be clear, The Changeling somewhat defies summary. As NPR writes,  “This book is a changeling too, and accomplishes a deft, complex bait-and-switch almost halfway through.” 

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