The creeps. The willies. The heebie jeebies. Call them what you will, your word choice won’t lessen the feeling of the collywobbles (“How we wobble when we have the collywobbles.” --James Joyce)
This Halloween, consider doing as Neil Gaiman suggests, and share the literary scares. A few years ago, Gaiman came up with the tradition of All Hallow’s Read, and suggested that book lovers give scary books as gifts as a way of celebrating Halloween.
Any excuse to give (and get) books is okay by me, but not every book is for every person, especially when it comes to horror. Each of these books is scary in its own way, from atmospherically creepy to deep-down disturbing. Choose appropriately.
For more suggestions, check out my previous picks for Halloween reads.
Not to be confused with the more recent Angelmaker, Brijs’ book was a huge bestseller in Belgium, but managed to go under the radar in the US, despite a release in English translation by Penguin Books. The horror is of the scientific type, and I don’t mean strange viruses. I mean Frankenstein-type experiments, only in a very real, modern day setting, with innocent children possibly being the lab rats. The book manages to have an old-world, small village feel, probably due to the setting in a border town in Belgium. You can almost imagine villagers with torches and pitchforks, but what actually happens is considerably more sinister. Brijs does an excellent job of hinting at horrific happenings, and as a reader you feel compelled to hurry forward and see if your guesses could possibly be right. The small town secrets have a Shirley Jackson vibe about them, but Brijs is definitely in a class by himself.
The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros
It takes a special writer to make something that is both frightening and beautiful at the same time. Like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal or the movies of David Lynch, Maistros’ The Sound of Building Coffins manages to find what’s lovely in life, while simultaneously, as Eliot said of John Webster, seeing the skull beneath the skin. The book takes place in New Orleans in 1891 (before jazz, if you can imagine the city without it), and deals with murder, possession, decay, infant death, prostitution, crime, and disease. The fact that there’s beauty in these things is due to Maistros’ writing, plus his ability to see the larger picture of death and birth. It’s a tough book to describe, but not one easily forgotten.
Preacher: Gone to Texas by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (Preacher, vol. 1)
A comic about a demon-possessed preacher is by its nature not for everyone. If you can put up with violence and some disturbing images, though, you’ll find that Texas preacher Jesse Custer is one of the most moral characters in fiction, with an unshakable sense of right and wrong. Gone to Texas collects comics 1-12, beginning with Custer’s possession —an event that destroys his entire congregation with fire. He hits the road to find out the truth, accompanied by his ex-girlfriend Tulip and Cassidy, an alcoholic Irish vampire. The result is by turns unsettling and comedic, while simultaneously maintaining a vibe of twisted Southern Americana. It’s The Exorcist meets The Quick and the Dead.
Carmilla by J. S. Le Fanu
For those who like their horror tales on the more subtle side, this 1872 novella has atmosphere in spades. You can read my full review of Carmilla from earlier this year to find out more about the story that influenced Dracula so much that Stoker’s original notes set his novel in Styria, where Carmilla takes place. (You can also pretty easily spot the inspiration for Dr. Van Helsing’s character.) The story is as much about mutual obsession as it is about vampirism, and as the creepy Carmilla weaves a spell around ingenue Laura, it’s sometimes hard to tell just who is seducing whom.
The Shining by Stephen King
Sure, Stephen King has dozens of books that would make for appropriate Halloween reading, but with the recent release of Dr. Sleep, King’s much-anticipated sequel to The Shining, it’s a better time than ever to revisit the book that started it all. (Plus, the Kindle edition is a bargain, and includes a preview of the new book.) If you’re reading it for the first time, forget what you know from the movies or The Simpsons and let the story do the talking. It’s genuinely scary, with perfect pacing that builds and builds to that can’t-go-to-sleep-until-you-finish-it point. If you’re dipping into it as a re-read, you might find yourself surprised at how quickly the sense of claustrophobia takes over again.
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Realistic terror is always scarier than the paranormal to me. While I can enjoy a good ghost or monster story, I can always go to sleep certain that there’s not a mummy or a bolt-necked Frankenstein’s monster outside my window. A serial killer, though? That’s within the realm of possibility. It’s hard to find a killer more disturbing than Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, and the fact that the book is told from his point of view makes sure you don’t miss a bit of his twisted persona and what he calls the sickness. Don’t let the fact that the book was written in 1952 deter you. It’s as troubling as anything you could find written today.
Read anything scary lately? Share your recommendations in the comments.