[Editor’s Note: In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I turned to novelist and horror aficionado Stephen Graham Jones to make some recommendations on ten frightening books. He’s a prolific writer whose All the Beautiful Sinners was recently re-released as an e-book by Dzanc Books. So stock up on some Jones and also check out his terrifying recommendations for your weekend pre-Halloween festivities.]
I know Iâ€™m supposed to do Ten Books for Halloween hereâ€”and, Iâ€™ve got six hundred swimming behind my eyes, so the only real chore hereâ€™s selection (I think I could do ten from the seventies, ten from best sellers, ten from friends, etc). And, yeah, the idea of â€˜ten,â€™ I know, itâ€™s that youâ€™ll find one or two on there to actually hit, given the time. And thatâ€™s provided I donâ€™t stack it with Swan Songs and Stands and House of Leaves. And that you trust my selections.
So, my compromise, itâ€™s to pick books that are short enough, to only pick five of them, and to go for ones that are mass market paperback, so they can fit in the pocket of your costume (because of course about nowâ€™s when you start trying everything on, doing all the dry runs through the neighborhoods and halls). And, as for why the mass market trick? Could be nostalgia; I suspect weâ€™re nearing the end of the mass-market-books-littering-the-shelves days. And, Iâ€™m not sad, donâ€™t get me wrongâ€”all for e-booking our way into the sunset, hereâ€”but, for me, growing up in the eighties, horror meant mass market. I think back then I thought only textbooks came in hardback/cloth. And of course I had no idea what a â€˜trade paperbackâ€™ might be. A factory second, maybe, I donâ€™t know.
And, the fourth thing Iâ€™m doing here thatâ€™s not what Scott was asking for it, itâ€™s to provide more of an annotated curriculumâ€”to shuffle some movies in with the reading, so as to build up to that perfect night at the end of the month. Something like:
1. Bentley Little’s The House
This is a truly creepy work, is one of only
two three novels to ever thoroughly penetrate my dreams (other two: Breakfast of Champions and Lunar Park). Itâ€™s the haunted house, definitely, butâ€™s so different from any other haunted house Iâ€™ve seen. This book terrifies me.
2. John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns
From the Masters of Horror series. Itâ€™s not really a counterpoint to The House or anything, but like the uppercut that comes right after the jab, stands you up on your toes and makes you see the darkness.
3. Clive Barkerâ€™s The Damnation Game
Itâ€™s a rock â€™n roll horror novel, one of those stories that only ever has one foot on the ground at a time, and just, in that signature Barker fashion, pulls you along by your eyelids. And, for my money, it goes pretty perfectly with:
4. Return of the Living Dead
Far and away my favorite zombie movie ever, but, too, along with Feast, say, itâ€™s one of a select few that move at the same narrative pace as The Damnation Game. And, I mean, itâ€™s got Tarman, right? Thatâ€™s really all I need to say.
5. Ray Bradburyâ€™s Something Wicked This Way Comes
I mean, granted, you have to kind of grit your teeth to get through the occasionally overblown, too-aware-of-its-own-technicolorality prose, and you of course go in knowing itâ€™s YA, so the contentâ€™s dialed back, but . . . I donâ€™t know. Something about this one. Itâ€™s like Bradburyâ€™s not so much working within some archetypal framework as that heâ€™s taking all his personal archetypes and painting them large and grand on the wall. Itâ€™s nice, itâ€™s safe, but it moves, too, and itâ€™s got magic.
6. Midnight Meat Train
Just to get us back up to an acceptableâ€”and necessaryâ€”level of gore. And fun. And exuberance for horror. I mean, a guy with a chrome hammer on the subway? And, you know itâ€™s Barker, so thereâ€™s definitely going to be something demon-y involved, and, to not acknowledge in some way The Books of Blood . . . you wouldnâ€™t even take me seriously if I didnâ€™t, would you?
7. Shirley Jacksonâ€™s The Haunting of Hill House
Not simply to reset us to black and white or anything, and not to argue for atmospheric horror over whatâ€™s cooking on the shelves these days (um, plenty of it, if you look), but . . . okay, somewhat because thereâ€™s no time for The Shining on this list. And whatâ€™s a Halloween list without King, right? But you can burn through Haunting in an afternoon, and, whatâ€™s fun is you can see all over again how foundational that book was to everything that would follow. And that it still actually, legitimately, works. Very effective.
8. Paranormal Activity
And not just as prep for the third one hitting the box office next week. No, itâ€™s just plain old terrifying, at least to me, is like a bad mix of Tale of Two Sisters and Sara Granâ€™s Come Closer, but with a lot of Shirley Jackson kind of mis-directs. And, Iâ€™ve written on it longer here, so wonâ€™t this time around, except to say that, no, itâ€™s not just Blair Witch a decade later. Itâ€™s scary, itâ€™s wrongâ€”itâ€™s perfect for Halloween.
9. Jack Ketchumâ€™s The Girl Next Door
It kind of makes you all bummed out to be human, and it also makes you realize that all this â€˜horrorâ€™ youâ€™ve been reading, writing, watching, making? All youâ€™ve been doingâ€™s painting unicorns with flowers in their mouths. Under rainbows. This is the real badness, happening on the page. It doesnâ€™t flinch, and it makes you complicit. Go there, Try to come back.
10. Either Quarantine or [Rec]
Depending on your stance towards subtitles. Theyâ€™re pretty much the same movie, and, yeah, early on you know exactly how itâ€™s going to go, but still, you get so caught up in the rush of it. Itâ€™s hard to keep your feet on the ground, watching this. But you toast those characters, too; theyâ€™re doing exactly what they need to do in a horror movie. And what more can you ask?
And, of course, no Halloween, right? Not just because Carpenterâ€™s already on the list, either (Barkerâ€™s on there twice), but because, if youâ€™re not already watching some Halloween this month without consulting these kinds of lists, then maybe you need to revisit your priorities. Your allegiances. And, yeah, comic books, man. Iâ€™d say American Vampire and Locke & Key, maybe. American Vampireâ€™s just so, so funâ€”RotLD kind of fun, Iâ€™d sayâ€”while Locke & Key is some top-notch writing. Slam through all the volumes in a day and youâ€™ll be sitting up that night thinking both that youâ€™re glad you donâ€™t live in Key House and you kind of wish you did, too.
And, just realizing I lied about books that have penetrated my dreams: Douglass Cleggâ€™s Breeder did that as well. It just completely pulled me in, wouldnâ€™t let me go. And I think one of Laird Barronâ€™s stories from Imago Sequence did something to me as well, though thatâ€™s all happily repressed for the moment. And, looking back up at my list, now, I see thereâ€™s no Juâ€™on, thereâ€™s no Ringu. But maybe thatâ€™s just because, if Iâ€™m going to take my own medicine, somewhat, and at least mentally peel back through all of these, then those are two I donâ€™t want rattling around in my head when Iâ€™m trying to sleep again. Which Iâ€™m going to have to do at some point…
Stephen Graham Jones