Another trip around the sun lands us at the tenth month of 2019, which means another edition of my recommendation list for scary books I’ve read or listened to since October of 2018 is finally ready to pop out of the oven. To be honest, I have no real concept of how many people read or use this annual compilation as an “eeriness enhancer” during the weeks leading up to Samhain, or how much revenue this generates for the fantastic authors featured on it. All I know is people complain to me if I’m late getting it out, and that it’s a fun way for me to keep a running record of my literary / audio digestion that isn’t as monotonous of a chore as updating Goodreads is for me.
It is my firm belief that fall nights were designed specifically for cozying up indoors with a hot cup of tea and a great horror novel, and it is my hope that something from this list inspires you to do the same.
FULL DISCLOSURE: For the first time, I’ve included affiliate links to purchase books from this list. It doesn’t cost more for you to buy a book this way; Amazon just kicks me a little something for leading you to it, which I in turn use to splurge on luxuries like operational costs and feeding myself with actual food.
Cool? Cool. Let’s get to it.
Usher’s Passing by Robert McCammon
The best way for me to describe this novel is “Edgar Allen Poe fan fiction elevated to the highest possible level.” The Ushers from The Fall of the House of Usher are real, and one estranged son comes back home the sprawling North Carolina estate he fled from so many years ago to wrestle with a whole slew of problems – some corporeal and some very much supernatural – as the gang attempts to decide who will become the new head of the powerful family.
Lullaby by Jonathan Maberry
This is a super fun little Audile Original ghost story (only 37 minutes in length) by Jonathan Maberry. Babies and hauntings? Don’t mind if I do.
Elevation by Stephen King
It’s Stephen King, but it’s a short story, so you don’t have to invest four years of your life into reading it. Without revealing too much, this is a fun one to burn through during the Halloween season, ESPECIALLY if you’re currently on some kind of diet. Trust me on this one.
The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross
I’m a big fan of The Laundry Files, which is a phenomenal series by legendary author Charles Stross that somehow manages to blend the bleak horror of Lovecraft with the mundane frivolity of modern office life into something I just can’t put down. The Labyrinth Index is the ninth installment, but if you want to start at the beginning of the series, go here.
The Listener by Robert McCammon
There’s a whole hell of a lot of Robert McCammon in this year’s list, and for good reason. The dude is beyond prolific, and is responsible for some of the best contemporary fiction out there (See Swan Song, Boy’s Life, and Usher’s Passing above). Set in 1930s New Orleans, The Listener offers a crystal-clear window into the colorful bayou city of yesteryear with just a pinch of supernatural flavoring to enhance the mystery in a way you truly won’t expect.
The Darkwater Bride by Marty Ross
This is an Audible Original Drama (almost like a radio opera, so think “War of the Worlds” but with infinitely better production value) concerning a ghost story set in the darkened corners of Victorian London, so think Peaky Blinders. I’ve been a huge sucker for audio dramas ever since I was lucky enough to catch Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill’s Locke & Key through Audible, and The Darkwater Bride definitely scratches the same spooky, fun, fantastically acted itch.
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
Much like Lullaby, this is a 2+ hour short story produced for Audible Originals by the inimitable John Scalzi (who you really should follow on Twitter because he’s hilarious). It’s narrated by actor Zachary Quinto (Spock in the new Star Trek movies, as well as Charlie Manx in the new NOS4A2 series), who absolutely nails his role as a state-licensed futuristic assassin.
Inspection by Josh Malerman
This is the guy who wrote the breakout hit Bird Box (which in turn created those timeless Sandra Bullock memes), as well as another book on this list which you’ll run into a bit later. Inspection is about a bunch of kids who are being raised and taught in a huge building in the middle of the woods in some remote location who have no knowledge of the outside world. The boarding school from hell, really. I feel like this shares a lot of similarities with Stephen King’s newest release “The Institute”, which was also fantastic and you’ll find further down the list.
I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Surrealist horror at its finest. Did you like “Let the Right One In”? If so, you’re in luck, because John wrote that. I Am Behind You starts off at a galloping pace as several families wake up only to realize they’re no longer in the Swedish RV campground they holiday in every year. No birds, no wind, no sun; just endless fields. The radio will only play one particular song. This massively unique one gets creepy very quickly and grips you through the entire book.
