Everyone knows autumn is the perfect time of year to curl up in your favorite chair with a good, creepy read. The leaves are changing, the beer is getting thicker and darker, the rain makes the backyard smell like time and wet soil, and your social media becomes filled with pictures of your friends’ kids dressed like pumpkins and dogs wearing plushy shark fins.
Yet many readers don’t know there is a whole genre’s worth of horror novels out there that doesn’t start and end with Stephen King (and I am saying this as a Stephen King mega-fan). So, I figured I’d bang out a list of my favorite scary stories I’ve read recently to give a signal boost to works that I feel should be causing more readers out there to be shitting their pants. Hope you brought some fresh ones…
10. Bird Box
Josh Malerman’s sleeper hit imagines a post-apocalyptic world where the beings that ended civilization still linger, driving anyone who looks upon them mad. As such, those who have survived have adapted to living life mostly blind. They live in houses with boarded-up windows and cannot go outside without blindfolds; for many, it has been years since they’ve seen sunlight. A taut, beautifully-written tale that is one of the few examples I can think of where present-tense narration works well. Also has one of the most hair-raising endings of any book, ever.
9. Wraiths of the Broken Land
Written by the screenwriter and director of 2015’s indie smash hit Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler revisits the horror western with a grim moral play about a family trying to rescue their stolen daughters from a secret whorehouse reputed to be the most brutal den of twisted hedonism South of the Border. While set sometime during the 1800s, the tale feels outside of time, and is told with a lyrical style that mimics Cormac McCarthy in the best way. Abject and disgusting, yet powerfully redemptive. If you lovingly cringed through the blood-soaked Wild Western horrors of Bone Tomahawk, this book is more of that, but on crack. In fact, I liked it so much I put it on this list instead of the much more famous novel that clearly inspired it – McCarthy’s Blood Meridian – because Zahler deserves your attention. If even Kurt Russell recommends this book, you should just f***ing read it.
Dutch newcomer Thomas Olde Heuvelt wrote two versions of this story, one in his native language, and another for American audiences, and while I can’t comment on the original, the premise and execution of this present-day story about a New England town haunted by a witch whose apparition is both scientifically verifiable and won’t let anyone leave without grave consequences, is both timely and bone-chilling. The weirdness and nearly satirical tone of the first chapter put me off at first, but I tried again a few weeks after my first false start, and I’m certainly glad I gave this book another chance. It is the perfect example of a book that strikes the balance between a serious novel of ideas, and a campfire tale that makes you want to hide under the covers.
7. The Terror
This nearly 800-page eldritch abomination of a novel will take you a long time to read, but don’t let the length put you off. Within this massive icebreaker of a tome is the saga of the lost Franklin Expedition you haven’t heard… about how the 120 or so members of the Royal Navy who went hunting for the Northwest Passage in 1846 and were icebound for three years in the Arctic Circle didn’t just die of the cold and of scurvy, but were hunted by a terror borne of the ice that ended up being my favorite monster in the history of creature features. And I have seen some creature features. The bars of downtown Aberdeen, Scotland on a Friday night. UC Santa Cruz’s Porter Meadow on April 20th. Halloween in Austin. I’ve seen it all, and the Tuunbaq takes the cake.
6. Uzumaki (Spirals)
The pinnacle of the body horror subgenre, this is Japanese cartoonist Junji Ito’s masterpiece, a series of interwoven vignettes about a sleepy seaside town that becomes “infected with spirals.” Most know Ito from the viral webcomic The Enigma of Amigara Fault, which was first published in his Gyo anthology. Read it sometime and you’ll have a good idea what Uzumaki is all about.
Ania Ahlborn’s killer debut spun a lot of heads for two reasons; one, because even back in 2011 it still wasn’t that common to see a wildly successful woman author of horror, and also because said author happened to be self-published. While pretty slow to start, Seed works because it turns the conventions of possession stories on their collective heads, and finishes with such a gore-splattered Shakespearean tragedy that it’s simply unforgettable.
4. Slade House
Newcomers to the David Mitchell-verse will likely miss many of this short, dense novella’s homages to his other, longer works – Mitchell’s works typically feed off each other, like those of another certain horror author who isn’t on this list – but even as a standalone, Slade House doesn’t skimp on chills. Imagine the Winchester Mystery House but seated on a quiet back ally of an English village. Its front gate isn’t always there, and those who enter don’t always return. Now add a dash of psychic horror, evil twinning, and Mitchell-level prose mastery, and your mental picture will start to resemble this book. A fantastic entry into the vast, wonderful body of Mitchell’s works, and a phenomenal scary story in its own right.
3. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
The seminal post-apocalyptic tale about a tiny group of survivors trapped underground after the end of the world, who are not able to die, and must live forever at the hands of the sadistic A.I. who caused the cataclysmic event. While the plot of this relatively short story can be conveyed in a sentence or two, its real power is in Ellison’s cutting wit and the harsh shadows cast by his descriptions of the pain and hopelessness of his heroes.
Full disclosure: the author of this blog post also wrote this book. Yes, its inclusion on this list is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I don’t put myself anywhere near the same league as the other writers on this list. Consider this just a casual nudge toward a book I think you might really enjoy, or at least get creeped out by, if you like the others on this list. Lurk is a descent-into-madness story in the tradition of The Shining with an extra dash of college binge drinking, undead dance parties, zydeco music, and California soul. You can get it here for four bucks. If you’d prefer to read a sample chapter, the first chapter is free to read here.
1. Song of Kali
I still think about this story of a Western journalist drawn to Kolkatta by the promise of interviewing a semi-mythical poet who was reportedly kidnapped and murdered by a death cult, only to mysteriously reappear alive and with no memory of the events, years after I first read it. The burn is slow, and the story conservative both in its employment of gore and jump scares as well as its moral, but damn if this one didn’t send chills up my spine. I don’t think any story I will ever read could haunt me like Song of Kali.
Be sure to visit your local library or independent book seller to see if they have any of these great reads! -A. Vine