That most bewitching of holidays is upon us along with the desire to be thrilled and frightened. This Halloween weekend pick up one of these books—either a fiction page-turner or a true-life horror story—to celebrate the supernatural and strange.
Have little goblins to impress? Check out our list of 5 fantastic picture books for Halloween.
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
Film director del Toro and thriller writer Hogan treat a vampire outbreak as a massive public-health crisis, with chilling results. When a plane arriving from Berlin goes completely black on the runway at JFK, losing all electrical power and contact with the outside world, authorities expect to find a tense hostage situation on board. Instead, they discover that almost everyone on the plane has mysteriously died, presumably during the very brief interval between the time it landed and the moment a SWAT team stormed the cabin. Suspecting a disease of some kind and fearing its spread, authorities call in Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of a CDC team set up to deal with just this sort of fast-moving, potentially catastrophic epidemic. What Dr. Goodweather and his team gradually discover, however, is something much stranger and potentially even more dangerous: a species of parasitic worm that gradually turns its host into a bloodthirsty something that very closely resembles a vampire… Great characters, a semi-plausible premise and a flair for striking scenes get this trilogy off to a first-rate start. (Ed note: The third, and final installment of the series, The Night Eternal, is out this week.)
In the 21st century the victims of werewolves’ bites have been dying rather than transforming, so when the penultimate werewolf is eliminated, Jake Marlowe becomes the last. Jake is on the hit list for WOCOP, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, and he expects to be eliminated by Grainer, whose family he had killed and devoured during a full moon a while back. Helping Jake is his friend Harley, whom he had saved from a homophobic attack some 30 years before. Jake realizes the stakes are high when Harley’s head is delivered to him...so obviously no help will come from that quarter…Although Jake fully expects to be eliminated, he makes every effort to escape from the various, mostly inept hunters WOCOP sends. And then something unprecedented and earth-shattering occurs—his acute sense of smell leads him to find another werewolf, this one a female named Talulla Demetriou. Together they go on the lam, but Grainer continues his pursuit—at least until Ellis, Grainer’s protégé, tries to strike a deal with Jake, for Ellis would like to kill Grainer instead. It seems as though having at least one werewolf alive gives Ellis a reason for living. Duncan’s writing is quirky and brilliant—and definitely not for kids.
We are once more up in Castle Rock, Maine, ayuh, where the natives are striving to survive some earlier King visitations of the unspeakable. Recent arrival Vic Trenton, who has brought a big ad account with him from New York, is having a hard time hanging onto both the Sharp cereals campaign and his wife Donna, who has just severed an affair with a filthy-poet/furniture-stripper. Meanwhile, Joe Camber, an alcoholic auto mechanic, is angry at wife Charity for wanting to take their son Brett on a visit to her folks (he's afraid Brett will get a taste of sane family life that will show up Joe's madness), but finally—figuring that he'll have a hot time while she's gone—Joe agrees. And all of this sets the scene for some big, extended horror sequences in Joe's yard. You see, Brett's 200-pound St. Bernard, “Cujo,” has chased a rabbit into a big hole also occupied by bats, and a rabid bat bites Cujo's nose. Soon the dog is acting queerly, slavering, and going mad with a headache that warps his thinking about men: Cujo is lost in a mist and can't be found the day Charity and Brett leave…there's no denying that King's three-day vigil in the carnage has a solid hook that will hold his fans; and his Maine humors do offer witty relief.Handling the Undead
John Ajvide Lindqvist
Bright lights in a big city herald the return of the dead in Swedish horrorist Lindqvist’s second novel, after Let the Right One In (2007), a vampire tale that was later turned into a movie. This time the author replaces vampires with zombies, a switch that effectively accents his expressive, unnerving writing. In the process he offers a unique and humanistic take on the undead that has a place alongside thoughtful horror novels like World War Z. The story begins in Stockholm with a subtle natural phenomenon. The country, deep in its winter twilight, experiences a collective headache that threatens to drive its sufferers mad. Next, the city is struck by a massive short circuit, a reverse blackout that powers up every appliance. Then Lindqvist introduces his cast: David, a stand-up comedian and loving husband; Mahler, a suicidal journalist who mourns the untimely death of his grandson Elias; and Elvy and her granddaughter Flora, quietly acknowledging the new telepathy that has emerged between them. When the dead do come back, the book delivers believable terror…A philosophical story about fears to which no beating heart is immune.
