NIGHTMARE LIBRARY: A Halloween Reading List

Greetings and felicitations, monster kids!

Here’s the idea.  It’s Halloween month, and I figured we could do our own book-club-type thing.  Or an advent calendar of horror, maybe.   Reading is good for you, reading horror is especially good for you (especially in October), and the Internet – for all the bad things it does – does provide access to a lot of literature that’s absolutely free. 

I read a lot of this stuff, so I know of some stories that people who who have lives aren’t as obsessed by this stuff may not have encountered, and somebody besides just me should be benefiting from my studies, so I’m going to link you to a story a day.  All you have to do is click it and read it, and, if you want, come back here and discuss what you read in the comments (that’s not required but it’ll make it more fun).

I wanted to make this easy so I stuck to only stories that I could find for free on the Internet.  I would have loved to throw in some Robert Aickman (particularly “Ringing The Changes”) and some Thomas Ligotti (especially “Gas Station Carnivals” and “The Clown Puppet”) and “Canavan’s Back Yard” by Joseph Payne Brennan and some Richard Matheson (“The Distributor” will wreck you, and “Graveyard Shift” is also incredible), and T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events At Poroth Farm,”  Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and “River of Night’s Dreaming,” plus a lot of other things… but, alas, I couldn’t find them online.  Your town should have a library, though – hit ‘em up.  If I’ve done a good job with this, you’re going to want more, anyway.  I recommend printing these out, but I'm old-school.  It just seems weird reading Victorian-era stuff on a computer... but, if you're cool with that, have at it.

I tried to stick to things that not everyone would be familiar with, which is why there’s a lot of obvious classic things missing from the list.  No Edgar Alan Poe, for instance – I love the guy, but we’ve all read “The Tale-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by now, right?  (If not, those are online and you should definitely read ‘em).  I thought about throwing “Bernice” in just because a lot of people missed that icky tale of tooth-fetishism, but, I dunno, I found enough other good stuff.  Some stuff here horror fans will still be familiar with (I can hear people going, “Do you think we haven’t heard of “The Willows” or Lovecraft?) but threw them in just in case.  I leaned heavily on the Victorians, partially because that’s where my own taste lies, but also because more of their things are public domain.  But I found a few newer things and even stuck in a few nasty ol’ pulp stories.  If the style of the older stories doesn’t appeal to you, tough it out – once you get a taste for them, you’ll want more.

I tried to relegate the longer stories to weekends when you’ll have more time.

The comment section is also a good place to pass along recommendations of your own.  I’m always looking for those.

And, of course, you don't have to look hard to find more horror stories here that we wrote.  If you have the time, read those, too!  

Anyway, enough babble, I think you get it.  Here’s the reading list:

October 1 (Tuesday)
Some guests at a party decide to play a hide-and-seek game in a house that’s haunted.  You figure out where this one’s going pretty early on but the writing’s so good that the final punch is still chilling even though it’s expected.   Creeps guaranteed.

October 2 (Wednesday)
A masterpiece of spooky atmosphere.  When his anchor gets stuck on something, a guy has to spend the night on a foggy river.  The ending just makes it all even more eerie.   This one’s haunted me since I was a kid and my dad just told me about it.   (If you want more, "The Horla" is also pretty great)

October 3 (Thursday)
Some college guys have problems with a creepy guy in their dorm who keeps a mummy in his room.  He says it’s for “study” but they’re pretty sure he has darker uses for it.  Doyle is as good at horror as he is at Sherlock Holmes, displaying an effective restraint, suggesting more than he shows, keeping the horror in the shadows or behind locked doors, making your mind fill in the blanks.  The “something passing on the stairs in the dark” scene is chilling.   If you like Doyle, he wrote a lot of horror.  “The Captain of the Pole Star” is recommended if you liked Dan Simmons’ The Terror and want to see what an early take on that might have looked like.

October 4 (Friday)
The desire to complete a set of plates bought at an estate sale leads a woman into a horrific situation when she pays a visit to a lonely, nasty-smelling eccentric in an old house.  Unsettling for sure.

October 5 (Saturday)
This one may be familiar, since a lot of people consider it the greatest ghost story ever written, but just in case you’re the “just-doing-this-for-Halloween” type I figured I should expose you to it.  A guy trying to write a play rents a room that he shouldn’t have.  It’ll certainly get to you when you discover the source of a sound he keeps hearing…

October 6 (Sunday)
You should really read everything by Lovecraft (go invest in one of those nice leatherbound copies you keep seeing at Barnes & Noble), but this one’s the one I come back to most often, just because of the atmosphere, which is unique.  A decaying seaside town of ill repute, where the residents have more wrong with them than just inbreeding, hides a horrible secret that builds to inexplicable eeriness.  It’ll change the way you see small towns by the sea.

