Miss Halloween? Scare the Crypt Out of Yourself With One of These
The best horror books creep up on you. They're uncanny rather than startling, gut-wrenching rather than gross. It's not so much "What's behind the door?" as "After I open the door, will I ever be able to forget it?" Here, as a little Halloween chaser, are 13 books that do a nice, creepy job of freaking you out with finesse.
1. "The Maimed," by Hermann Ungar. Upon its publication in 1923, Thomas Mann approvingly called it "a sexual hell, full of filth, crime and the deepest melancholy" (Disney film to come). It's about a bank clerk forced into a sexual relationship with his landlady. But that's like saying "The Shining" is about a family vacation.
2. "The Other," by Thomas Tryon. A truly unsettling book. Twin brothers cavort through a bucolic New England town, gathering memories and a pretty good body count. The book starts with misdirection and turns into a nail-biter.
3. "Glamorama," by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis neatly sets up the first third of the novel as a parody of celebrity culture, then smashes you in the face with torture and mayhem. In his other books, the violence has an element of humor; the deaths in "Glamorama" are so graphic and insistent that when you do put it down, the images will stay with you long after.
4. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce. Written when the Civil War was still recent history, this is a weird, tense short tale with a vigorous twist for an ending. Part war story, part ghost story, it helped put Bierce on the map.
5. "Don't Look Now: Stories," by Daphne du Maurier. Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" is famous; less so the short story on which he based it. But Hitchcock had things like box office sales and the Hays Code to contend with. Du Maurier was freer to proceed as she wished, and her version is much grimmer and more troubling. This collection of equally morbid short stories includes, among other treasures, a knife-wielding midget.
6. "Deep Water," by Patricia Highsmith. Most of Highsmith's books are remarkable for their numb depiction of violence -- one day someone is around, the next he or she isn't. This book, though, builds up the tension between a mild-mannered husband and his philandering wife. There are plenty of dead people, but it's the central characters, very much alive, who are scariest.
7. "The Woman in White," by Wilkie Collins. There are loads of Gothic novels, but few build such a sustained dread. Collins's best-known novel by far, "The Woman in White" has secret societies, switched identities, drugged hysterics and an innocent art teacher in the middle of it all.
8. "Nightmare Alley," by William Lindsay Gresham. One of the darkest pieces of American fiction ever written, the book follows the trajectory of a pitiless self-promoter who starts out as a carny, works his way up as a fake preacher who swindles an industrialist, and then begins a long descent into alcoholism, depression and terror. There's no real murder, but heap helpings of fear.
9. "The King in Yellow," by Robert W. Chambers. A collection of supernatural short stories connected, for the most part, by weird symbols, the anti-hero known of the title and a play by the same name. Characters are plagued by paranoia until their fears are realized. Insanity and death are some of the story's more upbeat themes.
10. "The Sandman," by E.T.A. Hoffmann. A short story published in German in 1816, "The Sandman" has a soupcon of many terrible things: insanity, abduction, automatons, visits by strange men in the night that even a young child's father cannot stop, eye snatching, a big production number with tapping and sailors and, finally, suicide. Kidding about the production number.
11. "Eight Months on Ghazzah Street," by Hilary Mantel. An Englishwoman moves to Saudi Arabia as the wife of an engineer. The novel broods, then builds -- the shadows form on your mind as much as on the staircase. Mantel does a neat job of haunting her character with the religious police and world history.
12. "The Third Child," by Marge Piercy. Ostensibly about the wild child daughter of a political family and her forbidden love, this starts out as a pulpy, slightly tawdry novel and quickly becomes an intricate, frightening psychodrama. A literary wolf in sheep's clothing.
13. "The Orphan Master's Son," by Adam Johnson. You're living in a depraved totalitarian state where lies are the truth, people are the putty of torture artisans, and a pervasive Big Brother has warped the very love between parents and children in their own homes. You're in North Korea, where Johnson traps you in his 2013 Pulitzer winner, grounded deeply in the reality of the monstrous regime and its beautiful, brutalized people. A graceful, propulsive prose, rocket-fueled plot, devilish humor and abiding humanity make the book impossible to put down.
James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.