A Halloween Horror Novel Reading List 'n' such

Figured I'd go the book-review route this time, since I review every book I read just like I review the movies I watch. This isn't meant as a "best horror novels ever" list or anything exhaustive, since it's obviously missing lots of heavyweights (no Dracula, no Stephen King, etc.) that would have to be on any such list. It's just a list of some really good titles that may have escaped your attention (and the well-known Haunting of Hill House, just 'cuz) that you may want to pick up next time you're in a used book store or at a library sale. If nothing else, they're good things to be aware of, just to help ward off the mainstream of society, wherein all evil dwells. You can probably still find 'em and read 'em all before Halloween, since there are still a couple of weeks. It's nothing you couldn't achieve with the right combination of determination and meth amphetamines to ward off sleep. Staying awake for two weeks might kill you, but is "he sure was well-read" really such a bad epitaph? I say thee nay! So I encourage you to go forth and do bad things, knowing full well that my advice shall be disregarded as the "easy for you to say" rantings of a madman.


Night in the Lonesome October - Richard Laymon (Leisure 2002)
This was Richard Laymon's last book and it will make you even sadder about his death, because he was obviously at the top of his game when he died; this may be his best book. Ed Logan has been dumped by the love of his life and, despondent, takes a long walk late one night and sees a beautiful girl that he becomes obsessed with seeing again... even though he learns that at night his town is full of very strange people, including cannibalistic "trolls" under bridges, an evil sadist who wants to rape Ed's new girlfriend (and Ed as well!), a crazy old lady on a bicycle, a van full of predators, a scary clown named Sunny Boy, and the girl Ed's stalking, who likes to sneak around in people's houses while they sleep. Soon Ed the lonely college boy has more company than he knows what to do with -- even a gay classmate who has the hots for him. Seems there's a whole 'nother world going on while most of us are sleeping. As usual, Laymon doesn't balk at the horrific, although there's not as much violence in this as Laymon's usual; the horror here is more creepy than gory. His usual adolescent preoccupation with copping-a-feel is still in evidence, but if you're a Laymon fan you're used to that. Anyway, this is going out on a high note; you'd be hard pressed to find a more entertaining and gripping book. ****

The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck - Alexander Laing (1934)
Surprisingly grotesque (especially for its time) horror purporting to be a manuscript written by a medical student. Gideon Wyck is a top doctor at a medical school, and is one incredibly nasty bastard; he performs unnecessary amputations, does medical experiments on girls he impregnates so they'll give birth to monstrosities that he can study, and has glands transplanted inside him to try to keep himself young. When Wyck's body is found dead and inexpertly embalmed in the school's dissection room, it's a big mystery who killed him, since so many people would have reasons to do it. To make things more complicated, there's a crazed blood donor who goes insane whenever anyone who's gotten his blood dies, and one of Wyck's illegitimate sons is also crazy and homicidal. The medical knowledge seems accurate, and there's plenty of morbidity and sickness, and even some gruesome gore. It gets a little bogged down in the second half, but the rest is full of unflinching sick ideas that make it ahead of its time. It's an obscure and mostly-forgotten novel that's really hard to find in its uncut form, and may cost you some money to acquire, but it's worth the hunt. I consider myself very lucky to have even found the mold-and-mildew-encrusted copy I scored at a library sale, even though I have to keep it in a plastic bag sequestered from the rest of my library. Some enterprising somebody is really missing the boat by not re-printing this one. ***1/2

The Girl Next Door - Jack Ketchum (Warner, 1989)
Maybe the most harrowing book you'll ever read, this novel is based on the real-life torture murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens by crazy old bat Gertrude Baniszewski. Ketchum's narrator was a boy living next to a house where a young neighbor girl and her sister are being abused by the lady who'd been hired to take care of them after the death of their parents. The lady hates the girls with a pathological passion, and involves the neighborhood kids in the torture, especially of the older girl. The neighborhood secret turns into a game that gets worse and worse, but nobody tries to stop it or tell anyone what's going on, even though a few of the participants (our narrator, especially) are horrified by the direction it's taking. Few books have the power this one does, and it's going to hurt you. This book was an especially brutal right-hook when it came out in the 80's, because Warner put a very silly cover on it; a painting of a skull-faced cheerleader gave you no warning of what was lurking past the cover. (Ketchum truly hated that cover painting, by the way). ****

