A Beginner's Horror Book Primer
Horror is easily my favorite genre. Each way of experiencing horror is unique.
Everyone has unique tastes and certain things that scare them; only you know what is scary to you. Being a horror fan is all about celebrating these differences, being happy for people when they find something that gave them a good time or a good scare or both, and helping each other find those experiences.
I want to help encourage more people to give my favorite section of our collection some attention. To do this, I am going to write a series where I give you my suggested jumping-in points for various formats of horror. To make it easier for you to find the specific material I think you should check out to kick off this fearsome adventure, I have organized my recommendations by what type of fall activities you like, and then by ranking them by how scary they are.
Like I said earlier, everyone’s tastes are unique to them, so tread carefully with the “Scaredy cats” tier and be prepared to give me scarier recommendations in the comments if my “Oh” category doesn’t make you gasp.
“Scaredy cat” is a term of endearment. Not everybody wants to have the pants scared off them, so this is where I’m putting in things closer to horror-comedy, “cozy horror,” or things where the fear is tempered by some other big emotion (looking at you, Grady Hendrix and Junji Itåo).
“A little spooky” is where I’m putting things that scare some folks but not all. Maybe you need to have a strong connection to the subject matter for it to land, or maybe it is a compilation of stories with some horrifying moments but also some funny moments. This is where I think most things in the horror genre fall, so if you have some experience with horror but not much and want something familiar, this is where you should check.
“Oh” is where I’m putting things that made either myself or someone I know put the book down for a bit or press pause and take a breather since it was too much for them. This is where my favorites of the genre are, but not everyone is looking for that! Also, this is the most subjective category of all: what is scary to my friends and I might not do anything for you. If this is the case, I expect some recommendations.
If I were to ask you to describe your ideal fall activities and you corrected me, saying, “I prefer to call it autumn,” and you imagine sitting in a coffee shop next to a window watching the leaves falling while you are cozy in a light knit cardigan, you are probably the type to be into reading your horror. I hear you protesting, “But I like my herbal tea and cozy mysteries, not coffee and horror!” to which I reply, “First off, herbal tea isn’t tea, it’s a tisane and that is basically just decaf coffee. Secondly, I defy you to figure out a way to describe "Hercule Poirot’s Christmas" or anything else by the Queen of Mystery Agatha Christie in a way that doesn’t also describe most slasher movies.”
Anyway, here are some links to some of my favorite horror books I’ve read in the last couple years.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
“Frankenstein” is one of the greatest-of-all-time horror novels. It is beautiful and poetic and philosophical, just like all good horror. I have a friend who swears that this book isn’t horror though, because it’s “too science fiction-y” and “not that scary.” I’m here to tell you, horror doesn’t have to be scary, and science fiction can coexist with other genres. They also think that “Alien” isn’t horror because it takes place in space, so feel free to disregard the haters. “Frankenstein” is absolutely horror. Give it a read if you haven’t! It’s way deeper than the movies make it seem.
“Horrorstör” by Grady Hendrix
This was my first and favorite experience I have had with any of Grady Hendrix’s writing. He has a unique sense of humor and empathy in his writing that makes all of his stories compelling and motivating. His books also all have a fun way of moving beyond the text to relate to the reader. For example, in this book, every chapter opens with advertisements for IKEA knock-off products based on the events of the novel. While all of his books are easy to empathize and relate to, the subject matter of this book will be particularly relatable and terrifying to many of us, as the book is all about the terror of working for minimum wage.
“Venus in the Blind Spot” by Junji Itåo
If you are getting into horror, you can’t skip graphic novels. They are a great avenue to find out what about horror you like and what you dislike. “Venus in the Blind Spot” is my favorite horror manga by one of the most well-regarded horror authors currently working, and it is all over the place. Its art can be grotesque, chilling and beautiful. The stories can be revolting, mysterious and gripping, or hilarious. This collection has some of my favorite stories he has written such as “Billions Alone,” “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” and “The Human Chair.”
