For someone with an anxiety disorder, I read a lot of horror. I always have. Predictably, my obsession started with Stephen King. I carried around a frayed paperback copy of The Stand until its cover was torn. In every class in middle school, I finished my work early so I could get to the next chapter of Bag of Bones, or finally find out what happened to Paul Sheldon in Misery. Whatever was in them — murderous ex-nurses, ghosts rearranging magnetic letters on the fridge, a species-annihilating new strain of flu — couldn't scare me, because I was already terrified.
I was terrified all the time. I had phobias and night terrors and regularly woke up my family in the early hours of the morning, screaming and not knowing why.
In retrospect, maybe I should have stopped. But as an anxious kid, horror was the only thing that didn't lie to me. Other books told me the world was a song and dance of bright colors and costumes. Horror told the truth, no matter how gruesome.
The truth: The world is horrifying. People you love will disappear. People you don't love will find bizarre ways to hurt you, and sometimes they will succeed. You will make terrible mistakes. You will not always be forgiven.
Because I trusted its honesty, I also trusted the other things horror told me. Like: I could be brave and resourceful and stronger than I looked. Monsters could, sometimes, be destroyed. Even at its most desperate and cruel, the world contained stories worthy of hearing.
I learned to trust the small, defiant voice that sat in the back of my throat, the one that knew I was haunted, even if kind, well-meaning grownups couldn't see any ghosts. In turn, horror made clear my obligation to listen when someone said they were haunted even if their ghosts didn't touch me. Even if the people in power kept insisting those ghosts didn't exist.
So, it's as a lifelong horror fan that I offer six books, some new and some old, to see you into the bone chill of Halloween season:
1. MEXICAN GOTHIC
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020)
Yes, the buzz surrounding Moreno-Garcia's latest novel is completely justified. Everyone says you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but you'd be forgiven for assuming that this one's as gorgeous as its artwork. (Really though, my friend Monica bought this for me based entirely off its cover and I immediately forgave her.)
After receiving a weird letter from her newlywed cousin, Noemí Taboada travels to High Place to check on her. Towering over the Mexican countryside, High Place is a house of rusted silver, nightmares, and silence. Her cousin's family insists everything is fine. If she wants to figure out the truth, Noemí will need to find a way around the labyrinth of the home's oppressive rules and secrets, and she needs to work quickly; every inch of the family's history she uncovers makes it harder to find the way out. Moreno-Garcia reimagines classic Gothic forms with precision and deadly poetic grace.
2. THE QUAKER CITY or THE MONKS OF MONK HALL
By George Lippard (1845)
OK, hear me out. I know it may not SOUND exhilarating to read a 600-page book published in 1845, but I promise it is. George Lippard was a labor activist and his novel braids stunning social critique with just about every campy horror trope imaginable.
Quaker City is set in a mysterious, Philadelphia mansion nicknamed Monk Hall. Monk Hall's patrons are respectable gentlemen in the daytime. At night, they slither through the various floors of the hall, engaging in unspeakable crimes. Published serially, Quaker City was both immensely popular and incredibly controversial. Most importantly, it features the best dream sequence ever written, featuring a zombie proletariat uprising.
3. FRIDAY BLACK
By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018)
Adjei-Brenyah's debut is the kind of book you want to throw at everyone you meet, and stare at them until they finish it.
An unflinching interrogation of the layered, everyday terrors faced by Black Americans, this short story collection confronts systemic racism, capitalist accumulation and normalized violence through imaginative, heartstopping prose. Pieces like "The Hospital Where" and "Things My Mother Said" highlight the notes of tragedy underlying the fear, reminding us of what's at stake when our vulnerable bodies enter horror stories.
Seriously, read this book. Order a few copies and start throwing them at anyone who looks too comfortable.
4. HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
By Shirley Jackson (1959)
You may have seen the recent Netflix adaptation of this show, and while that program was good in its own way, it has almost nothing to do with the source material. You owe it to yourself to read Jackson's foundational haunted house novel.
A handful of guests travel to an infamous mansion at the request of an eccentric researcher who wants to document a true supernatural experience. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of Eleanor Vance, a nervous woman who becomes increasingly wrapped up in the house. More than any other guest, the house speaks to Eleanor, and therefore, to us. Jackson is a master of psychological horror, and bends language to leave an unsettling shadow that doesn't lift after the last page.
Plus, if you read Haunting of Hill House then you can shout at your TV when you see the abomination that is the end of the Netflix version.
5. HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES
By Carmen Maria Machado (2017)
Machado's short story collection begins with a stage direction: "If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices." From this point onward, Her Body and Other Parties is unlike anything I have ever read before.
Playfully experimental and sarcastic, her writing works across genres to mine and articulate the terrifying experiences of women. For instance, in "Real Women Have Bodies," a mysterious illness makes women disappear from the physical world. "Especially Heinous" explores sexual violence in the format of SVU episode descriptions. Read Her Body and Other Parties for the kind of horror that makes you cry, for lines like: "nothing makes pink taffeta pop like a dark void."
6. HOUSE OF LEAVES
By Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
I know in the introduction I claimed that horror couldn't scare me, but this may be the one exception. Reading House of Leaves made me physically sick to my stomach.
It's a bit hard to explain this book. The central story — if anything is truly at the center of this book — is about a couple who discovers their house measures impossibly larger on the inside than on the outside. Copious footnotes require paging forward and backward. For some lines, you need to rotate the book. For others, you need to solve a code.
If you endeavor to read House of Leaves, a moment will come where you will sink to the floor, forgetting how to read, forgetting that you ever knew how to read, and wishing you could stop. But you won't. ♦