Novels to make your skin quiver
Welcome to my blog! I put out new posts every Wednesday.
This week, I thought I’d help you get into the spooky spirit of October by introducing you to some of my favourite scary novels.
I am an avid reader and always have been; I absolutely panic if I find myself at a loose end without a book. In the last year, I’ve found that I’m more partial to memoirs and autobiographies – particularly ones related to death and the medical professions – but there was a time when I was all about horror fiction.
Now, some horror – and perhaps most, actually – is purely that: horrific. Gorey, gross, revolting – you name it. And that’s great – I can recommend some absolute corkers if that’s what you’re into.
But below, I want to focus on novels that *really* scared or fascinated me – the ones that got under my skin. Some of these novels aren’t even remotely close to the typical horror fiction genre; some very definitely are. That doesn’t matter: what matters is the effect it has on you, the reader.
So to cater for all tastes, I’ve included some gore and some more psychological stories, plus some honourable bonus mentions of stories I just couldn’t leave out. I’ve also included some memoirs for non-fiction lovers.
You could say, in fact, that this is not a top 5(as stipulated below), but actually…a top 14. I’m not indecisive! You’re indecisive!
If you’re a prolific reader of genre fiction, then you’ll have heard of a few of these – if you aren’t, then I’m glad I could introduce you to something new.
As an aside, true horror lovers will find this list incredibly ‘light’, and find that it includes only mainstream releases (I’ve done this deliberately to make it accessible all-round). There is an entire indie community out there for horror writers – some of the most terrifying novels come from small presses. Check out Black Static magazine, where you can find short stories and all the new releases.
(My tastes moved on, so it’s been a long time since I read an indie horror novel)
I hope you’ll find something to suit your tastes, or at least learn a little something about mine.
My top 5 novels for Halloween
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
A must-read for rockers and goths. An ageing rockstar, Jude, collects morbid memorabilia and curiosities. He finds himself in possession of a heart-shaped box, and within this box is a dead man’s suit. Despite being warned that he was buying himself a ghost on Ebay, curiosity gets the better of him – and soon, terrible things start to happen. The suit is hexed, releasing a malevolent ghost. Jude and his girlfriend Georgia need to delve into the afterlife to free themselves from the torment. This debut novel from Joe Hill thrilled me beyond words when I read it years ago, and I still hold it close to me (in my heart-shaped box). I have actually met Joe Hill twice, and I have all my books signed with his signature doodles – he even drew me a birthday cake for my birthday!
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
A foreboding, crumbling mansion at the turn of the century, when aristocracy is fading into the past – when the filthy-rich upperclasses are dissolving before our eyes like spirits. Told from the perspective of an ambitious young doctor, sceptical of these tales of strange happenings in the night, this is a classic ghost story in the context of a dying class system.
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite
Based on Jeffrey Dahmer and other fun-loving folks, this novel is beautifully wrought and utterly disgusting. Read about exploding abdomens and gay lovers entwined; never has horror been so erotic before or since. I didn’t know what to think of this at the time, but I’ve never forgotten some of the images Brite casts for us in a big ol’ pool of blood.
The Rats by James Herbert
An absolute classic genre novel – there’s no way you haven’t heard of this. Don’t underestimate this novel’s ability to nibble away at your fingernails and wriggle under your skin – this book made me shudder. The realism is incredible – yes, the realism of hoards of rats in London. I’ve not read the sequels yet, but I’ve been threatening to ever since I read the ending – the image has stayed with me for years.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
One of my favourite novels. Meet Frank, a psychopathic teenager running free on a bog in Scotland. This is a fascinating gothic novel about a teen obsessed with bombs, death – and who believes he can tell the future by the fate of entrapped wasps. But he’s missing a terrible secret about himself. You will never guess the big twist.
