We ranked this year’s Halloween offerings from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.
Chasing Ghosts by Marc Hartzman
Scariness level: You can safely read it by flashlight in the middle of a desecrated graveyard.
In Chasing Ghosts, Marc Hartzman gives a lighthearted historical account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave. Using humor, fun illustrations and interesting anecdotes, Hartzman main focus is on humanity’s attempts to reach out to the dead. There are hucksters galore in this entertaining book: mediums, spirit photographers, levitators and automatic writers who used all kinds of gimcrackery and stagecraft to pull off their frauds, separating the susceptible from their healthy skepticism—and money.
So, what are ghosts? Mass hysteria or hoaxes? Reactions to invisible environmental factors or the lingering embodiments of souls? Chasing Ghosts raises these questions but wisely avoids offering definitive answers. So the next time you walk through a sudden cold spot on a humid evening, you might want to consider the possibility that ghosts are chasing you.
Horseman by Christina Henry
Scariness level: Strike a match and spark one solitary lantern.
Christina Henry’s Horseman is an atmospheric and haunting reimagining of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Fourteen-year-old Bente “Ben” Van Brunt is the grandson of Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones, whose tale-as-old-as-time romance once sparked rumors of the ghostly Horseman and ran a gangly, awkward schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane out of town. Ben, who is transgender, experiences much frustration with fellow townsfolk who insist on repeatedly misgendering him and accusing him of witchcraft. But there is even more that sets him apart: Ben has visions of the Horseman, who says he is there to protect him.
With visceral visions of nightmares, creepy prose and a pace as fast as the rush of horses’ hooves, Henry’s take on Irving’s classic story is a chilling romp into the forest where sometimes the scariest monsters are all too human.
★ Slewfoot by Brom
Scariness level: Light a few candles. It’s safe enough to read at home in bed but might cause some goosebumps if you’re alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods.
Abitha, a young Englishwoman, marries into the Puritan society of Sutton, Connecticut, and finds herself an outsider due to her sharp tongue and headstrong manner. When her husband is killed in the woods behind her house, Abitha must decide how to live as a widow in a community that seems to be waiting for her to fail.
If only that were all she had to worry about. Deep in the dark of the forest, something ancient, primal and hungry has awoken. Slewfoot is creepy, crawly, bloody fun. Author-illustrator Brom wastes no opportunity to turn up the spooky factor, whether in prose or in the deliciously creepy paintings that illustrate his tale. If you’re looking for a thrilling ride that also has a philosophical soul, grab a copy of Slewfoot—and don’t put it down until you’ve finished it.
Reprieve by James Han Mattson
Scariness level: It’s as creepy as sinking into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Dead Marshes and lighting one little candle.
At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course? As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. It’s a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Scariness level: Imagine encountering three Japanese spirits, each holding one flickering lighter.
Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s megarich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness. Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale.
★ The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling
Scariness level: You’ll need most of the lights in your room (and perhaps an extra night light in the bathroom).
A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the atmospheric, well-plotted The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling. In an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain, Jane Lawrence understands that a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden. Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option. He agrees, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent job steering clear of the obvious plot beats in this white-knuckle reading experience. For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, this is a must-read.
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno
Scariness level: Keep all the lights in your house on—and maybe unplug your smart devices and toss them into the backyard.
In powerfully immersive first-person prose, Gus Moreno’s debut novel provides an inside view of a grief-stricken husband’s worst nightmare. This Thing Between Us feels like a fever dream as Thiago Alvarez, in a one-sided conversation with his late wife, Vera, reexamines the tragic events that led to her death and recounts what’s happened since. A few months prior, Thiago and Vera’s smart speaker started playing music without their request. Odd packages arrived, even though no orders had been placed. And then an alarm clock didn’t go off as it should’ve, throwing their schedule into chaos and placing Vera in the exact wrong place at the worst possible time. Now Vera’s gone, and Thiago is lost. And that’s just the beginning.
There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright. Bodies drop. Violence springs up seemingly out of nowhere. But the most surprising and challenging aspect of This Thing Between Us is that it’s as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying—a novel of domestic conflict and suspense as well as horror.