Spooky Books for October Reading

The first of October is the official start of two things: Halloween season and, much as it pains me, all things pumpkin spice.  While I eschew all that pumpkin spice business, I love a scary read in the autumn. If you do, too, let me offer some suggestions to see you safely through October, when the nights turn cool and you read with the covers practically over your head. 

For scary, creepy books you can’t do better than the two classics, “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  I like “Dracula” especially, because it is set in Romania and I have been there, and they drink a lot of slivovice, and I have been there, too. 

There is a scene in which Dracula scurries diagonally across a vertical wall, in the mist and dark, and it makes my heart race every time I read that passage.  It terrifies me so I can’t stand to watch the squirrels out my kitchen window as they skittle up my neighbor’s house, at an angle and frighteningly fast.  

I swear, I swoon in fear, I’m so triggered. 

Wilkie Collins is supposed to be the fellow who gave us our first mystery novels, elevating the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the short form. Collins was a contemporary of Dickens and his books are described as long and that right there is why I have never read him. However,   I return to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” stories I first read under the covers with my Girl Scout flashlight. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a good one, too. 

“Rebecca” is, at its core, a ghost story.  But not one of those chain-dragging ghost stories.  The ghost of the real Rebecca haunts every character in the novel in unique and unsettling ways.  I have read this book several times, but always with several years in between readings. With some distance I find it surprises me and upsets me in all the darkest and spookiest of ways. 

Agatha Christie can take up a good portion of your October reading, but I find I prefer to partake of her work by way of Masterpiece Theatre.  I first read her books in my early adolescence but they didn’t hold my attention long.  I much preferred Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

I must have been introduced to “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” in junior high.  Is it possible that was required reading for an English class?  I don’t know, but it horrified me because I was at the time afraid of dogs, even though I hate to admit it.  So, the notion of gigantic creatures howling their heads off somewhere out there on the moor sent me into spasms of delicious fear, safe as I was, still under the covers reading while my little sister slept across the room. 

Junior high was also the time I was introduced to H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pen name, Saki.  We were assigned “The Interlopers” and that is all I am going to tell you.  Saki is the O. Henry of the disturbing twist ending, and after reading “The Interlopers,” I devoured all his short stories in quick succession.  In particular, “The Open Window” galvanized me for days, even though each element of the story, taken alone, is benign and ordinary. But that ending.  


You may note there is no Stephen King on my list, but if you adore him, you go right ahead and read him.  I managed to read “Cujo,” which makes no sense, considering I just shared my fear of dogs.   I read most of “It,” and I’m just going to say, he writes so well and at such length I am too terrified to finish his stories.  My poor heart can’t take it, not really.  

So, I return to Shirley Jackson, my final suggestion for you.  And again, I knew her first in junior high or high school.  We were assigned the short story, “The Lottery.”  You have read it, usually assigned at the same time as “The Rocking Horse Winner,” and “A Rose for Emily,” although she didn’t write these two. 

For a quick and spooky read, try Jackson’s novels,  “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” or “The Haunting of Hill House.”  So classic.  So satisfyingly eerie.


On the first Sunday afternoon that seemed like fall, just barely like fall, I was awash in a longing for my nieces and nephews to still be little and flopped all around my living room while we watched “Halloweentown.”  It was about as gentle as a scary movie could be, starred Debbie Reynolds as the matriarch witch in the family, and the kids’ mother was also a witch, but she denied her powers. 

There was a mystery of some sort that took the whole family to solve, and some lessons on claiming who you are, and doing good. I tried watching it by myself the other day, and it just wasn’t the same without little ones in the house and popcorn all over the floor.

Now I am curating my list of scary movies to watch this month when I tire of reading scary books.  I am partial to black and white movies when it comes to terrifying myself.  What they lack in explicit gore and bad words, they make up for in the creep factor.  “The Night of the Hunter” is one such movie.  Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters star, and it is one of those slow burn movies that gets your heart rate up, and right now. 

I put “Cape Fear” in the same category.  The original, released in 1962, is also in black and white, with Gregory Peck as a small town lawyer whose family is terrorized by the ex-con, Max Cady, who has been released and seeks revenge.  Watch this one first. 

Then, scoot over and watch the remake, filmed in 1991, starring Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro.  There are plenty of horrifying surprises that will make you jump, but pay attention to a scene between DeNiro and Juliette Lewis, the teenage daughter.  It is so subtle and so frightening I can honestly say my blood ran cold.  Still does when I think of it. 

Another remake of a movie that might be worth a gander is the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” starring a young Donald Sutherland.  All fatherly now and selling us orange juice, in the early days of his career he had that certain something, not a creep factor, exactly, but something unsettling, that made me like him and loathe him and like him in just about any part he took on.  “Body Snatchers’ has a great supporting cast, too, with Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy. 

If you like this kind of thing, then set aside some time to watch the “Alien” franchise.  The best, in my view, are the first two, “Alien,” and “Aliens.” Sigourney Weaver as the much beleaguered Ellen Ripley is a pretty perfect image of a fierce and iconic hero. 

Anything Alfred Hitchcock will work for a couple of hours of spookiness.  “Psycho” and the “Birds” are classics for this time of year, but let me also suggest “Rope.”  It is set in one single room, on one day,  and Jimmy Stewart is a bad guy.  I know, I know, that alone is mind-bending.  It is as much a psychological thriller as anything, and fun in an upsetting way. 

John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” was industry-shattering when it came out.  I was working at Western Kentucky University at the time and I drove to Nashville to see it.  I was thrilled at all the Bowling Green street references and the mention of all the small towns in the area.  Carpenter’s father had been a professor at WKU and John used real southern Kentucky places in most of his work.  “The Fog,” manages to name just about every street in town as the miasma creeps closer and closer to Adrienne Barbeau, his wife at the time.  “The Fog will work in your list of scary movies. 

My siblings and I stumbled across “Soylent Green” on a rainy and boring Saturday afternoon, and it lives on in the McDonough Canon of Film. Right this minute I am drinking from a Soylent Green coffee mug my nephew, Wesley, sent me. It is not so much scary as dystopian, and maybe a little cheesy, but don’t say that in front of us.  We still shout the last line of the film at each other when we run out of things to say.  

And then we laugh and laugh like hyenas, but spooked hyenas, even so.