Halloween is the perfect time of year to immerse yourself in a good, old-fashioned horror story. Here are 13 choices, from Shakespeare to Henry James to Neil Gaiman:
1. Macbeth, William Shakespeare (Read the play here.)
Though it would be inaccurate to cite Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the origin of horror stories — ancient mythology and legends feature plenty of horrifying incidents — it does serve as a touchstone for modern horror: supposedly written to please King James I, a Scot with a penchant for the supernatural, Macbeth manages to both deploy pulpy, sensational horror tropes — a coven of witches, a damning prophecy, a possible demon possession, and a ghost returning from the dead to haunt the man who killed him — and darker, more perturbing aspects. Murderers go insane and commit suicide, innocent women and children are brutally murdered, and Macbeth himself is possibly Shakespeare’s least sympathetic tragic hero. Still, the sensational aspects have had a long life: it’s no coincidence that the tagline of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a quote taken directly from the text of the play.
2. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (Read the story here.)
One of the oldest pieces of American literature that remains popular to this day (albeit largely through retellings, including Tim Burton’s regrettable film adaptation), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has all the classic staples of horror stories: a terrifying supernatural creature (who borrows a lot from the uncanny), a beautiful but unattainable woman, and a male protagonist who thinks he’s considerably smarter than he is. Like Macbeth, he dooms himself, but, eerily, we never find out exactly what happened to him — but we can be pretty sure that, whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty.
3. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, (Explore an online archive of Poe's work here.)
If you’re looking for more old-school American gothic, the obvious next step is Edgar Allan Poe. “The Raven” is capable of converting even the most poetry-averse schoolchild, while classics like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” show off Poe’s facility for wedding haunting descriptive writing to terrifying (and brilliant) plot hooks.
4. "The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Read the story here.)
Though “The Yellow Wallpaper” is more grounded in the psychological than the physical, it’s just as terrifying as Poe’s stories, possibly more so — a staple of college literature courses, this proto-feminist tale of a young wife whose enforced captivity (by her husband, who swears it’s for her own good) drives her slowly insane is skin-crawlingly frightening reading for any woman. Its long shadow, both in the academy and in popular culture (it is a clear influence in Rosemary’s Baby) hasn’t diminished its power one whit.
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (Read the book here.)
On the other side of the pond, Ireland produced many of the nineteenth century’s most accomplished Gothic writers, from Sheridan Le Fanu to Bram Stoker to Oscar Wilde. Wilde may have produced more criticism and theatre than Gothic fiction, but his masterpiece is an unparalleled classic. The discerning reader can find layer upon layer of commentary on society, gender, and sexuality in the text, but first and foremost Dorian is a pulpy horror story of a man who literally watches himself go bad — and commits a brutal murder along the way.
6. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James (Read the story here.)
Intellectually, Henry James’ famous ghost story is a puzzle: the reader can never quite tell whether the governess narrator really is haunted by ghosts who pose a threat to her young charge, or whether they are merely symbolic manifestations of her tortured unconscious. But readers who can put aside a desire for explanations will find themselves lost in one of the greatest pieces of supernatural fiction ever written. James’ enormous psychological acuity lends itself to this kind of writing: there are many moments in this book that inspire terror for reasons we can’t quite understand, but that only makes the story more unsettling.
7. And then There Were None, Agatha Christie
People may not associate Christie’s English country town murder stories with genuine fear — they tend to follow a set of fairly predictable plot points, and the sense of a real threat tends to dissipate quickly after the initial murder takes place. Though And Then There Were None maintains her kitschy style, it deviates from her usual plot by prolonging the threat of death over the course of the book. The characters are trapped alone on an island with no hope of escape, and as they get picked off one by one, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ll be next (or, at least, I couldn’t when I read this in the seventh grade).
8. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
L’Engle’s most famous book may not be traditionally terrifying, but its stormy opening — it literally begins with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night” — and its coterie of witches (albeit friendly ones) are prime Halloween material. Plus, even if most of Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace’s interplanetary travels are more exciting than frightening, the book’s final episode, featuring a disembodied brain that is the epitome of all evil and that can take over other people’s minds, is about as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read.
9. Carrie, Stephen King
Though Carrie is best known as a seminal horror film, the book upon which it was based was a sensation in its own right: although the original hardback didn’t sell very well, the subsequent paperback edition was a huge hit. The first novel Stephen King published under his own name, Carrie is a classic depiction of the dark side of high school, and specifically of teenage-girlhood. The escalating tension between Carrie and her mother makes all other mother-daughter conflicts seem like a breeze — and if the pig’s-blood-at-the-prom incident doesn’t have quite the same visceral power on the page, it’s still pretty damn good.
10. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, Alvin Schwartz
Anybody who grew up in the eighties or nineties will remember these short story collections from their elementary school libraries. Most of us were first introduced to horror through Alvin Schwartz’s retellings of classic horror stories and legends, and we can all name a single story that stuck with us the most: for me, it was the one of the boy falling in love with a girl who always wears a ribbon around her neck, only to later discover that the ribbon is all that’s keeping her head attached to her body.
11. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
Reading House of Leaves is kind of like falling down a rabbit hole: the book itself mirrors its titular house in its complexity of structure. Told using various narratives and experimental textual devices, all filtered through the lens of a thoroughly unreliable narrator, the book leads the reader farther and farther down into its proverbial trap. In much the same way, the characters within the text are drawn into a mysterious, recently vacated house full of seemingly endless corridors, rooms, and winding passageways. Though initially a bestseller, and a nominee for the National Book Award, House of Leaves has developed something of a cult following in the decade since its publication: people who love it really, really love it.
12. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
Though The Graveyard Book may not be quite as frightening as Gaiman’s earlier children’s novel, Coraline, it is delightfully appropriate for the holiday: aptly described as a loose retelling of The Jungle Book set in a graveyard, the book charts a young orphan’s journey out of his graveyard community to the real world, featuring many ghosts, demons, and other mysterious spirits along the way. Gaiman is, of course, popular with readers of all ages, and one of the chief delights of his novels for young people is their appeal to both children and adults.
13. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag,” Neil Gaiman (Download from Audible here.)
Gaiman, wildly popular all year round, has become something of the patron saint of Halloween recently, with the inception of All Hallow’s Read, a new tradition he invented that encourages people to give scary books as gifts on the holiday. (You can visit their site for many more book recommendations and other information.) This year, Gaiman recorded a short story with Audible, who are releasing it for free and will donate a dollar to education charity DonorsChoose.org for every person who downloads it. Gaiman is not only a master writer but also a master reader, so do yourself a favor and download “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.”