October 7 (Monday)
Southern gothic reeking with madness, even if it’s not strictly horror.   The rotting-minds-in-rotting-mansions feel of it gets close enough to a nightmare, though, and if nothing else, you’ll fall in love with the writing.  Faulkner gets all the credit, but Welty is Mississippi’s real main gift to literature in my book.  Sorry the only copy I could find online is so crappy, formatting-wise, but it’s worth the effort.  Speaking of Faulkner, I’m not always a big fan of him, but “A Rose For Emily” is a creepy masterpiece, so if you have the time and inclination, read two stories tonight.

October 8 (Tuesday)
While we’re down South, here’s some atmospheric backwoods horror.  A couple of racist rednecks set out to kill a weird swamp-dweller who seems more catfish than human… and they learn that he has friends.  Warning: has some racist words thrown around, but don’t worry, the people using ‘em get their comeuppance.

October 9 (Wednesday)
A man keeps having terrible dreams about staying in a tower room… until real life catches up with his nightmares.  Benson’s a heavyweight in Victorian ghost story writing and he’s at his best here.  I had trouble limiting myself to just one story of his; he’s another you really need to invest in a complete collection of his stories, which, fortunately, can be gotten very cheaply.   The Face,”  Negotium Perambulans,” “Caterpillars,” “Mrs. Amworth,” and others are also very much recommended.

October 10 (Thursday)
I was so happy to find this online I can’t even tell you.   It’s a very creepy off-kilter-point-of-view story about a haunted, nervous loser who spends his vacations going to run-down “fun-fairs” and carnivals.  And one disappointing, almost-abandoned seaside carnival, he decides to ride The Ghost Train.  And, oh, he really shouldn’t have done that.  Darkly moody and displays Campbell’s skill at getting special effects on paper, and connecting to your subconscious.  Campbell’s writing can be so strange it’ll make you feel like you’re on LSD, and will disturb you without you even knowing why.   I wish I could find more of his stories online.  If you go in search of more of his stuff, I especially recommend “Call First,” “The Brood,” and “Again.”  (“Again” will mess you up.    That thing, aaaaagggh!   So freakin’ dark).  Campbell varies when it comes to novels, but his short stories tend to be brilliant.  You could do worse than picking up a collection or two.

October 11 (Friday)
Feel free to substitute “The Yellow Sign” for this, or read both – I had to toss a coin to decide which to go with.  “Repairer of Reputations” is just so strange that I went with it.  Set in a future (1920’s!) America, the world has been poisoned by an evil book, The King In Yellow, which drives its readers insane.  The narrator’s practically got it memorized.  He and his cohorts are planning an apocalyptic coup d’etat that will put the earth under the mystical King’s rule… but it’s soon clear that the narrator’s an insane megalomaniac and his perceptions can’t be trusted (at least, that’s what we hope).  Extremely weird, paranoiac tale seething with hints of a far more frightening story under the surface which isn’t being told.  Relentlessly dark nightmare-logic full of sinister implications.  “The Yellow Sign” is a bit more direct, but contains some of the sickest imagery you’ll find for its era.  I don't think you'll forget the bit about the finger.  And just about everything else Chambers wrote was frothy junk, so you can consider him a two-hit wonder.  But with hits like those, it should be enough for anybody.

October 12 (Saturday)
Classic vampire tale that’s been the source of nearly as many films as Dracula.  A girl’s new friend may be a centuries-old vampires.  There’s a surprising undercurrent of lesbianism.  One of the horror heavyweights, but I wanted to make sure everyone was exposed to it.  If you always meant to read it, now’s the time.

October 13 (Sunday)
Okay, this is gory junk and I’m not going to pretend it’s anything but, but… how could you not want to read a story with that title?   This is direct from one of the 1930’s “weird-menace shudder pulps” and it’s the real-deal kind of stuff that warped your grandparents when they were kids.   It’s not going to be mistaken for art of any kind, but, sometimes you want McDonalds for dinner, and sometimes you want a story with a lot of ripped-out eyeballs and gruesome misery.   In case you don’t, though, “A Room In A Rectory” by Sir Andrew Calecott may be substituted (it’s creepy but the prose is a bit tough).

October 14 (Monday)
Strangely disturbing tale of telegraph messages sent in the middle of the night from a doomed (and possibly nonexistent) town that’s been besieged by a rotten fog seeping up from a churchyard.  Has an unsettling feel, like a bad dream you sort-of remember.

