Tomorrow is All Hallows’ Eve, and since we know your costume is ready, our next order of business is to make sure you have plenty of spine-tingling tales to read while you chow down on candy. So our reviewers put their heads together to scare up a list of the scariest, creepiest novels and stories we’ve ever read. Some are classics, others are former Bas Bleu picks, still others are, hopefully, new to you.
To create our list, we asked ourselves: What exactly makes a story scary? Is it the body count? The creativity of the violence? Or is it the supernatural element, ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night? Are we frightened more by the prospect of death or by the unknown? Which is more terrifying, a poltergeist—or the black depths of human nature? (Yes, yes, yes, and both.)
Considering the wealth of novels, short stories, and, of course, reader opinion, this list can’t possibly be all-inclusive. If your favorite scary read was omitted, feel free to tell us about in the comments section below or on our Facebook page. You know we love a good book recommendation!
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: The celebrated author once wrote that he fancied ghost stories about “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.” In this 1898 novella, a governess suspects her young charges are haunted by the ghosts of their former governess and her lover. Yet as the thrilling story speeds towards its tragic conclusion, it becomes less clear just whom is in thrall to who.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing: Every parent lives in fear of illness, accident, or violence befalling her child. But when Harriet and David’s son Ben is born, the (previously) happy couple quickly comes to fear the child himself. Fair warning: Though skillfully written and undeniably compelling, this ominous novel is not a good choice for expectant or new parents!
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson: Jackson is an undisputed master of suspense fiction (The Haunting of Hill House earns our honorable mention), but this 1948 short story about the dark side of small-town conformity trumps them all. Mental note: Never schedule a “party” or neighborhood-association meeting for June 27.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: Seventeen strangers gather for what they think is a writers’ retreat, only to find themselves in a desperate battle for survival. This collection of harrowing tales so disturbed one of our editors that she “only read part of the first story and then couldn’t sleep, so I hid the book where it couldn’t scare me anymore!” Thanks, but we’ll pass.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: The title perfectly sums up this true-crime tale of two parolees who murdered a family of four in Kansas just…because. The only thing scarier than horror fiction? Horror truth.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: In post-World War II England, a country doctor makes a house call to the once-grand Hundreds Hall, only to find the estate, its inhabitants, and the aristocratic world they once ruled crumbling into ruin. Oh, and did we mention the sinister unseen force terrorizing the place?
The Hole by Guy Burt: We carried this young-adult novel in the Bas Bleu catalog years ago, after one of our reviewers stayed up all night reading it because she was too scared to turn off the light. The premise? A group of English teens skip out on a school trip in order to hide out and party in an abandoned cellar. It does not go well.
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe: With friends like these, who needs enemies? The narrator, a touchy Italian nobleman named Montresor, plots to repay his unsuspecting friend Fortunato for insulting him. During Carnival, Montresor relies upon booze and—most cruelly—the trust of friendship to lure Fortunato to a gruesome death.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill: Another Bas Bleu favorite, this Gothic novel recounts the terrifying experience of solicitor Arthur Kipps, who travels to a remote English village to settle the estate of a reclusive widow. Yet more than paperwork needs sorting at the creepily named Eel Marsh House: The mansion is haunted by the vengeful Woman in Black, whose appearance portends very bad things.
The Other by Thomas Tryon: Never again will we joke about having an evil twin. Teenaged identical twins Holland and Niles Perry are as different as night and day, yet so close they seem to know what the other is thinking. Where Niles is sweet and compliant, Holland is, well, a budding sociopath. When their father dies suddenly, Holland unleashes a series of “pranks” that will force Niles to choose between defending his brother from the world—or protecting the world from his brother.
Happy Halloween…and happy reading!