Horror fans don’t need a time-sensitive excuse to indulge in uncanny and unnatural literature, but there’s nothing quite like steeping oneself in a novel of the strange as the October winds blow, bringing half-imagined whispers of phantoms from the pages. Some books evoke this sense more effortlessly—and frighteningly—than others. Here are seven chilly, liminal examples of literature’s power to bring us across the veil.
Books of Blood by Clive Barker: While technically five volumes, Clive Barker’s masterwork of short horror fiction brings the perfect mixture of pulpy violence, grotesque monstrosities, and transcendentally disturbing themes. His tales take the reader through gritty urban wastelands, liminal spaces of decay or transgression, where the rejected pieces of society manage to make a life—and encounter monsters in the process. Particularly poisonous treats include the titular story, a nightmarish diatribe on the roadways of ghosts; “Rawhead Rex,” a brutal, child-eating god unleashed on a posh vacation community; and “Dread,” which questions the nature of fear itself.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: It really takes place during Christmas, but Oyeyemi’s Gothic hymnal offers a uniquely frightening take on haunted house tropes. Its surreal imagery is worthy of Lewis Carroll during a really awful trip, and its tale of a psychological break, driven by ghosts of the past, evokes a more grounded type of fear. Come for the bizarre manifestation of mental phantoms, and stay for the story of a young woman held back by her ancestors; the combination of which creates a liminal landscape that’s perfect for Halloween.
Hell House by Richard Matheson: The haunted house novel to end all haunted house novels. Matheson takes every trope in the book and raises them to maximum height. The familiar tale of scientists investigating a cursed mansion for psychic activity reaches immense terror through Matheson’s methodical plotting. The novel’s atmosphere is palpable, and its supernatural manifestations cause sickening dread, buoyed by a sense of pure evil that pervades the proceedings from the beginning. It may be formulaic, but it shows how effective the formula can be, and terrifies the reader to the point of giddiness in the process.
Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti: Few authors spin poetry from horror with Thomas Ligotti’s uncanny, devastating style. While he didn’t invent cosmic horror, Ligotti makes it his own with strong doses of nihilistic philosophy and surreal Gothic environments. His cosmic forces echo Lovecraft at times in their monstrosities, but more often they’re invisible and spiritual—he evokes metaphysical evil that undoes the reader’s sense of reality. October is said to be a time when the veil between worlds is thin—Ligotti rips that veil apart and suggests that it’s only in our minds, that the forces of darkness surround us at every turn.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King: King is a master craftsman when it comes to fun, epic horror, but his scariest novel is his most personal, rooted in every parent’s terror that they will lose their child. Also his bleakest story, this pure nightmare of death evokes an unshakable sense of evil. Subtle supernatural hints build to a transgressive climax that displays the ways in which grief can drive people to madness. Ties to native mythology and thematic implications that question the meaning of death lift this novel above its schlocky roots, into the realm of lasting fear.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: Any of Jackson’s works provide a subtle, lasting chill on a crisp autumn morning, but none offer the sublime terror of her masterpiece, which brings cursed mansion phantoms into the space of a shattered mind. At once a satire on Victorian ghost stories and a psychological horror narrative of the utmost power, Jackson conjures her own grotesque atmosphere to create an icon of horror fiction. The twists and turns of Hill House provide classically supernatural chills, while the human drama escalates to delirium.
The October Country by Ray Bradbury: The title says it all, of course. Bradbury evokes the sense of autumnal dread like no one else. His collection of funhouse terrors question the very nature of reality, with stories about a man being betrayed by his skeleton or a Podunk community enraptured by a simple sideshow jar, navigating a world full of unnatural forces and philosophical fear. Ghosts, demons, and evil spirits of nature haunt these pages, but the sense of human paranoia rings truest—Bradbury knows that the scariest ghosts linger in the mind.
What spooky offerings are haunting your must-read list this month?