The nights are growing longer, the evening air is growing chillier, and our imaginations are starting to run wild. The fall season is the perfect time to curl up in a blanket beneath the lamplight and scare yourself silly with some unforgettable horror novels. Four of our horror literature reviewers have selected the perfect tales to get you in the Halloween spirit.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Something Wicked This Way Comes is, in my opinion, about as close to the perfect Halloween story as one can get.
The story follows a pair of lifelong friends, named Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Will—born a minute before midnight on October 30th—is the more cautious of the two, while Jim—born a minute after midnight on October 31st—is the more brash and daring one.
A week before Halloween, after the two of them have been warned of an incoming storm, a carnival comes to town, arriving with little more than a day’s notice and seemingly springing alive in the dead of night.
But something isn’t right about this particular carnival; the attractions within seem to offer the chance to make one’s wildest dreams come true while preying upon one’s deepest insecurities and fears, and it falls to Will, Jim, and Will’s father Charles to fight back against the carnival’s dark power before it can claim their very souls.
Bradbury’s poetic, almost musical style breathes life into every aspect of this novel; it’s an overused cliche, but it really does feel like you’re there, and when you’re reading it, it’s as though the outside world disappears. Everywhere from the town’s library where Will and Jim hide from the sinister Mr. Dark to the Hall of Mirrors that lures in the town’s residents feels like a fully lived-in place—some of them might even seem familiar to places you once knew long ago.
Something Wicked This Way Comes isn’t the scariest book around, but there’s a warmth to it that contrasts with the darkness that is rarely often found in works of horror or dark fantasy. It’s a scary story, yes, but it’s also one that’s ultimately about overcoming one’s fears and learning to cherish the joy of life whether you are old or young. It’s this particular blend of nostalgia and nightmare that makes Something Wicked This Way Comes a timeless read—one that is still perfect for an October night, all these years later.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
A mixture of alternative historical fiction and cosmic horror, Ring Shout or Hunting Ku Kluxes in the End Times follows a group of Black men and women as they hunt down Ku Kluxes, otherworldly demons masquerading as white supremacists in 1920s Georgia. Only a rare few can see their true forms. Their leader is a Gullah woman named Nana Jean, and her home also serves as the base of operations.
Maryse is our main character and can summon a magical sword (which is explained later with some really cool backstory), and she’s accompanied by Sadie, a cursing Winchester rifle-wielding fireball, and Cordelia, called “Cordy”, a WWI vet with a talent for explosives. They have such a great back-and-forth and are extremely badass. You get a really good look into their lives when they’re not hunting down Ku Kluxes, too. Since it’s a novella, there’s never an issue with pacing to have these quieter moments.
Outside of fiction, P. Djèlí Clark–real name Dexter Gabriel–is an Assistant Professor of History and used previous research to help create this world, including formerly enslaved people’s narratives and the Gullah culture. Several chapters begin with a quote from a Gullah elder, often describing the ring shout religious practice of singing, stomping, and clapping while moving in a circle. It adds another layer to the story and is a really cool way to combine both his academic interests and storytelling methods.
The horror elements are exactly to my taste with some quite nasty body horror via a character called Butcher Clyde and some gnarly creatures, especially during the climax that involves the historical and extremely racist film The Birth of a Nation as a major plot point. I’m very happy to hear it’s been acquired for a TV adaptation sometime in the future!
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
Sometimes the size of a novel can make the task of reading feel daunting, but seeing the unread pages on the right side get less and less is such an accomplishing feeling. That’s how I felt about Imaginary Friend. This is the second-largest book I’ve read next to House of Leaves, but that’s semantics. I was immediately worried about the size and whether or not I wanted to take on such a task. Oh, boy was I glad I did. Chbosky’s prose dragged me in from the start and did not let go until I closed the book. There are some truly haunting situations strewn throughout, but at the end of the day, this book is an emotionally draining—in the best way possible—masterpiece. It tackles themes of depression, mental health as a whole, domestic/sexual abuse, and the idea of self-love. I can honestly say the 700+ pages whizzed by, leaving me wanting more. The book itself sort of felt like my imaginary friend at the end, leaving me heartbroken with its ending but giving me a warm feeling in my stomach whenever I think about it. What is most surprising about this piece of art is that Chbosky wrote Imaginary Friend, his second novel, 20 years after he wrote the prolific Perks of Being a Wallflower.
