The stores are running low on candy, and the leaves have turned vibrant colors, and that means it’s almost Halloween! Whether you’re here for the horror or can’t even handle too much darkness in your chocolate, there’s a genre or a book to get you excited for cool afternoons and dark and stormy nights.
All-Around Halloween MVP
Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir
If you’re more giddy than grim about Halloween, then you need to check out this bonkers, balls-to-the-wall story of an interstellar empire founded by an undead demigod and run by necromancers. Gideon’s a swordfighter who just wants to smash bone golems and read dirty magazines, but she’ll also have to explore a haunted house and unravel a series of murder mysteries if she wants to be free of her so annoying (but maybe cute?) liege lady. It’s sheer Halloween perfection.
The Rust Maidens – Gwendolyn Kiste
This Bram Stoker Award-winning book takes body horror to some stunning new places. Best friends Phoebe and Jacqueline are part of a struggling Rust Belt community when Jacqueline is struck by a mysterious plague. The whole town is soon consumed by its fear of these rust maidens and the desire to control them. Phoebe, though, just wants what’s best for her friend—though what that is may destroy her in more ways than one.
The Red Tree – Caitlin R. Kiernan
Kiernan has been a mainstay of horror for many years now, but I’m still shocked at how few people have read her work. She specializes in Lovecraftian fiction, and she makes the hideous indifference of the universe frighteningly personal (as well as queer). Though any of Kiernan’s work will unsettle and challenge you, this standalone novel is a great place to start. It’s is like House of Leaves without quite so much postmodernism or the daunting page count.
The Market of Monsters Series – Rebecca Schaeffer
It begins with a young woman whose favorite thing to do is dissect cadavers, and makes its way through cannibalism, torture, mutilation, and good old fashioned violence to—well, actually it hasn’t ended yet. The second installment, Only Ashes Remain, was just published, and you’ll be on tenterhooks waiting for what promises to be a blood-spattered finale. Though it was sold as “YA Dexter,” don’t misunderstand: This is R-rated stuff with some real smarts.
Catfish Lullaby – A. C. Wise
Small towns can feel like home or feel like horrors. Somehow, this book makes the bayou town of Lewis feel like both. Up-and-comer Wise also gives us a dauntless and sensitive queer hero in Caleb, who wants to put the wicked parts of town to rights, but to do that, he’ll have to brave the Royce house and its most terrible and wounded daughter, Cere.
Death Sentences – Chiaki Kawamata
This is a spiritual precursor to The Ring, and as such, it also has a “contagious” element to its cursed object. Anyone who reads the experimental work of surrealist poet Hu Mei suffers a mysterious fate. Cults spring up to disseminate it and paramilitary forces are dispatched to halt its spread, but what exactly does it do? Does it kill? Or does it translate the reader into a higher state? Is it going to save the world, or end it? The story is told in six parts across decades, countries, and even planets as a varied cast of characters tries to determine how this thought plague can be stopped—if that’s even possible.
Certain Dark Things – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Everyone who thinks vampires are played out clearly didn’t read Certain Dark Things. A turf war between Aztec vampires draws in an unwitting human accomplice, Domingo, who runs across Atl as she’s fleeing for her un-life. Atl needs young blood to survive long enough to slip into South America, away from the drug war she started, but she soon finds herself liking Domingo for more than just his blood. If “Mexican vampire narco romance” doesn’t tempt you, you might be deader inside than any bloodsucker.
Lonely Werewolf Girl – Martin Millar
Not everyone is here for the scariest possible stories. Some people love the campy side of Halloween, and that’s why Kalix and her family of werewolf misfits deserve another look if you missed this book when it first came out. Featuring a werewolf who just wants to design fashion, a bored elemental queen and her insufferable niece, and a werewolf punk band that would be great if any of the members could make it to practice, this is a zany take on the previously serious idea of werewolf clans. It also deals with real issues: Kalix has an eating disorder, anxiety, and an addiction, and her relatives struggle with other very human troubles, giving the book a good heart under the humor.
The Girl in Red – Christina Henry
This survival story features monsters of both the bestial and the human kind, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a plague that wipes out much of civilization. Red, who’s named for the color of her favorite hoodie and not her proclivity for hatchet-based violence, has to find a way through the woods to a safe haven. Unfortunately, the woods are a dangerous place for a girl all alone.
Kingdom of Souls – Rena Barron
Arrah should be a powerful witchdoctor, like the other members of her family, but her magic has never arrived. That’s bad enough, but then local children begin to disappear, her mother begins acting strangely, and the Demon King himself is rising to threaten the world. Arrah is willing to trade her life away in bits and pieces to bargain for the magic she needs, but her life might not even be enough.
The Queens of Fennbirn Series – Kendare Blake
For many, witches are crones with pointy hats, but for others, witches are practitioners of sacred magicks. Straddling this line nicely in fiction are the books that began with Three Dark Crowns (which contains one of the best first chapters I have ever read) and are now complete with the recent Five Dark Fates. The would-be queens of Fennbirn are gifted with very different magic and must duel to the death to claim the throne, a tradition rooted deeply in the island’s worship of the great Goddess. Sacred, magical, and spooky, these are truly dark delights.
Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
Alex already survived a mass murder, so she’s not keen to put herself in further danger, but it’s impossible to turn down full tuition to Yale … with the itty bitty caveat that she’ll have to spy on its secret societies. Rich kids pretending to be fancy? Sure, but there are occult goings-on that start making this free ride seem very costly indeed. Ivy League schools are a bit of a cult themselves, and then you go and add in secret societies? Sounds like a recipe for some opulent disasters.
The Monster of Elendhaven – Jennifer Giesbrecht
Johann doesn’t know where he came from, but he knows what he’s going to to: He’s going to scare and hurt and kill anyone he wants. And he wants to menace almost everyone he encounters, even the evil sorcerer Florian. But in Florian he also finds an evil equal to his own, and they develop a mutual fascination based on a shared desire to watch the city around them fall to pieces. Grimly beautiful prose makes this a perfectly dark little tale.
Harlequin – Nina Allan
Sometimes the worst monsters are ordinary people. Beaumont is trying to be good, to forget the Great War and his role in it, but he’s haunted. Barely aware of why he does what he does, this unreliable narrator seeks out what repulses him in an attempt to obliquely address his trauma—and his sins.
The Best Girls –Min Jin Lee
Sometimes it’s not a person but a whole way of thinking that can scare you. Min Jin Lee (of Pachinko fame) takes on the terrors of the patriarchy with this tale of a smart young girl facing her family’s dire financial predicament. Equal parts heartbreaking and horrifying, this short story is all the worse for being based on true events.
The Institute – Stephen King
King is in a class of his own at this point, and no Halloween list would be complete without him. Obviously you could read It, since it’s (heh) in theaters, but I do also recommend his most recent book, which features, unsurprisingly, psychic children and terrifying adults. If you’re nostalgic for trick-or-treating with friends but wished you could have encountered actual monsters or had actual powers, this will scratch that itch.
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