7 Haunting Books for Halloween Nightmares
Shaun Hamill, author of "A Cosmology of Monsters," recommends spine-tingling horror stories
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I’ve been hooked on tales about things that go bump in the night since I was in third grade. I cut my teeth on Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammel’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I was shepherded across the untidy years of puberty by Stephen King’s Loser’s Club and Anne Rice’s pansexual vampires, and I spent many a happy summer vacation working my way through Blockbuster Video’s horror section. It should come as no surprise, then, that I eventually decided to write a scary story of my own.
That story, A Cosmology of Monsters, seemed like a simple enough proposition at the outset: a multi-generational saga about a Texas family running a haunted house and struggling with monsters both literal and symbolic. But as I began to write the novel and became acquainted with my characters, I realized that my story was in deep conversation with the tropes and history of horror. Since I’d always been more of a dilettante than die-hard horror geek, I knew needed to research my subject further. All this homework gave me (and by extension, my characters) a strong awareness of the horror tradition, and made Cosmology into a book that knowingly subverts and celebrates its antecedents.
During my research, I kept my eye out for new horror fiction at the libraries and bookstores I frequented, but I rarely saw much I hadn’t already heard of. There were the big names, like Lauren Beukes and Joe Hill, and a couple of anthologies in the sci-fi section, but I wanted more. Lord knew there were no shortages of mystery and sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks, so where was all the horror? Was it gone?
In late 2016, I stumbled across a list of the 2016 Bram Stoker Awards winners, the annual awards given out by the Horror Writers’ Association. I started looking up the titles and authors listed, and discovered, to my delight, that the horror world was alive and well, but coming mostly from smaller independent presses. It had left the chain bookstores and moved underground. I bought some books from the list, and, to my delight, found exactly what I had been missing in my reading diet.
Since we’re nearing Halloween, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite horror releases of the last several years. These books run the gamut from relatively well-known to downright obscure; their contents similarly range from heartwarming to moody to terrifying. No matter where your tastes fall, I hope there’s something here for you to read while you enjoy that pumpkin spice latte or bag of candy corn.
I Wish I Was Like You by S.P. Miskowski
This short horror novel tells the story of the ghost of a failed writer trying to solve her own murder in grunge-era Seattle. I defy anyone not to fall in love with Greta, a narrator who is bracingly honest, wryly funny, and deeply sad.
The Fisherman by John Langan
Like Miskowski’s book, The Fisherman is also short, and helped along by an engaging narrator—an elderly widower on a fishing trip who is granted an unsettling peek behind the veil of our everyday existence. To say more would ruin the fun. This novel won the 2016 Bram Stoker prize for best novel, and it’s easy to see why.
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron
Some cosmic horror writers set up camp in H.P. Lovecraft’s sandbox and play there for the rest of their careers. Laird Barron went a step further and created a cosmos of his own, hardboiled, mean-spirited, and deeply disturbing. All his books are worth reading, but this first collection of short stories is an excellent place to start your acquaintance.
Experimental Film by Gemma Files
If Marisha Pessl’s Night Film was your kind of book, you’ll love this found footage tale about a down-on-her-luck documentarian investigating the unsolved disappearance of Canada’s first female filmmaker. It combines great character work with an unsettling central mystery to create a compelling read.
The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson
This is more of a horror-adjacent coming-of-age story about a group of believers and skeptics who spend the summer of 1980 investigating their town’s local ghost stories and urban legends. For those who like their horror gentler (although still present) and with a lot of heart.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
If you’ve heard of any title on this list, it’s probably this National Book Award-nominated (and Shirley Jackson Award winning!) short story collection, but I don’t think it’s possible to over-praise (or signal boost) this book. The opening story, “The Husband Stitch,” is a brilliant feminist take on a classic spooky folktale, and “The Resident,” is as good a modern example of the modern weird tale as I have ever read. If you haven’t read this book, read it. If you have read it, read it again. Also preorder the author’s forthcoming memoir, In the Dream House.
The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 11 edited by Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow is the hardest-working person in the horror genre. She seems to edit multiple anthologies a year, and, in her lengthy introduction to each annual Best Horror volume, she also reviews every horror novel, collection, anthology, film, magazine, tv show, and work of visual art released that calendar year. In other words, she knows horror like nobody else, and always selects a terrific bevy of tales for her Best Of books. This year’s volume provides a great sampling of voices working in the genre right now.