15 scary novels to give you the creeps

Feature Sarah Dobbs
28 Oct 2013 - 07:06

Fancy some creepy reading material this Halloween? We've got a whole list for you...

It’s October. The leaves are turning brown and the nights are drawing in. It’s cold and it’s raining and it’s nearly Halloween. The perfect time, then, to curl up with a good book and give yourself the creeps. But which book?

You could go for one of the classics – Dracula, or Frankenstein, or something by Lovecraft or Poe – or you could go with the zeitgeist and pick up Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, or even The Shining, if you’ve not read it already. Any of those would be perfectly good choices. But let’s face it, if you were gonna read one of those, you wouldn’t need me to recommend them.

Here, instead, is a list of 15 other horror novels guaranteed to give you nightmares…

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

The Chowder Society meets regularly to tell ghost stories. But not for pleasure. This group of old men has a shared secret, and something’s haunting them. Telling stories about the worst thing that ever happened to them helps relieve the pressure on their consciences, more or less, but eventually the past catches up with them. Ghost Story is a cleverly constructed novel that drags you right into its world. It’s a lot like a Stephen King book, in many ways, with its small town setting and its expansive cast of characters, but it never feels derivative. Just scary.

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

Yeah yeah, Game Of Thrones, yadda yadda yadda. Martin’s atmospheric (and self-contained) vampire novel is creepier. Set in 1850s Louisiana, the Fevre Dream of the title is a boat: the biggest, fastest, best steamboat imaginable, built to transport cargo up and down the Mississippi – and funded by vampires. Using a contained setting is smart and claustrophobic, and the idea of a boatload of evil bloodsuckers is a wonderfully scary one. It’s probably a bit longer than it needs to be, but what else would you expect?

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

Starting to read House Of Leaves feels like a massive undertaking. The book is huge, for one thing. It’s also massively complicated. It has footnotes, and those footnotes have footnotes. The pages are laid out strangely, so sometimes the words form spirals or other geometric patterns, and sometimes there’s only a single word on each page. It’s a book that asks you to really put some effort into reading it, then repays that effort by scaring the crap out of you. It’s the tiny details that really make it work – you’ll never put up a bookshelf again without thinking about it.

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

The later novels in the Vampire Chronicles series and the 1990s film based on it took the shine off Interview With The Vampire, a bit, but it’s worth revisiting. It’s tighter than Rice’s later sprawling tales; simpler, eerie and atmospheric and utterly compelling. Told from the perspective of Louis de Pointe du Lac, a 200-year-old immortal, it’s mostly a story of guilt and depression, enlivened by the presence of a glamorous villain, Lestat du Lioncourt, and made more poignant by the subplot about Claudia, a beautiful little vampire child who could never grow up.

Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite

Lost Souls is another vampire story. It’s built around road trips: all of the characters in this book are trying to go somewhere, even if they’re not quite sure where that is. They’re looking for their friends, family, identity, or just a party. The vampires in this book are probably the most hedonistics you’ll ever come across, constantly searching for their next high, whether it’s sugar, booze, sex, or, well, blood. They’re having way too much fun to bother with angst – that’s reserved for the human characters, who’ve got plenty of problems even before the vampires show up. If you are, or have ever been, a teenage goth in messy eyeliner, you’re gonna love this one.

The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson seems to be having a bit of a moment right now. If you’ve not read her before, you’re in for a treat, and The Haunting Of Hill House is a good place to start. Eleanor Vance is a sensitive, anxious young woman, worn down from years of caring for her sick mother, so when she’s invited to be part of a team investigating the legendarily haunted Hill House, she jumps at the chance to escape her depressing life. But Hill House isn’t a good place for sensitives. Everything about it is scary, even the layout of its rooms, and soon all kinds of horrible things are happening. Or are they? Jackson implies more than she shows, leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps.

The Ruins by Scott Smith

Four friends go on holiday to Mexico together. Their plans mostly involve booze and sunshine, but when they make friends with a German tourist they get dragged along on his quest to find his brother at a distant archaeological dig. Any horror fan could tell you this won’t end well, and it doesn’t: the group soon finds itself trapped, without food or water, and beset by enemies on all sides. Including inside. Yeah, it’s the novel the film of the same title is based on – which means yes, it’s about killer plants. Sort of. Really, it’s a kind of body horror, a story about the slow unstoppable decay of the human body. And it’s really, really harrowing.

