When I was asked to compile a list of books that I felt were good choices for October, this month that feels like nothing so much as a celebration of our chosen brand of genre fiction, I had to really think about it. Not just about what books I would choose—that’s the easy part—but why those books in particular. To come up with an answer, I had to do a bit of mental reverse engineering; looking into the books that come immediately to mind to see if I could find a common thread that ran through them. Because if it was just a matter of picking a bunch of horror novels to read, then this list would be pointless to those of us who read within the genre year round, and it’s likely that anyone reading this column falls into that category.
So what then is the unifying theme that makes a good Halloween read? Well, in reading through the books that immediately come to mind, several of which I read nearly every October, I discovered that the commonality is mood. The books feel like the month of October. They are, of course, dark. They’re also brooding and somber, sinister and sometimes as oppressive as a grey fall afternoon when the blustery wind blows the leaves down the avenue and nothing feels quite as right as sitting in your favorite chair with a cup of brandy laced chocolate and a good scary book. Here then, without further preamble, are some of my absolutely favorite reads for the Witching Season.
No list of Halloween reads would be complete without work from this first author on it. Ray Bradbury is, arguably, Mister October himself and this first book is the definitive book of Halloween. You’ll likely be hard pressed to find a list such as this that doesn’t have Something Wicked This Way Comes on it and, while it might not seem like an inspired inclusion, it’s a necessary one. It belongs here more than possibly any other book. Bradbury paints October in Technicolor poetry, capturing the season better than any other author before or since.
Another must read book for the witching season is Jonathan Maberry’s seminal work, Ghost Road Blues. Mayberry builds his fictional town of Pine Deep on the bones of Halloween, giving us a brooding, terrifying tale perfect for a fireside read on a rainy autumn night. Give this one a read and then move on to Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising, the two books that round out the Pine Deep trilogy. They’re as fully realized and entertaining as the first book in the series—if not even more so—and well worth a read during this or any other season.
Next up is a book that should be on every aspiring horror author’s must read list. It’s a story that has all the elements of great fiction and is considered to be one of the greatest horror novels ever written. And there’s a damn good reason for that. Shirley Jackson’s genre defining standard, The Haunting of Hill House is a tour de force of horror fiction like no author has ever written and it belongs on the shelf of any serious horror fan. A darkly sinister tale of a malevolent haunting, it seems to have been penned specifically with the Halloween season in mind and has been, for me, a must read every single October for more than fifteen years now.
Someone whose work should make this type of list more often than he does is Al Sarrantonio. His Orangefield Cycle, a three book series which contains the titles Horrorween, Hallows Eve, and Halloweenland is exemplary of the type of reading material that draws me and many other fans to it at this time of year. It is a tonally and thematically perfect series of stories about the small town of Orangefield, a place shrouded in mystery and occupied by Samhain, the Lord of Death himself.
A book that I read just last year that is now high up on my list of favorite Halloween reads is Norman Partridges’ Dark Harvest, a groundbreaking, unusual tale of betrayal, death and dark revenge that takes place over the course of one long and horrific Halloween night. This was my first experience with Partridge and it cemented him as one of my favorite horror authors, particularly when it comes to the sort of seasonal material I’m talking about here. No horror fan should let another October pass by without having read this wonderful book.
A story that is a perfect example of the type of fiction I’m talking about when I speak of mood is Edgar Allan Poe’s classic The Fall of the House of Usher, which opens with the following passage:
“DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
It’s a story that literally feels like Halloween from beginning to end, as dark and somber as low hanging rain clouds in the October Sky.
In the process of thinking about this list, I agonized over several Peter Straub titles that would fit well, a difficult task given that virtually any of his books would be just about perfect and, to be honest, his phenomenal novel, Ghost Story, was the book that was originally in this final but by no means lesser position in this column. But the more I thought about it, the more Shadowland began to feel like a better match. The story of two young boys spending a season of horror in the Vermont woods apprenticed to a master magician. While the description makes it sound somewhat whimsical, the story is anything but. A brutally horrific nightmare of a tale that belongs here as much or more than any other book listed so far.
While there are about a zillion other books I could list here, the truth of the matter is that I could ramble on for page after endless page about this subject that happens to be one of my favorite things. That said, I’ll wrap it up here and hope you gain some October inspiration from it. Happy Halloween and happy reading to all.
SHANE DOUGLAS KEENE