Song Of Kali (Tor, 1985)
A guy who works for a literary magazine is sent to Calcutta, India, with his wife and infant daughter in order to pick up a manuscript of an epic poem written by a famed Bengal poet, M. Das, who had supposedly died years before. In trying to meet the engimatic poet, he runs afoul of a ruthless cult which worships Kali, goddess of death and destruction, and he lives to regret it... and that's putting it mildly. The atmosphere in this book is like no other -- it breathes down your neck, and has some serious halitosis. I know he's describing Calcutta, but it may as well be the Luciferian kingdom of Dis -- this is truly one hellish travelogue, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Indian Board of Tourism tried to ban this sucker. You get a strong urge to take a long hot shower after reading this book, because the detail is so rich and immersive that it's like Simmons is dragging you kicking and screaming through one of the nastiest places on Earth. I mean, you could probably get germs just from reading this -- do recommendations come any higher? So get a tetanus shot and seek this out, 'cuz it's a must if you dig quality darkness. ****

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson (1959)
A mousey, shelf-absorbed dishrag of a woman, Eleanor, is invited by a professor to join a group of people who are studying the infamous Hill House, a house so haunted, evil, and "not sane" that nobody'll live within a mile of it, and few are willing to spend more than a few daylight hours there, much less a night. The geometry of the floorplan is all wrong, there are cold spots, something unseen knocks and writes on the walls, mumbles insanely and ceaselessly in empty rooms, and holds hands with Eleanor in the dark... and worst of all, it seems to want her. And Eleanor's not all that damn stable in the first place -- she's hanging on by her fingernails and the spirit of Hill House is tugging on her ankle... get the picture? What more can I say? This is a total classic that deserves its reputation (hell, the opening paragraphs cemented it as one of the all-time best horror novels on the strength of their prose alone). The writing is genius (although a bit odd -- Eleanor is such a freak) and this is essential reading for any serious student of supernatural (or psychological) fiction. ****

The Store - Bentley Little (Signet, 1998)
Oh, I betcha Wal-Mart doesn't have the balls to keep this book in stock. A small town is invaded by The Store, an all-powerful discount chain store that people are all excited about at first, since it'll bring in new jobs and stock new items, cheap. But soon The Store is bankrupting all the locally-owned businesses because they can't compete, and if the small businesses take to long to knuckle under, they may get a visit from The Night Managers -- pale zombielike clones dressed in black and carrying knives. And The Store undermines the moral fiber of the town with the sleazy things it sells: there are M-80 firecrackers in the toy department, racist video games in electronics, and kiddie-porn snuff films in the videos. And the employees are forced to join The Store's strange cult, worshiping the founder and taking part in demented sadistic rituals. One man who doesn't like The Store, a stand-up guy named Bill Davis, sees his town going to hell as The Store gradually takes control of the local government, the police department, and everything else. Soon there's nowhere else for anyone to work, including both of Bill's daughters, and The Store doesn't allow employees to quit. And then they offer Bill a Store of his own... Absolutely brilliant, horrifying satire that ratfucks Wal-Mart by not having to deviate all that far from the way they actually work. Little's novels are hit-or-miss, either masterworks or mediocre, but when he hits the mark (usually by taking on some societal institution), it's devastating. Also recommended from Little are The Ignored (a guy learns that nobody's paying attention to him so, out of desperation, he dresses in a clown suit and murders his boss. When even that doesn't get him noticed, he realize that he is the "Average American" and becomes part of a network that decides things like the Billboard Top 100, the bestseller list, etc.), The Mailman ( a sinister mailman causes chaos by not delivering bills or junk mail anymore, and eventually starts delivering hate mail and porn and even body parts; nightmarish stuff), The Association (a homeowner's association turns a young couple's life into hell by making them conform to neighborhood rules), or The Policy (a supernaturally-powerful insurance company takes over the lives of their policy-holders, and subjects them to all kinds of terrible stuff... just like real insurance companies do!) ****

The Keep - F. Paul Wilson (Berkley, 1982)
Something in a Rumanian keep is killing off the Nazis who are occupying it during World War II. Desperate for help, they bring in a crippled Jewish professor and his daughter, and discover that the keep is housing an evil, which at first seems to be a vampire but is something far worse, and if it's not stopped then the world will be damned. Very well-written horror with powerful creepy scenes and a convincing aura of menace throughout. One of the more important horror novels of the 80's, which got unfortunate treatment by a too-dull movie adaptation that was more noted for a Tangerine Dream soundtrack than anything else. ****

