‘Tis the season y’all! Cindy’s filling our home with pumpkins of varying sizes while just about every Netflix selection we make is some kind of horror flick. My main life goal from now ‘til Thanksgiving involves stockpiling enough cinnamon and nutmeg to reenact that scene from Scarface on my kitchen table with pumpkin spice flavoring.
Just like this, but the piles are brown.
October means Halloween, and Halloween means a hodge-podge of wonderful fall clichés ranging from candy induced tummy aches to tummy aches resulting from a long Halloween night out. All Hallow’s Eve is also one of those holidays that, like Christmas, seems to take up more and more of the calendar every year. Two weeks ago I caught myself arranging ceramic ghosts on an end table when I thought to myself “Huh, seems a little early for this” before gleefully adding a plastic Frankenstein to the mix. That’s Halloween’s power. I don’t care what month it actually happens, but the second the leaves start turning, the Halloween season has begun.
Certain holidays illicit certain moods. Christmas is for nostalgia and cuddling, the Fourth of July lets you fly not just the American flag, but your freak flag as well! On Halloween the only important thing one needs to feel is the tingling of your spine that comes from reading something scary too late at night.
This is a lifestyle blog first and foremost, and any information you need on making your home Halloween ready can be found in the litany of articles Cindy is readying this month. As a bumbling clod of man that apparently can’t rearrange ghosts on an end table to save his life, I’ve opted out of that arena in lieu of a space more my speed: scary books.
The right scary story or supernatural novel can do just as much to put one into the Halloween spirit as the grisliest of suburban lawn decorations. Hell, a lot of the decorations you’re putting up this year probably take their inspiration from some shambling horror thought up by some Victorian writer so hopped on opium he couldn’t tell where the walls of his apartment ended and the walls of the spirit realm began. In honor of the special strain of unhappy nutcase that tends towards the career of a horror fiction writer, I’m using this article to bring to light twelve books you should read this month to get you into the Halloween spirit.
Of course, any listicle writer can take a drag of his vape pen and slam his forehead against a keyboard until the words “DrAcUlA iS a PrEtTy ScArY BoOk” appears on the screen. The books on today’s list aren’t your standard Halloween classics. They haven’t been endlessly remade into films and no one’s dressing up as these characters to go trick or treating this year. However, these books are scary, sometimes even scarier than their more famous compatriots and they deserve your attention. Not just to give you chills this October, but to keep the screams coming all year round.
Note: The following list is in no particular order. Instead, all titles have been listed according to the category of horror they represent. Feel free to seek out the titles that best suit your tastes, or read them all and expand the horizons of fear!
Cosmic Horror: The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James by M. R. James
Cosmic horror was made most famous by the American writer (and famous reclusive phrenologist) H. P. Lovecraft. This type of horror gets its screams less from gore, and more from the crippling realization that Man is an insignificant speck of a thing in a universe full of howling darkness and god-like beings that can drive you to madness just by being in the same postal code. Cosmic horror monsters are malevolent, but malevolent in the way a toddler is malevolent around an anthill. Lovecraftian horrors like Cthulu, Azethoth, and Yog Sothoth may rain madness and death on unsuspecting mortals, but they’re so god-like in stature that humans as a species barely even register on their radar. We humans are used to thinking of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. That we control our destinies. That we’re special. Cosmic horror writers take that away from you. They make you invest in heroes that take on eldritch horrors only to come to the sinking realization that they never stood a chance from the start.
M.R. James earns double honors on this list for not only being a top-notch writer of cosmic-style horror, but having the most stereotypically British life a man born before the year 1900 could have had. A lifelong scholar of medieval history, James was likely a deeply closeted homosexual scarred by the deaths of many students and friends in the First World War. Every Christmas, he would sit down with the students of whatever all-male school he was teaching at the time and read a ghost story he had written over the course of the previous year.* Over time, these ghost stories were collected into a single volume of some of the creepiest ghost stories I’ve ever read. James switches out Lovecraftian aliens for ancient curses, magical artifacts and the ghosts of a variety of horrible people, but the nebulous mood of hopelessness created by these stories manages to out Lovecraft Lovecraft. Though more supernatural than extraterrestrial, James’ monsters mock the human condition and show us just how small and insignificant we truly are.
*That fact that ghost stories are a Christmas tradition in England should make us all glad that they’re empire collapsed.
