As we approach the Halloween season I think it’s the right time to look at some of the best holiday reading as we sometimes forget that there are also great books and stories to go with all those classic horror films. As such, for the person who wants to experience Halloween as more than just a series of bad movies, bad costumes, and bad candy you can move right along, but for those who want to explore the horror in all its glory here we go…
These books are read best with a group of friends, after the sun has set by the candle light…
The Short Stories
So let’s get this off to a horrific start with the shorter works
The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. “Death,” I said, “any death but that of the pit!” Fool! might I have not known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow?
Starting off this list is the original story of torture porn…but unlike the mountain of crappy movies this focus on torture has given rise to, Poe’s look into a man desperately trying to last through unthinkable suffering still saves the dignity and humanity of the victim of the story. It’s horrific to listen to but it doesn’t give us the horror for cheap by proxy sadism you find in so many torture porn films. All the horror but none of the dehumanization, what more could you possibly ask for.
Call of Cuthlu and Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft
Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.
Granted Lovecraft himself may have been a terrible, terrible person, but thankfully he’s dead so it’s not like reading any of his work is benefitting him. “The Call of Cuthlu” and “Dagon” are among those classic tales that takes you into the heart of madness and looking into a world where things just don’t make sense anymore. The unknown, and what horrors it might hold is fully on display in these gems. Only a mind as disturbed as Lovecraft’s could have come up with a universe populated by dark entities out to destroy all that might be called good in this universe, and while this vision bears not the least bit of resemblance to how the universe is actually structured, a little self-indulgence of this kind of vile vision is more than okay this time of the year, if only to remind us what the universe is not like. And while Cuthlu or Dagon are the key players of the Lovecraft universe, nowhere is the evil of monster gods so quickly on display as in this quick reads from Lovecraft.
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
“For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
Some prefer “The Tell Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat” but for me when it comes to Poe tales of murder, I prefer the cool calculation of Montresor in his murder as far more horrifying than the actual guilt felt but the murderer who hears the heart of his victim still beating or one whose conscience is manifested in feline form. Here we see a man willing to murder someone in one of the most horrific ways possible for little more than a few insults. And he is willing not to just carry it out, but to do so while his victim cries out for mercy. Few visions into the evil that the human mind is capable of are more chilling in as few pages, and few forms of death are as horrific as being walled up inside to suffocate or starve buried alive in catacombs.
The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
“The first man had his three wishes, yes,” was the reply. “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”
While the theme of be careful what you wish for is hardly new, “The Monkey’s Paw” however demonstrates it with a clarity few other stories can. Often the worst thing in the world you can get is what you think you want, which is why you must always be very careful and think long term about what you want. This may seem trite, but in a nation of where a third of the population seems to be socialist and a third populist, the need to think about what you want and how that could actually be the worst thing in the world is more relevant than ever.
It also has that odd distinction offing of the earliest zombie stories I know of…whether that’s a good thing or not probably depends on how you think of zombie stories, but you have to give credit where credit is due.
Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
Probably the only poem I can actually think of meriting being on list of good horror fiction. There isn’t much to discuss about this poem, because to say it is all style almost no substance is an acknowledgment of what Poe was going for. But the style in itself as it builds tension and hopelessness of a narrator who sinks further and further in despair and madness in trochaic octameter is never a bad thing on a dark October night.
The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde
The old woman smiled, and answered in the same low, mysterious voice, “It is the blood of Lady Eleanore de Canterville, who was murdered on that very spot by her own husband, Sir Simon de Canterville, in 1575. Sir Simon survived her nine years, and disappeared suddenly under very mysterious circumstances. His body has never been discovered, but his guilty spirit still haunts the Chase. The blood-stain has been much admired by tourists and others, and cannot be removed.
Okay, it’s more humor and satire than it is horror…but it’s still one of the best ghost stories ever written.
The Outsider by H.P. Lovecraft
The cries were shocking; and as I stood in the brilliant apartment alone and dazed, listening to their vanishing echoes, I trembled at the thought of what might be lurking near me unseen.
