October is nearly upon us (I know, I know, just accept that time has been a construct this year) and it’s time to get spooky. We’re all likely to be spending our autumns nights curled up at home, and if you’re getting tired of boxsets and movies, it is the perfect time to jump into bed and take out a book instead.
The books on this list aren’t necessarily in the horror genre, but what they do have in common is that they are all very creepy. You’ll probably need to keep the lights on for a while after you’re done with them.
1. The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
This isn’t one of Waters’ most well-known books, but it is definitely one of her creepiest. Set in an old, crumbling manor in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Little Stranger is modern gothic fiction at its very best.
Everything that happens is ambiguous and fluid, and you never quite know where you are and who you can trust. With an unreliable narrator, a mysterious force that may or may not exist having it out for the family, and a selection of characters suffering from trauma and serious mental health problems, The Little Stranger is a book that will leave you guessing, especially at the end. I still think now about the spectacularly creepy end of the book, and I last read it over five years ago.
2. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Rebecca is an absolute classic in ‘creepy-not-quite-horror’ fiction, and one I try to force onto people at every opportunity.
Our unnamed narrator marries the widower Maxim de Winter and goes back to his estate of Manderley. She finds out that the whole household is haunted by the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter, who died in a mysterious accident.
Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, is a work of art; she makes your skin crawl every time she is on the page. She spends her time psychologically torturing our narrator, making her believe she will never live up to Rebecca or be able to run the estate as she should. There is a deliciously dark and macabre film with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine that is well worth a watch as well.
3. The Last – Hanna Jameson
Jameson’s post-apocalyptic thriller will hit a little differently this year, if you decide to give it a go. Centred around an isolated hotel full of survivors, trapped together following an unspecified world-ending apocalyptic event, I am certain that the feelings of claustrophobia will be very familiar to a lot of people.
Our narrator, John, becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of the body found in one of the hotel water tanks, a puzzle he clings to as the people around him begin to fall apart, unable to cope with the loneliness, the claustrophobia and the hopelessness of their situation.
Jameson is not a sentimental writer, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Her prose cuts deep and doesn’t dress up the bleakness of a world gone silent, or the frightening reality of thinking that there really is no one else left.
4. Vox – Christina Dalcher
Vox is a disturbing book with an interesting premise that should appeal to you dystopian fans out there.
In a United States of America taken over by far-right Christian fundamentalists, women have been relegated back to the role of housewife and submissive partner. They aren’t allowed to speak, write or read more than 100 words a day, and a counter on their wrists electrocutes them the moment that they go over those 100.
Main character and narrator Jean, who used to be a high-flying scientist, is drafted back to her old job by the president himself in a bid to help his injured brother, and Jean’s counter is turned off, the only woman in the country allowed more than her 100 words.
Like all dystopias, it is creepy because of bewildering extremity of the new reality, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a message there to be heeded; in a world where abortion rights are STILL being discussed, or sexual assault doesn’t even make it to trial, there is an argument to be made that women are still silenced quite a lot.
5. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Another dystopian novel here, and one that will make the skin on the back of your neck prickle more with every page.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have been raised to be organ donors, the only life they’ve ever known, and are educated in a school that encourages them to be artistic. When the three of them move out of the school, aged 16, they are set on a path of discovering their true purpose and railing against the fates that have already been decided for them.
Best described as ‘literary science-fiction’, Ishiguro doesn’t treat the subject matter with any less weight of any of his other more straightforward literary novels, and that is perhaps what makes Never Let Me Go such a success. You don’t even know it is a dystopia until it’s too late and by then, you’re thoroughly caught up in the creepy, no nonsense story.
6. Melmoth – Sarah Perry
Sarah Perry followed up her stunning The Essex Serpent (featured on our ten best historical novels of the 2010s list) with Melmoth, an intensely creepy novel based on the 1820s gothic work, Melmoth the Wanderer. In that book, Melmoth sold his soul to the devil for more time on earth. Perry updates the story, transforming Melmoth into a woman.
Melmoth wanders the world, witnessing mankind’s pain and we see her shadowy presence through a series of snapshots from different characters across a wide range of times and places, as she witnesses the darkest moments in people’s lives. Perry has a real talent at building an atmosphere and teasing the reader with the tiniest details, which come to resonate so loudly in the story later that you wonder how you ever missed them. There are times when I felt like Melmoth was reading the book over my shoulder and that, I think, is absolutely the point.
7. Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller
Much like Vox, it isn’t immediately apparent that a book like Bitter Orange might belong on a list of books great for Halloween reading, but in terms of the creepy factor, this book has earned its place.
Bitter Orange charts main character Frances’ all-consuming obsession with a couple, Peter and Cara, who are working in the same dilapidated house that she has been employed in. Frances is the sort of painfully awkward character that immediately puts a reader on edge before the story has even started.
Like all of Fuller’s novels, the story unspools slowly, and there are secrets and hidden traumas abounding. She has a real skill for drawing her readers in but equally keeps us on the edge of our seats; it is never possible to read a Fuller book without a vague underlying feeling that the rug is about to be pulled from under us, and that is a perfect creepy, Halloweeny type vibe.
8. Beloved – Toni Morrison
Beloved is Toni Morrison’s seminal work and if you haven’t read it, I hope the one thing you take from this article is that you need to.
It would be wrong to reduce Morrison to the role of ‘Black author’ at Halloween, but if you are spending your 2020 trying to educate yourself (as we all should be) about Black history, then this is the spooky book for you, and I don’t think Morrison would mind. Beloved is, after all, a masterful exploration of Black history and the trauma it imparts on the people who were forced to live it.
Set after the American Civil War, we follow Sethe who lives with her youngest daughter and is trying to live with the horrifying memories of her former life of slavery. When a young woman named Beloved comes into her life, Sethe’s life becomes consumed by her presence. This is a knotty, painful read, full of haunting images and the horrifying aftermath of unimaginable hardship and torture, and it is absolutely a novel that you should read.
9. The Fifth Child – Doris Lessing
The Fifth Child is another classic, but only a short one – you could probably knock it off the list in an evening or two, curled up with a nice cup of tea. And you will need that tea, for sure, because you won’t get much comfort from the book. It’s a relatively simple story; Harriet and David meet, fall in love, marry and have four children. Then Harriet has a very difficult pregnancy with her fifth child, Ben, and when the boy is born, the issues don’t stop there.
Ben is a difficult child from the beginning, cold and hard to love, and seemingly malicious even as a young baby. He grows up into an equally difficult, feral child. Harriett is afraid of what she has brought into the world, and the idyllic family life falls apart in the face of Ben’s violence. He genuinely is an unnerving child, brought to vivid life. I think though that the real horror is that Ben is just a human, who needs to be loved like any other, and he isn’t.
10. The Bunker Diary – Kevin Brooks
This is another book that will offer you no comfort, and the only one on this list that is so unnervingly bleak that I’d advise to avoid it if you aren’t in a good place mentally.
This YA novel (yes, it is YA) is the story of Linus, a teenager who is kidnapped and imprisoned in an underground bunker. He’s trapped alongside a host of other victims, from nine year old Jenny to Russell, an elderly man who is already dying of a brain tumour. The kidnapper plays games with his captives, tempting them into horrific violence against one another, and they are picked off one by one.
The ending is a not a happy one, which isn’t a spoiler, honestly. You know from the very first page that it isn’t going to be good. But if you want a book that will have you lying awake thinking about it long after you have finished reading, then by all means pick up The Bunker Diary. It’s an absolute horror, unrelenting, and if that is your sort of thing, then you will love this book.
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