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Come on, the book literally has the word Halloween right in the title. But I guess I can take a minute to explain why The Halloween Children is perfect for autumnal reading. Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss’s collaborative The Halloween Children is about an apartment building haunted by a dysfunctional family. They’re not ghosts or anything. No, they’re simply not very good people. The story alternates between Harris, the unemployed father who works part-time as a handyman for the building, and Lynn, the mother who has been stretched too thin for too long. Both of their children are showing strange behavior, and Harris makes some strange discoveries as he goes about his business. Meanwhile, Lynn has started to hear things. Or she thinks she has.
This book is vague, but I mean that as a good thing. We know right from the very beginning that something really, really bad happened on Halloween night at the Stillbrook apartments where this family lives. What happened is left unclear until the very end, lending an air of ominous menace throughout the entire story. Rather than going for overt scares, the book favors subtlety in both its characterization and creepiness. For instance, Harris is a lazy man, and kind of pathetic and unfit to be a father. But he never does anything out and out despicable. Instead, he simply brushes off Lynn’s worry about their children’s increasingly strange behavior. It’s this approach that makes The Halloween Children so unique; it gets under your skin and sticks with you instead of just making you jump.
That’s not to say it isn’t scary; it most definitely is. It builds to a climax that is haunting and terrifying yet still retains the subtlety that makes the lead-up so effective. It is, at its core, about a group of people who are long past the point of redemption, and the scary results of their personal flaws. The Halloween dressing adds a fantastic Fall atmosphere to everything, but it would work entirely as a story about people driving each other mad even without that element. It’s almost Jack Ketchum-esque, where the scariest parts are the characters’ very real flaws. It’s fantastic. Speaking of Jack Ketchum…
Hide and Seek by Jack Ketchum
Hide and Seek is easily one of my favorites by the deceased master of messed-up psychological horror. It was only his second published book, and it’s a whopper of a coming-of-age horror story. Ketchum’s debut was Off Season and the first of what I like to refer to as his “not-zombie” stories. I classify them as such because they’re about regular old human cannibals, but in function, they’re about just how depraved the average person can be when confronted with something monstrous. Off Season takes place in Dead River, which was sort of his own version of Castle Rock or Derry, and Hide and Seek is the unofficial second Dead River book.
It takes place in the doomed down but doesn’t share all that much connective tissue with Off Season, Offspring, or The Woman. Instead, it’s a slow, slow burn drama until it isn’t. It follows a local kid named Dan. Dan only just graduated high school a couple of years ago and is slowly turning into a townie, much to his chagrin. He feels aimless and struggles to understand his own purpose. But one summer he meets up with some rich kids who are staying for the season. The entire first half is focused entirely on these characters and their growing friendship. They drink, they smoke, they bone, they skinny dip. A bewitching young woman named Casey in particular intrigues Dan, and his bond with her and the others feels grounded and real. You could argue that it’s a slow start since the book is split almost completely in half by the slice of life stuff and the horror, but in my opinion, the buildup is entirely necessary.
So why am I recommending a horror story set in the summertime for Halloween reading? It’s because of the themes and mood. Halloween is something that is often viewed as childish by some, but it’s my personal favorite holiday mostly for nostalgic reasons. As a kid, October seemed mysterious and unnerving, but in a good way. My imagination would run wild about the hidden spookiness beneath the changing leaf colors and general cartoony-but-creepy aesthetic of orange pumpkins and ghosts made of nothing more than bed sheets. Even though Hide and Seek takes place in the summer, it perfectly captures that youthful desire for something more. These days, I know there aren’t any spirits wandering around in October, but I love the possibility that there are. Hide and Seek toys with Dan wanting there to be more than there is, and the tragic fallout of that desire, because in this case, there is more.
