If you like a good scare, Halloween is the best time of the year to get goosebumps reading horror books. There are plenty of authors and titles, and this list tries to balance some immortal classics with new talents. Because it is Halloween, several of the books are anthologies of short stories. So have fun… and get ready to sleep with the light on!
1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
There was a naive time when traveling carnivals went from city to city bringing a certain air of mystery and magic. This 1962 classic takes place in the week just before Halloween and is about a carnival arriving in a small town, filled with creepy figures and mysterious attractions. The leader of the troupe is Mr. Dark, an evil being who feeds on the life force of the victims he makes along the road. When two 13-year-old boys discover the truth about the carnival, they must convince the adults to fight the threat. More dark fantasy than horror, Something Wicked This Way Comes deals with themes that readers of all ages can relate to – such as the need to face our fears and the hard process of letting go of our childhood dreams.
2. Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enriquez
If you’ve read all the classics and are looking for recent horror talents, look no further. This is a 2016 anthology with short stories by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez. Her horror is based on Third World countries’ history of violence and superstition, avoiding the traditional characters and situations of the genre. The result looks like a dark sociopolitical experience: there are abandoned children living on the streets, social workers lost in slums, scary abandoned houses, and so on. The story that gives the book its name is particularly disturbing. It’s about women who set themselves on fire in protest of the sexual violence they suffer simply because of the appearance of their bodies. Like the best classic horror stories, Things We Lost in the Fire makes us think about the scary world just outside our window.
3. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales (Signet Classics), by Edgar Allan Poe
There are countless anthologies of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, but this volume is the best choice for readers who are just beginning to venture into his work. The book sets aside the author’s poems and essays to focus on 14 of his best horror stories. If this is your first time reading Poe, be prepared to face haunted houses, people buried alive, torture chambers, and much more. Many of these elements became horror clichés. The book includes one of Poe’s best-known and chilling stories: “The Black Cat” (1843), about a man haunted by the mentioned animal. Be prepared: the plot twist in the ending is truly spine-chilling!
4. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft
Speaking of classics, H.P. Lovecraft is certainly one of the most influential authors of the last century. His novels and short stories are scattered across dozens of anthologies. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories features 18 tales with familiar Lovecraftian elements: ancient creatures, evil gods, and scientists whose experiments get out of control. This collection brings two of Lovecraft’s most celebrated stories: “The Color Out of Space” (1927), about the sinister unfolding of a meteorite falling in a rural area, and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931), a novella that tells the chilling experience of a traveler in a seaside town dominated by mythical creatures.
5. Pet Sematary, by Stephen King
Stephen King is the superstar of contemporary horror and has written dozens of best-selling titles. So why choose this particular title? Well, King himself has already stated that he considers Pet Sematary the scariest and most painful of all his novels. The book tells the story of a family that moves to the countryside, right beside a highway. At the back of the property, there’s an old animal cemetery. And beyond it, a forgotten sacred place with the power to raise the dead. Pet Sematary addresses one of humanity’s oldest and greatest fears (death) while dealing with the unexpected consequences of grief and loss. It’s not an easy story to read – especially its descriptions of funeral services and corpses. “There’s such grief in this book,” the author said in a recent interview. He’s absolutely right, and that makes Pet Sematary even scarier.
6. The Graveyard Rats and Other Stories, by Henry Kuttner
American author Henry Kuttner wrote dozens of horror stories for pulp fiction magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. But his best-known story is “The Graveyard Rats” (1936). It’s about a gravedigger who works in an old, rat-infested cemetery. As the rodents dig huge underground tunnels to feed (argh!), the man decides to sneak through one of them to try to reach the coffins and steal jewels from the dead. But the experience through the labyrinth of tight, dark tunnels is terrifying–for the ambitious character and also for the reader. Even those who don’t suffer from claustrophobia should feel their heart beating faster. Kuttner’s prose is breathtaking.
7. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
This astonishing 2013 psychological thriller chronicles the descent into madness of a journalist investigating the suicide of a young woman. She was the daughter of Stanislas Cordova, a legendary horror film director. Based on real-life filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, Cordova is an insane and obsessed artist who lives in seclusion. As the journalist begins to unearth mysterious episodes from the family’s past, it becomes difficult for him (and the reader) to separate “reality” from fiction shown in Cordova’s horror movies. Night Film is only the second novel by Marisha Pessl, but she already demonstrates the skill of an authentic horror master. As an extra, the book is full of visual elements that help make the experience even more realistic (and frightening), including photographs and documents.
8. Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti is considered one of the most talented contemporary horror writers. His stories are inspired by classics like Poe and Lovecraft, but they sound as original as nightmarish. Those who want to know the work of the American author should look for this edition, which brings together his first short stories collections: “Songs of a Dead Dreamer” (1985) and “Grimscribe” (1991). There are more than 30 stories about madness, decay, violence, and cosmic horror. More than frightening, Ligotti’s narratives have a weird and pessimistic tone, often finishing with dark endings that stay with the reader.
9. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, by Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson was one of America’s most prolific horror writers and screenwriters. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet brings together some of his best short stories. The highlight, of course, is the narrative that gives the book its name. It’s about the terrifying experience of a passenger aboard a night flight. If you are afraid of planes, this tale will likely traumatize you forever. The anthology also contains some fantastic stories that were adapted for the cinema. Like “Prey,” about a woman being chased in her apartment by a demoniac Zuni doll.
10. Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
American writer Peter Straub was as popular as Stephen King for some time. Ghost Story is probably his best-known novel, and also the scariest. Published in 1979, the book is about a group of old guys who have been best friends since childhood. For the past 50 years, they meet once a year to share ghost stories. But a traumatic episode in the friends’ youth suddenly comes back to haunt them. With a complex plot that unfolds over different decades and with dozens of characters, Ghost Story has all the elements of a good scary tale. The book also had a big influence on Stephen King’s best-seller It. Both deal with best friends battling a murderous, shape-changing creature throughout their lives.
11. Books of Blood, by Clive Barker
It was because of this incredible collection of gruesome tales that Stephen King once declared English writer Clive Barker to be “the future of horror.” There are six books originally published between 1984 and 1985, full of short stories that continue to stand out for their variety and originality. Barker wrote about cannibal monsters in New York subway tunnels, demonic pigs, haunted movie theaters, ancient humanoid monsters, and much more. The fifth volume includes “The Forbidden”, the short story that gave rise to the author’s most popular creature: Candyman. You can find Books of Blood both in the original six separate books or in omnibus versions putting the volumes together.
12. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
It may sound like a cliché, but a list of horror books wouldn’t be complete without this 1818 classic. Even those who have never read the work of English author Mary Shelley already know what it’s about. The book chronicles Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s feverish quest to try to bring a humanoid being to life and the tragic adventure that follows. Frankenstein is considered one of the first modern horror stories with scientists and experiments replacing old Gothic mansions and their old-fashioned ghosts. The amazing thing is that, apart from the language that’s two centuries old, Shelley’s masterpiece has not aged at all. In fact, the book is still capable of impressing first-time readers–especially the passage where Dr. Frankenstein finally realizes the horror he created.