[Editor's Note: In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I turned to novelist and horror aficionado Stephen Graham Jones to make some recommendations on ten frightening books. He's a prolific writer whose All the Beautiful Sinners was recently re-released as an e-book by Dzanc Books. So stock up on some Jones and also check out his terrifying recommendations for your weekend pre-Halloween festivities.]
I know I’m supposed to do Ten Books for Halloween here—and, I’ve got six hundred swimming behind my eyes, so the only real chore here’s selection (I think I could do ten from the seventies, ten from best sellers, ten from friends, etc). And, yeah, the idea of ‘ten,’ I know, it’s that you’ll find one or two on there to actually hit, given the time. And that’s provided I don’t stack it with Swan Songs and Stands and House of Leaves. And that you trust my selections.
So, my compromise, it’s to pick books that are short enough, to only pick five of them, and to go for ones that are mass market paperback, so they can fit in the pocket of your costume (because of course about now’s when you start trying everything on, doing all the dry runs through the neighborhoods and halls). And, as for why the mass market trick? Could be nostalgia; I suspect we’re nearing the end of the mass-market-books-littering-the-shelves days. And, I’m not sad, don’t get me wrong—all for e-booking our way into the sunset, here—but, for me, growing up in the eighties, horror meant mass market. I think back then I thought only textbooks came in hardback/cloth. And of course I had no idea what a ‘trade paperback’ might be. A factory second, maybe, I don’t know.
And, the fourth thing I’m doing here that’s not what Scott was asking for it, it’s to provide more of an annotated curriculum—to shuffle some movies in with the reading, so as to build up to that perfect night at the end of the month. Something like:
1. Bentley Little’s The House
This is a truly creepy work, is one of only
two three novels to ever thoroughly penetrate my dreams (other two: Breakfast of Champions and Lunar Park). It’s the haunted house, definitely, but’s so different from any other haunted house I’ve seen. This book terrifies me.
2. John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns
From the Masters of Horror series. It’s not really a counterpoint to The House or anything, but like the uppercut that comes right after the jab, stands you up on your toes and makes you see the darkness.
3. Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game
It’s a rock ’n roll horror novel, one of those stories that only ever has one foot on the ground at a time, and just, in that signature Barker fashion, pulls you along by your eyelids. And, for my money, it goes pretty perfectly with:
4. Return of the Living Dead
Far and away my favorite zombie movie ever, but, too, along with Feast, say, it’s one of a select few that move at the same narrative pace as The Damnation Game. And, I mean, it’s got Tarman, right? That’s really all I need to say.
5. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes
I mean, granted, you have to kind of grit your teeth to get through the occasionally overblown, too-aware-of-its-own-technicolorality prose, and you of course go in knowing it’s YA, so the content’s dialed back, but . . . I don’t know. Something about this one. It’s like Bradbury’s not so much working within some archetypal framework as that he’s taking all his personal archetypes and painting them large and grand on the wall. It’s nice, it’s safe, but it moves, too, and it’s got magic.
6. Midnight Meat Train
Just to get us back up to an acceptable—and necessary—level of gore. And fun. And exuberance for horror. I mean, a guy with a chrome hammer on the subway? And, you know it’s Barker, so there’s definitely going to be something demon-y involved, and, to not acknowledge in some way The Books of Blood . . . you wouldn’t even take me seriously if I didn’t, would you?
7. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
Not simply to reset us to black and white or anything, and not to argue for atmospheric horror over what’s cooking on the shelves these days (um, plenty of it, if you look), but . . . okay, somewhat because there’s no time for The Shining on this list. And what’s a Halloween list without King, right? But you can burn through Haunting in an afternoon, and, what’s fun is you can see all over again how foundational that book was to everything that would follow. And that it still actually, legitimately, works. Very effective.
8. Paranormal Activity
And not just as prep for the third one hitting the box office next week. No, it’s just plain old terrifying, at least to me, is like a bad mix of Tale of Two Sisters and Sara Gran’s Come Closer, but with a lot of Shirley Jackson kind of mis-directs. And, I’ve written on it longer here, so won’t this time around, except to say that, no, it’s not just Blair Witch a decade later. It’s scary, it’s wrong—it’s perfect for Halloween.
9. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
It kind of makes you all bummed out to be human, and it also makes you realize that all this ‘horror’ you’ve been reading, writing, watching, making? All you’ve been doing’s painting unicorns with flowers in their mouths. Under rainbows. This is the real badness, happening on the page. It doesn’t flinch, and it makes you complicit. Go there, Try to come back.
10. Either Quarantine or [Rec]
Depending on your stance towards subtitles. They’re pretty much the same movie, and, yeah, early on you know exactly how it’s going to go, but still, you get so caught up in the rush of it. It’s hard to keep your feet on the ground, watching this. But you toast those characters, too; they’re doing exactly what they need to do in a horror movie. And what more can you ask?
And, of course, no Halloween, right? Not just because Carpenter’s already on the list, either (Barker’s on there twice), but because, if you’re not already watching some Halloween this month without consulting these kinds of lists, then maybe you need to revisit your priorities. Your allegiances. And, yeah, comic books, man. I’d say American Vampire and Locke & Key, maybe. American Vampire’s just so, so fun—RotLD kind of fun, I’d say—while Locke & Key is some top-notch writing. Slam through all the volumes in a day and you’ll be sitting up that night thinking both that you’re glad you don’t live in Key House and you kind of wish you did, too.
And, just realizing I lied about books that have penetrated my dreams: Douglass Clegg’s Breeder did that as well. It just completely pulled me in, wouldn’t let me go. And I think one of Laird Barron’s stories from Imago Sequence did something to me as well, though that’s all happily repressed for the moment. And, looking back up at my list, now, I see there’s no Ju’on, there’s no Ringu. But maybe that’s just because, if I’m going to take my own medicine, somewhat, and at least mentally peel back through all of these, then those are two I don’t want rattling around in my head when I’m trying to sleep again. Which I’m going to have to do at some point…
Stephen Graham Jones