Ah, October — crisp nights, apple-picking, leaf-peeping, Halloween. To celebrate the spookiest season, we’ve made a list of the scariest novel set in every state.
Michael McDowell, “The Elementals”
Three elegant old houses loom over a remote, beautiful stretch of Alabama beach. Two of them are occupied by families who have arrived for the summer; the third, which is being slowly covered by encroaching dunes, is empty. Or is it?
Steve Niles, “30 Days of Night”
Illustrated by Ben Templesmith, this three-issue comic book series is set in a town so far north, the sun does not rise for a full month in midwinter. Naturally, it’s a beacon for vampires.
Bentley Little, “The Revelation”
First a priest vanishes, then someone desecrates the churches with goat’s blood and finally a creepy itinerant preacher arrives — which is when things take a really bad turn in a small town.
John Hornor Jacobs, “Southern Gods”
In the 1950s, a phantom radio station broadcasts blues tunes that drive people to do terrible things. “I felt like I could murder somebody when I heard that music,” one character says after hearing it for the first time. “It touched me, and I don’t mean in a good way.”
Alma Katsu, “The Hunger”
In this gritty reimagining of the Donner party’s westward crossing, someone — or something — begins dragging the ill-fated pioneers away from their encampment. When searchers find the bodies, there is “almost nothing left but the skeleton.”
Stephen King, “The Shining”
When Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie version was released in 1980, our critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt revisited the original King novel. “It isn’t often that a book and a film relate to each other in such an intriguing way,” he wrote. “We miss in the film Mr. King’s careful development of the fact that the hotel is steadily coming ‘alive’ to a degree that the ghosts, which at first only Danny could recognize, gradually gain the power to act physically.”
Thomas Tryon, “Harvest Home”
OK, OK. This tale of a New York City family moving to what appears to be an idyllic country hamlet is more campy than scary — back in 1973, our reviewer called it “about as terrifying as ‘The Brady Bunch,’” adding, “For the clincher, the folksy village dialogue would make any self-respecting New Englander gag on his boiled dinner.” Still, it’s full of ghastly, gruesome fun.
Chuck Palahniuk, “Fight Club”
Cynical, unremittingly dark and extremely intense, “Fight Club” tells the story of a young man whose after-hours boxing club, attended by other disaffected white-collar men, underscores the emptiness of modern society. This may not technically be a horror novel, but it will scare you nonetheless.
Michael McDowell, “Cold Moon Over Babylon”
Halfway through this small-town murder mystery, and “the killer is suddenly faced with the torn bodies of his victims, who have come back not to haunt him but exact vengeance,” wrote our reviewer in 1980.
Christopher Buehlman, “Those Across the River”
Frank Nichols, a veteran of the Great War who’s scrabbling to survive during the Depression, learns he’s about to receive an unexpected inheritance from an elderly aunt. “The house is yours, which you must sell,” she writes. “There is bad blood here, and it is against you for no fault of your own.” Of course, he moves in immediately.
Dan Simmons, “Fires of Eden”
After the rich, flamboyant businessman Byron Trumbo butchers a pristine stretch of coastline on the Big Island to build an ostentatious golf resort, he wants to sell it to a Japanese investor. There’s just one problem: Guests keep getting slaughtered.
Blake Crouch, “The Wayward Pines” trilogy
Ethan Burke, tasked with finding fellow Secret Service agents who vanished in a small Idaho town, arrives there and finds it … strange. For one thing, the whole place is surrounded by an electric fence. For another, his phone won’t work. And most alarmingly of all, why does he find it so difficult to leave?
Dan Simmons, “Summer of Night”
Every page in this heart-thumping horror novel — about five 12-year-old boys confronting an ancient evil lurking in their picture-postcard small town — is shot through with menace and nostalgia.
Michael Koryta, “So Cold the River”
Mineral water with occult powers flows through the pages of this eerie thriller, set at the gloomy (and very real) West Baden Springs Hotel in rural Indiana. Our critic, Janet Maslin, said it “does its best to deliver a King-size dose of scary.”
John Darnielle, “Universal Harvester”
Someone at the Video Hut “has been surreptitiously modifying the rentals, stitching mysterious, vaguely malevolent clips into the films,” wrote our reviewer, Joe Hill. He did not find the book frightening — “Darnielle’s aims are finally sweeter, quieter and more sensitive than one would expect from a more traditional tale of dread” — but I certainly did.
Scott Thomas, “Kill Creek”
As a Halloween publicity gimmick, a pop-culture website hires four famous horror writers to spend the night in a haunted farmhouse. Things do not go well for them. Thomas is adept at tapping into primal fear; if you’re one of those people who worry about what’s under the bed or behind the shower curtain, this book will keep you awake at night.