For fans of: H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King’s It, The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, Cloverfield, Dagon (the film)
Vampires: The Light At the End by John Skipp and Craig Spector
This may be a controversial take, but I’m not a fan of what the Twilight series did to the vampire in fiction (Editor’s note: the author of this blog post is currently recovering from severe blood loss as a result of the edginess of the previous statement). A vampire without gore and ugliness might as well be a vampire without fangs. Look no further than the novel version of Dracula and you’ll see a character that for all his old-world sophistication, is deep down a savage and viscerally upsetting creature to be around. A vampire story needs edge. It needs seediness. It needs teeth goddammit! The Light At the End is a prime example of a modern vampire novel that’s actually scary. Set in 1980’s New York City, the novel deals with the transformation of a punk-rock loving teenager into a creature of the night and the lives he bloodily ends along the way. This novel is considered one of the touchstones of the splatterpunk movement, a style known for its intense gore, violence and identification with counterculture movements. Though it apes the style of classic 80’s horror flicks, it’s goriness isn’t cheesy. This a legitimately horrifying book for fans of the vampire genre that love The Lost Boys, but were disappointed at the fairly mild levels of blood spewing vampiric shenanigans. It’s sheer gleeful bloodiness and hat tipping to outsider subcultures will also satisfy fans of Clive Barker or Todd McFarlane; seeing as how punks wear only slightly less in the way of leather and chains than Pinhead and Spawn.
For fans of: The Hell-Bound Heart by Clive Barker, Spawn by Todd McFarlane, The Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch, Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, The Cabal by Clive Barker, The Hellraiser films, The Saw films, Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice, The Lost Boys, The Misfits.
Sci-Fi Horror: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
It’s an absolute literary crime that Harlan Ellison isn’t one of the most well-known sci-fi writers of the last fifty years. Genre writers like Ellison get a bad rap. They’re work is seen as either schlocky, full of clichés or churned out for pulpy rags that pay by the word. This isn’t unwarranted. A lot of famous genre writers *cough Robert Heinlein and Terry Goodkind cough* are guilty of plain bad writing. Harlan Ellison is different. This guy wrote and edited science fiction and fantasy stories for decades, and the list of his published works stops somewhere at just over 1,700 stories, essays and scripts. I’ve only read a few dozen of these so far, but the sheer variety of topics he tackles is something I’ve never seen in another author. More importantly, whether his stories revolve around haunted slot machines, the skeletons of fallen Biblical giants, or cosmic versions of the Grim Reaper, they’re all great. Harlan’s body of work is large in the same way Dickens padded his books out for magazine publication. Ellison’s writing is brilliant. It’s genre fiction raised to the level of pure literary beauty. He made the most out of the genre he chose and the opportunities that genre afforded his imagination.
The short story collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is probably the single best introduction to Ellison’s work one can get. You get a nice mix of Ellison’s sci-fi stories as well as his more supernatural stuff like the haunting Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes. It even has personal commentaries on each story written by Ellison himself to boot. However, the true gem of this collection is the title story. Published decades before the personal computer’s birth, this story revolves around the last few members of the human race being used as the plaything of a psychopathic supercomputer. Think the machines from The Matrix with the personality of Patrick Bateman. Though never actually appearing physically in the story, the computer’s presence is felt constantly as an oppressive source of constant misery. It’s the perfect mixture of omnipotent being and spoiled child. The rage of Frankenstein’s monster existing in the mind of a petty god. This story at times forces feelings of coldness, hopelessness and queasiness on the reader in equal measure. You’ll be exhausted when you’re done reading it, but you’ll never forget it.
For fans of: Event Horizon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, R.U.R. by Karl Capek, The Matrix, The Terminator.
Gothic Horror: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
If you’ve ever read a story with creepy old castles, grotesque looking characters, dark woods, secret passageways and dusty libraries then you’ve read a gothic horror story. Gothic horror is as much a mood as it is a genre. Gothic writers create worlds brimming with madness, rot, creaking doors and all the other sights/sounds needed for the perfect jump scare. Many classic horror characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) got their start in gothic novels, the influence of which is still felt in many aspects of horror culture. What these stories lack in gore, they make up for in mood setting. A Gothic novel will make you wait to see the monster, but you’ll be convinced every dark corridor or ruined mansion contains unnamable horrors just out of sight in the darkness beyond.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is widely considered to be the first Gothic novel ever written. Though more of a thriller or mystery in terms of plot, this 1764 novel tells a simple but compelling story of love and death in the requisite dusty old castle. Through the novel doors slam, secret passages creak open, maidens are threatened by lust maddened aristocrats, and a kid straight up gets crushed to death by a giant knight helmet. The novel hints at supernatural things going on and keeps tensions high to make the castle itself seem like just the place that would be full of ghosts, real or imagined. Not only is this book decently scary, but a cool literary history lesson as well.