October 15 (Tuesday)
Okay, this is pretty hardcore, even now, and caused such an uproar by upsetting Weird Tales’ readership that the controversy saved the magazine from folding in 1924… while almost getting it banned.  Possibly ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft, this is the nasty narrative of a necrophile whose lust for corpses to sleep with can’t be satisfied by working in the morgue, leading him to stalk the populace with a razor.  This is gonna weed a few people out.   If you don’t want to spend a few minutes inside the sick mind of a necrophiliac, substitute some E. F. Benson or M. R. James instead, no one will blame you.

October 16 (Wednesday)
Speaking of M.R., here he is.  Yes, this is one of the all-time classic ghost stories, but it’s so good I can’t stand the thought of anyone possibly missing out on James.  He’s another one of those ghost story writers where you really need to just buy a collection of all of his stories, which, again, is luckily pretty cheap.   It’s hard to pick just one of his stories.  I keep a complete collection of his stuff (this one, in fact - it's a beautiful little thing, hardback and just a bit bigger than a Gideon Bible) beside my bed in case I need some get-back-to-sleep reading.  (This volume is also good -- it's got all of James's stories, plus a whole lot more, including several of the authors posted here). I’ve read them all dozens of times and they never get old.  This one, in particularly, might make you afraid of doing your laundry…

October 17 (Thursday)
I was going to go with “The Summer People” but that one sometimes gets taught in English class, while “The Bus” is uber-creepy and has slipped through the cracks somehow.   It’s a disturbing, nightmarish episode in which a disagreeable old lady (who may be senile) encounters part of her past when she’s put off a bus in an unfamiliar town… and her past wants no more to do with her than her present.  Dark and dreamlike, you won’t shake it for a while… if ever.   (“The Summer People,” by the way, is also a masterpiece and will fill you with dread… but of what, you may never know.  A couple decide to stay at their vacation cabin past Labor Day, and… no one ever does that.   And neither should they.)

October 18 (Friday)
A grave robber finds he has some very nasty competition.  Nothing pretty about this punch-in-the-face pulp story, but it touches on several primal fears with no mercy given, and does it with style.

October 19 (Saturday)
You know how your medicines have an expiration date?   You’ll be heeding that when you’re done with this very nasty tale.   Ye godz.  This one is so nasty for its time period it’s almost bewildering.  If you liked Stephen King's "Grey Matter" you might be ready for this.

October 20 (Sunday)
Another one I was surprised and overjoyed to find online.   Didja know the Game of Thrones guy did horror?  Well, he does, and he will bother you.  An artist moves into a new apartment and becomes obsessed by a weird, unpleasant neighbor – a chubby, unclean creep who lives on Cheez Doodles and Coke and wants to show her his “things.”  The way he invades her life creates an unidentifiable menace that will make a hell of an impression.  Read it and you’ll start seeing pear-shaped men everywhere.   Since it’s Sunday and you have time, you’ll also like “Sandkings” by the same author, about a guy who has fun tormenting his strange little insect-creatures… until he pushes them too far.

October 21 (Monday)
I’ll admit that I don’t really know why this one is so creepy.  Maybe you can figure it out.  But, creepy it is.  A famous author (obviously patterned on Atherton’s friend Henry James, who must have been weirded out by this) with pedophile tendencies is obsessed with a portrait of a little girl in the gallery of an old house he bought.  Then he finds a real little girl who looks exactly like the painting and becomes so enamored of her that he wants to adopt her.  The past and present seem to converge.  This is a tough one to figure out because it’s very subtle and multi-layered… but it has a melancholy spookiness that’s hard to understand, even though it works.  For those who like their horror quiet.

October 22 (Tuesday)
A ship is visited by a rowboat from a nearby island, whose occupant refuses to be seen.  There’s a fungus amongus…   Really creepy.  If you have time, you can read a whole novel by Hodgson online, The House on the Borderland, about a guy battling weird pig-men who come out of a hole under his house.  Eventually time stops and the world dies for a while as centuries pass in minutes.  Hard to make sense out of part of it, but, it’s easier than trying to read The Night-Land.  “Voice in the Night” is much more straightforward.  If you like it and think, “Gee, I’d like some more ocean-related fungus stories, Hodgson seemed pretty obsessed by the idea, so try “The Derelict.”

October 23 (Wednesday)
If you don’t find snails icky, this one may not work on you.  But since everybody finds snails pretty icky, I betcha it will!    Another one I was surprised and happy to find online.

