There are many ways to get into a spooky mood around Halloween. One of the best is reading a good horror book.
When you’re truly engrossed in a good book, it has a way of monopolizing your attention and transporting you into the story in a way other mediums just can’t. This isn’t to mention that reading is really healthy for you. To help you get into the Halloween spirit, we’ll discuss some of our favorite classic horror novels and short stories.
For this list, we’ll be focusing on classics. To give a fair cutoff date, we’ll be considering anything that was published before 1980. We’ll also include a maximum of two entries per author, otherwise it’d be easy to have a full list of H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King, for example. Speaking of Stephen King…
1. The Shining by Stephen King
While many will know The Shining from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie masterpiece, it’s actually an adaptation of a 1977 Stephen King novel. If you’ve seen the movie, don’t let that keep you from reading the book, as there are vast differences between the two (spoilers). Not only is the book more overtly supernatural, but Jack Torrance is also a much more sympathetic character with a deeply human arc that makes the book worth reading on its own. After reading the book, you’ll never look at topiary the same way again.
2. The Howling by Gary Brandner
Another book that was adapted to the screen, Gary Brandner’s 1977 classic The Howling isn’t your average werewolf horror story. Instead, The Howling is grounded in very real traumas suffered by the main character, Karyn Beatty, as well as the isolation and strain it puts on her marriage. With the backdrop of a growing unease that she is surrounded and alone, she starts hearing mysterious howling outside the new house she shares with her husband. At just around 200 pages, The Howling goes by surprisingly quick despite its slow burn in tension, making it a great weekend read. Just make sure to avoid the woods for a little while after, and your neighbors, for that matter.
3. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales by W.B. Yeats
From two more modern classics on this list to its oldest, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales is a collection of Irish folk tales by legendary author W.B. Yeats. Collected in order to keep the spirit of his home alive, Yeats cobbled together a group of stories that are, at times, epic, funny, mischievous, or outright terrifying. For the Halloween-focused, the book contains stories about banshees, ghosts, devils, and the creatures that kept the original celebrants of Halloween terrified of the shadows at night.
4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
We’ve previously written about our love of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, but without it, the genre of horror, books, or movies would be unrecognizable. If you haven’t read Dracula yet, you simply must. It’s not just the inspiration for a classic Hollywood monster. The book itself is about the dark, pervading terror of facing off against an unknowable, unbeatable malevolence. The storytelling style, as told through journals and correspondences of the main characters, is a genius way to humanize the characters, evolve the story, and make it feel real for the reader. Simply put, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a story that’s bloody brilliant and still holds up.
5. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
If Dracula is where the modern world met vampires, Stephen King’s 1975 book ‘Salem’s Lot is their next evolution. As with King’s other books, ‘Salem’s Lot is eminently readable, never plodding along or boring. At a time when vampires became romantic symbols or even a bit campy, King’s vampire reminds us of their terrifying, dangerous origins. Much like Stoker’s Dracula, the heroes of ‘Salem’s Lot are always on the backfoot, struggling to survive against a foe that is always one step ahead. Where Count Dracula is aristocratic and darkly charismatic at times, Kurt Barlow is menacing, corpselike, and openly threatening.
6. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Though first released in 1999 (falling after our cutoff date), Penguin Classic’s seminal collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories includes works that were all published between 1919 and 1936. Unlike any of the other entries on this list, Lovecraft’s unique genre of horror leans into the cosmic terror of the unknown, the existential insignificance of mankind, and the thin wall between sanity and insanity. While literal studies have been written about Lovecraft’s horror and his influence on modern horror, you can enjoy his fiction safe in the knowledge that it isn’t the monsters that will stick with you but the lingering themes of his stories.
7. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
If you’re looking for a change of pace, Ray Bradbury’s 1962 classic Something Wicked This Way Comes straddles the line between horror and dark fantasy. This coming-of-age story centers on two friends, Will and Jim, as a mysterious carnival comes into town. While the book has classic themes of good versus evil, temptation, and acceptance — of the self, aging, and others — the tone and mood are all Halloween. It’s a lightly nightmarish journey that’s set around Halloween and perfect to share with younger family members.
8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Three guests join a paranormal researcher to investigate the famously haunted Hill House. As the quartet’s experiences grow in intensity, one guest seems to be the focus, growing a little too close to the house. What follows is a modern masterpiece of Gothic horror. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 The Haunting of Hill House is the quintessential haunted house story. Harnessing some of her own anxieties, Jackson weaves a tale of growing unease and terror that caused ripples of influence throughout the genre. This horror classic was also adapted many times for the stage, film, and as a season of Netflix’s The Haunting series.
9. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Another story that has been adapted in Netflix’s The Haunting series, The Turn of the Screw, is an 1898 novella by Henry James. Set in a country estate in Bly, Essex, a young governess is asked to take care of two children at the manor. It’s not long before she begins seeing mysterious figures on the grounds who have a special focus on the children. What do these spirits want with the children, and is this all happening in her own head? One of the lasting appeals of this story is its openness to your interpretation. Wherever you fall, the story is no less atmospheric or frightening.
10. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
Whether the events that occurred in the book are true or not, 1977’s The Amityville Horror and its film were almost immediately smash successes. Whether it was the “true” nature of the story or the truly memorable hauntings, The Amityville Horror continues to scare readers to this day. After Ronald DeFeo murders his family (the true horror of the Amityville house), the Lutz family is able to afford the house for an amazing deal. Only a month later, the family is forced to flee the home in terror. The book recounts the experiences that drove the family out as the hauntings turn brutal and demonic. Discover what many consider one of the iconic American ghost stories, if you’re comfortable sleeping with the lights on.
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The best way to celebrate Halloween is to fully dive into the spooky spirit, and one of the best ways to do that is with a good book or two. Whether October has just started or Halloween is next week (or if you never really get out of the Halloween mood), these are horror novels that have stood the test of time. You can find them online, at a bookstore, or, in many cases, at your local library. You may just have a frighteningly good time.