People often ask us what should they read in October so we thought it would be fun to share our top ten scariest books for Halloween (or any time of the year for that matter!). Most of these are unsettling titles that we have both read over the years – sometimes on multiple occasions – so these choices have been made by dual consensus.
Our tastes veer towards supernatural horror and ghost stories – the type that makes you hide under the bedclothes and not want to look outside at night, but we’ve also included science-fiction and gothic titles that make you think. Fear comes in many forms and sometimes it’s good to confront it, if only to remind yourself about what really matters in the world.
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Don’t be fooled by the soft-focus cover design. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is one of the most chilling ghost stories we’ve ever read. It follows Jack, an office clerk, as he commits to staying in an isolated Arctic camp on his own for a year.
This compact historical supernatural is immersive and claustrophic. As the days darken, Jack begins to experience strange visions and has a sense that someone or something may be watching him from the shadows. The pacing is nail-bitingly tense, the horror insiduous. You’ll want to keep the lights on after you’ve finished it.
Shirley Jackson is a goddess of weird, but The Haunting of Hill House has to be her scariest book. This slim tale opens with a deceptively whimsical tone including the famous quote ‘She wants her cup of stars.’ but the fairytale rapidly crumbles when the timid main character, Eleanor travels to the eerie Hill House and is seduced by its grim charms. This is a story that combines nostalgia, passion and evil in a horrific sickly sweet way – a confection with rot at its core.
I deliberately haven’t watched the TV series firstly because it’s so far removed from the original book and secondly because it’s just too terrifying!
The Turn of the Screw is an 1898 horror novella which has had a lasting influence on the genre. Although readers have a love/hate relationship with it because of James’ long-winded writing style, its premise is utterly chilling. Adapted for screen twice, it follows a governess as she takes charge of two precocious children who exhibit disturbing behaviour that might – or might not be caused by supernatural forces.
The Turn of the Screw is highly disquieting on many levels. You are never sure exactly what is happening or whether many of the events are in the mind of the observer. Expect anxiety.
If you’re looking for an atmospheric pageturner without a paranormal element then Rebecca will fit your requirements. Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel takes place at the now iconic estate of Manderley as the newly-married Mrs de Winter attempts to discover the mystery behind the death of her husband’s first wife. This is a haunting of a different kind. Full of twists, turns and sinister characters, the book is expertly paced.
It’s also worth reading this now in advance of the Netflix adaptation starring Armie Hammer and Lily James which is due to air 21 October.
The Road is a dystopian novel which follows the journey of one man and his teenage son as they try to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. There’s no doubt that this is a masterpiece, but it will also fill you with fear and sadness. There are no mystical terrors. Every evil act in this book is inflicted by humans which makes it one of the darkest inclusions on this list. Nevertheless, it’s an important read and one which will make you consider what type of world you want to live in (note there is hope too!).
The most playful of all these Halloween reads, The Dumas Club (or The Club Dumas) is ideal for bibliophiles. Book dealer, Lucas Corso sets off on a quest to find valuable books, a rare partial manuscript of The Three Musketeers and copies of a text which is said to summon the devil. Aside from the many literary references, witchcraft and demonology weave through the story making it distinctly unnerving.
This book can be make or break depending on your interest in The Three Musketeers. If you prefer a version without this element then you might want to watch the movie version, The Ninth Gate which omits this entire plotline!
Salem’s Lot takes the vampire myth and transplants it to twentieth century America with petrifying effect. Ben Mears, a writer, returns to his childhood town and finds himself in a war against vampires who are taking over the locals.
This is as much about the dark secrets that lurk in the hearts of communities as it is about supernatural creatures. King writes about manipulation and shows what strength is takes to avoid being corrupted. A novel for our times.
Be careful what you wish for. When 11-year-old Coraline discovers a door that takes her to an oddly similar world that promises more fun that she’s ever dreamed of, her expectations quickly begin to take a nasty turn. Featuring the warped Other Mother and a cast of crooked characters, Coraline explores conceptions of parenthood and family, possession and trust. Of all Neil Gaiman’s work, this one might have to be one of his scariest books for Halloween.
(This was a total family choice because Little M loves the movie version!)
As the strapline says, The Woman in Black is the classic English Ghost Story. Some may debate this, especially as Susan Hill has obviously reworked ideas from the most famous British ghost writer of all, M.R. James, but this gothic novel left us looking over our shoulders for days after we finished the story. The book is narrated by solicitor Arthur Kipps as he tells of his encounters with the mysterious woman in black after going to settle the estate at the isolated Eel Marsh House. The suspense builds as Kipps begins to witness strange occurrences which finally culminate in a malevolent and tragic ending.
I would also recommend seeing the play and the BBC film of The Woman in Black. As much as we love Daniel Radcliffe the more recent movie adaptation was no way as scary as the original.
If you haven’t read Frankenstein yet, we urge you to bump this up your Halloween list. It may not have the fright factor that modern novels possess, but it’s themes are as anxiety-inducing as ever. Most of us know the rough plot – Victor Frankenstein creates the ‘monster’ from body parts and then spends the rest of his life fleeing his creation – but the book sheds a completely different light on the popular myth. This is about what it means to be accepted as a human; about the dangers of messing with the unknown. It is staggering that we are still grappling with the same issues of acceptance 200 years on. Frankenstein will break your heart if you let it.
There are many more terrifying novels out there which are possibly even more frightening that this Halloween book selection, but if so, we’re not sure we’d read them. Our nerves can only take so much! However, we may well add to this as we discover other spooky reads.
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