The 4 best horror novels of Halloween 2023

Empty nester Margaret Hartman is thrilled when she and her husband, Hal, buy a gorgeous old Victorian home. But the house soon begins testing them with annual September “shenanigans”: blood oozing down the walls, creepy spirits of 19th-century children and a demonic boogeyman that even an experienced priest can’t exorcize. Margaret and Hal weather three cursed Septembers, but Margaret in particular is in it for the long haul. When Hal disappears on the eve of the fourth September and his and Margaret’s daughter, Katherine, arrives to search for him, family secrets are brought to light.

From the ghost of a murdered maid to swarms of giant flies, the house’s antics become routine for Margaret, and her wry, witty narration will also accustom readers to these supernatural events. Despite the house’s horrors, it still provides Margaret with a haven, a purpose and an emotional connection to an eerie spirit community. But when author Carissa Orlando reveals why Margaret is so good at putting out proverbial fires and quelling very real ghosts, The September House takes an unexpected emotional turn. Margaret knows that ugly secrets can be carried well beyond the grave, and it’s better to heal, forgive and protect when you can. Her interactions with Katherine are particularly tense and anxiety-inducing as Orlando explores an estranged parent-child relationship impacted by intergenerational trauma. 

The September House pulls inspiration from classic settings such as the Bates Motel, Rose Red, the Overlook Hotel and Hill House, but Orlando’s characterization of the old Victorian is fresh and fascinating. The house serves as an analogy for the deterioration of family and mental health, with the collapse of a person’s mind being more terrifying than any specter lurking in the shadows. Some of the body horror moments may feel familiar, but Margaret’s delightfully matter-of-fact voice puts a new spin on even the oldest of tropes, and the novel’s horrifying events unfold at a furious pace. The September House is a riveting adventure that will grab you by the ankles and drag you down into the pitch-black basement you’ve been warned to avoid.

Carissa Orlando’s darkly funny and unexpectedly emotional The September House follows an empty nester who refuses to leave her extremely haunted Victorian home.
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With remakes and reimaginings an integral part of our current zeitgeist, discussion of such projects often results in a common refrain: If it was good the first time, don’t bother remaking it. Luckily, no one told Elizabeth Hand this when she set out to write A Haunting on the Hill, a brilliant queer reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic, The Haunting of Hill House. Hand’s work both modernizes and deepens Jackson’s setting, pulling readers into the demented halls of Hill House and the minds of its denizens.

Struggling playwright-turned-teacher Holly Sherwin has landed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the form of a $10,000 grant. The funds are her big chance, allowing her the time and flexibility to develop her newest play. When a wrong turn leads her to the isolated Hill House, renting it out as a rehearsal space feels like fate. Against the better judgment of nearly everyone in Holly’s life—her girlfriend, Nisa, her friend Stevie and even the owner of Hill House herself—Holly moves her cast into the spacious home for several weeks of strenuous rehearsals and rewrites. From momentary delusions to black hares appearing out of nowhere, things start to go wrong as soon as they arrive. But as soon as its new inhabitants consider escape, their minds are suddenly changed. Desperate pleas to flee become arguments as to why they should stay as the house insinuates itself into their wildest fears and desires. To survive, they need to leave—but they are beginning to forget why they’d want to in the first place.

While fans of Jackson will no doubt revel in some of the obvious homages, Hand’s fresh text doesn’t require deep knowledge of Hill House lore to be intelligible or frightening. And its modern setting allows Hand to play with the paranoia and worries of a new age. A Haunting on the Hill explores age discrimination and the shadows of abuse as thoroughly as it does infidelity and professional jealousy, turning each into a tool that the house can use against Holly and her friends. True to Jackson’s original and the tradition of the haunted house novel, the eeriness builds subtly before bursting into full terror. There are no rattling chains nor wheezing ghosts; Hill House plays to its inhabitants’ expectations and warps their minds, needing nothing more than a trick of the light or a bit of faulty memory to unsettle and manipulate. But rationality begins to slip away soon enough, replaced by the glorious terror of one of literature’s most iconic haunted houses.

