With all the parties, costumes, and refined sugar bestowed upon us on the last day of October, Halloween sure can be one scary holiday. Jack-o’-lanterns can be creepy. No one knows who is hiding behind the masks. And the sugar, well that might be scariest of all. But in all seriousness, some people like a good scare come end of October, and here we’ll provide some suggestions for a literary way of satisfying that need: a list of thirteen scary, creepy, weird, unsettling, or deranged literary works that are not for the faint of heart.
1 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
You’ve either read this one or seen a cartoon version of it. Maybe you saw the movie too. But every list of Halloween-related literature has to begin with Irving’s short story, and Halloween is the perfect time to revisit this scary masterpiece.
2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson Arguably one of the best haunted house stories every written, Shirley Jackson’s novel is noted for employing terror over horror—the two are not the same, especially in Gothic fiction. It has everything you’d expect from a haunted house story; strange noises, weird events, ghosts wandering around, and just enough things that are implied instead of painted out to keep your nerves on edge the whole time.
3 “The Dreams in the Witch House” by H. P. Lovecraft H. P. Lovecraft’s stories often press more than just one of our scare buttons. Lovecraft’s protagonists are tiny and insignificant in a cold universe inhabited by things we cannot understand. Their sanity leaves them as they watch weird rituals, read books no one should be reading, or observe ancient gods. In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” there’s also a witch. And a weird rat.
4 Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury Not the scariest book on the list, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes was nonetheless a direct influence for major horror writers like Stephen King. It’s a coming-of-age (and the opposite of that) kind of story, centered around Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, a carnival that happens to be evil, which comes to an Illinois town a week or so before Halloween. It’s a classic of dark fantasy.
5 The Turn of the Screw by Henry James Gothic literature and Halloween go hand in hand. Henry James’s gothic novella The Turn of the Screw has another thing that makes it a Halloween must—two very creepy kids and a young governess who doesn’t know what she’s getting into.
6 “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe It’s not easy to pick just one of Edgar Allan Poe’s works for a Halloween reading list. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a glowing example of Poe’s approach to horror, and it’s a perfect pick to satisfy your Halloween Poe craving.
7 “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne “Young Goodman Brown” is not a horror story. It’s an allegorical tale that critiques Puritanism, and it’s set around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Goodman Brown, the short story’s protagonist, goes on a creepy night journey into the woods and returns a changed, disillusioned, man.
8 The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
The second Ray Bradbury entry on the list is perfect for those interested in the roots of Halloween traditions. The Halloween Tree will take you on a ride through Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. You’ll also get to visit the Druids and learn about Mexico’s celebration of the Day of the Dead. Not horror, but very much in the spirit of the holiday.
9 Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill Too often we don’t need to turn to fiction for a good scare, as humanity seems to be more than able to produce real-life horror stories. Malcolm Gaskill gives us an account of such an episode—the witch-hysteria that inflamed England in the middle of the seventeenth century—through the works of two witch hunters.
10 The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker If you’re a fan of vintage horror movies (you can call something vintage if it was made in the ’80s, right?), you know about the movie Hellraiser. You know who Pinhead is, at least. Well, this is the book that movie was based on. Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart is a cautionary tale of what happens when we pursue our hedonistic tendencies above everything else.
11 The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman Well, there had to be a few children’s books on the list. And every list of books needs one Neil Gaiman book. The Graveyard Book is both. Imagine The Jungle Book set in a cemetery. Enough said.
12 A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny A book narrated by Jack the Ripper’s dog is something that has to be read on Halloween. Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October is his love letter to fantasy and horror literature. You’ll find Dracula in there, and Dr. Frankenstein, and the Great Old Ones, and witches and priests and a Rasputin-kind-of-guy. And Jack is there, too.
13 Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge Set in a generic small town in the United States, Dark Harvest is what you get when Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics meet a Halloween story. You have a guy who is desperate to leave a small town, and you have a violent Halloween custom that might help him do so. The novel unfolds over a couple of hours on October 31, 1963, and with just over two hundred pages and a lot of good writing, it might take you about as long to read it.