In the spirit of the month, I would like to offer my recommendations for some fine October reading material. This is not a list of the ‘greatest’ or ‘most influential’ horror novels ever written (although many of these titles certainly qualify for both accolades); it is merely a small offering, a snippet of a much longer ‘required reading’ syllabus that exists in my head. Books I would lend to a good friend — as long as I was sure of getting them back, of course.
Many of these books are still in reprint, and are easily available. One or two might require some browsing online or at your local used bookstore to procure a copy. (I, of course, believe it would be well worth your time to do so.)
Here, then, are ten highly recommended books, in the order in which they were originally published. A little peek into my library, if you will….
Happy Halloween from the editors!
I Am Legend : Richard Matheson, 1954
“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
With this sentence, one of the most influential horror novels of the past fifty years grasped readers by the throat and refused to let go. Vampires? Zombies? You decide. But the two movies made from this material (The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man) could not even approach the brilliance of the original. I would go so far as to say that one of the staples of the horror-movie genre, Night Of The Living Dead, could not have evolved without the direct influence of Matheson’s seminal work. If you have never actually read the book, do so now. At around 160 pages, it’s usually reprinted with several Matheson short stories, which is never a bad thing — Matheson isn’t considered a ‘grandmaster’ of horror for nothing.
The Haunting Of Hill House : Shirley Jackson, 1959
There are ghost stories, and there are ghost stories. Shirley Jackson reinvented the genre with this book, and it cannot be convincingly translated to the screen, despite efforts of varying success. The subtle and yet inescapable descent into the ‘haunting’ of the title is a function of the writing, and any attempt to take it out of the realm of the reader’s imagination is doomed to fail.
Some Of Your Blood : Theodore Sturgeon, 1961
Due to the very existence of this nasty little piece of work, you can probably thank Theodore Sturgeon, in some small way, for the prevalence of the ‘serial killer’ novel in your local bookstore. Sturgeon, though, was a far better craftsman than most of the writers who followed in the tradition of this story. Short, sharp, and utterly disturbing, this book is still a harsh slap to the reader’s face, even if some of the psychological explanations toward the end of the novel might seem dated.
Something Wicked This Way Comes : Ray Bradbury, 1962
Bradbury does ‘coming of age’ stories in his sleep, it seems. He has a masterful eye for the terrors of youth, whether hidden or fully realized.
Something Wicked… has been remembered by some as a fairytale of youth, an understanding of the failure of the father figure, a darker version of the Tom Sawyer ideal, even. It is often referred to as a novel in the Young Adult pantheon.
Read it. Or, if you recall it fondly but vaguely from your youth, read it again. I submit that this book was not written for the young, but for those who have spent some time on the planet, those who understand fear and temptation and the terrible specter of Death.
There are indelible images in this book that will haunt you long after the last page turns.
The House Next Door : Anne Rivers Siddons, 1978
Anne Rivers Siddons no longer writes in the horror field, but during her short venture into the genre, she produced this disturbing ‘haunted house’ novel. Like The Hauntung Of Hill House, this novel posits a unique question, namely: can a house be an evil place simply by virtue of being constructed?
Ghost Story : Peter Straub, 1979
Peter Straub has long been acknowledged as one of the prime mainstays of modern horror. Although his writing is always strong, Ghost Story remains his masterpiece — an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink extravaganza of terror, incorporating ghosts, shapeshifters, revenge, murder, and an evil entity that remains stunningly unique in the annals of the genre.
The Elementals : Michael McDowell, 1981
Michael McDowell is no longer with us — he died due to AIDS complications in 1999 — but while he wrote horror, he was one of the best the genre had to offer. Although all of his novels are worth your time, The Elementals stands as a testimony to his strengths as a writer. The Deep South setting, the eccentric, cursed family, the hints of old evils that will not remain hidden, all come together in a feverish nightmare of a novel.
Fevre Dream : George R. R. Martin, 1982
Some people believe that Anne Rice defined the vampire genre with the Lestat books. I beg to differ. Martin’s Fevre Dream, about a Mississippi riverboat captain and the vampire who hires him for a certain ‘business proposition’ is one of the finest takes on the nosferatu legend you will ever read. Set in the 1800’s and loaded with period atmosphere, the novel gives a frighteningly realistic account of a vampire hero that tries to convince his kindred to change their ways. Impeccable.
Usher’s Passing : Robert McCammon, 1984
In the eighties, the horror field was dominated by an unholy triumvirate of authors: King, Koontz, and McCammon. Taking an overview of their works during the period, McCammon was arguably the strongest writer of the bunch.
Usher’s Passing was not his most successful novel, but it remains one of his creepiest, most original works. This examination of the descendents of Poe’s Usher family is deliciously nasty, sometimes literally so — for example, you’ll never think of Mulligan stew the same way after reading this one….
Family Portrait (aka Picture Of Evil) : Graham Masterton, 1985
Like Usher’s Passing, this novel continues the line of a famous literary character, in this case Dorian Gray. While McCammon’s novel is somewhat subtle, relying more often on what you don’t see for impact, Masterton’s volume is graphic, sometimes brutally so. What it lacks in subtlety, though, it makes up for in purely visceral shocks as Masterton explores the activities of a family that will do anything to stay young.