Throughout October, I’ve been recommending some of my favourite horror books on my Twitter (@md_wheatley). These books aren’t just the most haunting or horrific, these books all went some way to shaping my interests in horror today. As the month of the dead comes to a close, here are the 31 books which made me.
1 Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
Appalling and heart-rending, Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted is a novel of twenty-three stories framed by the premise of the writing retreat from Hell. What follows is scathing satire about the quest for fame, through the gross-out body horror of ‘Guts’, or the existential dread of ‘Obsolete’. Haunted taught me that horror resists society, that it can be satire, and that there are no boundaries it cannot cross.
2 The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
What is perhaps now the most famous ghost story in existence, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is a study of a governess’s madness under the pressures of the supernatural, her own hysteria, or just two spoilt kids. James writes some truly haunting moments, all building to the unforgettable climax which critics still debate today. The Turn of the Screw taught me that questions can be better than answers, atmosphere greater than gore, and not to outstay your welcome.
3 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
Horror filtered through science-fiction, The Island of Dr. Moreau is a blistering tale of dictatorship, science gone mad, and a land in which morality is lost. Toying with sympathies, whilst taking Darwinian theory to its extreme end-result, Dr. Moreau taught me that horror bleeds across boundaries, that it can take any form, and that no matter how scary the monsters are, the humans are always worse.
4 ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ by Harlan Ellison
Crushing. Perhaps the only word to describe this nihilist nightmare where there is no escape, and death is the only hopeful outcome. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Ellison imagines five subjects being tormented by the sentient artificial intelligence, AM. ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ taught me that there can always be something more shocking, that twenty pages are all you need, and that the computers are coming for us all.
5 The Man Whom the Trees Loved by Algernon Blackwood
I’m not entirely convinced that this novella is particularly well-written any more, or it might just be my typo-ridden Amazon copy, but it is incredibly interesting. Following a retired elderly couple, David and Sophia Bittacy, negotiating their views of nature upon discovering that the forest fringing their garden is sentient, Blackwood writes an ambiguous ecoGothic terror of the unknowable other and inescapable fate. The Man Whom the Trees Loved. Blackwood taught me that nature can be scary, ambivalent nature is scarier, and helped defined my research interests.
6 The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
‘Okay, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?’ Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a collection of violent, subversive, take-no-prisoners fairy tales. Gone is the sanitised Disney romance, replaced with sex and slaughter. Carter taught me that there’s always a new way to say something, and not to be ashamed of your style.
7 Carrie by Stephen King
One of the first horror novels I ever bought, Stephen King’s Carrie is a nightmarish coming-of-age tale about puberty, bullying, and the cruelty of high school. Written in an epistolary style, King’s novel ramps up the tension scene by scene until the (pigs’) bloody climax of the infamous prom. Carrie taught me that however bad things get, they can get much, much worse.
8 The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
The first Gothic novel, and in hindsight absolutely hilarious, Walpole’s Otranto establishes all the now well-worn cliches of horror in a bombastic tale of floating armour, wandering ghosts, and bleeding statues. Otranto taught me that classic horror is indefinitely entertaining, sensational, and never to trust giant helmets.
9 The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Another blending of horror and science-fiction, Stevenson’s novella is a damning allegory for the depths of human emotion, and the dangers of self-repression. Written at the turn of the 20th century, when science was viewed as either salvation or damnation, Stevenson imagines both entwined. Dr. Jekyll taught me that we all are double, and any attempts at containment lead to self-destruction.
10 ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe
Another Gothic foundation, Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a fantastic, brief study of unreliability and madness. Poe places the reader in the head of a murderer unable to escape the weight of his deed, convinced that he will be caught. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ taught me that we all have skeletons in our closets, all comes crumbling down, and never to trust what you’re told.
11 ‘The Picture in the House’ by H. P. Lovecraft
I think this is Lovecraft’s story which creeps me out the most. ‘The Picture in the House’ is an exercise in unsettling atmosphere and creeping dread. Lovecraft writes the story of a man returning to New England who takes shelter for the night in an isolated house. He taught me to never trust the suspicious guy who is obviously evil, and that cannibalism pops up in the most unlikely of places.
12 Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Because anything can be scary, Junji Ito’s Uzumaki makes spirals terrifying, as they slowly infect a small town community. Everything from girls’ hair to snails become horrific vessels for the spirals, with some disgusting art to match. Uzumaki taught me to take your concept to every conceivable extreme, and that anything, literally anything, can be terrifying in the right hands.
13 House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves follows the editors compiling of Johnny Truant’s finding of Zampano’s manuscript of the elusive Navidson Record. It’s very layered, yes, very complicated, and brilliant. The Navidson Record is a literary found-footage film, with all the chills that entails, and as the narratives start to bleeds into one another, the book does too. Danielewski taught me that it’s never too late to reinvent, and that form is what you make of it.
14 Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
The greatest vampire novel ever written (sorry Dracula, see you in a bit), Le Fanu’s Carmilla is both a biting tale of bloodsucking, and a provocative challenging of gender and sexuality. A riotous read which explores a narrator’s infatuation with the visiting vampire, Carmilla, Le Fanu taught me that the best monsters undermine society’s norms.
