It’s October, and nothing screams horror like October.
The spookiest time of year, there is no better reason to pick up a classic horror book than October. Horror, and particularly these classics of the genre, are rarely what readers would pick up for any given read. These terrifying scenarios are not light reads. They are chill-you-to-the-bone festivals of fear.
Pulling together these recommendations, I realized how few of these horrifying classics I’d read.
It’s time to pick up a few (starting with The Shining, of course).
1. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
During a business visit to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, a young English solicitor finds himself at the center of a series of horrifying incidents. Jonathan Harker is attacked by three phantom women, observes the Count’s transformation from human to bat form, and discovers puncture wounds on his own neck that seem to have been made by teeth. Harker returns home upon his escape from Dracula’s grim fortress, but a friend’s strange malady — involving sleepwalking, inexplicable blood loss, and mysterious throat wounds — initiates a frantic vampire hunt. The popularity of Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror romance is as deathless as any vampire. Its supernatural appeal has spawned a host of film and stage adaptations, and more than a century after its initial publication, it continues to hold readers spellbound.
2. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Few creatures of horror have seized readers’ imaginations and held them for so long as the anguished monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The story of Victor Frankenstein’s terrible creation and the havoc it caused has enthralled generations of readers and inspired countless writers of horror and suspense. With Shelley’s Frankenstein, she succeeded admirably in the task she set for herself: to create a story that, in her own words, “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
3. The Complete Tales and Poems, by Edgar Allen Poe
The life of American writer Edgar Allan Poe was characterized by a dramatic series of successes and failures, breakdowns and recoveries, personal gains and hopes dashed through, despite which he created some of the finest literature the world has ever known. Over time his works have influenced such major creative forces as the French poets Charles Baudelaire and Andre Gide, filmmaker D.W. Griffith and modern literary legend Allen Ginsberg. Best known for his poems and short fiction, Poe perfected the psychological thriller, invented the detective story, and rarely missed transporting the reader to his own supernatural realm. He has also been hailed posthumously as one of the finest literary critics of the nineteenth century.
4. Carmilla, by J. Sheridan LeFanu
Generally acknowledged as a major influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this novel, originally published in 1872, is the very first vampire thriller. Le Fanu, often compared to Poe, was a Victorian writer whose tales of the occult have inspired horror writers for more than a century. Seemingly by happenstance, the mysterious and beautiful Carmilla comes to stay with the young and virtuous Laura. Laura, who has been living a lonely existence with her father in an isolated castle, finds herself enchanted with her exotic visitor. As the two become close friends, however, Laura dreams of nocturnal visitations and begins to lose her physical strength. Through much investigation, the gruesome truth about Carmilla and her family is revealed. Though the basic premise of the story, that of evil targeting pure innocence, is familiar to anyone who is vampire savvy, this haunting tale is surprisingly fresh, avoids cliche and builds well to its climax. Particularly interesting are the sexual overtones that develop between the two women. Follows’s reading is flawless. In particular, her ability to capture Laura’s naivet? so convincingly will have listeners feeling almost as shocked as Laura as the unwholesome truth unravels.
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
In this celebrated work, his only novel, Wilde forged a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde’s most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind.
6. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Widely recognized as one of literature’s most gripping ghost stories, this classic tale of moral degradation concerns the sinister transformation of two innocent children into flagrant liars and hypocrites. The story begins when a governess arrives at an English country estate to look after Miles, aged ten, and Flora, eight. At first, everything appears normal but then events gradually begin to weave a spell of psychological terror.
One night a ghost appears before the governess. It is the dead lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess. Later, the ghost of Miss Jessel herself appears before the governess and the little girl. Moreover, both the governess and the housekeeper suspect that the two spirits have appeared to the boy in private. The children, however, adamantly refuse to acknowledge the presence of the two spirits, in spite of indications that there is some sort of evil communication going on between the children and the ghosts.
Without resorting to clattering chains, demonic noises, and other melodramatic techniques, this elegantly told tale succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tingling suspense and unspoken horror matched by few other books in the genre. Known for his probing psychological novels dealing with the upper classes, James in this story tried his hand at the occult — and created a masterpiece of the supernatural that has frightened and delighted readers for nearly a century.
7. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
In September of 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson, then in his mid-thirties, moved with his family to Bournemouth, a resort on the southern coast of England, where in the brief span of 23 months he revised A Child’s Garden of Verses and wrote the novels Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. An intriguing combination of fantast thriller and moral allegory, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydedepicts the gripping struggle of two opposing personalities — one essentially good, the other evil — for the soul of one man. Its tingling suspense and intelligent and sensitive portrayal of man’s dual nature reveals Stevenson as a writer of great skill and originality, whose power to terrify and move us remains, over a century later, undiminished.
8. The Shining, by Stephen King
Jack Torrance’s new job at the Overlook Hotel is the perfect chance for a fresh start. As the off-season caretaker at the atmospheric old hotel, he’ll have plenty of time to spend reconnecting with his family and working on his writing. But as the harsh winter weather sets in, the idyllic location feels ever more remote . . . and more sinister. And the only one to notice the strange and terrible forces gathering around the Overlook is Danny Torrance, a uniquely gifted five-year-old.
(And of course, if you read The Shining, remember to come back October 31 for our book club discussion!)
9. Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin
Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a special shine to them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets’ circle is not what it seems…
10. At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft
At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, written in February/March 1931 and rejected that year by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright on the grounds of its length. It was originally serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories. It has been reproduced in numerous collections. The story details the events of a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic continent in September 1930, and what was found there by a group of explorers led by the narrator, Dr. William Dyer of Miskatonic University. Throughout the story, Dyer details a series of previously untold events in the hope of deterring another group of explorers who wish to return to the continent. The novella’s title is derived from a line in “The Hashish Man,” a short story by fantasy writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany: “And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness…” The story has inadvertently popularized the concept of ancient astronauts, as well as Antarctica’s place in the “ancient astronaut mythology”.