I am a horror whore.
I inhale books that keep me awake at night and watch horror movies with my Saturday morning coffee. Even as a young kid I gravitated toward the macabre; when my brother forced me to watch Child’s Play I said I was scared but really, I was fascinated. It’s October, my favorite month, and horror movies and shows and books abound. This is the month for lists of urban legends and “best horror movie” lineups. I’ve got a lot of horror novels that are near and dear to my heart, so I thought I’d share this list with you. The best part is, none of these books were written by Stephen King. Don’t get me wrong—the man is a horror genius since his name is synonymous with horror fiction, but I wanted to shed light on novels you may not have heard of. So, here it goes…
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824)
Set in Scotland in the early 1700s, this tale of two brothers takes several creepy turns. George and Robert weren’t raised together but when they meet, Robert becomes obsessed with George. He begins stalking him, mocking him, and nearly pushing him off a cliff. When George is stabbed to death, Robert is the prime suspect—but before he can be arrested, he disappears. As we read more about Robert’s life in the “Sinner” section of the book, we learn of his strict upbringing by his mother and the Reverend Wringhim, and of Gil-Martin, Robert’s mysterious companion. As Gil-Martin’s influence over his life becomes stronger, Robert slips into madness and even loses track of time, leaving the reader to wonder if Robert’s actions were his own or the work of something more sinister.
This book was published in the 1800s, so the language can be a bit difficult to read. But the escalation of Robert’s behavior and George’s increasing fear of him makes it worth the read. And, of course, the “is he or isn’t he possessed” debate adds to the creep factor. Fans of slow burners, psychological horror, and possession tales will enjoy this novel.
Summer of Night, Dan Simmons (1991)
It’s 1960 and the last day of school at Old Central, an eighty-four-year-old relic with dingy walls and a bell that no longer works. For six preteens, Dale, Mike, Duane, Kevin, Harlen, and Lawrence, this means two months of freedom to ride their bikes and play baseball and watch old movies in the park. But then their classmate, Tubby Cooke, disappears, and so begins their Summer of Night. Soon, their idyllic summer is haunted by a silent World War I soldier, a rendering truck with seemingly no driver, the corpse of an old schoolteacher, and more. An ancient evil is desperate to be reborn, and it’s up to the boys, with the help of Tubby’s sister Cordie, to stop it.
Since I really like IT, I was drawn to this book, as the whole “group of kids faces an ancient evil but also still manage to have fun times” premise is very similar. This book did not disappoint. It’s equal parts childhood nostalgia and creep-you-out horror. This book delves into the history of the school and the bell (which is pretty significant) and the founding of their town, Elm Haven, which I also found fascinating.
Within These Walls, Ania Ahlborn (2015)
Lucas Graham is offered the story of a lifetime—an interview with death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, a Manson-meets-Jones cult leader who’s never spoken to the press. His career and marriage are over, and his teenage daughter, Violet, hates him. Lucas jumps at the offer, but it comes at a price— for Lucas to even see Halcomb, he’s got to stay in the house where Halcomb’s crimes were committed. Lucas agrees and moves across the country to the split-level, Washington home where Halcomb and his wayward followers first lured then murdered a woman named Audra Snow and then killed themselves. The book is told from Lucas, Violet, and Audra’s points of view. We learn how Audra was drawn to the group and the terror she felt as the group’s actions escalated. We see Lucas and Violet, now living in the murder house (which Violet is clueless about at first), confronting mysterious sounds and shadows in the middle of the night. Is it their imagination, or do Halcomb’s followers still linger within these walls?
This book was stunningly written and creeped me out so much I slept with the light on for a few days (my fiancé was not happy about this). For fans of cults, multiple POVs, and the supernatural.
The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon (2014)
Ruthie and Fawn wake up one morning to discover their mother is missing. As they begin their frantic search, Ruthie discovers the diary of the home’s previous owner, Sarah Harrison Shea. Ruthie gradually gets sucked into Sarah’s diary, which details her anguish over her daughter’s death and her gradual issues with her husband. Sarah died in 1908, but even months after her death, some people in the town swear they see Sarah walking through town at night. As Ruthie and her sister go further down the rabbit hole to find their mother and as Ruthie delves further into Sarah’s diary, they realize that some things don’t stay buried.
This is the first book of Jennifer McMahon’s that I read, and I immediately fell in love. This book is atmospheric; fans of gory horror will want to pass on this. This is another novel that left me with a general creeped-out feeling long after I stopped reading it. If you love missing-person mysteries, people coming back from beyond the grave, and creepy older houses, this book is for you.
A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay (2015)
Fourteen-year-old Marjorie Barrett shows signs of schizophrenia. When medical care proves ineffectual, Marjorie’s parents turn toward the Catholic church, and to Father Wanderly, who is convinced of the girl’s possession. Wanderly contacts a production company who, after hearing about Marjorie’s plight, wants to film the family and the exorcism. With the bills piling up, the Barretts agree to be filmed for the show, The Possession. The book is split between two points of view—Merry, Marjorie’s younger sister, who is now twenty-three and is recounting her experience to a writer, and Karen, a horror blogger who’s doing a review of The Possession fifteen years later. Equally heartbreaking and spooky, A Head Full of Ghosts makes you wonder if possession is really possible, or if mental illness is to blame for Marjorie’s behavior.
I’ve both read the book and listened to the audiobook of this novel. Both are excellent. I don’t typically enjoy novels that rely on ambiguity, but this book is an exception. I was engrossed with this, not just for the spooky “what if” moments, but for the relationship between Marjorie and Merry. As a younger sibling, I can relate to their complex relationship. Fans of possession stories, mysteries, and books rife with social commentary will love this novel.
Of course, there are many more horror novels worth reading, but these are a few of my favorites. What’s your favorite horror novel? Let me know in the comment section below!