If you’re anything like me right now, you have no idea what day it is, when you last washed your hair, or how pants work. Quarantine is messing with our minds in unique ways that will probably be studied by science for decades to come. We’re all experiencing oddly vivid dreams, we’re both tired and keyed up, and scrolling through social media feels like being trapped in a horror movie directed by Jordan Peele.
You might be thinking now is a perfect time to catch up on your book backlog and pick up that horror novel that everyone told you that you just HAD to read. I’m not saying that’s a terrible idea, per se. I’m just saying maybe put down the book about a haunted house while you’re stuck in your own? In fact, let me help you out. For your sanity, here are the five worst books to read during quarantine unless you want to sit up all night worried your house has turned against you or that there’s something outside in the bushes. While they’re excellent horror novels, you might want to set these aside for right now.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
This is one of my favorite books to suggest to people. Everyone comes to me after they’ve read it with just one thing to say: “What the hell was that, Meghan? How could you do that to me?” This fantastic mindbender of a novel just turned twenty years old this year and it’s still scaring the pants off people. House of Leaves is the story of Johnny Truant, a tattooist who stumbles upon the apartment of his dreams. He discovers the deceased owner’s manuscript about a documentary film that may or may not exist, and thus begins Johnny’s descent into madness. He begins to hallucinate, hermit himself away from his work and his friends, and he fixates on the manuscript with the fervor of a priest transcribing religious texts. The house slowly begins to change around him, appearing both bigger and smaller than he remembers, causing a claustrophobic dread that is a palpable physical sensation to the reader.
The book is utterly unique in how it’s structured. You have to see it to believe it. This is a book that should only be read in its physical form (and, in fact, is not available as an ebook). Different characters “speak” in different fonts, certain words begin to show up in different colors, and there are footnotes upon footnotes everywhere. The words twist and mesh together on the page, showing up in the margins, and it lends the entire story this heavy air of madness and unease. Turning the page and seeing a word in blue or red is a shot of straight adrenaline into the bloodstream.
I can’t in good conscience let you read this terrific, horrifying novel while you’re at home. Especially if you’re alone. Unless you like sleeping with the light on…
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This short story is a classic of English literature, and I implore you not to read it right now. Trust me, this one gave me nightmares. Written in 1892, this story is considered to be an early work of feminist fiction and is also terrifying as all get-out. The story is about an unnamed woman and her husband who rent a house in the country so she can recuperate after experiencing “temporary hysteria” after giving birth. (Today we know her condition to be post-partum depression.)
Put on a strict regimen of bed rest, our protagonist begins to slowly go insane while trapped in her room. She’s not allowed to leave and she’s forbidden from doing anything “strenuous” such as reading or writing letters. We slowly learn she’s been imprisoned in the room as she realizes the bed is bolted to the floor and there are bars on the windows. In her increasing madness the awful, sickly yellow wallpaper begins to mutate and shift, revealing terrible patterns and a woman seemingly trapped inside. Desperate, our protagonist rips down the wallpaper, trying to free her, as she suffers a total mental breakdown.
This story has been used for years as a way to show the mistreatment of women under patriarchal Victorian medical practices and the societal standards of the day, but it’s also just a damn creepy story. You can viscerally feel the narrator losing her grip on reality and the horror that the people trying to cure her are actually making everything worse and refusing to listen to her.
It’s a skin-crawling work that should give anyone who is feeling a little stir-crazy pause. I beg of you not to read it right now, when you haven’t left the house in weeks, lest your own wallpaper starts taking on a life of its own.
The Twisted Ones, T. Kingfisher
Perhaps you are quarantined at home in a more rural area. You have a big yard to relax in, perhaps a lovely nearby forest to walk through. That’s awesome! I just hope there are no deer monsters hiding in the trees or anything. Just a random thought. No reason. Keeping walking outside, I’m sure it’s fine.
T. Kingfisher has written the scariest novel I’ve read in years and it could not be a worse thing for you to read if you live in a less urban space. It’s well written, oddly hilarious, and completely freakin’ terrifying. We follow protagonist Mouse, who has been sent into the middle of nowhere to clear out her deceased hoarder grandmother’s house. It’s a grueling task, but Mouse has her trusty hound Bongo with her and gets to take a break from city life on a picturesque, wooded piece of land. Everything’s going fine until she discovers a strange journal written by her step-grandfather and catches horrifying glimpses of something unnatural in the trees. Soon she’s being hunted by creatures cobbled together from bones and eldritch forces that want her alive for a horrible purpose.