Harvest Home - Thomas Tryon (Knopf, 1973)
Very well-written gothic horror in which a painter and his family move into a small New England town where people take their corn-planting seriously and have a lot of rituals connected with it... rituals better left unexplored by curious outsiders. This appears to have been an inspiration for Stephen King's "Children of the Corn," which spawned way too many movies, but this was turned into a two-night miniseries in 1978, starring Bette Davis. The movie's good, but the book's even better, since Tryon is a master of technique and should be carefully read by anyone who wants to write horror themselves. Also seek out his even-more essential The Other. ****

Wire Mesh Mothers - Elisabeth Massie (Leisure Books, 2001)
I liked Massie's earlier Sineater a lot, so I knew this would be good... but I didn't know it would blow me out of the water! The story is the kind of no-holds-barred violence that Richard Laymon always came up with (and I love Laymon, so that's a big compliment), but the writing is even better and there's more depth. Troubled schoolteacher Kate McDolen has a little breakdown at work because the kids in her class are such mean little shits, so she decides to quit and make a difference by kidnapping an abused little girl named Mistie, so she can take her somewhere safe. But this ill-fated plan turns into a torturous nightmare when they get stuck with Tony, a misogynistic young girl who's on the run from a convenience store robbery that turned into murder. The kidnapper becomes the kidnapped as Tony demands that Kate drive her to Texas, and since Tony is a teacher-hating psychopath, she does everything she can to make Kate miserable on the way. Massie knows no limits to the amount of suffering she'll put her characters through, and she keeps the violence realistic to make it even more shocking. Amidst all this dark nihilism (it's horror, but it's not traditional horror -- no supernatural stuff) there are some feminist statements, comments on the effects of child abuse, and about what it is to be a mother... and what it's not. But Massie deadpans it and doesn't preach, making it all the more powerful. I'm jealous of the whole thing. ****

Cold Moon Over Babylon - Michael McDowell (Avon, 1980)
A typically-excellent McDowell blend of horror and Southern gothic. The Larkins, a family who barely manage to scrape a living out of their blueberry farm, are the target of a man in a black leather mask. He gets them all in grotesque ways and throws their bodies into the river, but their soggy corpses (one is a spirit made of black river water) come back to get revenge. That's the main gist of the story, but McDowell's writing turns it into a masterpiece. The scary scenes are atmospheric and inventive, and also highly effective. McDowell is also a master of characterization and setting -- it all seems very realistic. Even more recommended is The Elementals (dealing with horrific events in an isolated spot on the Gulf Shores and a huge old house filling with sand) and his Blackwater saga (six books telling the story of a family of people who sometimes change into river monsters), or Toplin (a really wacky-fucked-up tale of neurotic obsession like nothing else I've ever read; dare you spend time inside the head of a narrator so fastidious he takes his doors off their hinges every week or so so he can clean the underside of them properly?) Any McDowell novel is a must-buy, and it's tragic that they're out of print now. Somebody needs to re-issues these in hardback collections, because they're as good as it gets. ****

Summer of Night - Dan Simmons (Warner, 1992)
Stephen King's got "The Body," and Robert R. McCammon has Boy's Life, and now Dan Simmons has his own "childhood novel" -- and the main difference is that this one's scary! In fact, it's one of the scariest and best horror novels of the 90's. Six eleven-year-olds spend the summer of 1960 at war with packs of seemingly-unstoppable zombie-type monsters who apparently (the book never says for certain) were spawned by the evil in an ancient bell in their old school's tower. Not only are they tormented by the revived (and mutated) dead, but giant lamprey-like worms burrow under the ground to eat them (yes, they're a direct rip-off from Tremors and I think maybe the book would have been better without them, but hey, they're still pretty effective). The kids form into a sort of combat unit to try to stop their town from becoming monsterville. Simmons' writing isn't quite as flashy as King's or McCammon's -- it's a sort of meat-and-potatoes style -- but he has an excellent imagination and manages to round out most of his main characters well, which isn't easy since there's so many of them. The horror scenes are numerous and effective, and this book is an essential epic. ****

