Whenever Halloween comes around, I like to pick up a dusty tome of terror, wipe away the cobwebs, and crack the spine in the dim glow of a bedside lamp, safely tucked away from the chill autumn evening. The following five books constitute what I think are the best of the best for this season of spooks and spiders, ghosts and ghouls, and hidden within each are lessons every writer can use to increase the goosebump-factor in their own writing.
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The trick with this classic haunted house tale is that Jackson comes right out and tells you that this ancient manse isn’t quite right. You know it, I know it, and the characters should know it, but they don’t, and that’s what adds a “Don’t go in there!” type of suspense to the book. You know they shouldn’t wander alone, or even in pairs, or ignore the warnings of those who have died, gone mad, or abandoned the house ages ago . . . or worse, refused to leave. The horror comes on slow, with a creeping sense that the house does indeed have a mind, and perhaps a dark soul, of its own. This pacing is key, and bit by bit, room by room, Jackson builds a gradual sense of distrust among the ghost hunters, an uncertainty about the narrator’s sanity and honesty, and a genuine fear of the eerie fun-house effects that play havoc on the characters’ minds. It all crescendos with a chilling (and circular) ending that will be hard to forget once the lights go out. You’ll never look at an old spooky house, or your own, the same way after this one.
Tips to take away:
- Pace yourself and mete out the horror in small yet increasing doses.
- Come right out with it; tell us the secret, but let’s play keep-away with the characters.
- It ends how it begins, and the circle of “inherited evil” continues.
4. H.P. Lovecraft
I had a hard time choosing one story, book, or collection for this cosmic-horror master. But I own, and prefer, the Barnes & Noble The Complete Fiction volume of his work, which is big and heavy enough to use as a weapon in a zombie attack, and I try to read a couple tales each week in October (and beyond). Whether his narrators discover that their neighbors are actually the living dead, or stumble across a secret cult in the basement depths of Brooklyn, or come across a seemingly empty house in the woods only to find it quite occupied by . . . well, something . . . his stories reek of a terror so great that the human mind can hardly comprehend. To me, he bridges the gap between Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King when it comes to defining horror stories for their respective eras. Lovecraft was also adept at creating a near religion based on his other-dimensional monsters, including secret organizations, books, and temples honoring ancient, destructive gods like Cthulhu and Azathoth.
Tips to take away:
- Lovecraft is all about atmosphere. Look at your surroundings. What would make you afraid to enter the room you are sitting in right now? Write about that!
- Build a world around your creeping horror. Give them human accomplices or ties to ancient sects, which might add a sense of subconscious allure to their evil.
Speaking of King, Night Shift is the first collection of his short stories I ever read, and it remains my favorite. The opening tale, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” is clearly inspired by Lovecraftian tropes: inherited evil, a cursed family, a haunted mansion, the living dead, demon cults, and rats in the walls, always rats in the walls! It’s the same old horror, but King adds new twists and even sets up some backstory for a future novel, “‘Salem’s Lot.”
The other stories in the collection veer toward more modern landscapes, but are rife with mental horrors, physical terrors, Boogeymen, psychotic children roaming cornfields, and things that go bump-snarl-slash in the night. In my humble opinion, King is at his best when he is confined to twenty, forty, sixty pages—that’s when he really tightens the screws and can scare the hell out of you.
Tips to take away:
- What have your predecessors written that frightened you, and how can you make it unique and your own?
- Limit yourself when it comes to length and make every shriek in the night count.
- If you like the setting and theme of one of your stories, try coming back to that same place a generation or a century later. What changed? What remains?
2. The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
This one is geared more for younger readers, yes, but it is also highly entertaining for more mature readers, too. (Wait…am I really mature? Now that’s a scary thought.) For me, this tale is a wallop of nostalgia mixed with a history lesson of the rituals and beliefs behind the holiday, making for one adventurous romp through the underworld. From Egyptian pyramids to Druid fires in the night, Bradbury explores everything about the holiday that makes it so enrapturing, simply by following a group of costumed kids. They venture to a spooky old house with a Halloween Tree, and Mr. Moundshroud (aka Halloween incarnate) guides them through the centuries in order to find and save their friend Pipkin. It’s fun, it’s educational, it’s spooky, and it’s an absolute must-read classic.
Tips to take away:
- Kids are fun, seek adventure, and have a more vivid imagination than you or I ever will. Consider using them as your heroes . . . or villains.
- What is the essence of your horror? Personify that essence, and maybe flip things and make this being welcoming . . . darkly welcoming.
- The truth is stranger than fiction: add true-to-life historical context to your tale and make the fear that much more real.
1. Dracula & “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker
I may catch flak for this one, but the second two-thirds of Dracula aren’t so much a horror novel as a 19th-century version of Dark Shadows meets Downton Abbey—there are real estate deals, love triangles, bouts of insanity, elegant social gatherings, taut British manners, and lots of letter writing about the doings of strange neighbors. And there’s also a sense that we’re one talking dog away from a Victorian Scooby Doo episode. But the first third is absolute horror gold. We travel to Transylvania with Jonathan Harker, hear the baying wolves, enter the castle, live with the undead, and watch as Dracula crosses the sea to invade England. It’s chilling and gripping, and Stoker’s Dracula became the definitive vampire.
Stoker also wrote a short story, really just a chapter that was excised from the novel’s draft, titled “Dracula’s Guest.” Published in 1914, two years after Stoker’s death, it relates the story of a man traveling through the countryside in Transylvania. The traveler senses a tall, thin man watching him in the woods, and he enters a remote cemetery at night where he encounters a stranger . . . but the reader knows it is no stranger at all—it is the one and only Count, the prince of darkness, the drinker of blood! It’s vampirism at its best, and no sparkling glitter in sight! Find it. Read it. Love it.
Tips to take away:
- Have a chapter in your novel that doesn’t quite fit, or an idea that you can’t squeeze into your storyline? That’s what short stories are for! And sometimes a short story will inspire a book of its own.
- If you have a tale of terror, take it old school. Don’t use a haunted house—use a castle! Don’t use a basement—use a crypt! Don’t use a killer in a hockey mask—use an undead being who has waited for centuries . . . waited just for you.
– James Duncan is a poet, writer, founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is a content editor for Writer’s Digest.
And if you’d like to find out more about writing a dark, devious paranormal tale, consider reading Steven Harper’s Writing the Paranormal Novel.