The Demon Next Door by Brian Burrough
A 2:46 Audible Original about real life serial killer Danny Corwin, and how a perfect storm of ineptitude, incompetence and apathy allowed him to do the horrendous things he did. This one will leave you frustrated and screaming at whatever device is playing it for you, and visceral reactions like that are the hallmark of truly great storytelling.
Junk by Les Bohem
Surprise, surprise. Another Audible Original. I burn through a lot of these driving around and doing chores around the house, so naturally a lot of them are going to end up here. This is the most bizarre alien takeover story I’ve ever encountered, and the whirlwind of creative insanity is elevated to a perfect pitch thanks to narration by none other than JOHN WATERS. Yes, that John Waters. You will read a lot of bad reviews about Junk. All of them are wrong.
The Haunted Forest Tour by Jeff Strand, James A. Moore
A massive forest springs up out of the ground overnight. Said forest is filled with horrifying monsters. Of course, the smart, reasonable thing to do in this situation is to start a haunted forest tour in order to capitalize on the anomaly, right? What could possibly go wrong? Think Jurassic Park, but replace the dinosaurs with creatures from every fairy tale, myth, legend and recess of the human mind.
Dead Moon by Peter Clines
Zombies, but on the moon? A pretty entertaining take on a stale genre by the guy behind one of my favorite books of the 2010s – Paradox Bound. Nerdy, slightly campy at times, bear hugged by the frozen desolation of space, and like any good zombie-themed content, absurdly violent. Fun for the whole family!
Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman
See? I told you there would be another Josh Malerman book in here. It’s the Wild West. A woman named Carol has a strange condition in which she occasionally slips into impossibly deep comas. Because it’s the Wild West and medicine is still pretty primitive, Carol’s fugue states make her look dead to everyone around her. Carol’s shithead husband Dwight decides to take advantage of this by proclaiming her dead during one of her comas and burying her in an attempt to take control of her fortune. Only her long lost lover, an outlaw by the name of James Moxie, knows of her condition and can save her from a claustrophobe’s worst fate. Very cool read.
Nightwise / The Black Dahlia by R.S. Belcher
Like Constantine? Then you’ll probably like the Nightwise series. Laytham Ballard used to be a member of the Nightwise; a society of mages who work together to fight for good. Laytham, a man with more baggage than a Southwest arrivals carousel, left the Nightwise to freelance because he’s a booze-swilling sex hound who doesn’t play well with others. Only two books to it so far, but this is a great series. My only gripe is that Laytham’s occasional penchant for sexual domination play is a bit unnecessary to me, and I’m not quite sure how it pushes the narrative forward, but I’ll put up with it to get to the really, really good content R. S. Belcher’s putting down here.
FUN FACT: If you spring for the audiobook, all of R.S. Belcher’s books are narrated by Bronson Pinchot. Yes, Balki reads this to you. Turns out he’s turned into one hell of an audiobook narrator since Perfect Strangers.
The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher
If you can’t tell by the sheer number of them on this list, fantasy westerns are quickly becoming my jam, and R. S. Belcher knocked this one out of the park. Olde tymey gunslingers meet mystical apocalypse in a version of the Wild West where magic is very much a real thing. I was particularly enamored with the character development in The Six-Gun Tarot, and found myself clinging to the pieces on this tumbleweed-blown chessboard of a story arc. I hope to hell a sequel is being considered for this.
King of the Road, by R.S. Belcher
R.S. Belcher is just spattered all over this list like cake frosting on a high chair. Sometimes when I discover a great author, I go a little nuts and devour their entire catalog. King of the Road is the second installment in the Brotherhood of the Wheel series (go here for the first), and pertains to the Knights Templar, more specifically how they avoided persecution by splitting into three groups, one of which eventually was tasked with protecting the ancient magical lay lines below America’s roadways, where bad shit tends to take place. Loads of children are missing across the country, and it’s up to southern charmer / Templar-in-an-18-wheeler Jimmy Aussipile and friends to figure out just what in the hell is going on.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
You looking for something super one-of-a-kind and creepy to read? You’re probably not going to do a whole hell of a lot better than a novel about killer mermaids. Mira Grant is incredible, and her tale about a massive research vessel called the Atargatis being assaulted by the very aquatic life it was attempting to study and exploit perfectly showcases her talents as a novelist. I triple dog dare you to read this on a cruise.
