An illustration of a horror scale of spooky books, from 'ghost emoji' to 'skull and crossbones' emoji.

There are some Hallowe’en traditions we leave behind with adulthood – trick or treating is just plain weird if you’re not accompanied by a small ghost, for instance – but books offer a fantastic way to get into the spirit. Not a big one for scares? We’ve got books for that. Only interested in the bone-chillers? We’ve got books for that too. Here’s a rundown, rated by spookiness:

Ever-so-slightly unsettling

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (2019)

Mary Shelley was so futuristic with the creation of Frankenstein that the 19-year-old writer invented science fiction in the process (and it’s another good title for a low-level scare, by the way). That foresight inspired Jeanette Winterson to offer a spirited modern take on the classic, imagining an AI specialist and a transgender doctor entwined in a romance set against Brexit Britain. Pertinent and foreboding, this novel is more provocative than petrifying.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)

More dreamlike than daunting, Murakami’s spellbinding story is a kind of backwards murder mystery, wrapped around an unlikely pair: a 15-year-old runaway and an old man with a Doolittle-like ability to talk to cats. Dreams and reality merge and shift in this elegant book about communication and fate. It won’t leave you with nightmares, but you may experience a pleasantly odd night’s sleep.

A little scary

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins (1878)

Wilkie Collins kept thrill-seeking Victorians reading by torchlight with ghostly stories including The Woman in White, but The Haunted Hotel makes for an evening that’s as cosy as it is chilling, involving a glamorous Venetian hotel that’s layered with secrets. Fancy being told the story instead? Try the Wilkie Collins BBC Radio Collection on audio.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)

Fairytales, but not as you know them: Red Riding Hood takes on the Wolf, the Beauty and the Beast tackle taboo, and a Mr Ripley-esque Puss in Boots. In this pivotal and captivating collection, Carter twists tradition, sex and storytelling to offer a vivid modern take on folklore. Arguably, the greatest fear woven into Carter’s text is the violence of the patriarchy – something that still looms large today.

Pine by Francine Toon (2020)

Francine Toon was inspired by witchy '90s movies such as The Craft as well as the tragic real story of Janet Horne, the last woman executed for witchcraft, to write this eerie story of loss, isolation and female assault. You’ll be left more with sadness than scares, but as a book that opens on October 31, it’s a perfect poignant read for Halloween.

 

Chilling tales

The Penguin Book of Exorcisms by Joseph P. Laycock (2021) 

For those who like their scares rooted in reality, Laycock’s compendium of historical ghostbusting could well hit the spot – and, as all good horror film directors know, the fact it’s true makes it even scarier. Enjoy page-turning through a murky history of spirit possession, from ancient Egypt to the 1920s exorcism that inspired The Exorcist

 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock (2012)

Pollock’s contemporary take on modern gothic is rooted in his lived experience of working in Knockemstiff, an Ohio backwater where religious fervour, poverty and machiavellian deals collide. The Devil All the Time builds on the noir of his first collection of short stories, and combines the grimly thrilling stories of a murderous husband-and-wife duo with a corrupt Preacher. You can leave Knockemstiff, but it won’t leave you.

 

Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan (2019)

Occasionally, the most fearful things aren’t the stuff of fantasy but within our own imaginations. Kirsty Logan cherrypicks the matters of all-too-familiar threat: those that lie within the walls of our homes and bodies, our failures as parents and children that don’t seem quite as they should be. Things We Say in the Dark is a triptych of stories that are shadowy and inconclusive – leaving your brain to linger on the horrors within.

Japanese Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn (2019)

The spirits and ghosts of Japanese folklore have inspired some of our most-feared horror movies, so it’s no surprise that this collection packs a frightening punch. Discover the different ghouls and phantoms of traditional Japanese storytelling, from the faceless mujina who stalk lonely neighbourhoods and the headless rokuro-kubi, re-imagined by Hearn in modern stories of haunting power.

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a lament on memory, enslavement and the legacy of trauma. But it’s also a ghost story. When Sethe, a former slave, returns to her mother’s home without her eldest daughter, the building is transformed by the child’s absence. But when Beloved visits, stranger things start to unfold, leading to a horrifying revelation based on a true story Morrison found in the paper. The author maintains that while writing the story, the ghost of Beloved appeared before her.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan (2021)

Edinburgh, novelist Jenni Fagan explains, is a city that holds more than it seems: in its catacombs and spires, in its expanse through centuries, the towering terraces and tenement buildings hold stories and mysteries. Few buildings are as tall as 10 Luckenbooth Close, and few as haunted – even in this city of ghosts. Told with unnerving pace and realism, Fagan’s story is one that you’ll be pleased to let haunt your waking hours. 

 

Blood-curdling stories

Sisters by Daisy Johnson (2020)

Sometimes, family can be too close for comfort. Johnson is no stranger to the eeriness of the unspoken – folklore was used to perturbing effect in her first book, Fen, too. But in Sisters, two girls born within months of one another are left to fend for themselves in a house that seems to be built from sadness. As Johnson’s ensnaring novel reels you in, there’s no way you can be prepared for the twist to come.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson (2020)

If it’s suspense you’re after, Alexis Henderson’s blistering debut will fit the bill. A Southern noir remix for the modern day builds on the contemporary trend for witchcraft, with a healthy dose of cultish living thrown in. With readers calling it both “hecking scary” and “stunning”, this is a sophisticated spooky read to get lost in. 

 

The Hotel by Daisy Johnson (2021)

An unbeatable selection of 15 feminist ghost stories by Daisy Johnson, The Hotel delivers hair-raising tales read by actresses including Adjoa Andoh, Anne-Marie Duff and Juliet Stevenson, to chilling effect. Perfect for settling down to a candlelit evening with.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

Shirley Jackson achieved mainstream fame with short story in The New Yorker that involved a woman being stoned to death by her own village, so it’s not surprising that she’s capable of inviting mounting dread and horror in her subsequent work. You may know The Haunting of Hill House from its Netflix adaptation or by its two film adaptations, but the book is arguably more chilling – Jackson even manages to make a picnic on a lawn fill the reader with fear.

Absolutely terrifying

The Terror by Dan Simmons (2010)

Being left stranded in an icy, lifeless expanse is arguably scary enough, but when author Dan Simmons took the events of the Captain Sir John Franklin's lost expedition in the mid-19th Century and added dismembered Inuits, monstrous polar bears and a rapidly depleting crew, it became horrifying.

 

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse (2021)

How quickly blissful seclusion can turn into nightmarish isolation. Detective Elin Warner never wanted to spend a holiday at the beautiful and bougie hotel in the Swiss Alps, but when her brother’s engagement party goes awry there, she knows she’s in trouble. The former Sanatorium still holds ghosts of its past between the walls, and when a storm cuts off access to the outside world, the company becomes too close for comfort. 

The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig (2021)

An inherited home seems to offer retreat and a new start for a family, but instead reveals secrets and lies from decades before. Chuck Wendig was called “the new voice of American horror” for a reason, and The Book of Accidents comprises the most terrifying tropes from those that have gone before him: unearthed psychological trauma, a house of ghosts and a perilous threat from a strange child. Read it if you dare.

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