Honourable mentions (or further reading)
Horns by Joe Hill
Not quite horror, not quite fantasy; surely you’ve seen the Daniel Radcliffe film. I personally thought the film did the novel a lot of justice, and I was a pleased fan – however, as always, the novel is so much better. A novel combining religion and fantasy, this story follows a man who has lost the love of his life to a rapist and murderer – yet one morning, he wakes up to find horns are growing from his temples. Is he the monster?
Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite
Vampires in New Orleans and sticky Chartreuse liqueur – this is the official goth bible and every vampire nut’s wet dream. Go on a joyride around the deep south to the echoing drone of Bauhaus from the stereo with your very best friends. You will not want to come back.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Another Radcliffe film – you know this one. A classic ghost story, praised by many – this will genuinely make your teeth chatter, and you’ll be checking every window and corner of the room. Every black smudge on the horizon could be…The Woman in Black.
Affinity by Sarah Waters
A recently bereft woman in 1870s Victorian-era London becomes a Lady Visitor to a curious woman in Millbank Prison. Echoing corridors, ectoplasm, seances, and Victorian superstition – is this woman truly a medium? Can she channel the dead? This haunting novel will make your skin prickle (and actually, I’ve yet to read a Sarah Waters novel that didn’t).
Now for some fantastic memoirs about death (or even further reading!)
To be in-keeping with the spooky theme, you might like to read some of these fantastic memoirs about those who work in the business of death and dying. That might sound pretty harrowing, and it is – these memoirs will open your eyes to forensic pathology and anthropology on a bone-deep level, taking you from the death process, cultural experiences of death, dissection, murder, the handling of mass disasters, methods of preservation and donation of bodies to medical science, all in the context of the practitioner’s every day life.
I have read many medical memoirs by nurses, doctors and the like – but these are particularly cracking ones about death and dying. They are (believe me) as touching as they are gruesome, and as empowering as they are gut-wrenching. Prepare to be educated, moved, and enthralled.
Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd
Richard Shepherd weaves some of his most harrowing murder cases between the fabric of his personal and home life, as fine and precise as a needle pulling thread. He even delves into his PTSD diagnosis, where the tinkling of ice in a glass reminded him of a gruesome mass disaster, where bodies were packed in ice to prevent decomposition in the summer heat. This is an honest, well-fleshed account of life as a forensic pathologist.
All that Remains by Sue Black
How do you identify who somebody was before they died? How do you put a name to a bag of bones? Sue Black takes us through her first experiences of death (a Butcher’s shop, and her Uncle Willy), her time identifying children in Kosovo, and what drove her to this morbid line of work. You’ll be fascinated to learn how she created a new preservation facility for bodies donated to medical science, explaining what it means to be ‘Thield’. Sue will show you a new perspective on body donation, and you’ll develop a deep respect for its value. (I even considered it myself after reading, and I’m still thinking on it)
In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth
A nurse discusses the changing perspectives and rituals surrounding death, comparing Britain to other parts of the world. She has an interesting take on the way hospitals and resuscitation have interrupted the natural passages of life and death, almost spoiling the purity of families looking after one another in their passing. A moving and contemplative memoir; perhaps lighter on the gore than the above examples (but not completely bereft of it!)
Admissions and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
You will never find a more honest account of what it means to hold an entire universe in your hands than these accounts from one of the world’s leading brain surgeons. Detailing his work in the poorest parts of Ukraine, near-misses, heartbreaking losses and incredible victories, the stories Marsh tells are humbly portrayed. Living by a quote such as the following, it’s easy to understand the immense delicacy of his work and the tightrope he walks with every patient: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.’ René Leriche, La philosophie de la chirurgie, 1951”
I hope you enjoyed those recommendations, and that you found something to tide you over through the Halloween season. The Autumn period is a time for people to think about the death of their old lives, and the beginning of a new one; a time when we shed our old selves the way the trees let go of crisp brown leaves. I find this time of year is a time of contemplation and a chance to prepare yourself for regrowth.
It’s also a time for boots, fluffy jackets, pumpkin spice lattés – and a bloody good book.
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