8 Seriously Scary Books to Read Just in Time for Halloween

8 Seriously Scary Books to Read Just in Time for Halloween

Looking for something to titillate your senses on All Hallow’s Eve, aside from the massive sugar rush? Try one of these books that (aside from the last two) have published this year. Some are slightly unsettling, others are downright bone-chilling — and all are certain to make you want to sleep with the lights on.

The Ghost Notebooks

Ben Dolnick

scary books: "The Ghost Notebooks" by Ben Dolnick

Nick and Hannah are your typical self-absorbed Brooklyn millennials whose relationship has hit that proverbial Fork in the Road: marry or break up? Nick leans toward breaking up. Hannah leans, naturally, the other way: marriage. Suddenly, with both of their careers slowly waning, Hannah is offered the job of director at a historic home upstate that once belonged to a famous philosopher. Oh, and it’s a live-in job. If the premise seems like a pretty standard flimsy haunted-house setup, this book quickly surprises you with where it goes next. Hannah starts hearing things; her state of mind continues to deteriorate until she simply vanishes and Nick is left to figure out what happened. Though not a traditional spine-tingling ghost story, this book is nonetheless full of hauntings that will stay with you after the mystery of Hannah’s disappearance is solved.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright

scary books: "Frankenstein in Baghdad" by Ahmed Saadawi

In war-ravaged Iraq, a small-time peddler begins casually collecting the strewn body parts he comes across in the streets of Baghdad. He begins to stitch them together, hoping to build a full body that can be given a proper burial. This jumbled collection of rotting flesh naturally comes alive, escapes, and begins racking up murders throughout the city. Thankfully, plenty of black humor and satire abound, or this novel would be too terrifying and depressing to finish. Not only is it the tale of a ghastly creature doing terrible things; “Frankenstein in Baghdad” is also an artfully crafted story about the horrors of war.

The Outsider

Stephen King

scary books: "The Outsider" by Stephen King

The crown prince of American horror literature is, of course, Stephen King. How that man continues to crank out so many quality horror novels is a true achievement — especially after the horrors of his own life, including drug addiction and the near-amputation of his leg after he was hit by a van in 1999. In his latest, “The Outsider,” a young boy meets a violent death, and fingerprints and DNA provide incontrovertible evidence that the murderer is the boy’s Little League coach, Terry Maitland. Law enforcement and the local DA go after Maitland with full force, but cracks in the case emerge as Maitland’s alibi becomes rock solid. How could Maitland be in two places at once? Is Maitland hiding something, or is someone trying to ruin his life? The answer has a supernatural angle that is, as with all King’s novels, truly horrific.

The Girl in the Locked Room

Mary Downing Hahn

scary books: "The Girl in the Locked Room" by Mary Downing Hahn

The scary story on this list for people who aren’t sure they like being scared. Mary Downing Hahn is a YA writer best known for “Wait Till Helen Comes,” another ghost story. In “Locked Room,” Jules is a tween whose father restores old mansions for a living. When they move into his latest project, Jules discovers the ghost of a young girl trapped in the attic. With the help of a new friend from school, Jules investigates what happened to the poor girl in the attic. Some mild spine-tingling at times, but the nice thing about this book is the overarching themes of friendship and love.

Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat

Anne Rice

scary books: "Blood Communion" by Anne Rice

Who could forget “Interview with the Vampire,” the movie that kicked off both Brad Pitt’s and Kirsten Dunst’s careers? Did you know that movie, which came out in 1994, was based on an eponymous Anne Rice vampire book from 1975, and Rice has been churning out vampire books at regular intervals ever since that first one? The latest, “Blood Communion,” is Book 13 of her Vampire Chronicles series. In it, Lestat de Lioncourt (played by Tom Cruise in the film) tells a sweeping (read: not terribly focused) tale of how he became Prince of the vampire world. But you don’t come to Anne Rice for tight narratives. You come for the romanticism and gory violence, and you stay for the homoeroticism.

The Witch Elm

Tana French

scary books: "The Witch Elm" by Tana French

What could be scarier than something that goes bump in the night? How about the deterioration of your own mind, your own memory? Toby, the narrator of “The Witch Elm,” lives a white-dude kind of life: He’s a little arrogant, a lot privileged, and chalks his life up to just being lucky. Until a (very descriptive, graphic) beating by burglars leaves him with brain damage. Suddenly Toby’s charmed life is crumbling around him, and he retreats to his family’s country estate with his girlfriend to both recuperate and to care for his dying uncle. Now here’s where things get really weird, and Toby starts to question his own sense of self and what he’s always thought he understood about his family. French is an excellent portraitist, although at times you’ll wish she’d quit crafting her characters and keep the plot moving a little more swiftly. While not a conventionally suspenseful scary story, the plot twists and conclusions to “The Witch Elm” are pretty shocking, and the story will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.

The Turn of the Screw

Henry James

scary books: "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James

An oldie-but-still-goodie: Published in 1898, “The Turn of the Screw” could be considered the original haunted-house story. A young governess arrives at an English countryside estate; in her charge are Flora (8) and Miles (10). The governess is unsettled and soon comes to believe that the children are consorting with malevolent spirits. The governess must protect them at all costs, but with every turn of the screw she makes, so to speak, is she actually helping? The answer is ambiguous, and readers are left uneasy. One explanation renders the governess a poor victim of supernatural circumstances; the other paints her as a woman slowly slipping into madness at the cost of the children. Critics over the past 120 years have frequently cited “sexual repression” as the hidden explanation for some of the governess’s behavior, and in the #TimesUp and #MeToo era, that convenient conclusion seems all the more trite, making “The Turn of the Screw” worth a close reading.

The Devil of Nanking

Mo Hayder

scary books: "The Devil of Nanking" by Mo Hayder

An eerie, dangerous story about Grey, a young British woman who relocates to Tokyo in her decade-long quest for an artifact from the Nanking Massacre of 1937. She has an unhealthy obsession with the terrors that unfolded during the six-week Japanese occupation of the city of Nanking, and her own checkered past is colored by this obsession. Grey’s main goal is to get a Chinese-born professor in Tokyo, Shi Chongming, to help her find what she’s searching for. The professor agrees to help her, but nothing comes for free: he wants her to examine the “medicine” a local yakuza boss uses. What this precious medicine consists of is revealed in a slow, terrifying way alongside revelations about Grey’s own secrets and increasingly horrifying excerpts from Chongming’s diary from his time in Nanking. This is the kind of book that reminds us how the scariest thing of all is how depraved humans can be toward one another.


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Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.