Halloween is over, but there’s still plenty of time to reach for a creepy read! Whether your taste runs to the psychological, the spectral, the gothic, or the weird, here’s a list of books that you may not want to curl up with so much as cower from. Pumpkin spice latte optional…
A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay
This is easily one of the finest horror books I’ve ever read, and definitely one of the most unsettling stories I’ve read in a long, long time. Meredith “Merry” Barrett recounts her childhood growing up in New England with an older sister, Marjorie, who may be developing schizophrenia, may be possessed by an evil spirit or who may be playing her own game for the priest and camera crew that is brought into film her exorcism. Young Merry knows only that she loves her big sister and her confusion and skepticism fill her narrative with heartbreaks, especially as her parents are overwhelmed by the family crisis.
Reality TV criticism, feminist horror commentary, and time shifts are smartly intertwined with the story of Marjorie’s exorcism, all chapters meticulously plotted to create an ever-growing state of pure dread for Merry and her family. Tremblay is supremely gifted at evoking empathy and pure terror in equal measure and A Head Full of Ghosts winds its way towards an ending so unthinkably upsetting and ambiguous — and so absolutely perfect and memorable — you’ll immediately want to read it again from your new perspective.
But you don’t have to take my word for it: take Stephen King’s. This is an essential read in contemporary horror.
Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas
Undertow Press, publisher of the highly -acclaimed Year’s Best Weird collections has had a year of successful releases. This particular Shirley Jackson Award-winning anthology is, as the title suggests, stories in the vein of Robert Aickman, a British author of the supernatural who published the bulk of his work in the mid-20th century. Aickman is a writer’s writer, no doubt, likely less familiar these days to the casual horror reader, but those who enjoy their fiction a bit gothic, a bit more subtle, and a lot more mystifying are well-advised to seek out Aickman’s story collections.
So how does Aickman’s Heirs read for someone who has never read much of the source inspiration? Well, the anthology is itself filled with stories of a subtle, strange, subversive bent from speculative luminaries including Brian Evenson, John Langan, Lisa Tuttle and more. Of particular note are Brian Evenson’s opener “Seaside Town,” which perfectly captured what I think of as Aickman’s matter-of-fact voice when relating unfamiliar people and the incomprehensible warping of time under duress. Surprisingly not incomprehensible was Michael Cisco’s “Infestations” a uniquely linear story from an author definitely not lauded for such. It’s a melancholy gem like “Infestations,” concerning a woman haunted by a drowned lover, that makes me appreciate the restrictions a good theme anthology can place on authors and Strantzas, himself a Shirley Jackson Award winner, has crafted a creepy and curious collection for long, dark nights.
Skein and Bone, V.H. Leslie
Continuing its fascination with the gothic, Undertow Press also released this eye-catching debut collection from British author Leslie. Leslie’s fiction has appeared in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015, Interzone, The Year’s Best British Horror 2014, and many more. Fourteen stories range from the haunting “Namesake” to the cosmic “The Cloud Cartographer” with lyrical ease. A few standout stories include “Ulterior Design,” a wicked and clever story of domesticity and the title story, about two sisters in France discovering mysterious relics to deadly effect. Leslie is a master of realizing landscapes both external and personal, and all the darkness that can be contained therein.
States of Terror Vol. 2, edited by Matt E. Lewis, Keith McCleary, and Adam Miller
Eighteen monstrous tales of the dark, the bizarre, and the mythical round out this collection from newcomer Ayahuasca Publishing. As with Vol. 1, States of Terror focuses on regional folklore, of varying levels of notoriety. I immediately went to the section for The West because I like that sort of thing and found a wonderfully evocative story in “Field Manual” by JS Breukelaar, centered around an uneasy post-war peace, an uneasier love triangle, and the rather grisly stillbirth of something vengeful and sad. Also enjoyable was Amber Sparks’ “Friends with the Moon,” about a distant relative of The Mothman. From gator-men in Louisiana, jackalopes in Wyoming, Idaho wolves, or truly odd Melonheads (what the hell is a Melonhead?) in New Jersey, States of Terror Vol. 2 is a good mix of newer and more established names, not unlike the monsters themselves.
Daughters Unto Devils, Amy Lukavics
Don’t let the Harlequin Teen label fool you, this distressing debut from Amy Lukavic is definitely very adult in nature. Think Little House on the Prairie by way of Stephen King and you’ll get an idea of what this page-turner is like. Set during the turn-of-the-century, sixteen-year-old Amanda Verner is hoping to move on from a difficult winter which saw the birth of a sister she can’t stand, a terrible case of cabin fever, and memories of the boy whose baby she now carries. When her family moves to a cabin better suited to withstand the harsh weather and to start fresh, they move heedless into somewhere, something, even more terrible.
Amanda is a sympathetic voice, thrilling at her sexuality while being dangerously obsessed with her perceived sins. Is it the state of her soul infecting her family with tragedy or is it the land itself that is rotten? Lukavic keeps you in the grips of her taut, clear prose until the very last.
Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Tor.com