It’s a slow and dark build up to the horrific reveal of this story, but it’s worth it. From a purely stylistic point it’s probably Lovecraft’s most mature writing. Like the Raven it’s more about the build up than the actual content but the final horrifying reveal makes up for the lack of actual substance to the tale.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
“You must not – you shall not behold this!” said I, shudderingly, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon – or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement; – the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame. Here is one of your favorite romances. I will read, and you shall listen; – and so we will pass away this terrible night together.”
I would argue this is Poe’s finest piece of horror (I actually think “Mesmeric Revalation” and “The Purloined Letter” to be his best work, but those aren’t actually horror). An intricate tale of decay at both a personal and societal level, being burial alive, the dead rising from their graves to exact vengeance and so many other tropes that have come to define all things horror.
The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft
You needn’t ask how Wilbur called it out of the air. He didn’t call it out. It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did.
I would argue this is the best of the short stories dealing with Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, those things beyond the comprehension of human understanding that are out destroy all of life. It’s a little longer than Cthulu or Dragon and that’s why I feel it merits its own line. Mystery, horror, monsters, this tale has it all. Granted I’m still not the biggest fan of Lovecraft’s inherently pessimistic view of life, but Halloween is a time to indulge in such incorrect beliefs.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.
It would be nice if they ever decided to read this story before turning it into a movie. I’m going to give some spoilers here because you probably don’t understand why this story is so much better than any movie that is based off of it. Unlike most movies which show the infected to be like zombies, the book shows the world having succumbed to vampirism…all except for our narrator who appears to be the last true human. But the vampires he is killing are more like the Eastern European myths of vampires, mindless killing machines that come out at night to suck the blood of the living. But during the day he does his best to find them and kill them. That is until he finds out that some of the vampires have regained their higher brain functions, and despite being vampires, are now trying to rebuild the world, reestablish civilization and move forward in life. Except that there is this pesky monster killing them when they sleep. Every movie misses the point of the story, that our hero has become the legend that he thought he was killing—he has become the monster that kills people when they sleep. If only Hollywood could give me that movie.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The great box was in the same place, close against the wall, but the lid was laid on it, not fastened down, but with the nails ready in their places to be hammered home. I knew I must reach the body for the key, so I raised the lid, and laid it back against the wall; and then I saw something which filled my very soul with horror. There lay the Count, but looking as if his youth had been half renewed, for the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey; the cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.
I’ll be honest Dracula is strangely one of those stories that will never seem to live up to the hype. Pop culture has made Count Dracula into something just short of the ultimate villain, and when you get around to the actual story he’s just a little wanting in his villainy. More concerned with the British real estate market and his special dirt he some how lacks in being that ultimate evil you expect. Just like there doesn’t seem to be a single King Arthur tale that measures up to the greatness we have in our head, Stoker doesn’t seem to live up to hype that followed him. Still, despite being tame by modern standards, the story is still a great one…and as I said at the beginning this is a tale best told by being read aloud by candle light with a group of friends.
World War Z by Max Brooks
The monsters that rose from the dead, they are nothing compared to the ones we carry in our hearts.
I don’t like zombie stories. I think the entire genre is all but useless as the idea of a zombie is both stunningly not frightening (if you know how bodies decay you know that after only a couple of days a corpse wouldn’t have the ability to move its limbs enough to be a threat) and generally insulting (as philosophically the zombie is implied to be what humans are at their core when you strip away all civilization). However, there are always exceptions. World War Z is that exception. Not because it has a revolutionary take on zombies, it doesn’t—they’re still the slow-moving embodiment of the Id without Ego and Superego. And it’s certainly not because the movie is any good, it’s not. What makes WWZ stand out is that it isn’t really a book about zombies, it’s a story of crisis management and how no one deals with crises very well. It’s about how people are inherently short-term thinkers and struggle to deal with long term problems. The zombies are there, but unlike so many zombie stories on page or screen, it shows that humans can, despite their worst inclinations, be more than just mindless thugs fighting to survive, that they can be thinking beings working to live.
Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.
