My Ultimate Horror Fiction Reading List (Part 1 of 2)
Here Are 50 Weird and Creepy Books for Halloween
If I ran a bookstore, I’d keep lots of horror stories on the shelves. This isn’t just a measure of my gruesome tastes—okay, maybe a little bit—but it’s also a smart money move.
That’s because horror is big business.
Consider the fact that horror movies have the best return on investment of any film genre—as demonstrated recently by analytics guru Daniel Parris in his Substack newsletter Stat Significant. Horror movies generate twice the rate of return of action or romance or sci-fi films.
Why do scary movies make so much money?
My best guess is that they’re like Christmas songs, with recurring seasonal income. Even if you hate those holiday tunes, you will hear them every December (and increasingly in November and maybe October too—ho! ho! ho!). For the same reason, Halloween can turn even the tawdriest low-budget slasher film into a perennial cash flow titan.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for this—namely that people like to get creeped out. And they pay for the privilege.
So why not books too? All those reading groups ought to pick something gross and repulsive to read every October, and I’m not talking election coverage. Or even better, why don’t we have horror fiction marathons for binge reading, like those scary movie marathons that will take over your screens next week?
With that in mind, I’m sharing my ultimate horror fiction reading list.
In a recent article on “My Lifetime Reading Plan,” I described a strategy I use for learning any subject. It’s very simple. And effective. I make a list of around 40 or 50 books on the topic I want to learn. Then I read every book on the list.
I’m aiming to deliver just that in the list below.
I’m sharing 50 titles in this two-part survey. They might not be the 50 best horror books. Frankly, I’m not even sure what metric to use in ranking stories on a fright-o-meter. Instead I’m trying to cover a wide range, exploring the full scope of creepy and unnerving narratives.
Each title is linked to a full review (in my Vault for paid subscribers). But I’ve included a few sentences from every review below.
Happy and horrifying reading!
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My Horror Fiction Reading List: 50 Weird & Creepy Books (Part 1 of 2)
Bram Stoker: Dracula
Bram Stoker had colorful stories ready for those who asked about the origins of his novel Dracula. By one account, he fell ill after eating shellfish, and dreamed of his vampire villain. In an even more dramatic anecdote, Stoker recalled a meeting in New York with future President Teddy Roosevelt, who offered an idea for a scintillating story: “why don’t you make your main character a supernatural criminal?”…
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
In a later day, the element of horror in such novels would emanate from the unnatural and inhuman monster. And, in fact, when Frankenstein was turned into a movie attraction, this was exactly its appeal. But Shelley places the horror elsewhere in her story—in the anguish of Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who reflects with despair on what he has wrought. This is a hard concept for the modern mind to grasp. The idea of the patent holder, the creator of the "intellectual property," turning away in disgust from the "breakthrough" innovation is strange to us….
Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination
How influential is Edgar Allan Poe? Let’s look at the numbers. The mystery or detective story, a category virtually invented by Poe, represents 10% of fiction book sales in the current day. The horror genre, in which Poe sets the standard for all later writers, accounts for another 3-4%. The suspense or thriller story, another specialty of this author, generates around 15% of current-day fiction sales. Poe also dabbled in science fiction, comedy, and other categories….
Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes
This is a beautifully written book, perhaps the most poetic horror novel of its time. Bradbury runs the risk of undercutting the scary elements, by presenting them in such majestic sentences. In the final analysis, he transforms this novel into a coming-of-age story, in which the darker elements are again and again pushed to the periphery….
George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo
I admire this novel, but must express intense dissatisfaction with a literary establishment that refuses to acknowledge that this book is, at its heart, a work of supernatural fiction. How can Lincoln in the Bardo win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, yet not even get considered for the Hugo Award? Why wasn’t Saunders’ work nominated for the World Fantasy Award? How could it fail to get mentioned as a contender for the Bram Stoker Award—a prize that’s even named after an author who made his reputation via a novel that deals with a similar intermediate zone between life and death?…
Thomas Harris: The Silence of the Lambs
How can you possibly start a genre crime novel with the murderer already arrested, convicted, and behind bars? How can you create suspense when the serial killer can’t add another victim to his list, but merely exists as a subject of behavioral study? How can you generate reader interest in a closed case and an old almost forgotten criminal—in short, yesterday’s news?…
Harlan Ellison: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream
There are many ironic things inside this book. Or even before you get inside the book. Let's start with the first four words of the title: I Have No Mouth... Was famously outspoken Harlan Ellison laughing at us when he wrote that? The same sharp-tongued Harlan Ellison whose rants were almost as famous as his books?…
Kathe Koja: The Cipher
There’s nothing at the center of Kathe Koja’s novel The Cipher. Even less than nothing—a kind of black hole that has opened up spontaneously in the floor of a neglected second story storage room in Nicholas’s down-and-out apartment building….
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