Weird movies and scary hay rides aren’t the only things that will make you scream this fall. Have you thought about going into the scary world of literature? The genre has been scaring people since the ancients used demons, monsters, and ghosts in their folklore. Now, it’s a lively literary field that’s filled with scary characters both supernatural and real. We’ve chosen more than a dozen of our favorite scary stories to get you started. They include witches, zombies, and killer clowns, as well as things you haven’t even thought of before.
If these books are full of the supernatural, modern horror isn’t just about things that go bump in the night. It also has a lot to do with the supernatural. Today’s horror novels look back at us through the lens of genre conventions. They show us the real-life horrors of our world. From racism to misogyny to sexual abuse, these books show that the most frightening evils are the ones we face every day, not the monsters that haunt our dreams. Make your way through this scary-season syllabus and keep your mind going long after Halloween. (And if you don’t, don’t worry, our best books of 2021 list has something for everyone.)
Reprieve, by James Han Mattson
April 1997 is the last room in the Quigley House, which is a “full contact” haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska. Four people have made it to the end. If they can make it through the home’s six rooms of ghoulish horror without yelling “reprieve,” they’ll get a big cash prize. Not everyone will make it out alive. It takes a lot of work for Reprieve to figure out who killed one of its contestants when a man broke into Quigley House and killed one of the people who lived there. This is how Mattson makes a nail-biting horror story, but he also blames us for our love of horror. So, too, does the novel make us think about how racism, prejudice, and complicity are more frightening and deadly than anything that goes bump in the night. Reprieve is a movie that will stay with you for a long time.
A Cosmology of Monsters, by Shaun Hamill
Stephen King meets H.P. Lovecraft in this spooky debut novel about a family of haunted house owners who are terrorized by monsters that aren’t the kind that make you jump out of your seat. Hamill has written a scary book that will stay with you for a long time. In this book, the specters of ambition, obsession, and loss are just as scary as the flesh-and-blood monsters.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
If you’ve seen the Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House and haven’t read the source material, which many say is the best haunted house story ever written, it’s time to start reading The Haunting of Hill House. In this creepy classic, written by the queen of creep, four people go to the dilapidated Hill House, where spooky things happen all the time, to take part in a parapsychological study. A big part of Jackson’s genius is how she makes connections between the haunted houses and the haunted minds. This leads to a memorable ending. You can read The Haunting of Hill House whether you’re a first-time reader or a die-hard Jackson fan. It’s still a great book about scary stories.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in Mexico in the 1950s, Mexican Gothic starts with a letter from a newlywed who says her husband is poisoning her and “fleshless things” won’t let her go, so she writes to her cousin. Noemi, who is both glamorous and tough, goes to High Place, the country home of Catalina’s new husband, Virgil Doyle, to look into it. She meets the “essentially macabre” Doyle family, which is made up of English aristocrats who moved to the mining town where High Place is located, and their terrifying patriarch, a cruel eugenicist. Ghosts and violence start to frighten Noemi. She and Catalina plan to run away together, but High Place won’t let them go so quickly. Moreno-Garcia does Gothic horror at its best in this dreadful and enthralling book, but he also adds a brilliant layer about racism and colonialism to it.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Is there anything else you can say about Frankenstein that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? Shelley’s work of Gothic horror changed our understanding of artificial life, enchanted generations of readers, and set the stage for science fiction as we know it today. Whether you’ve read Frankenstein before or you’re reading it for the first time, there’s always something new and wonderful to find in this story of monstrosity, morality, and destruction.
Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler
In this mind-boggling book by the always-extraordinary Butler, we meet Shori, a young girl who lost her memory after being hit by a car. She soon learns that she is, in fact, a genetically modified vampire. Like her bloodsucking relatives, Shori has dark skin, so she can walk in the sun. As Shori tries to figure out who she is and who tried to kill her, Butler moves beyond the vampire genre to ask uncomfortable questions about the mythology of the vampire. Why do so many vampires have to have white skin? Why do we make fun of the ways that vampires break their victims’ rules of consent? After reading Fledgling, you’ll never read a vampire book the same way again.
White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
In a haunted bed and breakfast on the cliffs of England, there is a teenage girl named Silver who has an eating disorder that makes her eat chalk. Miranda runs the bed and breakfast with the help of her father, who has died, and her twin brother. But this isn’t just any old house: inside these walls live Miranda’s maternal ancestors, a long line of evil women who use their xenophobia on guests in frightful and fatal ways. When a white man falls in love with a black woman, the house goes to violent lengths to stop the relationship, setting up a dark fairy tale about racism, hate, and grief.
Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
After a zombie pandemic wipes out all of the living people in the United States, who cleans up the mess? There are “sweepers,” like Mark Spitz, who clean up after the dead. They have to get rid of any zombies that are still around so that Manhattan can be rebuilt. Whitehead’s zombie thrillers are full of gallows humor and nightmare gore. At the same time, this post-apocalyptic elegy for the modern world takes the genre to new heights.
Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice
Interview With the Vampire, which some people think is the most important vampire book since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a fantasy for people who like scary literature. A plantation owner in the 1800s named Louis du Pointe du Lac is turned into a vampire by the fangs of Lestat. When eternal life gets lonely, Louis and Lestat turn an orphaned girl into their undead companion. But the consequences of giving an adult woman eternal life as a child spread across continents and decades. This is what happened in the book. There are 14 more books to come. In the first of these books, Rice makes up an imaginary world where people can live for ever and be sexy and powerful. All of this is written in luscious prose.