Bad Ronald - John Holbrook Vance (Ballantine, 1973)
Completely way-cool horror novel with a compulsively-readable plotline. On his 17th birthday, a creepy mama's boy named Ronald Wilby rapes and kills an 11-year-old girl. Mom decides to hide him, so they wall off the bathroom under the stairs into an undetectable secret room. But then mom dies and a new family -- with three attractive girls -- moves in and Ronald is still in his hideaway and becoming increasingly twistoid. Very effectively written, plausible suspense that is very hard to put down. Highly recommended, as is the excellent (though watered-down) TV movie adaptation. This one is due for a reprint from some enterprising publisher, since the old beat-up paperbacks are selling for around $100 each online. I got lucky and snagged one at a used bookstore for about a buck back in the day. ****

The Woodwitch - Stephen Gregory (St. Martin's Press, 1989)
Completely weird and strikingly original horror that captures an effective atmosphere of dementia. Andrew Pinkney is frustrated by his impotence to the point of violence, so he takes some time off and goes to the Welsh countryside to stay in a moldering old cabin. There he becomes obsessed with raising stinkhorns, a nasty breed of mushrooms that look a helluva lot like an erection. To do this, he must also raise flies to fertilize them, so soon he's collecting rotten dead animals and hanging them on meathooks in the woodshed. Obsession slowly creeps into full-blown dementia and, finally, violence. Slow going at times, but never really boring, mainly because the writing is so excellent, especially the detailed descriptions of rot. Something different, and definitely recommended. Gregory's The Cormorant is also very odd and worth looking for. ****

Creekers - Edward Lee (Zebra, 1994)
Completely excellent, gore-and-deformity-drenched horror with lots of surprising plot twists and plenty of suspense. A cop who was set up in the killing of a kid finally finds another police job, doing undercover work in a small redneck town where a PCP ring is being run by a grotesquely-deformed clan of inbreds, known as Creekers. After a brief set-up this goes into high gear, building a scary web of intrigue and extreme brutality, and lots of sex, too. Good hardcore stuff, with intelligent writing and no punches pulled. For a while old paperback copies of this were fetching stupid money online, but it's since been reprinted. That's not cheap, either, but is worth it for fans of no-fucking-around horror. ****

Drawing Blood - Poppy Z. Brite (Dell, 1994)
Obsessed with discovering why his famous underground cartoonist father killed everyone else in his family with a hammer, a young artist named Trevor returns to the North Carolina town where the killings took place, 20 years later. He hooks up with a computer hacker who's on the run from the feds, and the two become boyfriends (the homosexual love scenes here are very graphic, putting it out of reach for anybody with any homophobia in ‘em) while living in the houses where the killings took place. The house is haunted and whatever's there may be trying to turn Trevor into a killer like his father. Beautifully written, full of every sensual detail imaginable and rife with counterculture paraphernalia (everything from comics to Charlie “Bird” Parker to lots and lots of drug use), and even better than Poppy’s earlier Lost Souls, because it’s not as glamorized. The prose is a perfect balance between form and substance. The trend of almost no female characters and male characters who come across as more female than male continues, though, and it gets a little overbearing... but, that’s Poppy’s obsession, so just roll with it. Unfortunately, Poppy has abandoned horror and I’ve got no use for her silly new stuff at all, but her first three novels and early short-story collections are treasures worth seeking out. ****

Survivor - J. F. Gonzalez (Leisure, 2006)
Intense, extremely dark hardcore horror dealing with snuff films. A woman named Lisa is kidnapped by sick-minded creeps who plan to torture her to death on camera. She manages to escape the situation by doing something really reprehensible, but she may not be able to live with it... even if the vengeful filmmakers who are tracking her down would let her. Effectively written and isn’t afraid to roll right over taboo limits. Definitely not for everybody, but rewarding if you can handle it. ***1/2

The Conqueror Worms - Brian Keene (Leisure, 2006)
For some reason (refreshingly barely speculated about, much less explained) it starts raining all over the globe and never stops. The Earth becomes flooded, with only the highest points left above water. An old man named Teddy Garnett writes a narrative of it all from a mountain cabin as he waits to die, describing how he, his friend Carl, and some other survivors battled giant earthworms and sea creatures that were running rampant as part of an apparent apocalypse. It’s kind of a combination of Tremors, Night of the Living Dead, and Waterworld, and it works perfectly. Keene’s still in love with the apocalyptic scenarios, but he handles giant hellspawn monsters even better than he does carnivorous zombies. Good one. Also check out his escaping-a-zombie-apocalypse-by-going-to-sea novel, Dead Sea, which is a fun read. *** 1/2

