October is here at last! The leaves are taking on beautiful shades of brown, yellow and red. They begin to fall and give you that autumn-smell, reminding you of how gorgeous the world can look even as nature reminds you of decay and death. What better time to read some of the best horror classics literature has to offer?
Although Halloween is a particularly America-focused holiday, there’s something about the time of year which makes it particularly apt to that feeling of desolation, gothic, and uncanniness making you want to read or watch something horrifying – or at least unsettling.
For that reason, I’ve selected 10 of the best horror classics to read or re-read this October. They’re in no particular order since they’re all good, and the selection is based entirely on my own taste, rather than any objective measurement of quality (after all, it’s very subjective).
Why classical horror?
You might be wondering – and rightly so – why I’ve selected almost exclusively writing from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with one exception. The reason is mostly because it’s always nice to go back to the classics to see where the inspiration of contemporary authors came from.
Furthermore, despite their age, all of the entries on this list are still perfectly readable to a contemporary audience. That way they enable you to experience the sense of uneasiness that our ancestors felt themselves. Also, I’m an old-fashioned bore.
While Mary Shelley’s spouse may be the better poet, she was undeniably the better prose writer, and her Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus from 1818 deserves its place as one of the greatest horror novels of all time. Although it might be very different from what a reader who only knows the movies would expect, it nevertheless represents an eerie exploration of questions about good and evil, life and death, societal issues and the dangers of technological progression.
Another book which is fundamentally different from all film adaptations, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is rightfully one of the most well-known gothic novellas out there. The story is told from the perspective of a lawyer who investigates the eerie occurrences happening in London in the late 19th century. Capturing an uncanny flair of the unknown, tackling issues of privacy and publicity and good versus evil, this is an excellent read for someone looking for an air of mystery.
What a surprise! Another novel which has been turned into many adaptations, but this time with some which are closer to the source material than in the works mentioned above. But its fame is deserved, since Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an excellent piece of eerie writing, capturing succinctly the nature of vampires and establishing many of the common tropes found in contemporary Vampire-laden fiction (sadly usually for worse rather than better). Told in an epistolary manner, it always maintains the sense of horror you’d expect from this classic.
This one actually isn’t as plagued by film adaptations the same way the previous ones are – except for one, which is quite brilliant. I’ve written several times about this gorgeously eerie and uncanny story on my blog, so I won’t go into too much detail. Featuring a plot set in an isolated old mansion with creepy kids and a possibly insane governess with some ghostly encounters, this novella will send shivers down your spine – quite an accomplishment for Henry James whose plots are often impressionistic and drawn-out.
One of my favourite horror-like stories of all time, Oscar Wilde’s only novel is a wonderful work asking the readers how far they would go to achieve eternal youth – and thus all the splendours and possibilities for hedonistic action that would entail, making this one of the most contemporarily relevant books on this list. With a focus on pleasure-seeking and implications of saucy action (although it hardly ever becomes too explicit), this book is suspenseful from start to finish and frequently raises issues of beauty, the arts, good and evil, and it contains a plot so ingenious that it makes me envious. Not to mention that Lord Henry is one of the wittiest ‘moral guides’ in a novel to date. It might not be straight-forward horror, but in a society as obsessed with looks and youth as ours, Dorian’s fate is sure to deliver you a sense of dread.
While I’m generally not the biggest fan of Washington Irving, this story of merely 40-or-so pages is a particularly short read which will nevertheless give you plenty of build-up, suspense, and horror. It’s creepy, odd and short. It has also inspired several adaptations (one short by Disney as far as I know, and one full-length feature which is so bad it’s hilarious), making it probably one of the most unusual entries in my list. Certainly well worth a look if you have an hour to kill.
Written by Shirley Jackson in 1959, this is the most recent entry on this list. Relying more on a form of psychological terror than classical gothic horror, the plot centres around an eighty-year-old mansion at an unknown location. Exploring the now classical trope of someone exploring supernatural occurrences in a haunted house, it probably inspired a whole range of subsequent books and film adaptations, even if they rarely openly acknowledge the influence. For those seeking a clever book which undermines the poltergeist cliché, this is a great read.
Sadly much less known than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of the same name, Gaston Leroux’s novel was actually Webber’s inspiration. Written in the early 20th century, it tells the ghostly story of an opera house being haunted by a phantom called… Erik… who has a curious interest in the musical events of the theatre and especially a longing passion for the young soprano Christine Daaé. While I can’t vouch for the French original, the English translation I read was well-written. It has a creepy tone and a decent sense of horror throughout.
I never said this would be a particularly original list! But it’s impossible to make a selection of the best classical horror reads without a reference to Poe. So many poems and short stories of his will make you afraid to go to sleep at night. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’? A gorgeous account of insanity. ‘The Black Cat’? Beautifully dark and creepy. ‘The Raven’? A lovely eerie poem with one of the best uses of long trochaic lines in all of literature. And all of his writing is perfectly accessible to a contemporary audience. Not all are gothic in nature, but most of them are. All of them are excellently entertaining. His bizarre detective stories starring Auguste Dupin even became the blueprint for master detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. For one of the best Poe-experiences, be sure to check out Vincent Price performing ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’!
Probably another obvious choice, Lovecraft’s stories are just… bizarre. Whereas Poe deals with more ‘classical’ horror themes such as isolation or terror, Lovecraft goes into the strange realm. Every story features an exploration of the horror of the unknown, the potential threats that it can entail, and overwhelming otherworldly powers which humans cannot even begin to understand. While I can’t recommend them as wholeheartedly as Poe’s stories (just because he doesn’t write quite as well), they nevertheless ooze brilliance. They’re great because they give you that sense of uncanny uneasiness you feel when confronting things beyond comprehension.
This should give you plenty of reading material to get you through the month! Unless you’re a creepily quick reader or have too much time on your hand, I suppose…
But there’s one film which is so ghastly, so horrific that it puts all these horror classics in its shadow. Something so terrible that I cannot even mention it here… I’ll just quietly leave you a link – click if you dare.
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