Keep the Lights On
13+ Spooky Reads for Every Member of the Family
A version of this article has appeared on my teaching blog, here.
I have always been a huge horror fan. From my childhood’s first real scares in the works of Roald Dahl and Alvin Schwartz, I knew I loved getting freaked out by fiction. There’s just something about that controlled terror, similar to the feeling you get on a roller coaster — your brain knows you’re not in any real danger, but your body isn’t so sure.
And it’s good to be scared! Seriously, getting spooked by scary movies and books (and one of my favorites, horror podcasts) is actually good for your health, and it’s good for children psychologically and intellectually to read books that frighten.
But the benefits don’t stop after childhood. Being frightened by something self contained and not directly, real-world threatening is a powerful escape for adults, providing a cathartic adrenaline burst and burning calories, too!
The following list contains mildly spine-tingling, kid-friendly books to read or hand off to kids as young as kindergarten, some for middle grade thrill-seekers, and a handful of grown-up, mind-crackingly immersive horror masterpieces.
So, get the fireplace going, brew some apple cider, and light some candles, because here there be monsters.
1. The Witches — Roald Dahl
I could probably put a dozen or more of Roald Dahl’s books on this list — The BFG to Matilda, and everything in between, but I think the first book that really scared me in that special fun way was his zany/scary The Witches. The story, about a little kid facing off against a gaggle of child-eating, magical monsters, is funny, gross, and fast-paced enough to keep younger kids entertained, but legitimately scary enough to be considered good Halloween reading for adults too.
Extra credit: Matilda’s evil parents and sadistic schoolmaster, and The BFG’s nasty giant villains (Fleshlumpeater, anyone?) are also excellent scary Dahl books, and they have great movie adaptations for further family Halloween enjoyment!
2. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell
I remember being almost too scared to peek through my fingers when reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a kid, which is largely thanks to Stephen Gammell’s nauseating/horrifying illustrations. Spooky little stories fleshed out by grisly ink drawings make this book — and its equally freaky sequels — like Halloween popcorn: You can have just one handful if you’d like, but once you start, it’ll be hard not to eat the whole bag.
Extra Credit: Stephen Gammell’s striking illustrations fill tons of of other great kids’ books, including his own!
3. Bunnicula — James Howe and Deborah Howe
The last book on the list for your youngest readers is James and Deborah Howe’s Bunnicula. About a wannabe detective cat and his dog buddy who suspect the new family pet (an adorable beDraculaed bunny) might be a vegetable-draining vampire, this one is super-fun for early elementary kids looking to get spooked this autumn.
Extra Credit: There’s a whole series!
4. Coraline and The Graveyard Book — Neil Gaiman
When Coraline unhappily moves to Oregon with her self involved parents, she finds herself wishing she had a better mother and father. What she gets is a twisted parallel world run by her vile, monstrous Other Mother, who wants to entrap her there, making for a severely creepy and off putting book that is simultaneously totally appropriate for young readers and hair-straighteningly creepy. And, in The Graveyard Book, Gaiman retells Rudyard Kipling’s classic, The Jungle Book, but instead of featuring a young boy raised by wolves in a jungle, he’s raised by ghosts in a graveyard. I couldn’t include one of these without the other, so here they both are! Short, fun, imaginative, and truly chilling.
Extra Credit: Listen to The Graveyard Book audiobook! It’s narrated delightfully by Gaiman himself. Also, Laika’s stop motion production of Coraline is stupendous.
5. The Shining and Revival — Stephen King
Another double-header here, because I could really put almost anything by Stephen King on this list, and decided instead to pair an old classic with a new throat-gripper. From here on out, this list is for more mature readers, and that couldn’t be more true of Stephen King’s works. 1977's The Shining is the horror classic wherein a family terrorized by their patriarch in a secluded hotel during a snowed-in winter functions as a brutal allegory for alcohol and substance abuse, and is truly terrifying. Quite different from the movie, but at least as scary. Coming much later in his career in 2014, Revival is the life story of a troubled musician, from childhood to middle age, and the ways his path crosses with a pastor from his youth. For most of its length, it’s an involving character-driven Bildungsroman, until in the last act it becomes a nightmare-inducing dive into H.P. Lovecraft-style cosmic horror.
Extra Credit: Grab yourself one of King’s short fiction collections. When he’s restraining himself from entering his usual doorstopper territory, he puts out some excellent, tightly thrilling short fiction.
6. Lovecraft Country — Matt Ruff
Speaking of Lovecraft, here’s an intricately pulpy short story cycle influenced by H.P. himself. Lovecraft Country isn’t just about apocalypse-conjuring sorcerers, though. Commenting on Lovecraft’s well-documented racism while cleverly re-purposing his horror oeuvre, it’s a deep dive into the real life terror of mid twentieth century racism, and a black community’s struggle to survive in the south. Plus, it has literal apocalypse-conjuring sorcerers too. Who could say no to racial social commentary blended with zippy pulp horror ripped right out of a paperback?
Extra Credit: Critically acclaimed writer/director of the similarly themed film Get Out, Jordan Peele, is currently working on bringing Lovecraft Country to screen as an HBO series!