Charles Maclean, “The Watcher”
“If anyone had ever told me that I could be mesmerized by a story involving hypnosis and regression into ‘previous lives,’ I would have said such a person was a little crazy,” our critic, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, wrote in 1983. “Fortunately, no one ever did, so I don’t owe any apologies after reading Charles Maclean’s ‘The Watcher.’”
Poppy Z. Brite, “Exquisite Corpse”
The writer John Berendt called this novel “Extreme Southern Gothic, New Orleans Division,” telling The Times, “The protagonists of this dark French Quarter novel are knee-deep in murder, torture, sex and cannibalism. … Even arm’s-length readers are apt to find themselves being drawn further and further into the story — seduced in spite of themselves. Material that would be merely sick, disgusting and unreadable in the hands of a lesser writer is, with Brite at the controls, surprisingly erotic and captivating.”
Richard Matheson, “Hell House”
According to our reviewer in 1971, Matheson’s “walloping good” haunted-house tale avoids all the “dated trappings of the genre” and includes “the works, from A (apparitions) to Z (xenoglossy).”
Ronald Malfi, “Floating Staircase”
When Travis and his wife move into a lakeside home, everything is fine until Travis discovers that a boy who once lived there drowned — just as his kid brother did years ago.
Paul Tremblay, “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock”
In Tremblay’s eerie, deeply unsettling novel, a 14-year-old hanging out at a park with friends vanishes into the woods. There are no leads on his whereabouts — until his mother and friends begin to glimpse the boy’s skittering shadow, and disturbing pages from his journal scatter themselves on the floor at night.
Lauren Beukes, “Broken Monsters”
In her Detroit serial-killer thriller, “Beukes moves effortlessly through many of the city’s worlds, from police precincts to the internet-driven secret lives of teenage girls and the homeless shelters and mostly dead neighborhoods of a hobbled American city,” wrote our reviewer, “all while teasing a disturbingly beautiful and possibly supernatural universe existing at its borders.”
Tim O’Brien, “In the Lake of the Woods”
If you’ve ever been creeped out by stories of spouses who inexplicably “disappear” while camping or hiking, you’ll find this novel — about a wife who vanishes in rugged lake country after an argument with her husband — deeply unsettling.
Greg Iles, “Blood Memory”
Ping-ponging between a Natchez mansion and the streets of New Orleans, this serial-killer thriller may not be frightening, but it is deeply chilling.
Owl Goingback, “Crota”
When the first ripped-up bodies appear in Hobbs County, the sheriff speculates that there’s a man-eating bear on the loose. But bears aren’t native to the area. The Crota, a legendary Native American beast, is.
Dean Koontz, “Winter Moon”
As two parallel stories unwind — one set around a cop in Los Angeles, another around his dead partner’s father in rural Montana — Koontz ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level.
Stephanie Perkins, “There’s Someone Inside Your House”
After Makani Young moves in with her grandmother in Nebraska, her classmates at Osborne High begin to die at an alarming rate, and in very distressing ways.
R.S. Belcher, “The Six-Gun Tarot”
The only paranormal western on the list, “The Six-Gun Tarot” is set in the God-forsaken town of Golgotha, where something nasty is stirring in the depths of the old silver mine.
Joan Samson, “The Auctioneer”
Evil takes root in a bucolic farming community in this 1976 classic, which our reviewer called “not just a New England horror story but a modern parable as well.”
David Morrell, “Creepers”
A group of urban explorers — folks who break into unoccupied buildings for thrills — are in for some extremely unpleasant surprises when they venture inside an abandoned Asbury Park hotel.
Whitley Strieber, “Majestic”
Mined from real-life interviews and research, Strieber’s historical thriller imagines the purported 1947 crash of a U.F.O. in Roswell.
Victor LaValle, “The Ballad of Black Tom”
“LaValle’s short novel is a subversive reimagining of Lovecraft’s 1927 story ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ in which the fearsome creatures who ruled the earth before humanity are (perhaps) preparing for a comeback in Brooklyn,” our critic explained in 2016. “In this version of the Red Hook story, much more is awakened than a bunch of big ugly monsters, and the emotions LaValle evokes are well beyond what Lovecraft, even at his best, was capable of.”
Poppy Z. Brite, “Drawing Blood”
Missing Mile, N.C.: Years after his father massacred the rest of the family, the lone survivor, Trevor McGee, returns to the house where it happened to confront some all-too-real demons.
Sophie Littlefield, “The Missing Place”
This novel — about two mothers’ search for their missing sons in a desolate North Dakota oil town — doesn’t qualify as horror, but it’s one of the darkest, most disturbing thrillers you’ll ever read.