The Institute by Stephen King
Excuse my language, but Stephen King’s latest novel is an absolute fucking treat to burn through. Children with unique abilities are being kidnapped all over the country and placed in “The Institute”, where they are housed, fed, studied, tortured, and…much, much worse. How good is this book? They announced it was green-lit it for a limited TV series almost immediately after it was released.
The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft by – shocker – H.P. Lovecraft
As far as I’m concerned, no Halloween-themed reading list can be taken seriously if there isn’t at least something Lovecraftian in there. Maybe it’s because I’m a well-documented H.P. Lovecraft fan. Maybe it’s because of my love for nihilistic cosmic horror. Maybe it’s because I’m a lifelong coastal New Englander who appreciates the use of creepy, craggy ports and primitive waterside villages ass the backdrop for truly great fiction. Regardless, if you’re into horror literature at all, and you feel like you can get past the dated language (and occasional spurts of gross racism), Lovecraft is required reading. I own this as an enormous and well narrated 40+ hour audiobook, and I listen to it whenever I run out of Audible credits for the month. At that rate I should have it all wrapped up by the year 2046. Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Marty Ross (adaptation)
If you’ve already read Treasure Island, this is a really wonderful audio drama version of the classic for you to revisit. If you haven’t already read Treasure Island, what the shit is wrong with you. The voice acting is beyond skilled, the sound effects and score are killer, and it all serves to breathe new fun and punchiness into a universally beloved story. How does Treasure Island fit into a spooky reading list? Pirates, hauntings, violence. It ticks all the boxes, kids.
The Conception of Terror: Tales Inspired by M. R. James – Volume 1 By M. R. James, Stephen Gallagher, A. K. Benedict, Jonathan Barnes, Mark Morris
Four scary short stories packed into one hell of an Audible Original. Each story is very good, but the first one, “Casting the Runes”, is my favorite of the bunch. All are done in an audio drama style, which is another bonus.
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
A Lovecraftian tale pertaining to Devil’s Reef, Innsmouth, Deep Ones, Dagon, Cthulhu, and plenty of other well-known H.P. Lovecraft tropes, Winter Tide does a great job of acting as a love letter to the works of Lovecraft without leaning too heavily on the subject material in order to create a wonderfully unique novel that’s solid AF on its own merits. Quick synopsis: The people of Innsmouth were captured by American soldiers and placed in a concentration camp. All but two died in captivity, who are recruited to help US intelligence services stop communist forces from harnessing a power that could potentially destroy the world. This is the first installment of The Innsmouth Legacy series, and I loved it enough to put the second installment Deep Roots in my queue. Ruthanna Emrys. Remember the name. I’d bet money she’ll be huge one day.
Make Me No Grave by Haley Stone
Another fantasy western? Don’t mind if I do. The Grizzly Queen of the West is on the loose, and US Marshal Apostle Richardson is hot on her trail. Strange tales of The Grizzly Queen’s evil supernatural abilities are spoken of in hushed tones around guttering campfires and sticky bar tables. Is The Grizzly Queen as evil as the rumors say, or is she being framed for a crime she didn’t commit? Apostle’s sure gonna find out, and so are you if you’re cool enough to buy this book, hombre.
The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter, The Providence Rider, The River of Souls, Freedom of the Mask, Cardinal Black by Robert McCammon
Mainline the adventures of Matthew Corbett directly into my god damned veins. Full stop.
I stumbled across Robert McCammon’s epic series last year with Speaks the Nightbird, and I’ve been on a madman’s quest to chew my way through the whole series ever since. Matthew Corbett is an obsessive, socially maladjusted Sherlock Holmes-esque character, albeit much younger and without the messy opium habit. The series is set in 1700s America (largely New York), and pits Master Corbett and company against hellacious villains who threaten to transform the new colonies into a playground of corruption. It’s fun, it’s a historically accurate portrait of the times, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the series. I mean, I burned through SIX BOOKS of the series in one year. I don’t know if it’s possible to give a better recommendation than that.