October 24 (Thursday)
This isn’t strictly horror, and is more of a “tall tale” by an early African-American author… but I love Chesnutt’s stuff, and this one’s always haunted me a bit.  It’s meant to be humorous at the end, but there’s nothing funny about the nightmarish plight of poor Ben, a runaway slave without much to eat but mud.  This involves dialect and some politically incorrect language, so if you can’t handle that even from an early Black author, you might pass on this one.  But you’d be missing out, because Chesnutt was a genius.  All of his stuff is recommended, not just the “conjure tales.”   "Dave's Neckliss" is another one that's supposed to be "funny" at the end, but which I find horrifying at the core.

October 25 (Friday)
We’re gonna do two today, because they’re both really short.   The first is “The Clock,” in which a person sent to retrieve a clock from a supposedly-empty house almost encounters… something.  I’m not sure what, but it’s skin-crawlingly creepy and I’m not even sure why.  It’s a masterpiece of carrying all the horror through sound, and it’s a short little nightmare that’s gonna bug you.
“Mujina” is a Japanese folk-tale with one hell of a final shock image.  Try not to picture it too hard…

October 26 (Saturday)
Another “I’m not really sure why this is so creepy, but it IS” story.   Two guys camping on a river which is overrun by willows pass into an area where the space between dimensions is worn thin, and they attract the attention of whatever’s on the other side.  The atmosphere of menace and dread grows, even though you’re not sure exactly what you’re scared of.  It’s not really an easy read but it’s one of those I go back and re-read every few months.  An important part of any horror fan’s education.

October 27 (Sunday)
CREEPY swampland horror from the creator of Conan.  Dudes stumbling down the stairs of abandoned antebellum mansions with a hatchet stuck in their head… and that’s just for starters.  “Pigeons can’t be scary!” you say?   Find out how wrong you can be!   As a bonus, “The Worms of theEarth” is also online, which is a Bran Mak Morn sword-and-sorcery tale but with some of the darkest horror aspects you can imagine – crawling hands, dark sorcery, you name it. 

October 28 (Monday)
It was a toss-up between this and “The Upper Berth” but I went with this tale of a skull who doesn’t let death stop its need for vengeance.  I read this when I was far too young to be reading it (in the classic Great Tales of Terror and The Supernatural, which I nagged my mom to buy me when I was about five – everybody needs this book in their house, it should be mandatory) and it messed me up good.  “The Upper Berth” is also very creepy, with inhabitants of a ship’s stateroom troubled by something cold and damp…

October 29 (Tuesday)
Oh, man, the madness in this story… it stays unsettling no matter how many times you read it.  Early feminist horror in which a woman is taken to an old estate to get over some post-partum depression, and is given the worst room possible by a husband who just doesn’t listen.  An obsession with the wallpaper – and a woman she thinks is creeping behind it – drives her to madness.  Chilling every damn time.

October 30 (Wednesday)
A student moves into an apartment where the previous residents hung themselves from a bar in the window.  He feels certain that he won’t do the same, and decides to keep a journal of his experiences in the room.  And it’s going to scare you to read it.

October 31 (Thursday)
It’s Halloween so we’re ordering a double.  I just couldn’t stand to leave either of these out of the main running.
In the first, a couple of smartypants ghostbusters insist o spending the night in the ruins of a haunted castle and end up facing far more horror than they bargained for.  The plot is standard but the payoff is strong, effective, and grim.  Classic.
In the second, a man working in the desert sees "Carkers" -- legendary little creatures at the corner of his vision.  Unfortunately for him, they don’t stay there.  And they like blood.  Damn spooky.

Some other stories that could just as easily have been included:
“The Signalman” by Charles Dickens – a worker on a trainline keeps seeing a figure.  Creepy atmosphere.
“The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker – add rats to a haunted house and you’re just sure to scare a reader.
“How Love Came To Professor Guildea” by Robert Hichens (a parrot sees things that his owner can’t… and a loathesome unseen idiotic thing seems to have a crush on him)
“The Mark of the Beast” by Rudyard Kipling (sounds like a werewolf story, but it’s something much creepier)
“Brickett Bottom” by Amyas Northcote (a couple of girls taking walks in the country see an old house that’s not supposed to be there.  One starts visiting it.  She shouldn’t.  Effective.  I especially like that one of the girls has bad vision and can’t really see the house clearly.)
"The Listener" by Algernon Blackwood (A man's new apartment seems haunted... and it is.  Creepy payoff).

“The Haunters and the Haunted, or The House and the Brain” by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Some ghost hunters get their nerves rattled trying to find out what’s haunting a notorious house.  Creepy!)