I loved this book and I definitely think you should read it. Just not right now. I don’t live anywhere near a forest and I still felt sick with fear at night thinking I could hear things outside my bedroom window. This book will make you want to barricade your front door and turn on every light in your house. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if you lived in a more rural area, especially with lots of trees, where anything could be hiding and you can’t escape because of stay at home orders.
The Stand, Stephen King
Listen, I’m not saying that Stephen King can see into the future but I’m not NOT saying it, either. What proof do I have? Well, let me present Exhibit A, his 1978 masterpiece of dystopian pandemic fiction, The Stand. Now, Mr. King and I have never quite gotten on. I’ve tried to read many of his novels and never really connected with them. But he happens to be one of my father’s favorite authors, and The Stand is the book he loves the most. Since my father kept shouting “It’s just like The Stand!” at talking heads on MSNBC, I decided to break down, borrow his copy, and see what all the fuss was about. I tell you this so you don’t make the same mistake I did. After the first few chapters I carefully put the book aside, sat in silence for a few hours, and then googled how to make wards against Stephen King for my house. He knows too much!
My father is right, though, (but don’t tell him I said that). The Stand feels eerily prescient of our current global pandemic, so much so that I was honestly gobsmacked. The novel details the creation of a super flu by the US Department of Defense (always a bad idea) that escapes from the lab and goes on to kill almost all of humanity. It’s stuffed full of terrible human suffering, a thick layer of dread, and also the near-mundanity of daily survival. The book goes off the rails a little in the ways only a King novel can (there’s a nuclear explosion!) and it feels like someone mixed together all the most horrifying parts of The Walking Dead and the Fallout video game series into one huge doorstop of a novel. It’s an impressive work which left me shaken.
Maybe a horror novel about a global pandemic is the wrong thing to read during a global pandemic. I’m just throwing that out there. How about another one of King’s novels, like The Shining? Wait, no, we’re all still quarantined at home and the last thing you need is an Overlook Hotel breakdown. Okay, how about some of his short fiction like “The Langoliers”? Wait, they’re all about frightening events like the disappearance of humanity? *shakes fist at the sky* KING!
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is one of the best horror writers of all time and that’s precisely why you should not grab a copy of The Haunting of Hill House right now. I mean, unless you like thinking your house is full of ghosts. I don’t know your life. Personally, ghosts scare the bejeezus out of me so you could not pay me enough to re-read this beloved classic while I’m slowly getting cabin fever at home. It’s one of my favorites and that’s exactly why I’m asking you to put it down, step away, maybe rewatch The Office or something. Anything except reading about the terrible, notorious Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House is a masterclass in horror writing. It’s deeply unsettling and makes you question everything the characters see or experience. Helmed by a supernaturalist wanting to discover the truth of the unknown, the characters isolate themselves in the mansion and start having frightening experiences. They begin to hear screams and cries in the night, blood mysteriously appears on walls, and there is a presence standing just outside their bedroom doors every night. It’s everything from your worst nightmares in one fantastic novel. It’s a story that loves to raise the stakes, and every brush with the supernatural feels creepier and creepier until you genuinely start to believe that your own house might be haunted as well. Reading the novel is like injecting pure anxiety into your bloodstream and there are many scenes that still feature front and center in some of my nightmares.
I care about you, reader. Now more than ever I want you to be healthy and safe. Therefore I can’t let you read one of the best haunted house novels of all time. I certainly can’t also suggest you check out the amazing Netflix series as well. You don’t want to do that. Trust me. Office reruns, that’s where it’s at. Nothing spooky about The Office.
There are many other horror stories you should avoid right now (such as Max Brook’s hair raising faux-documentary novel World War Z or Edgar Allan Poe’s enraging “The Masque of the Red Death”) but these five should really be at the top of your list to read after things settle down. Each book is scarier than the last and is guaranteed to keep you up at night. I’m warning you because I care about you and I want you to be safe. Wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay six feet apart unless you want to be six feet under. And someone tell Stephen King to give me next week’s lotto numbers.