We don’t really have “autumn” in South Florida. Today, for instance, we had a high temperature of 88 degrees Fahrenheit (or 31 degrees Celsius) and I have to admit sometimes it’s a little tough getting in that Halloween frame of mind. (It’s also terrible to be Christmas shopping when it’s 91 degrees outside, but that’s a story better told in two months or so.)
So when it’s still sweltering outside, how does one get into that chilly, gloomy, spooky mood that is so delicious this time of year? I usually pull out a book that scares the crap out of me. Here (in no particular order) are my favorite scary books I’ve read in recent years. And I am not taking the easy route and presenting you with five Stephen King novels, although I certainly could. There is a reason Joey Tribiani kept The Shining in the freezer.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Most people are familiar with Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” And if you aren’t, go read it immediately. (You’re welcome.) The Haunting of Hill House is a novel she wrote in 1959 and it is without a doubt the quintessential haunted house story of all time. There was an excellent film adaptation in 1963 starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn, and there was an equally appalling adaption in 1999 with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones and Lilli Taylor. I highly reccomend the 1963 version. My husband and I watch it every year and are always delightlfully spooked.
However, the book itself is head and shoulders above the film (as is usually the case isn’t it?). I first read it maybe eight years ago and I can still summon the shivery feeling I experienced. Shirley Jackson was a freaking master at scaring the tar out of her reader. This novel is so clever there is no confirmed monster or ghost in the entire work–it’s all psychological. The creep factor lingers long after finishing the book.
Jackson died at just 48 years old. Think about that and consider what horrors she could have produced had she lived to a ripe old age.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
I was first introduced to this English writer by a library volunteer who recommended the Simon Serrailer detective novels, and I devoured those. Hill has a great gift for characterization and for sprinkling nuggets of useful information throughout her mysteries so you actually have a chance to work out the killer if you are clever enough. (I almost never am, but I do appreciate this in a writer–she doesn’t cheat her reader with tricks.)
In 2012 my husband and I spent two weeks in England. Our first few days we spent in Oxford, where I had done a study abroad semester when I was 20. Have you ever heard of the bookstore Blackwell? Good Lord, what a place. I believe there are four or five floors packed with books and they boast a full mile of shelving. The uppermost floor has used books and the two of us spent HOURS wading through the treasures. It was there that I found a paperback copy of The Woman in Black. I saw Susan Hill’s name and I grabbed it. I started reading it that night in our miniscule hotel room.
Sweet Jesus what a frightening book. It is reminiscent of a nineteenth century writer (think Emily Bronte) and tells the tale of a young lawyer sent to a creepy old house to settle an estate. The mood, setting, and tone all combine to keep you reading all night with every last light turned on. There is also one of those total, “Oh SHIT” moments when you realize the ghostly presence isn’t just scary but smart too.
This also had a successful movie adaptation from a few years ago starring Daniel Radcliffe. It was mostly faithful to the story, which is rather hard to find in Hollywood these days.
I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
Barry Lyga is a kickass YA novelist with several great books under his belt like Boy Toy, and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. I Hunt Killers is the first in his trilogy about Jasper (Jazz) Dent, who just happens to have a serial killer for a father. Who escaped from prison. And wants his son to follow in his footsteps.
I think quoting other reviews is sort of lame, but Joe Hill sums it up so perfectly when he wrote: “I Hunt Killers is an out-of-control hearse with one busted headlight, blood on the grille, a madman at the wheel, and laughter pouring out of the open windows. Climb in, buckle up, and go for a ride.” I couldn’t give this book better praise than that. The other two parts of the trilogy, Game, and Blood of My Blood are also out. But you need to start at the beginning and treasure every sentence of this twisted, frightening tale.
NOS482 by Joe Hill
In this novel Joe Hill does for Santa’s Village what Stephen King did for clowns in IT: Turn it into something beyond terrifying. The novel centers on Victoria McQueen, a kid who has some unusual talents. Her nemesis is the frightening child abductor Charlie Manx who is fond of taking children for rides in his car to Christmasland. That’s not a euphimism–Christmasland is a diabolical amusement park with no way out. Vic evades him as a child, but years later he manages to swipe her son.
A lot of people have called Joe Hill the best horror writer of my generation. Yeah, his dad is Stephen King, but this guy has proven chops of his own–no nepotism required. I didn’t actually put this book in the freezer.
But I thought about it.
Bird Box by Joseph Malerman
Malorie lives in a boarded-up house with her two children. They never go outside if not blindfolded and they never look out the windows. There is something out there–a presence that when seen turns people into raving lunatics who violently murder anyone in their path. No one who has seen “it” has lived to name it.
The remaining survivors stay hidden indoors, not daring to look out the window in fear of catching a glimpse of the unexplained terror. Malorie has been hiding for five years and she and her children are starving. She makes the ultimate gamble: she blindfolds them all and they make for a rowboat in the river. As they float downstream with just their ears and other senses to guide them the realize something is following them. But what?
I almost couldn’t finish this one because I felt so claustrophobic reading it. That, my friends, is talented writing.
I hope this gives you a few good chills this Halloween season. If you have any recommendations for me I’d love to hear them. I’m always on the hunt for my next creepy read.