Even though Spooktober is well upon us, I wanted to share my favorite scary books for anyone looking to squeeze in a few more frights before Halloween. They run the gamut from pleasantly autumnal to deeply unsettling; so the Halloween homebody and horror aficionado alike should be able to find something suited to their tastes.
The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
This historical horror follows the gory adventures of Pellinore Warthrop, esteemed professor of “monstrumology”, and his eleven year old apprentice, Will Henry. The pair travel through the graveyards and basements of nineteenth-century New England in search of a brutal night beast. The book is presented as a series of diary entries discovered long after Will Henry’s death, and ruminations on Will Henry’s relationship with his demanding mentor accompany the accounts of autopsies and gunfights.
Although The Monstrumologist received the 2010 Michael L. Printz Honor Award for excellence in young adult literature, it remains fairly unknown in YA circles. This might be due to the book’s overall darkness, or it’s proclivity to wax nihilistic on the culpability of God in the face of evil. These factors, of course, only contributed to my love of the novel, and I’m pleased to say the entire four book series seriously delivers on scares, character development, and heart wrenching revelations.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
This postmodern magnum opus layers the narratives of a photographer who documents the rooms which appear in his home without reason, the recently deceased man who left behind hundreds of pages of academic analysis on this event ten years later, and the troubled tattoo artist who slowly loses touch with reality while trying to piece together his disordered essay pages. The book is rife with footnotes, photographs, and appendixes, and as the story progresses, squares of text go missing, shocks of black assault the eyes, and words run backwards.
To make things even weirder, the various texts within don’t just cross reference each other, but real celebrities, poems, and events. You’re sent rushing to the internet to confirm that something you’ve always thought was real is indeed so, or to become very, very unsettled when you realize it actually isn’t. While an undertaking, the book draws in even the most impatient reader and refuses to let go until you’re tangled up in the unpleasant landscapes inside of your own head.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
This charming adventure for “ages 11 and up” takes place on Halloween night in the American heartland. The costumed carousing of eight young boys leads them to the eccentric and ancient Mr. Moundshroud and an enormous “Halloween tree” bedecked with jack-o-lanterns. When something rises out of the shadows to snag the most beloved of the gang, Pipkin, Moundshroud leads the boys on a journey through Halloweens past in the hopes of rescuing him.
The Halloween Tree offers up the best of Bradbury, from his gleeful menage of metaphors and onamonapia to his strong thematic sense. Though the story is simple and the page-count a modest 145, the book explores the history of Halloween, the indissoluble bonds of childhood friendship, and the way humans have always dealt with the passing of life into death. You’ve heard of the true meaning of Christmas; The Halloween Tree serves up the true meaning of Halloween with glee.
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd
This adult novel is my favorite re-telling of the Frankenstein story, one that imagines Victor Frankenstein as the troubled college friend of Percy Bysshe Shelly. Revolutionary, atheistic Percy goads the obsessively religious Victor into pushing deep into his creative potential, with disastrous results. The book features pitch-perfect guest appearances from the graverobbing Doomsday Men, hedonistic celebrity poet Lord Byron, and Mary Shelly herself. As Victor’s faith and sanity begin to unravel, the narrative hurdles towards tragedy with a sharp eloquence and gothic sensibilities that would make the staunchest Shellyphile proud.
Best read in one feverish sitting if possible, the novel eschews the supernatural for a more psychological approach to its scares, and has an absolutely wild twist ending that still satisfies.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding
This steampunky YA fantasy takes place in an alternative Victorian England split in halves by the Prussian war and ravaged by awful beasts referred to as wych-kin. Teenage wych-hunter Thaniel Fox uses a potent blend of magic and technology to keep the city safe. He teams up with Alaizabel Cray, a half-crazed girl who has been turned into a magnet for wych-kin by a high society cult. Together, the two must unravel esoteric conspiracies and evade the grisly serial killer whose story runs parallel to theirs.
There’s a lot going on in this book, but it’s all served up with substance and style in a slick, fast-paced package that really works for me. Wooding brings his eye for memorable, mature characters and immersive sensory detail to the novel, putting it a cut above many other YA offerings.