Off Season - Jack Ketchum (Leisure, 1980)
Infamously gory and brutal horror novel has been tamed down a little by time and desensitization, but at the time it landed Ketchum a Richard-Laymon-like reputation for literary ruthlessness. A group of vacationers in backwoods Maine meet up with a clan of feral, inbreeding cannibals who’ve been living in a cave and hunting and eating anyone they can catch, sometimes keeping them alive long enough for degenerate extracurricular activities. The vacationers end up on the losing end of a Night of the Living Dead-style barricaded-house situation, then one of the guys tries to rescue his girlfriend, who’s been taken back to their cave. Nobody will emerge from this scenario unscathed. The first edition was trimmed of a few of the nastiest details, but they’ve been restored in the reprinting. Ketchum pulls no punches, but he’s become a better writer in the years since this was published, so while this is well-written, a lack of effective characterization of the victims robs it of a little potential impact. Still, it’s a classic of extreme brutality horror lit. The new edition includes a bonus short story, “Winter Child,” which is not bad and somewhat related to this book and its sequel, Offspring. ***

The Traveling Vampire Show - Richard Laymon (Leisure, 2001)
Laymon’s last book to come out stateside before he died is firmly in the Laymon tradition -- it’s great and you’re not gonna be able to put it down. As is the case with most Laymon, it takes place in a 24-hour span and is filled with maybe a little too much “puberty” (no disrespect to the dead, especially an author I love this much, but I wonder if Laymon might not have died of terminal horniness) and plenty of gore. Three kids in the late 50’s/early 60’s decide to visit a traveling vampire show that comes to their town, and if they’re lucky they’ll live to regret that. And that’s basically it, other than that this is kind of Laymon’s version of something like Stephen King’s “The Body.” It ain’t art, but you’d have a tough time finding a better-page turner... unless maybe you went to some other Laymon novel, since all of his stuff tends to be that way. That’s a good thing. A friend of mine who’s into horror said this was one of the scariest damn things she ever read, so intense she almost couldn't finish it. ****

As an added bonus, a cavalcade of semi-Halloweeny YouTube clips:

Some guy's homemade vid for ever-sinister Fuzztones damn-creepy song, "Charlotte's Remains" (the vid's not so much, but absorb the brilliant lyrics!)

The Fuzztones do Screamin' Lord Sutch's "Jack The Ripper":

Lord Sutch's orginal, which is damn disturbing for the time period:

The White Stripes vicious, amplifier-destroying version of same:

The Fuzztones are so damn sinister-vibed that even songs with non-scary topics somehow come across as nightmarish when you see 'em:

This isn't creepy, but it's a good cover of one of the world's seriously-malevolent, nasty-ass instrumentals, "Blue's Theme" from The Wild Angels:

In its original glory (how can ya not love this goddamn song?):

Classic Misfits, "Skulls":

And the brilliant Dax Rigg's disturbing deliberately-fucked-up interpretation of the same, followed by his own "Ouroboros":


  1. With this post, the Halloween season is officially here! Been catching up on horror fiction I've always meant to read, so this list is much appreciated. Also want to recommend Rosemary's Baby for anyone who hasn't read it. Very well written, suprisingly taut and subtle and efficient. The sequel sucks, though, as they often do. Also also finally read The Amityville Horror, which is poorly written and that's especially unfortunate since the story could be gripping. Also also also, I highly recommend the novel Let the Right One In, the unique Swedish vampire tale upon which the semi-famous movie is based; it's scary and disturbing and gross and completely engaging. Also also also also, I made a habit as a teenager of reading the novels upon which famous horror movies were based (or sometimes vice versa). I remember the novels of Halloween, Halloween 2, Poltergeist, and The Howling being excellent. Just FYI.

  2. I love Rosemary's Baby! Movie or book, both are great. I haven't read Amityville Horror in years, but I loved it as a kid and read it about a dozen times. It was the most expensive book I'd bought at the time - I'd read an article on it in a friend's National Enquirer and couldn't stand to wait for the paperback, so I bought it in hardback. I think it was $5.95 or something, which seemed ridiculously expensive at the time. Scared the hell out of me. Haven't read Let The Right One In yet, but like the movie much. I used to read novelizations, too... I remember getting in some trouble in first grade 'cuz I was reading the novelization of the Tales From The Crypt movie. I liked the Omen books, too...

  3. Another great and totally useful post. You've now got me searching out Tryon's Harvest Home (a New England-based Wicker Man?) and oh my how great Bentley Little's The Store does sound. Keep these kind of posts coming, I can always use more recommendations about where to tie off a sweet horror fix.