Eventually, the book shifts gears when the group of friends decides to play a game of, you guessed it, hide and seek in the local haunt. It’s a big mansion near the beach, and most people don’t go near it due to local legends. This childish flirtation with local folklore speaks to their desire for something more. The problem is that they do get more. And it’s here where the book becomes unbearably tense, and often times quite nasty in a way that only Jack Ketchum can pull off.
I’m being deliberately vague because I firmly believe that Hide and Seek is one of horror’s most under-read coming-of-age stories and that anyone who enjoys the genre should experience it for themselves. It’s tender, reflective, and quite heartbreaking, but the characters’ hopes, their desire for meaning, and for the world to hold more make me reflect on my own love of Halloween in a unique way. And for that reason, it is perfect for the season.
Night Shift by Stephen King
How can you tell a great writer from a good one? If you ask me, the easiest way to find out is to see what they can do with short fiction.
Just about any writer worth their salt can tell a decent story over hundreds of pages, but to tell a good one over the course of only a dozen—to present us with only a snapshot of a character, a time, or a place—and make it feel like something we’re intimately familiar with takes something truly special.
Stephen King has done many, many collections of short fiction, most of which are worth their weight in gold. But, as it is with many things, his first collection, Night Shift, is still the one to beat.
Each of the twenty stories here is classic ’70’s King—that is, to say, visceral, brutal, and horrifying; they are equally likely to be spine-chilling OR spine-ripping.
Or both. Usually, it’s both.
“Graveyard Shift” is a horrifying odyssey into an underground empire of overgrown rats; “Strawberry Spring” follows a string of murders that leads to an ending that twists like a knife (“She thinks I was with another woman last night. And oh dear God, I thinks so too). “The Mangler” takes us to a demon-obsessed industrial laundry of all things, while “I Am The Doorway” gives us an outsider’s look at a horrifying monstrosity.
Each one of these stories averages out to about ten to twenty pages each, meaning that they’re the perfect size for a quick read before bed. Or, if you dare to try and do them all in one night, there’s plenty of opportunities to take a break if—or more likely, when—you need to come up for air.
To this day, Night Shift remains a solid, scary collection of short fiction from the early days of one of the titans of horror literature, about the things—and people—that go bump in the night.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
What’s more fitting for Halloween than a haunted house novel? Except, there’s a twist to the traditional spooky home in this one—it’s a beach house located at a beautiful lagoon on the Gulf Coast. After the funeral of the Savage matriarch, the McCray and Savage families head to the island of Beldame for some much-needed rest and relaxation. The island has three Victorian houses, with the third uninhabitable and slowly being consumed by sand. For bonus isolation points the island is only accessible when the tide is out so there are stretches where the families are trapped.
The house is set up wonderfully with a backstory involving mysterious deaths and sightings of ghosts in the windows. The two families don’t even want to look at the house because they are so afraid of it. Young India McRay is the only one not superstitious enough to avoid the house completely and it’s through her we get most of the scares. Michael McDowell uses really vivid descriptions and I love that these ghosts are not traditional spectres but seem to be real, fleshy entities with extreme malice. As the days go on, summer’s unrelenting heat is replaced by the chill of death. Once you finally see what’s inside, you’ll wish you hadn’t. An absolute classic. This is quite a slow burn in contrast to Ring Shout if you’re more into that.
The Forgotten Island: A Horror Novel by David Sodergren
This novel holds the most special place in my heart. I was very depressed and traveling hours a day on public transit for my job. My love for horror, and most things, started to dwindle. That’s when I got the idea to buy a couple of horror novels to read on my travels. After a cursory Google search for “best horror novels,” I came to the realization that one book popped up on multiple lists, The Forgotten Island: A Horror Novel. I felt so invigorated from page one and had a whole new appreciation for a new form of horror. David Sodergren is single-handedly to blame for my now obscene book collection. The Forgotten Island is a fun, rowdy, tour de force of horror that, even after reading hundreds of horror books, still stands out as one of the most entertaining and thrilling reads to this point in my life. His prose reads with such brilliance you can’t help but picture the entire thing in your head in such insane and vivid detail. David Sodergren is a horror fanatic’s author.