For fans of: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Any and all Edgar Allen Poe stories/poems.
The Devil Among Us: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Some horror stories have monsters that steal the show. A well-made monster can tear apart co-eds with the best of them, but it takes a special kind of creature to truly take over a story and become the most compelling part of the narrative. Freddy Kruger, Humbert Humbert and Voldemort all have aspects of their character that make them memorable long after their books or films are done. Hannibal Lector is irredeemable as a human being, but he’s also always the most interesting person in the room. Each of these characters has a little bit of the devil in them. They make you root for them, identify with them, even like them no matter what horrible things they do. The devil’s greatest trick after all, is convincing you he doesn’t exist. Or at least, convincing you he’s not such a bad guy for long enough to get within grabbing range.
Cormac McCarthy has a knack for crafting memorable monsters, be they Anton Chigurh in No Country for Older Men or Lester Ballard in Child of God. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not just McCarthy’s best novel, but it contains one of modern literature’s most horrifying characters, Judge Holden. Judge Holden, or ‘The Judge’ as he’s sometimes called is a hulking albino serial murdering child molester that lack both Chigurhs’ code of ethics and Lester Ballard’s pitifulness. The Judge inhabits a warped version of the American West where neither God nor civilized Man has a place. Here men are driven to rape, murder and pillage as a matter of course. Done in equal measures to survive and just for the hell of it. The violence here is more visceral. The blood is stickier. Death is treated with all the gravitas of a game of rock-paper-scissors. Judge Holden revels in this world. He partakes in every twisted aspect of it. His evil hiding behind an inhuman bulk but always on the lookout to indulge itself further. At times Holden is poetic. He quotes classic literature, reminisces on philosophy and has an avid interest in science. This matters surprisingly little however, once you see him drag mentally challenged man around on a leash for three chapters as a pet or you when you come to realize just how many children go missing when he’s around.
For fans of: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, A Nightmare on Elm Street, American Psycho (book and film), Fargo (season one), Hannibal (the TV series).
Existential Horror: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
Thomas Ligotti’s brand of horror comes from hopelessness. Though he takes clear inspiration from Lovecraft and other writers of that ilk, his short stories defy classification as one specific type of horror. The running theme though all his work is the idea that human life is essentially a mistake. We’re not special. Our lives don’t matter. Our species is just a collection of dumb apes that would do the world a favor by dying off. There are powerful forces at work in his stories that can pound you into the dirt like a tent peg, but if they did, would it even matter? Wouldn’t you be better off if they did and got things over with?
This particular volume has two separate short story collections in it. Both are excellent, assuming you like crushing despair with your Halloween hijinks.
For fans of: Stories by Clark Ashton Smith, stories by Arthur Machen, Stories by Algernon Blackwood, Season One of True Detective.
*Bonus* Body Horror: Akira by Katsushiro Otomo
Admittedly, this comic series isn’t exactly a hidden literary gem. It’s one of the most famous examples of Japanese manga in our culture and the movie version of this story was one of the first anime films to become popular in America. This particular story however, deserves a place in literary canon beyond just niche appeal. Spanning six volumes and a couple thousand pages. Akira tells a story that’s essentially about a near-future Japan reeling from the effects of a supposed nuclear blast in the middle of Tokyo. After this attack, some people living with the dystopian Japanese police state begin developing telekinetic powers ranging from telekinesis to mind reading to exploding heads with a thought. Whether these powers represent the next step in human evolution or the beginning of the apocalypse is for you to read, but it’s Akira’s step into body horror that earns it a place on this list. This comic is first and foremost an action/sci-fi story, but the gross beauty of the images fill you with an old testament awe as you read. Several characters in this series appear as shambling grotesques and many of the psychic characters develop bodily mutations straight out of a David Cronenburg film. Using the style of manga as a visual medium, Akira is able to take the cancerous mutations to levels that would be impossible with even a Hollywood budget. Characters are twisted and bloated to the point that they barely inly the slightest resemblance to a human. This body horror is more god-like than monstrous, characters bloating and twisting into infant gods, weird and terrible, yet impossible to look away from. This series tells an amazing story about Man standing on the cusp of godhood. As the characters inch closer and closer to the terrible truth that is Akira, you’ll find yourself repeatedly questioning what being a human even means.
For fans of: David Cronenberg, Cabin Fever, Annihilation, Jacob’s Ladder, Tusk
Thus ends part one. If you’re style of horror is more werewolves, ghosts, and your more run of the mill deranged murderers, stay tuned for part two: coming next week to a lifestyle blog near you.