The Top Ten Tales You Need to Read this Halloween
I live in Salem, Massachusetts, so I’m pretty hard to frighten. As Salemites, we live within our dark history, developing a kind of generational guilt that reminds us daily of what fear can do. But there is also a theme park element to this place, especially in October when tourists outnumber residents twelve to one. At Halloween, anything goes. We dance with our local zombies. We have our futures and sometimes our minds read by roving psychics. We march along with real witches up to Gallows Hill to honor the spirits of those hanged in 1692, including a few of my ancestors. This year, our world-class museum and local cinema have joined forces to introduce a horror fest that promises to take fear to a new level. It’s definitely worth the price of admission. But, as I said, I don’t scare easily. When I do, it is almost always at the hands of a gifted writer who somehow taps into long-buried fears I didn’t even know I held. Every time it happens, I curse myself for opening whatever book backed me into a corner and held me captive there long past its final pages. But this time of year, I once again open those same books because who doesn’t crave a little shiver down the spine at Halloween? Here’s my list of favorite sleep with the lights on books:
Heart-Shaped Box: Joe Hill
Beware of hand-me-downs. Jude Coyne, an aging and somewhat callous rock star with a penchant for collecting macabre artifacts, buys a dead man’s suit online as well as the ghost who’s included in the sale. I’ve never quite believed in ghosts, but Joe Hill’s description, characterization, and exceptional pacing hooked me from the beginning. A haunting story I’ve read more than once. Heart-Shaped Box is perfect for Halloween.
The Shining: Stephen King
You can’t talk about horror without Stephen King. I know that IT is all the rage right now, and admittedly it’s excellent, but it’s this older story that gets to me. As a writer, I’m always looking for opportunities for solitude and long stretches of time to devote to my craft, but Jack Torrance’s stint at the sinister Overlook Hotel makes me reconsider. The quintessential psychological thriller, The Shining explores the bondage of family dynamics and tragedy. I read it when I lived by myself in Los Angeles, and I had to call a friend to peel me off the wall. It was a long time before I once again craved a writer’s solitude. If you’ve only seen the movie or if you read the novel a long time ago, do yourself a favor and revisit this classic.
The Exorcist: William Peter Blatty
Raised Catholic, nothing frightened me more as a child than the concept of the devil and the idea of possession. Add to that the other side of my family’s Puritan roots, and The Exorcist became the perfect terror-provoking novel. That innocent eleven-year-old Regan could be possessed was too much for me as a young adult. Intentionally crude imagery added to my horror. Re-reading this book as an adult revealed the more interesting battle between religion and psychology. Definitely leave the lights on for this one, and sleep with a crucifix under your pillow.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood
One of my favorite books by my all-time favorite author, The Handmaid’s Tale is enjoying new-found popularity with the wonderful Hulu series. I recommend returning to the source, which didn’t scare me nearly as much when the book first came out as it did with a recent re-read. The times we live in bring this dystopian story too close to real life and far too possible to be easily forgotten.
American Psycho: Brad Easton Ellis
Okay, this one almost did me in. Ellis is a master of insight into the worst of American consumerism and the possible narcissistic results of extreme affluence. Patrick Bateman is the worst of us: murderer, racist, sadist, the darkest character I’ve read in a long time. American Psycho is a satirical look at a kind of darkness we initially dismiss as impossible, then begin to fear might be real. It’s the only book on the list I can’t bring myself to re-read.
House of Leaves: Mark Z. Danielewski
A young family moves into a seemingly idyllic little house. What could possibly go wrong? For one thing, it seems to be larger on the inside than the outside, with doors and passages that move and change. When their children wander off and don’t return, sending back stories from another darker world, that more sinister reality encompasses them all. A surreal journey that challenges the perspective of the reader, House of Leaves will ensure you never again look at your own home the same way.
Into the Woods: Tana French
A crime novel with a wounded protagonist and repressed memories. What could be more haunting than that? On a warm summer evening in Dublin in 1984, three children don’t return from the woods. Only young Rob Ryan is found, terrified but remembering nothing. Years later, Detective Ryan, his past kept secret, is called upon to investigate a murder in those same woods. Tana French’s debut novel, arguably still her best, is a great Halloween read.
The Haunting of Hill House: Shirley Jackson
The classic that inspired almost every haunted house story to follow. Despite repeated warnings to stay away, four unlikely companions, who have each experienced a touch of the paranormal, accept an invitation to a “ghost watch” at Hill House, a gothic mansion that is reputedly haunted. Ignoring the impulse to flee, shy and psychologically wounded Eleanor Vance becomes a magnet for Hill House’s otherworldly powers. Sometimes funny, definitely literary, this is one of my October favorites.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane: Neil Gaiman
This is the only witch story on my list, and, even so, it doesn’t label itself as such. It’s more fantasy than horror but with a terrifying edge. A man returns home after many years to attend a funeral and is drawn to a childhood haunt, home to three generations of Hempstock women, all immortals with supernatural powers and only pretending to be human. As he revisits their dilapidated homestead, he relives some terrifying and long-repressed memories. A heroic tale about lost innocence. Who says you can’t go home again?
The Fall of the House of Usher: Edgar Allan Poe
Would any list of must-reads for Halloween be complete without Poe? A gothic classic, this tale has everything to recommend it. The narrator goes to visit a friend suffering from a mysterious illness. Horrific hijinks ensue. Atmospheric, gloomy, and foreboding, this is another of the psychological tales I seem to favor, and Poe is a master with an uncanny talent for placing the reader into the shoes of the unnamed narrator and challenging one’s perception of reality.
BRUNONIA BARRY is The New York Times and international bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places, and The Fifth Petal. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages and has been an Amazon Best of the Month and a People Magazine Pick. She was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Invitational Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. Brunonia co-chairs the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee and served as executive director of the Salem Literary Festival in 2104 and 2015. She lives in Salem with her husband, Gary Ward, and their dog, Angel.