7. The Girl with All the Gifts — M.R. Carey
You knew we couldn’t get through this list without some zombies. The Girl with All the Gifts features one of my favorite takes on the shambling horror classic monsters. To tell too much spoils an awesome premise reveal, but suffice to say that middle school aged Melanie, the main character, is one of my favorite horror protagonists, and her action-packed, terrifying adventures in post-apocalyptic England coupled with an absolutely chilling ending makes this a modern classic. Not quite a Young Adult novel, it can function handsomely as one for mature teens.
Extra Credit: Carey’s follow-up, Fellside, is a gut-wrenching horror-drama that’s even better than its predecessor. Think Orange is the New Black, except much darker and more violent, and with ghosts.
8. The Devil in the White City — Erik Larson
This one is definitely for mature readers. Not just because of its graphic content, but also because of its historical nature. Meticulously researched and incredibly detailed, The Devil in the White City is a history book that reads like fiction. It follows Daniel Burnham’s obsessive team of architects as they design the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair while H.H. Holmes, the psychopathic serial killer who designed and ran a literal murder castle, hunted its grounds. Equally fascinating and horrifying, this is a must-read for horror enthusiasts, true-crime lovers, and history buffs alike.
Extra Credit: Larson is well-known for his ability to bring history to accurate and harrowing life, so you can pretty much pick up any book in his output and be firmly gripped until the last page.
9. NOS4A2 — Joe Hill
So bananas none of it should work, NOS4A2 has it all. A kidnapped boy being pursued by his troubled badass action hero of a mom, a supernatural madman who drives a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith and turns children into razor-teethed monsters, and, weirdly enough, a magical winter wonderland called Christmasland. This is a scary, fun, bizarre take on vampire fiction, and it reads like a madcap adventure. It’s a blast. And again, Vic McQueen, the story’s heroine, is an absolute badass, and you’ll love her almost instantly.
Extra Credit: While this is one of Hill’s books that most closely resemble his famous dad’s work, his other novels are also a lot of freaky fun, and definitely worth reading.
10. A Head Full of Ghosts — Paul Tremblay
This might be the scariest book I’ve ever read. The ending still gives me cold sweat goosebumps when I think about it, and I’m almost too nervous to re-read it, though I know I’ll tear through it many times in the years to come. It’s a little complicated to explain, but suffice to say A Head Full of Ghosts is the story of a little girl whose teenage sister may be possessed, their increasingly unstable father, a predatory reality show broadcasting the situation on national television, and a horror fan who blogs about the macabre results, and may be the only one who knows what really happened. A modern American Gothic (emphasis on “Gothic”), it’s a phenomenal exploration of family troubles during the Great Recession of the early 21st century, religious fanaticism, mental illness, the cruel, exploitative nature of reality TV, and yes, demon possession.
Extra Credit: Tremblay’s follow-up, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is disturbing in a different way. Basically, buckle up if you’re a parent, because the missing child drama in this thing is deeply unsettling.
11. House of Leaves — Mark Z. Danielewski
The less said about House of Leaves the better. It is, simply put, an experience. Full of trippy puzzles (literal puzzles) and bizarre twists and turns the reader gets dragged, pushed, and dropped through, this meta haunted house book, is an extreme challenge to read (there’s sheet music, backwards/upside down writing, color-coded text, and much more), but for those brave enough to jump in, it’s a crazily immersive and deeply rewarding adventure. It’s the kind of book during which you completely forget where you are. Which makes it even scarier.
Extra Credit: If you’re feeling brave, dive into Danielewski’s other stuff. The guy can’t just write a straightforward story, and that makes him an exciting writer to follow.
12. Dark Places — Gillian Flynn
Before she exploded into movie mega stardom through her adaptation of her later book, Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn freaked us out with Dark Places, a sad, gritty tale of a woman dealing with horrific childhood trauma as an adult. This one grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go, like a rabid dog with a squirrel. We follow Libby Day through her painful memories and her present-day harassment from a fanatical murder club as she tries to find out what really happened the night her family was brutally murdered in a seemingly Satanic ritual. A stark mixture of a portrait of a family surviving 1980s small-town poverty, and the horror and pain of being a survivor, this one will stick in your head long after finishing it.
Extra Credit: Gillian Flynn is, as far as I’m concerned, the current monarch supreme of murder pulp. Her books have an air of erudite trashiness that makes you feel dirty but not dumb, and I adore her for it. Never not entertaining.
13. The Shining Girls — Lauren Beukes
Coming in at lucky number 13 is South African native Lauren Beukes’s mesmerizing horror tour de force, The Shining Girls. It follows a time traveling serial killer who comes from the Great Depression and kills girls of great talent or presence, and his only surviving victim, a scrappy amateur detective and newspaper intern. This one uses gorgeous, nearly poetic prose to elevate what could have been a goofy supernatural detective yarn to a true literary masterwork. And? It’s funny. Like, laugh-out-loud, why-am-I-chuckling-when-the-last-chapter-had-the-most-heartbreaking-murder-ever hilarious, mostly due to it’s scrappy heroine and her long suffering sports journalist pal.
Extra Credit: This extra credit is actually for me, as I haven’t yet read her other work, which is also supposed to be excellent, thoughtfully scary Halloween reading.
I hope some of these books bring you and your family shrieks and giggles this season. Just maybe leave the lights on when you try to fall asleep.