6 Free Classic Horror Books to Read on Project Gutenberg

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This horror novel of a year is now winding its way into the hallowed spooky season. If you’re blessed still with the ability to follow a narrative, it’s the perfect time for dark and moody reading. Given the amount of time you may have on your hands, too, it may also be the perfect time to plow through some horror “classics” — the books that influenced all your favorites that came after. 

If that’s the case, Project Gutenberg, the free online library, will be your best friend. Frankenstein is here in its library of more than 60,000 ebooks, as is Dracula. You can work your way through all of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. And you can make a date with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the Headless Horseman. All online, all for free. 

As we know, the “canon” is problematic. Likewise, the public domain works Project Gutenberg collects are overwhelmingly white and Western — especially when it comes to horror. With that disclaimer in mind, Gutenberg’s catalog does house some underappreciated, lesser known gems to give you some old-fashioned frights.


Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu

For everyone who’s read Bram Stoker, consider picking up this deceptively slim vampire story published 25 years before Dracula. Whereas that more famous work is the ultimate bro-down, Le Fanu’s tale has at its main character a teen girl, preyed upon by the titular female vampire. 


The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe

Without a doubt, Gothic horror is my favorite genre flavor, and Udolpho is the prototype. Parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (also available on Project Gutenberg), the plight of Emily St. Aubert, imprisoned by her aunt’s new husband in Castle Udolpho, is a swirling mix of terror, gloom, and romance. 


The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Another Gothic delight, James’s novella revels in its ambiguity: Is this a story of a governess protecting children from phantasmagoric evils? Or is this a story of a governess coming apart at her seams? Either way, it works as a tremendous ghost story. 


Melmoth the Wanderer, Charles Robert Maturin

If you’re a fan of Poe’s stories, consider trying out this forerunner that certainly influenced his brand of macabre. Written by a clergyman and told through nested stories, this is the tale of Melmoth, who strikes a deal with the devil for a longer life — and spends much of that extra time trying to coerce other people into taking his burden. 


The Monkey’s Paw,” W.W. Jacobs

This is one of those stories that’s been told, retold, and adapted so many times that it’s now more a cultural fable than its own unique work of horror. No matter your familiarity with the subject matter, though, the original short story of unintended consequences is well worth a read. 


The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Hysterical? Let Gilman show you hysterical. This short story is a pioneer of American feminist literature, told through its narrator’s journal entries as her mental illness is brushed off by her physician husband and her attentions become fixated on her room’s damned yellow wallpaper. 



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