If you want to get scared this fall, haunted houses and terrifying movies aren’t your only choices. Have you considered immersing yourself in the mind-boggling world of literary horror instead? The genre has terrorized audiences ever since the ancients weaved demons, monsters, and ghosts into their folklore; now it is a bustling literary sector populated by ghosts that are both supernatural and terrifyingly real. We’ve picked ten of our favorite tales to get you started, which feature all the pillars of nocturnal fear you know and love, from witches and zombies to killer clowns.
As obscure as these novels may be, contemporary horror isn’t just about things that happen at night. Through the prism of genre conventions, today’s horror novels reflect the all-too-real horrors of our returning world. From racism to misogyny to sexual predation, these novels prove that the scariest evils we live with every day, not the monsters that drive our nightmares. Read on, if you dare, for a spooky seasonal schedule that will have you thinking long after Halloween. (And if you don’t, fear not, our list of the best books of 2021 is full of offers for all kinds of moods.)
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
What can we say about Frankenstein that hasn’t been repeated a thousand times? Shelley’s landmark work on Gothic horror revolutionized our understanding of artificial life, bewitched generations of readers, and pioneered science fiction as we know it today. That you read Frankenstein before or before reading the novel for the first time, there is always something wonderful to discover in this surprisingly original story of monstrosity, morality and destruction.
Beginner, by Octavia E. Butler
In this mind-boggling novel from the ever-extraordinary butler, we meet Shori, a young injured amnesiac who soon awakens to the reality of her identity: she is, in fact, a genetically engineered vampire. Unlike his blood-sucking brothers, Shori has dark skin, which allows him to walk in the sun. As Shori investigates who she is and who tried to kill her, Butler transcends the vampire genre to ask uncomfortable questions about her mythology. Why do so many vampires have to be white? Why do we romanticize the breaches of consent vampires commit against their victims? You’ll never read a vampire novel the same way again after digesting Beginner.
White is for the witch, by Helen Oyeyemi
In a haunted bed and breakfast on the cliffs of England, lives a teenage girl named Miranda Silver, who suffers from an inherited eating disorder that causes her to eat chalk. Along with her widowed father and twin brother, Miranda operates the bed and breakfast, but it’s no ordinary old house: within these walls live Miranda’s maternal ancestors, a long line of malevolent women who exercise their power. xenophobia on the guests in a frightening and fatal way. . When Miranda falls in love with a black woman, the house goes to great lengths to end the romance, creating a delightfully dark fairy tale about racism, hatred and heartbreak.
Zone 1, by Colson Whitehead
After a zombie pandemic decimates American life, separating humanity into the living and the undead, who is cleaning up the wreckage? In Zone 1, we meet the concierges of the living dead: “sweepers” like Mark Spitz, who are responsible for eliminating the zombie stragglers to prepare Manhattan for relocation. Whitehead’s foray into zombie thrillers offers gallows humor and nightmarish gore in spades; at the same time, this post-apocalyptic elegy for the modern world elevates the genre to new heights.
Interview with the vampire, by Anne Rice
Interview with the vampire, considered by some scholars to be the most important work of vampire literature since Bram Stoker Dracula, is pure fantasy for literary horror lovers. This is the story of Louis du Pointe du Lac, an 18th century planter who becomes a vampire with the fangs of the radiant but mercurial Lestat. When Eternal Life turns to Loneliness, Louis and Lestat transform an orphan girl into their undead companion, but the ramifications of an adult woman’s condemnation to eternal life as a child spread across continents and decades. . In this first of fourteen books in the series, Rice elaborates a sensual fictional dream of immortality, sex and power, all evoked in luscious prose.
Rebecca, by Daphné Du Maurier
“Last night I dreamed I was going to Manderley again.” With this iconic opening line, Du Maurier plunges us into the frightening world of Rebecca, a ghost story haunted by an invisible ghost. When an anonymous young woman marries the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, the newlyweds head to her ancestral estate in Manderley, where they aim to rebuild their lives together. The second Mrs. de Winter soon sees her life dominated by Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, whose memory hovers ominously in every corner of the estate. As the second Mrs. de Winter recreates the secret story of her predecessor, the obsession drives her to the brink of insanity, creating an otherworldly psychological thriller that you can never get rid of.
The only good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones
In this weird, slow-burning horror novel, four young members of the Blackfeet Nation break with a long-standing tradition by entering hunting grounds reserved for the elders of the tribe, where they slaughter a herd of elk. A decade later, their pride returns to haunt them, with a vengeful spirit stalking them one by one to exert its grisly vengeance. Gore, haunting and ultimately hopeful, The only good Indians explores what it means to navigate the world as an Indigenous man, where guilt, shame, and grief are an integral part of life, not only for those who leave the reserve, but for those who stay.
His body and other parts, by Carmen Maria Machado
In this haunting collection of short stories at the intersection of fantasy and fabulism, Machado’s enduring subject is the violence suffered by women’s bodies. In “The Husband Stitch”, Machado offers a macabre reinvention of the familiar fairy tale about a woman who refuses her husband’s pleas to remove a green ribbon from her neck. In “Real Women Have Bodies”, a prom dress shop becomes the site of a horrible discovery about women who have disappeared in the seams of the dresses. Sensual, eerie and disturbing, these stories of bravery concoct a provocative potion of horror, fantasy and science fiction.
This, by Stephen King
Choosing the most gruesome among King’s dozens of scary novels is an impossible task, but here at Squire, the killer clowns won the race. Located in the beloved Derry of King, Maine, This follows the mind-boggling adventures of the Losers Club, a self-proclaimed gang of misfit pre-teens who band together to defeat a sadistic killer clown disguised as their worst nightmares. Juxtaposed against this cosmic wickedness are a myriad of human evils, many of which are arguably more insidious than Pennywise: child abuse, sexual predation, and racism, to name a few. Come for the creature function that shaped a generation of monstrous clowns to come, but stay for the magnum opus of King’s memory, the enduring trauma and the indelible bonds between the children.
Broken monsters, by Lauren Beukes
Broken monsters opens to a corpse, but not just any corpse: the upper body of a boy, affixed to the lower half of a deer. Detective Detective Gabriella Versado has seen aberrant murders before, but her obsessive quest to find this disturbed killer will demand it all. In this polyphonic story with five narrators, we meet haunting characters, like the desperate criminal journalist desperate to get exclusive scoop, and the homeless man wrapped up in the case while struggling to protect his family. Tense and deeply frightening, this tale of intertwined lives and urban decay proves that Beukes is an unstoppable force in the horror genre.
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