A LITTLE SPOOKY
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
This was the first novel I ever read. I didn’t get it, but I read every page so I count it. If you haven’t read it, you still know the story. There’s a vampire in what is now Romania, who wants to move to England. A lawyer goes to help him and has a scary time doing it, some sailors bring the vampire to England and have a scary time doing it, a bunch of guys fall in love with a woman and have a scary time doing it, then they fight the vampire and have a scary time doing it. It’s a good scary book! Although, since the story is so well known and it has influenced basically every single piece of vampire fiction made since, some of the scares are very familiar and tropey, which I’m a huge fan of. Give it a read if you haven’t, or a reread if you have! It holds up!
“Goblin: A Novel in Six Novellas” by Josh Malerman
You might recognize Josh Malerman from his novel-turned-movie “Bird Box.” I haven’t read or seen it yet (I know I should really get around to it), but I have read Goblin! I picked it up initially because I love the band Goblin for their wild scores to some incredible horror movies and thought it would be fun to imagine them scoring a book as I read it. Too bad for me the book was too engaging and had me turning the pages too fast to spend any time imagining a soundtrack. Each novella gradually builds on the setting of the book and really makes you feel by the time you are finished as if you have lived your whole life in the titular town of Goblin, complete with its perpetual rain and bizarre and layered history. This is a perfect read for anyone who likes the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” or wants to imagine living in a climate other than an arid desert.
“The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty
Here is another book you might recognize more from a movie! This one is contentious for a lot of reasons, and the controversy around it is partially what makes it so fascinating to me. For those of you who aren’t aware, this book follows the events surrounding a young girl’s possession and how the adults involved handle her experience. It was one of the first novels to portray the Catholic rite of exorcism. Its popularity had a strange impact on the public, where demands for exorcists skyrocketed, people both within the church and without were irate, and people demanded more stories like it. Without “The Exorcist,” we wouldn’t have the entire possession subgenre of horror.
“House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski
This is easily the strangest book I have ever read. If you want to get into horror and don’t know where to start, maybe start with anything else on this list. If you want to read something remarkable and unlike anything else, pick up a copy of this. I had some false starts and put this book down a couple of times before I finally made it through my first read, but I will never forget where I was when I finished this book, or the texture of the chair I was sitting in when I finished it. This might be my favorite book I have ever read.
It is the story of a tattoo apprentice named Johnny Truant who finds, annotates and publishes a manuscript written by a blind man named Zampanò, which is a retelling of a film made by a photographer named Will Navidson whose house begins to shift and change. I don’t know how to describe this book in a way that is appealing, but it is beautiful and absolutely worth the effort to read.
“What Moves the Dead” by T. Kingfisher
Are you irritated with me for including horror legends Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker on here, but not including Edgar Allan Poe? If so, you are in for a treat, because this book is a reimagining of one of Poe’s most famous stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I am choosing to include this specific book because it is a great jumping-off point into how incredibly varied and niche some horror subgenres can become. Sure, mysteries have the "amateur sleuth," "police procedural" and "gumshoe" subgenres, but I don’t think there are any as specific as “fungal horror.” Sure, you may think I’m just making a joke about this being a subgenre despite it being only a single book, but I assure you, it's everywhere.
“The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones is a local author and professor at CU Boulder. His books are all beautiful discussions about what it means to have family, home and loss. “The Only Good Indians” was my first exposure to his novels, and it is my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to get into reading horror. It follows a group of men who are all haunted by the physical manifestation of a tragic event from their past, and how this shared trauma ripples out to affect those they love. It also has hands down the gnarliest death scene in any book I have ever read. You will know it when you get there. It is what made me say "Oh" and put the book down for a bit.
I hope you enjoy those nine novels, and that you find something to hold you over until next month for a second post in this series where I give some horror movie suggestions.