The Watcher by Charles MacLean

The horror genre thrives on unreliable narrators. Not being able to trust the person telling you the story makes for unsettling reading, and The Watcher makes fantastic use of that device. When Martin Gregory commits a brutal crime, not even he can understand why he did it, but through a series of therapy sessions (which the reader sits in on through both Martin’s account of events and the detailed notes taken by his psychiatrist) he starts to figure it out. The further in you get, the clearer it becomes that something is going horribly, horribly wrong, but the book offers no concrete answers as to what that might be. It’s a dizzying read.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Written and set in the 1960s, Rosemary’s Baby somehow doesn’t feel all that dated – which makes it scarier. Although, yes, there are bits that wouldn’t happen nowadays, like when Rosemary runs to a phone booth rather than whipping out a smartphone, Levin’s tale of modern day Satanism takes place in a version of New York that doesn’t feel unrecognisable today. It’s mundane, somehow. And Rosemary and Guy feel like an entirely believable couple, with their in-jokes and petty disagreements. Levin doesn’t need any gothic trappings to make his story terrifying, he just uses normal people in a normal setting and lets a massive, hideous, supernaturally awful betrayal play out. Brrrrr.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan had dabbled in stories about the supernatural before this one, but The Last Werewolf is probably his first novel that can fairly be labelled “horror”. And it’s gorgeous. It’s stuffed full of sex and violence, drenched in Duncan’s typically lush prose. The story unfolds through the diary entries of Jacob Marlowe, the werewolf of the title, as he flees from a monster-hunting society that’s looking to make his kind extinct. It’s intense, gory, and occasionally extremely upsetting. If you’re squeamish, maybe avoid this one.

Freeze Tag by Caroline B Cooney

Remember Point Horror? It was a YA series of short horror novels in the 90s, and back then, I read zillions of them. The only one I’ve still got, though, is Freeze Tag. It’s set in an idyllic suburban community where all the kids hang out and play games in the street after school and everything’s perfect… except it isn’t. Because down the road there’s a family that no-one likes, and a little girl with a particular talent for freeze tag. Anyone she touches freezes, literally, and if she doesn’t unfreeze them, they die. As a kid, the ending always confused me a bit, which makes me think I used to be a sociopath. It’s a little moralistic, but still creepy.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

This is the oldest and most ‘classic’ book on this list, but it’s here for a reason. Atmosphere oozes from every page of du Maurier’s gothic tale of murder and mystery. The titular inn is scary enough, with its locked rooms, shadowy corridors, and brutal landlord, but even the gorgeous countryside beyond the inn is deadly, with its deceptive winding roads and concealed ditches. Mary might be a more straightforward heroine than many of du Maurier’s protagonists, and the story is less nuanced than some of her later novels, but there’s something incredibly powerful about the way things unfold.

Let The Right One In by John Avjide Lindqvist

Two movies have been made of Lindqvist’s updated vampire story – and neither of them comes anywhere close to the terrifying brutality of the novel. Lindqvist paints a convincing picture of a small, miserable suburb that’s part of Stockholm but could be anywhere, and then he drops one hell of a monster into it. The gore is shocking, the characters superbly drawn, and the horror deeply disturbing. It’s not an exaggeration at all to say that Let The Right One In is one of the best horror novels ever written.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s debut novel has a brilliant premise: a collector of macabre memorabilia buys a ghost on the internet, and is subsequently haunted by it. All the stale conventions of the ghost story – specifically the haunted house story – are shrugged off, letting Hill get down to the seriously scary business of his haunting without needing to explain why his hauntees don’t just move house. The second half of the book falters a little, and there’s some very daft stuff in there, but the first half is constructed out of pure fear.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Finally, have a love story. Well, kind of. A wealthy but troubled young woman is encouraged to become a “Lady Visitor” at a local women’s prison, but an unexpected friendship with one particular prisoner turns her life upside down. Selina Dawes is a well-known spiritualist, jailed after one of her séances went horribly wrong, but even in her cell she seems to be able to affect things in the world outside. Does she really have supernatural powers? It’s another story told from the perspective of a vulnerable and possibly overly credulous young woman, but Waters’ prose is gorgeous, and Victorian spiritualism is fascinatingly bonkers.

Honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, The Haunting Of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, Handling The Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and The Collector by John Fowles.

(I also didn’t include anything by anyone who’s been involved with Den of Eek!, to avoid accusations of favouritism, but all those guys are great. And obviously the Den of Eek! ebook is brilliant and terrifying, so if you haven’t read that yet, it’s worth a look.)

After all that, my to-read pile is still a huge mess looming terrifyingly over my desk, but let’s open this up: what have I missed? What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

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