Halloween looms like so many ghouls in a graveyard! To get in the mood, fans of all things creepy and crawly curl up with some hot apple cider (Or tea. Or coffee. Or you get the idea.) and soak up some of literature’s most intense offerings. Horror piques something primitive, adrenaline-fueled, and visceral within us, and even the most pants-poopingly scary jawdropper keeps us begging for MORE, MORE, MORE! Here’s some of that more for you.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole:
The literati generally consider The Castle of Otranto the first novel of the gothic genre, whose deeply psychological tones and darkly anxious atmospheres continue deeply impacting horror on the whole today. And what a way to kick everything off! Spooky, foreboding castles. Curses. Prophecies. Murder. Secret identities. All the intense ingredients that have challenged readers to explore the portions of their minds (and the minds of others) that harbor ugliness since gothic horror launched.
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu:
Count Dracula might be the most famous figure in vampire literature of all time, but Carmilla appeared a quarter of a century sooner; in fact, author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu actually established many of the familiar narrative tropes related to the entire subgenre of horror. Like sleeping in a coffin and doctors of the occult sent in intending to unwrap the surrealities of reality. Beautiful and seductive, the eponymous monster routinely preys upon and traumatizes a little girl, all while disguising herself as a cherished playmate.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley:
Horror collides with science fiction in one of British literature’s most provocative (not to mention influential) dissections of what it means to be human and how ambition occasionally leads to corruption. Though considered an abomination, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is far more pitiable than truly horrifying; in fact, Victor’s toying with reanimated flesh and subsequent rejection of a new being with his own feelings and desires makes him the truly terrifying figure here. After all, we need to be loved just like everybody else does.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft:
Really, most of H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre could work here! At the Mountains of Madness, however, almost perfectly embodies everything the author eventually garnished such acclaim over. Miskatonic University researchers, references to The Necronomicon, and Shoggoths populate this chilling (pun absolutely intended) story of scientists discovering some unearthly truths during an Antarctic expedition. Fans (not believers) of conspiracy theories involving alien interactions with ancient peoples particularly will find this novella a riveting and strange delight.
Carrie by Stephen King:
Stephen King’s first novel — an epistolary outline of a teenage girl’s pyrokinetic breakdown — remains one of his most timely and socially provocative. With bullying finally receiving widespread attention as a genuine problem rather than “just how kids are,” Carrie seems remarkably contemporary as it illustrates the overboiling frustration of constant unaddressed harassment; not to mention the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual abuse the central character receives at home. For any student feeling marginalized and helpless amongst peers and/or family members who just won’t leave them alone, Carrie Walsh provides a safe, legal, and relatively healthy outlet for channeling their fears.
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin:
Few things prove more effectively terrifying than the idea of completely losing your autonomy; it’s an understandably common plot, one rife with potential directions. Ira Levin took inspiration from the nascent second wave of feminism and wrapped his essential horror novel (we would’ve also accepted Rosemary’s Baby as an answer) around anxieties experienced by postwar women desiring more life options than housewife, mother, and secretary looking to become a housewife and mother. After moving to Stepford, an independent woman named Joanne finds herself growing more and more suspicious of her submissive contemporaries and the secret men’s club claiming her husband’s time.
Dracula by Bram Stoker:
Like we said before, Carmilla is technically how contemporary vampire media more or less started. But Bram Stoker’s Dracula still possesses the greater degree of pop cultural awareness. To put it mildly. Because so much of the original story has been toyed with and parodied over time, anyone interested in horror and vampires should head back to the source and learn what the author originally had in mind. Specifically, a warning that Victorian women should probably stop with the whole embracing their inherent sexuality thing, because it pretty much makes them wanton, bloodthirsty, undead monsters. Oh my.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:
Great horror obviously doesn’t have to involve vampires or interdimensional eldritch horrors or just people in general. Ghosts and demons work just as well! This National Book Award finalist follows four individuals as they determine the supernatural status of a creepy old mansion. Imagination and reality begin blurring together, with the inhabitants wondering if they’re genuinely encountering something surreal or succumbing to a psychosomatic madness. The ambiguity of it all only adds to the novel’s overarching fearfulness.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty:
Undeniably the quintessential novel regarding demonic possession, William Peter Blatty researched real-life claims of the phenomenon to craft one of literature’s more queasy horror stories. A little girl’s increasingly erratic mental and behavioral state absolutely mystifies medical science, and it might be the responsibility of nearby Jesuits to cure her. One currently struggles with his own faith in any sort of higher power or religious beings, adding another layer of psychological intensity and dread to the proceedings.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks:
The Walking Dead comic on which the beloved AMC show bases itself beat Mel Brooks’ son to the current zombie craze by three years, but World War Z (and its predecessor by the same author, The Zombie Survival Handbook) managed to give it the momentum needed to absolutely explode. Part sociopolitical commentary, part rip-‘em-up war story, this novel proves that even incredibly visual, visceral monsters like zombies can still terrorize audiences on the printed page. Famously, Max Brooks researched all the politics, economics, weapons, and survival skills included in the narrative and depicted them with absolute reality; aside from the zombie part, everything is as accurate as possible.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Long before Fight Club, the idea of an id-driven alter-ego (oh, yeah, spoilers for a 126-year-old novel and all that) already plagued bibliophiles. Dr. Jekyll’s struggle with dissociative identity disorder — brought about because of his scientific curiosity — slowly begins consuming his ego and superego in a gradual and shocking display of losing the very core of what makes a human a human. Don’t worry. We’re not ruining the story here. After all, “Jekyll and Hyde” is a commonly used entry in the English idiomatic vernacular.
Blindness by Jose Saramago:
Following an outbreak of … uhhhh … blindness in their metropolitan area, a small throng struggles to survive in a collapsing society thanks to one of the only individuals fortunate enough to not lose her sight. Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago ratchets up the panic as the epidemic swells and those in power attempt to address it. Squalid conditions, disease, and bureaucratic incompetence perpetuate psychological torment even more than the horrendous physical decay surrounding them.
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe:
Horror buffs who enjoy their tales of terror splashed with a little romantic intrigue might want to check out this gothic classic of a young, adventurous woman who, by chance, manages to meet her true love along the way. But once she finds herself an orphan, she must live amongst apathetic, even abusive, family. Can she return to her beloved? Will she be forced to marry an overbearing count? Will she eventually lose her land holdings? It’s a swashbuckling horror story with all the requisite violence and drama one would expect from the woman who eventually inspired Jane Austen.