7 spooky novels to read this Halloween season, according to Plain Bad Heroines author Emily M. Danforth
Author Emily M. Danforth (her own spooky novel Plain Bad Heroines hits shelves on Oct. 20) offers up her highly-honed Halloween expertise.
Something about a scary story titled The _________ (As in: The Exorcist. The Shining. The Collector) always gives me a shiver, even before I crack the cover. It’s as if the writer is saying, I could only use the definite article for this, meaning this is the defining story of this particular kind of terror: you’re about to get the real goods.
Of course, it’s understandable if you can’t imagine why anyone would choose to seek out additional scares in these stressful times, but for some of us (raises hand), horror stories are the exact kind of escape called for when the nights turn longer, the leaves blow away, and the nation’s leading infectious disease expert has instructed us to “hunker down this fall and winter.”
For your hunkering pleasure, this list includes a handful of excellent releases from 2020, and also several books whose fear-factor has stood the test of time. (At least decades worth, anyway).
The Return by Rachel Harrison
A group of college pals gather for a long weekend at a remote hotel in the woods to celebrate the return of their friend Julie, who was suspiciously missing for two years and claims to have no memory of that time. If you think that setup sounds promising, I won’t spoil any of the page-turning creepiness to come except to say: there’s a lot of page-turning creepiness to come. This is one of those books I stayed up way too late to finish in a gulp.
The Low Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado
These comics follow two teen dirtbags, El and Vee, as they navigate skinless men, rabbits with human eyes, and their own missing memories in the town of Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania — which has been on fire for years. These atmospheric stories are queer — in every sense of that word — and as fun as they are, also sometimes deeply disturbing. The graphic novel (to be released on Sept. 29) will collect issues 1-6 of the series, which is part Joe Hill’s line of horror-comics for DC, so if you’ve missed the individual issues, now’s your chance to catch-up in one haunting volume.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
If you like your horror in the form of a dark fairytale, then this is your novel. Though I have to say: it defies categorization in all the best ways. It’s about fatherhood, about Black communities in New York, about marriage, about racism and immigration, witches and trolls — Internet and otherwise. LaValle is such a stylish and controlled writer and this novel reminds us what the best (horror) stories can be: revelations. Read it, and get your friends to read it, because I promise you’re going to want to talk with people about it once you’re done.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
Once named one of the best horror writers around by the likes of Stephen King and Peter Straub, McDowell’s terrifying novels have been getting a much-deserved rediscovery in the last decade or so, and there’s no better place to start than with The Elementals, which follows the plight of two wealthy Alabama families as they visit their identical Victorian beach houses along the Gulf of Mexico, one of which is being swallowed by the sand dunes. Or perhaps the presence filling it is much more malevolent than that? This is macabre Southern Gothic at its finest. The heat drips through the pages and you’ll swear you feel sand sticking to your skin as you read. And let me tell you, that prospect has never been scarier.
The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson told us that some houses are born bad. Siddons’ twist on this idea was to do away with crumbling manor estates and instead show us the construction of the modern marvel being built next door to married couple Colquitt and Walter Kennedy, who go from admiring the new house’s impressive architecture to helplessly watching as it destroys the lives of those who inhabit it. Siddons expertly chronicles the Kennedys as people who doubt what they know to be true for far too long. At first, because facing it makes them embarrassed and inconvenienced. And later, because they’re terrified. As they should be.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
This novel manages, convincingly, to be both bloody and bleak and also often quite funny and hopeful. The story follows four friends haunted/stalked by the choices they made while elk hunting together years before. But that description barely scratches the surface of this relentless story, one that explores contemporary Native life and themes of cultural identity and past trauma. This is simply one of the best revenge stories I’ve ever read.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The rare haunted house novel that earns its comparisons to The Turn of the Screw. All the deliciously recognizable tropes of the form are on display here, like the moldering English mansion inhabited by a once-charmed but now deteriorating family with disturbing secrets, and the narrator whose feigned rationality is the best disguise for his unreliability. But everything is rendered so subtly in these pages, and also so precisely, that we might as well be encountering this terrain for the very first time. As Ron Charles put it in his review for The Washington Post, “...the story’s sustained ambiguity is what keeps our attention.” This novel, like all of Waters’ novels, has many smart things to say about repressed desire and social class, but more to the point of this list: it absolutely thrums with dread.