Whitehead (Sag Harbor, 2009, etc.) never writes the same book twice, though his eclectic output had fallen short of the promise he flashed in his early novels (The Intuitionist, 1998, etc.). Yet here he sinks his teeth into a popular format and emerges with a literary feast, producing his most compulsively readable work to date. Though there’s enough chomp-and-spurt gorefest to satiate fans of the format, Whitehead transforms the zombie novel into an allegory of contemporary Manhattan (and, by extension, America), where “it was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been” and the never-explained apocalypse “sentenced you to observe the world through the sad aperture of the dead, suffer the gross parody of your existence.” The reader’s guide through this particular circle of hell is a clean-up/extermination operative called Mark Spitz (for reasons that aren’t worth the elaborate explanation the novel eventually gives). He was formerly employed as a social-network functionary for a Starbucks-style coffee chain, an occupation that seems even more ludicrous in the wake of a society transformed by hordes of organ-eating zombies…With its savage sense of humor and thematic ambitions, the narrative is to contemporary zombie novels what the movies of George Romero are to other zombie flicks. (Ed note: Read our Q&A with Whitehead about Zone One.)
And more scary true-life stories:
Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints
A private investigator exposes the horrors of a fundamentalist Mormon sect. First-time author Brower knows the Mormon faith better than most because of his heritage. But he knew almost nothing about the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints until stumbling on their practices after accepting a seemingly routine case as part of his private-investigator business based in Cedar City, Utah. The fundamentalists, led by a supposedly divine prophet named Warren Jeffs, illegally practiced polygamy. Brower, however, did not develop his investigation around the multiple-marriage culture. Instead, he became engaged far beyond helping his original client due to the dominance of the fundamentalist leaders over the women, including girls who had not reached adulthood. The author concluded that no religious doctrine could justify what looked like rape and incest. Furthermore, Brower learned about financial irregularities that, in his opinion, qualified the FLDS as an ongoing criminal enterprise as objectionable as the storied Mafia. Partly because of the author’s moral outrage and shoe-leather doggedness, law-enforcement agencies in Utah, Arizona and Texas, among other locales, began criminal investigations. Jeffs lost his liberty after a rape-related trial in a Utah courtroom, but an appellate court overturned his conviction on technical grounds. As Brower completed his manuscript during early 2011, the ultimate legal fate of Jeffs remained uncertain…An excruciatingly detailed, nightmarish saga demonstrating the sometimes inexplicable power of human evil. (Ed note: Read our Q&A with Brower about his investigation into the world of Jeffs and the FLDS.)
The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill
David M. Buss
Buss challenges the way the public, including guardians of moral values, view the act of murder and those who most often commit it. The author’s impressive body of research on the human reproductive imperative has led him to consider the direst consequences of mating gone wrong. The Intelligent Design crowd will hate his message: eons of adaptive processing—survival of the reproductively fittest, in other words—have hardwired us as potential killers. Masterful at marshalling statistics, Buss works from assembled studies of primitive or surviving premodern societies and of confessed or convicted killers. He also makes use of probing interviews with those of us who will allow, for the benefit of science, that we have actually thought of killing someone. Bottom line: depraved, demented, psychotic or serial killers, though they’re guaranteed front-page stories, have nothing to do with the vast core of proven and typical future murderers in our society. The individual most likely to kill, states the author, is a rational, planning male in his prime reproductive years who has not killed before but is going after either (a) the woman he believes has betrayed or abandoned him or (b) his principal male rival in the situation…A provocative, diligently wrought explanation of why cops always count the husband as a suspect.