The Invited by Jennifer McMahon
There aren’t nearly enough female authors in this year’s list, and I have no idea why that is. Maybe it’s because I was so busy churning through Robert McCammon and R.S. Belcher this time around. That being said, my absolute favorite novels this year were written by women, and Jennifer McMahon’s The Invited was one of them. I enthusiastically recommended The Winter People last year, and was super duper excited when I came across this one.
A couple decides to drop everything, build a house from scratch in rural Vermont, and to try their hand at homesteading. The Instagram dream, right? Strange things start happening to Helen when she realizes the sprawling property is home to the ultra-violent lynching of a woman deemed a witch on it by the townsfolk many years before. From there it just gets more and more sinister as Helen delves into the history of the incident, hell bent on learning the truth about the cozy little town they moved to, and the seemingly malignant curse of the family Breckinridge.
Circe by Madeline Miller
No, this isn’t a GoT spinoff. Here’s another favorite of mine from 2019. This is an unbelievably well-done retelling of ancient Greek mythologies from the viewpoint of Circe; the daughter of the titan Helios (the sun) and Perse (a sea nymph). This novel has it all. Gods. Monsters. Heroes. Villains. A kick ass plot that will have you firing through pages like a one of those money-counter machines. The very best part about Madeline Miller’s Circe is how personal and intimate she’s made Greek mythology. You really do feel like you’re right there in the action and drama, and that you can understand the motivations and actions of these immortal beings out of time immemorial. I can’t recommend this one enough, and neither can HBO, who’s already ordered a series based on the novel.
Tales from the Gas Station: Volume One by Jack Townsend
I wanted to hate this book. I really did. The narrator is not good. The audio recording is definitely an amateur undertaking. The flow of the narrative does not lend itself to being told aloud. I almost returned this one, but then I realized it was based on a CreepyPasta (horror stories and fan fictions written on obscure internet forums, a la Slenderman), and decided to be less critical of it right out of the gate. With the background information in mind, I actually enjoyed Tales from the Gas Station very much.
From the description:
“As the only full-time employee at the twenty-four hour gas station at the edge of town, Jack has pretty much seen it all. But when he decides to start an online journal documenting the bizarre day-to-day occurrences, he unwittingly attracts the attention of much more than just a few conspiracy theorists. With the body count steadily on the rise and a dark, ancient force infecting the dreams of everyone around him, Jack will do everything in his power to stay out of the way and mind his own business.”
It’s unpolished and far from perfect, but it was those qualities almost became positive as I listened my way through the wildly unique material. This is definitely a wildcard recommendation in the way that you’re either going to like it, or you’re going to hate it so much that we stop being friends, and I have no idea how to gauge public reaction for this one. Roll those dice if you’re feeling lucky, partner.
Evil Eye by Madhuri Shekar
AUDIO DRAMA ALERT! This smart lil’ short story (1:38 in total) takes a series of phone calls and voicemails, and weaves them into a creepy supernatural story about a paranoid oversees mother (Usha), her Indian American daughter (Pallavi), and Sandeep, a dashing young entrepreneur who has his romantic sights set on Pallavi. Someone here isn’t who they say they are, and nobody will listen to Usha’s warnings. I’m not going to describe this one too much because it’s so short that I’m bound to give something away if I keep talking about it. It’s good. Get it. You’ll like it.
House of Leaves by Mark J. Danielewski
How am I supposed to describe the most famously indescribable novels of all time? Mark Z. Danielewski’s eccentric and surrealist story about a house that is not quite a house is told through a strange series of narrators, footnotes, clippings, illustrations, photos, musical scores, and text that somehow starts winding and swirling and vanishing before your eyes. If you’re in the market for something very different and you’d maybe love to know what it feels like to be clinically insane, buy this as a paperback (they can’t even make this an audiobook because it’s so fucking bizarre). Your straightjacket and Thorazine shots are in the mail.