15 ‘The Watcher’ by R. H. Benson
A recent discovery, but one I’ve already written a paper on, alongside The Man Whom the Trees Loved, ‘The Watcher’ is the second of the texts which cemented my interested in the ecoGothic. Behind a religious diatribe, ‘The Watcher’ is a damning allegory for the relationship between nature and the human. Benson taught me that all bad deeds have consequences.
Illustration by Afu Chan.
16 ‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor
Another text all about duality and trust, ‘Good Country People’ shows the extent of human deception, and that perception isn’t always reality. O’Connor taught me how to incorporate religious themes into my work, and that it is not the author’s position to moralise.
17 Animal Farm by George Orwell
Depending on my mood, I often argue Animal Farm to be the greatest book ever written. But it’s also terrifying in its truth. Whilst Squealer is an absolute terror, Orwell’s allegory for how easily a belief system can become violent, and how easily the ruling-elite can become corrupted, still maintains its nightmarishness today. Animal Farm taught me that complex doesn’t have to mean inaccessible.
18 ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allen Poe
Because poetry can be spooky too, Poe’s ‘The Raven’ is both a brilliant tale of a haunting, and an exceptionally rhythmic performance piece. And, like any true horror fan, I first encountered it through The Simpsons. ‘The Raven’ taught me that horror doesn’t have to be limited to novels.
19 The Shining by Stephen King
Another of my earliest reads, though one I never really got on too well with, The Shining is probably well known to you if you’re reading this. A family retire as caretakers to the Overlook Hotel for a winter, and the father goes (or perhaps always was) mad. The Shining taught me that it’s never just the house that’s haunted, the past haunts as well.
20 Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Because every list about books requires an entry on Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus is the precursor to all things horror: violent, bloody, and riotous. Following the titular Titus, Shakespeare charts a fight against tyranny and a descent into madness through death, disguise, and cannibalism. Titus taught me that however bad things get, however much blood and death, there is always time to laugh.
21 Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan
I studied this book in Year 8, and that was pretty much how this all started: with vampires, a circus, and spiders. The first novel in The Saga of Darren Shan, Cirque du Freak led me down the rabbit hole of horror, and into Shan’s other series, The Demonata. Shan taught me that horror can appeal to all ages, and that it’s good to be scared sometimes.
22 Wytches by Scott Snyder and Jock
My first horror graphic novel, Wytches is a fascinating retelling of witch mythology accompanied by some evocative artwork. The second installment has just been released this Halloween, so I’m excited to see where it goes. Wytches taught me that tropes will remain timeless so long as writers are willing to reinvent.
23 The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
One of the most recent horror novels I’ve read, and a great subversion of the apocalypse-cult/home-invasion storyline. Tremblay twists the plot in relentless shocks which upend the entire piece, whilst the scene in which a tidal wave swallows America is truly unsettling. Tremblay taught me that modern horror hasn’t lost its edge.
24 ‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens
Whilst The Turn of the Screw wins out at the best modern ghost story, Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ is a quintessential English ghostly tale. Reading it now it’s somehow both haunting and heartwarming, like a spectral blanket. Dickens taught me that location is just as important as plot in evoking fear.
25 Bec by Darren Shan
Afer Cirque du Freak I swiftly devoured Shan’s other series, The Demonata, in which three outsiders fight against a multitude of monsters. The fourth novel, Bec, taught me that it’s okay to be weird, or an outsider, but also that blood and gore are really, really fun when you’re a teenager.
26 Dracula by Bram Stoker
Though it’s hard to read this now without Gary Oldman coming into my head, Dracula still has some of the most haunting moments in horror. From the mystery of the opening coach journey, to the glimpse of the Count scaling the castle walls, Dracula reaffirms that, yes, vampires can be scary. Stoker taught me that
27 The Monk by Matthew Lewis
When I was studying Ann Radcliffe’s largely tedious The Romance of the Forest, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk kept being mentioned and sounded absolutely brilliant. It was. A classic Faustian tale of corruption, transgression, and genuine horror. Lewis taught me that taboos are meant to be challenged.
28 ‘The Sandman’ by E. T. A. Hoffman
Freud’s favourite thing, beyond misdiagnosing women, ‘The Sandman’ has it all: automatons, mad science and eye-stealers. It also has enough ambiguity that Freud could build an entire theory upon it. ‘The Sandman’ taught me that even the friendliest of tales can house the worst of boogeymen.
29 Goosebumps by R. L. Stine
God I loved these books, and the TV show as well. Night of the Living Dummy, Say Cheese and Die!, Monster Blood. So many fantastic titles which introduced me to every horror trope there is. ‘Goosebumps’ taught me the entire legacy of horror, in a way I didn’t even realise until now.
30 Sleeping With The Lights On by Prof. Darryl Jones
I got the chance to hear Darryl talk about horror recently and it was fascinating. In keeping with my interests, because I had to ask, he suggested that the ecoGothic wasn’t just important, but urgent. I’ve referenced him many times in my essays and can’t wait to read his this. Darryl taught me that horror is a viable academic option.
31 ‘Dagon’ by H. P. Lovecraft.
My favourite short story of all time, which led to my interest in the ecoGothic, ecoWeird, and basically where I’m at now. ‘Dagon’ is brilliant, despite all of Lovecraft’s problems. It follows a man traversing the upheaved ocean-bed, and meeting the titular monstrous fish-God. ‘Dagon’ taught me, above all else, how much I love horror.
Follow me on Twitter (@md_wheatley) where I’ll be regularly sharing my insights on what I’m reading.