Features

A Non-Traditional Halloween Reading List

Scary books that have been overlooked, out-of-print, or not always shelved as "horror."

Spooky season is officially here, which means it’s time to stock up on scary reads. But if you’re looking for something a little different this October – something beyond the typical go-to horrors of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, or even Shirley Jackson (though we still love you, Shirley!) – this reading list is for you. I asked staff and friends of the CHIRB to recommend their favorite Halloween reads that have been overlooked, out-of-print, or not usually thought of as “horror.” Some are downright harrowing while others simmer with existential dread. All of them will leave you shaken, unsettled, and probably sleeping with the lights on.

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington’s surreal tales might not be horror in the traditional sense, but they offer brutal, disturbing, and above all hilarious visions that move with the logic of dreams and nightmares. – Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts and co-editor of Gigantic Worlds and Tiny Crimes

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe’s most famous novel is also one of his most unnerving to me, even if it does not immediately seem like horror. Its horror, instead, is existential. A man finds himself trapped in a sand pit that he cannot escape, while people stare at him from the top of the pit and refuse to help him escape; climbing out is impossible, a Sisyphean, surreal frustration. It’s a story of entrapment and banal brutality that always startles me, and feels as horrific as many a scary story. – Gabrielle Bellot, Literary Hub staff writer and Catapult Head Instructor

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline 

Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves takes place in a future ravaged by climate change, at a time where the majority of the population has lost the ability to dream––except for Indigenous people, who are being hunted for their bone marrow as an antidote. This chilling YA novel follows Frenchie, a young Métis boy, as he travels through the desolate landscape to form a community of resistance. – Tajja Isen, contributing editor at Catapult and editor at The Walrus

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

Helen Phillips was just long-listed for the National Book Award for her most recent novel, The Need, and here in her debut novel all that talent is fully on display: a page-turning existential horror focused on the absurdity of modern office work, and the monsters hidden inside, growling.  – Kyle Williams, CHIRB Community Manager

Come Closer by Sara Gran

Sly, chilling, and funny by turns, this short novel narrated by a woman in the throes of demon possession plumbs the depths of female madness–and leaves us wondering what we ourselves might secretly long to do, that only a demon would let us.  – Amy Gentry, author of Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing

When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom

Back in print from Valancourt’s Paperbacks From Hell after languishing for decades, Elizabeth Engstron’s first published work, a pair of slim novellas, offers tender, tragic monster stories that sweep readers along on currents of feeling. Engstrom foregoes the violent attacks so common to the genre; instead, the terror in “Beauty Is” and “When Darkness Loves Us” comes from the creeping realization of just who each’s monster even is … and how, when steeped in that monster’s consciousness, we can sympathize with horrific acts. These stories of women driven to extremes are wild, subterranean, unpredictable, and elusive, just like our actual fears and dreams. – Alan Scherstuhl, editor and writer

(Read Alan’s essay about Engstrom’s novel and three other Paperbacks from Hell at the Los Angeles Review of Books)

The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso; Translated by Hardie St. Martin & Leonard Mades

The novel is lush, dark, decadent, and the guiding metaphor is based around the form of a Chilean folk monster from Chiloé, the imbunche, who guides us through a startling narrative about life, death, bodies, and what we (think) we control. – Sarah Arantza Amador, Fiction Editor of Longleaf Review

Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin; Translated by Megan McDowell

“It’s just that sometimes the eyes you have aren’t enough,” says one traumatized mother to another in Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream. In this swift Argentine novel–part ghost story, part ecological thriller, part hallucination of the real–no one can see clearly the horrors that invade the human spirit, saturate the water, and pervade the air. For days after reading, I had trouble trusting my eyes. – C. Morgan Babst, author of The Floating World

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

A young widow attends a film festival in her husband’s stead, only to catch a glimpse of him on the streets of Havana. Laura van den Berg’s slim second novel is a potent swirl of zombies and doppelgängers, guilt and grief, illustrating how the uncanny reveals truths we’re too scared to acknowledge to one another – or to ourselves. – Kristen Evans, book critic and culture writer

Bearskin by James McLaughlin

It’s possible to read James McLaughlin’s Bearskin as just a gritty noir about a guy whose job at a remote Appalachian forest preserve is the perfect hiding place from the Mexican drug cartel that’s stalking him, until his drive to stop whoever is poaching bears on the preserve unleashes the demons he’s kept bottled up…but it’s also possible that he’s being manipulated by a bear spirit that can take on human form and helps him access supernatural powers that could save the day, and his soul. – Sam J. Miller, Nebula-Award-winning author of Blackfish City

The Changeling by Joy Williams

Joy Williams is a master of unsettling sentences and stories built on the architecture of unsettled minds. In The Changeling there is a creeping dread from the get-go that, though terrifying, feels like a movement we can predict, until we realize by the novel’s end that we had absolutely no idea the depth of the horror we were in for. – Kyle Williams, CHIRB Community Manager