A Haunting on the Hill is a brilliant queer reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

What would Hansel and Gretel be like as adults? Kell Woods’ inventive retelling explores the answer to this question, following Hans and Margareta “Greta” Rosenthal as down-on-their-luck German peasants struggling to make a living in a world still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War.

Greta has never felt like she fit into Lindenfeld, a little town on the edge of the Black Forest—not before she and Hans fell prey to the gingerbread witch, and not after their return. Nothing has been easy for the siblings: They’ve lost their father and endured a stepmother rotten to her core. Now, reckless Hans continually mishandles their money, and instead of considering suitable suitors, Greta deals with nightmarish visions and other strange sensations After the Forest quickly reveals how the Rosenthals have kept themselves afloat: Greta’s descent into witchcraft, aided by the gingerbread witch’s grimoire. 

When a handsome stranger emerges from the forest with seemingly good intentions, while at the same time, Lindenfeld explodes in prejudice towards the wild animals and supposed witches that plague the land, Greta must make difficult decisions about her path in life and who she can trust. At first, she confines herself to baking magically scrumptious gingerbread to sell at market, but Greta soon evolves into a greenwitch, working with the forest itself to achieve her goals and save those she loves. As her powers grow, she learns about the terrible effects of more powerful, darker spells. Naturally, Greta swears off this dangerous magic at first, but the evil forces lurking in the woods outside Lindenfeld grow ever stronger, and she might not be able to keep her hands clean. 

Readers will root for Greta to finally achieve her happily ever after while also relishing Woods’ dark, folklore-infused story. Each chapter begins with a snippet of a fairy tale about noble sisters Liliane and Rosabell, who at first seem unrelated to Greta—until Woods unravels the secrets that bind them together. After the Forest is full of enchanting references to various folk tales and truly feels like a children’s storybook come to life, albeit one with delightfully wicked and haunting twists. With its cookbooks that speak (and bite!) and enchanted gingerbread, After the Forest is a tantalizing treat.

In Kell Woods’ darkly enchanting After the Forest, Greta of Hansel and Gretel-fame has become a witch herself.
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From ancient myth to urban legend, the uncanny valley that is the doppelganger has long terrified and mesmerized. Caitlin Starling’s latest novel, Last to Leave the Room delves deep into the realm of psychological horror, poking at our fears of what is alien in ourselves. 

Dr. Tamsin Rivers’ ruthless nature is legendary among her colleagues, as is her ability to overlook the vagaries of the law in order to get things done in the name of research. It’s no surprise to anyone when she is tasked with solving a major problem: The city of San Siroco is sinking, and no one understands why. The fact that Tamsin’s experiments on quantum entanglement began at the same time San Siroco started sinking could be pure coincidence, as Tamsin argues to her handler, Mx. Woodfield. But nowhere is sinking quite as quickly as Tamsin’s basement, the depths of which are descending into the ground at an alarming pace. And worse still, a mysterious door in the wall has spit out a perfect replica of Tamsin who has neither her memories nor her acerbic personality. She is pliable, innocent and biddable—the perfect test subject. As Tamsin begins her experiments on her double, her memory and faculties begin to falter, endangering both her professional standing and her personal safety. 

Last to Leave the Room is a study in claustrophobia and paranoia, combining the best of psychological horror and science fiction. Starling’s close perspective brings us into Tamsin’s brain, including the subtle, terrible ways it begins to falter. The effect is slow at first, with mismatched details that are easy to miss and a slow tension that ratchets up almost imperceptibly. Starling’s prose shifts with her main character, narrowing the scope of the novel as the walls begin to close in around Tamsin. This constricting perspective becomes viscerally discomfiting, as if the reader is losing pieces of their own memories. It’s psychological horror at its most terrifying, the kind of writing that makes you stop to question—just for a moment—how well you know your own mind and your own world. And that’s before Starling dives into the body horror possibilities that come with experimenting on your own doppelganger. Last to Leave the Room will deeply unsettle readers as it asks two existentially fraught questions: What exactly makes you, you? And who are you when all that is stripped away?

Caitlin Starling’s Last to Leave the Room is psychological horror at its most terrifying as it follows a ruthless scientist who experiments on her own doppelganger.

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