My Life Among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World’s Most Notorious Murderers
Helen Morrison and Harold Goldberg
A forensic psychiatrist takes well-turned clinical forays into the heads of multiple murderers, with additional long-distance thoughts on their peers in foreign countries and in the past. Aided by veteran journalist Goldberg, Morrison shapes her experiences as a memoir and lets her prose express both analytical detachment and utter fascination. Nonetheless, she states, “I still could feel sickened about the nature of their crimes, no matter how detached I tried to be.” And these crimes are particularly dreadful. Morrison has spent 25 years trying to uncover some pattern to serial-killer behavior, a painstaking process of trying to understand why they do what they do by interviewing as many serial killers as she can get access to. Slowly the material accrues. John Wayne Gacy, she found, had the emotional makeup of an infant and “felt he was drowning when subjected to emotional complexity.” Robert Berdella displayed a total lack of empathy; he “couldn’t picture what the meaning of torture or even death is.” Serial killers typically show no social or psychological attachments, yet the author finds a terrible chemistry that suggests “serial murder at first sight exists and thrives much like love at first sight.” Killers had a “sudden urgency to get a victim. It wasn’t just a need; it was a drive, a compulsion”—an addiction of sorts…A scary piece of work, with even scarier implications.
Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer
The ghoulish saga of Dr. H.H. Holmes, the dapper devil who established himself as America's first serial killer 100 years ago. Schechter offers a disjointed opening before settling into his tale. He begins with a dramatic depiction of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He then writes of a New Hampshire boy named Herman who is 11 years in 1871; Herman has a penchant for skinning and deboning live animals. The next time we see him, it is under the alias of Dr. H.H. Holmes, venturing into the Chicago suburb of Englewood to weasel a profitable drugstore from its dying patron and his overworked wife. Holmes then constructs a three-story castle containing such delights as a greased shaft that ends in a dark cellar filled with vats of chemical corrosives; this labyrinthine chamber of horrors becomes one of his murder devices. Under investigation by the government for financial irregularities, Holmes sets fire to the castle, flees Chicago, and launches a series of insurance scams…Eventually Holmes is discovered and several decomposed bodies are exhumed from under the remains of the castle. In custody, Holmes confesses bluntly, "I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.''…An acerbic period sketch and a readable tale of pure Gothic horror straight from the heartland of America. (Ed note: See also Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.)
Unholy Messenger: The Life and Crimes of the BTK Serial Killer
Over the course of 30 years, Dennis Rader, a pinched, humorless Midwestern family man, terrorized the residents of Wichita, Kan., as the “BTK Killer,” a serial murderer and sexual sadist whose nom-de-crime derived from his predilection for binding, torturing and killing his victims. No criminal mastermind, Rader so embodied the archetypical Kansas man—self-effacing, pious, reliable, conservative (he served as a scout leader and was president of his Lutheran church)—that he was able, despite a sloppy m.o. and innumerable gaffes, to elude the concentrated efforts of the Wichita Police Department and the FBI to catch him. Crime journalist Singular (Presumed Guilty, 1999, etc.) limns Rader’s daily routine, stunted inner life and grisly crimes in unfussy prose that underscores the horror of the BTK slayings with brutal effectiveness; the dryly recounted quotidian details of the victims’ (and Rader’s) lives add an excruciating poignancy and immediacy to the accounts of the murders that a more lurid approach might have obscured…A compelling and clear-eyed portrait of a recognizable American community, devastated by the secret heart of a quintessential good neighbor—the sort of neighbor who makes one feel comfortable leaving the doors unlocked at night.
Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter
Acclaimed novelist Vann (Caribou Island, 2011, etc.) alternates his own adolescent fantasies about guns and school shootings with those of Steve Kazmierczak, who on Valentine's Day 2008 killed five and wounded 18 on the Northern Illinois University campus before ending his own life. The author’s notes that his back story and that of Kazmierczak are similar. Though an outwardly well-behaved, exceptional student, Vann began an obsession with guns at age 13 after his father's suicide; the author had easy access to the weaponry his father left behind. When he read about Kazmierczak's rampage, the author felt compelled to investigate and obtained an assignment from Esquire. Gaining access to Kazmierczak's 1,500-page police file, Vann delved into the reasons for the mass murder…A carefully crafted account of a descent into fatal madness.