Thomas Cullinan, “The Bedeviled”
The plot may sound familiar — dire things happen after a family moves into their ancestral farmhouse — and you’ll encounter some familiar tropes, too: possession, satanic cults, exorcisms, hellish curses. But Cullinan fashions these standard ingredients into a blood-freezing tale.
Stephen King, “The Outsider”
What begins as a police procedural about the murder and mutilation of a child swiftly morphs into something much more sinister. “I don’t want to spoil anything, but come on, this is Stephen King,” our reviewer, Victor LaValle, wrote in 2018. “Monsters of one kind or another are what the man does best, and ‘The Outsider’ delivers a good one.”
Chelsea Cain, “Heartsick”
In the serial killer Gretchen Lowell — who’s hammering nails into some poor sop’s ribs when we first meet her — “Cain has created a femme fatale with an appetite for cruelty that will be difficult to surpass,” our reviewer said in 2007.
M.R. Carey, “Someone Like Me”
When she’s threatened, Liz is capable of murder. She says it feels like someone else “slipping inside her body and her mind and moving her like a puppet.” One moment you’re ready to attribute her episodes to the trauma she’s suffered; the next, you realize there’s something far more malicious fueling her anger.
Caitlín R. Kiernan, “The Drowning Girl”
At the heart of Kiernan’s beautiful, slow-burn ghost story is a fragile Providence teenager, a diagnosed schizophrenic who is being pursued by either a stalker or a siren.
Grady Hendrix, “My Best Friend’s Exorcism”
Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fifth grade — and ever since Gretchen got lost in the woods and had to spend a night there alone, she hasn’t been the same. Nothing, not even demonic possession, will come between the two girls.
Dan Simmons, “Black Hills”
This isn’t the kind of out-and-out terrifying novel Simmons is best known for; instead, it’s a quiet tale, laced with the supernatural, about a Sioux warrior possessed by the spirit of General Custer after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
William Gay, “Little Sister Death”
David Binder, a struggling writer, relocates his family to rural Tennessee, to a house “mantled with an almost indefinable sense of dissolution, profoundly abandoned, unwanted, shunned.” It’s haunted, of course, but Binder is too — and the demons in his brain are more malevolent than anything in the house. “Hunkered there in the darkness, he felt before himself a door, madness already raising a hand to knock.”
Joe R. Lansdale, “The Drive-In”
A crowded drive-in movie marathon turns into a B-movie horror-fest all its own, splattering the patrons in a blood-and-gore nightmare.
T.J. Tranchell, “Cry Down Dark”
Though the plot sounds ridiculous — a TV writer who’s still obsessed with his college girlfriend goes to her funeral and ends up buying her house, hoping she’ll return from the dead to join him — this is the kind of knife-edge story that will keep you up at night, startling at every noise.
Peter Straub, “Shadowland”
In this elegant, old-style horror novel, Dell and Tom — friends from boarding school — are spending the summer learning magic from Dell’s uncle, who, it turns out, is no hokey carnival magician: He’s dabbling in actual sorcery.
Steve Rasnic Tem, “Blood Kin”
Snake handlers, iron cages, preachers who speak in tongues: What starts out as the bleak tale of a young man coming home to Appalachia to care for his elderly grandmother ends as a supernatural-lashed tale of horror.
Tananarive Due, “The Good House”
Like most haunted houses, this one is “acting out some human transgression that happened in ages past,” our reviewer wrote in 2004. “Here, the transgression is a voodoo curse, a subject that provides Due with a unique microscope with which to study racism, greed, separation and communication breakdowns.”
William Peter Blatty, “The Exorcist”
Blatty’s tale of a possessed 11-year-old girl and the Jesuit priests who try to save her “is as superior to most books of its kind as an Einstein equation is to an accountant’s column of figures,” our critic wrote in 1971.
Davis Grubb, “The Night of the Hunter”
In this novel, a National Book Award finalist in 1955, an evil ex-con marries a young widow, hoping to find out where her late husband stashed the goods from his last heist. After killing her, he pursues her children.
Jac Jemc, “The Grip of It”
Julie and James should have known something was up when they first looked at the old Victorian house and their real estate agent dismissed an odd snarling sound with a wave of his hand: “That’s just the house settling.” Sure enough, they move in and disturbing things begin to happen — stains appear on the walls; rooms shift in size. Or do they? Julie and James have some slippery secrets. Are we watching psychosis develop, or true paranormal horror unfold?
David Morrell, “The Totem”
In the dusty cattle town of Potter’s Field, cows are being mutilated in an especially gruesome fashion. That’s bad enough, of course, but then people start getting mutilated, too.
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