I’ve tried reading other Rice works and sadly I would say these are the only two good ones. But they are exceptionally good. You get two visions of Lestat, one from himself as a noble anti-hero and one as the most heartless bastard on Earth. And while not true horror in the traditional sense, this fascinating look into two sides of a character who could often be described as evil is always worth it.
The Shining by Stephen King
This inhuman place makes human monsters.
Far superior to that shit excuse for a movie Kubric tried to shove on us. Unlike the movie this book actually has real horror and balances it with real nobility in the characters. And let’s not forget that the book is far more horrifying than anything that has been put on screen in its name. But mores than on film, the evil of the Overlook comes out clearly on page, and the need for escape it is more present at all times.
The Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
New York City had a short memory for violence.
While the Pendegrast books that follow this are more mystery than horror, but this book and its focus on curses and monsters is very much still a horror story. The search for a monster that rips out people’s brains as it defends the statue of ancient demon from South America and the only thing that stands in its way are a jaded New York cop, a geneticist and highly eccentric FBI agent (who is actually the central focus of all following books). Unlike most monster tales, which come off as more trite than anything, this tale actually has the tension to provide for a compelling tale, and characters that you actually care about enough that you look forward to the stories that come…well the last few books have been a little weak, but first dozen stories in the Pendergrast series are more than worth it.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
While Mary Shelley was a bit of a one hit wonder, this book is far superior to any movie version. I’m sorry until Hollywood has the guts to turn the creature into an arrogant bastard who quotes Milton and Goethe (or something equally pretentious) at the drop of a hat (or the drop of a Frankenstein family member), don’t talk to me about anything but the book—it remains the ultimate tale of science’s hubris causes problems.
Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein
The problem with dictatorships—as I read somewhere recently—and with poisonous ideologies, too, is that they are like sharks. They must keep moving forward or die. What caused their aggression is not what you did. It’s who they are.
Heinlein is really more of a science fiction writer, but Puppet Masters while strongly sci-fi has an element of horror in it that cannot be denied. An alien invasion by parasite that turn us all into mere automatons…in a world that has seen everything from the Borg to Invasion of the Body Snatchers this probably doesn’t seem like the most original idea, but one should remember that this story came before all of these variations on a theme, and for the most part, did it better than any of the imitators.
Bloodsucking Fiends Trilogy (Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, Bite Me) by Christopher Moore
“Splendid,” said the Emperor, without a hint of sarcasm. “I believe we’ve achieved a new level of doomed.”
Okay it is the one truly humorous entry on this list for Halloween. Consisting of three Christopher Moore novels: Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me, this trilogy follows newly minted vampire, Joy, as she makes her way through the San Francisco night aided by her new boyfriend, Tommy, her minion Abbie-Normal, mistress of the dark, a group of losers who work at the local Safeway, as they face off against other vampires, vampire cats, and two reluctant SFPD detectives. Mouse ninjas, samurai, bronzed turtles may or may not also be involved. You will laugh until you have trouble breathing, trust me.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The very worst impulses of humankind can survive generations, centuries, even millennia. And the best of our individual efforts can die with us at the end of a single lifetime.
Probably the best vampire story ever written. A tale spanning five different time periods as the story of a young woman’s family and their run-ins with the Historian, Vlad Tepes, and his plan to conquer the world. In a style much more reminiscent of Shelley’s Frankenstein with its intricate tale within a tale mode of unveiling the events of the tale, this is a book that I never regret reading again and again. The evils of anti-semitism, tyranny, and communism are parallel as being just as horrific as vampire scourge the Historian wishes to inflict upon the planet, thus rooting the horror of tale in something very real and present.
It by Stephen King
Eddie discovered one of his childhood’s great truths. Grownups are the real monsters, he thought.
I’ll be honest that most of what King writes is barely worth the paper that it wasted to print it. But It is the one of the few books of his career that isn’t just worthless pulp and is arguably raised to the level of literature. Not only is it probably the greatest horror tale ever written, but it is also a touching tale of childhood innocence, good versus evil, and dealing with some very adult problems that don’t require a evil spider dressed as a clown to affect us. It is unquestionably one of the few King tales worth reading more than once, and it probably is challenged only by Shawshank in terms of being his finest writing.