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

While its plot involves a serial killer in the Chicago summer of 1915, the latest novel from genre-crossing master storyteller Elizabeth Hand journeys from thriller territory straight into the heart of horror. One crucial early sequence finds the child protagonist Pin – a young woman passing as a boy– searching for a missing girl in the brackish water of an amusement park’s pitch-black “Hell Gate” boat ride. Complete with pop-up undead, a costumed devil, the screams of the damned, and passengers trying to squeeze in some quickie sex, Hand’s old-timey tunnel of love proves a richly layered study of horror and sin and fantasy and reality, all in a peculiarly American vein. And it’s scary as hell. – Alan Scherstuhl, editor and writer

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Stephen King is synonymous with horror, but Dolores Claiborne doesn’t quite fit the genre. As someone who doesn’t skew toward horror in general, but who loved the film version, I had to read the book. And it was such a surprising experience. While there are definitely more (as in additionally) upsetting elements in the novel, I highly recommend it just on the merits of Dolores, who tells the entire story from the police station, casting the reader as one of three parties present during her confession. As a read, it’s all-consuming; an absolutely creepy and affecting novel! – Bethany C Morrow, author of Mem and editor of Take The Mic

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky drops you right into the tortured head and heart of a murderer in the heat of the killing, the suffocation of guilt, and the horror of the law and God’s pursuit. Though the hero is utterly unjustified, I root for him, fear for him, and, most terrifying of all, identify with him. – Owen Egerton, novelist and filmmaker. His latest film, Mercy Black, is on Netflix. His latest novel is Hollow.

The Vet’s Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns’ slender, uncanny fables often skirt the edge of horror. The Vet’s Daughter tells the story of a young woman brutalized by her father, who, in a shocking twist, discovers a power of her own; Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is about a village infected by gruesome violence after a mysterious flood. Both tap the wells of terror in service of something stranger. – Amy Gentry, author of Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

While it’s often scary, and includes some monsters, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is memorable for its haunting atmosphere of unresolved mystery and cosmic ambiguities. – Chris Packham, writer and editor

The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers

The Feminist Press has always been good at bringing back to the surface unjustly forgotten classics, and The Naked Woman is a wonderful example. A novel that starts with its protagonist going to a cabin in the woods to behead herself then follows that beheaded protagonist as she wreaks horror on the local village and its patriarchy. – Kyle Williams, CHIRB Community Manager

White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Like her fellow fabulist Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi is a master of weaving eerily off-kilter atmospheres out of beautiful, inventive prose. White Is for Witching is her most successful sustained exercise in creeping dread. In keeping with Oyeyemi’s style, the plot is both convoluted and fairy-tale simple–a starving girl, a haunted house–but long after the details fade, the nightmarish images remain.  – Amy Gentry, author of Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing

Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek; Translated by Michael Hulse

Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a horrific read from the start: the ultraviolence on display from the novel’s teen gang hits hard and draws copious amounts of blood, and ends with the blood flowing like a river. It is one of the darkest and most nihilistic books I have ever read, and I can never unread it. – Kyle Williams, CHIRB Community Manager

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

A long, at times hard-to-read narrative of social fragmentation and mental breakdown, The Golden Notebook captured a particular moment of heightened anxiety about political struggle. The claustrophobic slide from anxiety about the struggle to maintain sanity and individual identity against a backdrop of political upheaval. – Amy Gentry, author of Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing

Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre; Translated by Kaiama L. Glover

Set during Carnival in the Haitian village of Jacmel, Hadriana in All My Dreams is a feverish, vibrant tale of a woman who collapses at the alter on her wedding day–and is transformed into a zombie. The short novel teems with humor, lust, and magic, while broaching questions about sexuality and race. It’s not necessarily horrific, but its swirling plot of history and myth, costume and ritual, feels just right on a chilly October night. – Amy Brady, CHIRB Editor-in-Chief

Beloved by Toni Morrison

We already know that Beloved is one of the best novels ever written. But is it also one of the best ghost stories? This essay by Grady Hendrix (author of We Sold Our Souls) makes a good case. However you categorize it, Beloved is harrowing, gorgeous, and worth reading any time of year. – Amy Brady, CHIRB Editor-in-Chief

About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

3 comments on “A Non-Traditional Halloween Reading List

  1. Brava to Helen Phillips! I really enjoyed Beautiful Bureaucrat, and didn’t know she’d written anything since.

    Like

  2. Great list! White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi was unnervingly incredible.

    Like

  3. “Stoker’s Wilde” – Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker must put their disdain for each other aside to put down a vampire cult. Along the way, they each get their inspiration for their future works; “Dracula” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

    Like

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