Horror for the Holidays! Or, Scary Novels To Read While Being Nice to Your Family
“Corruption of love and kindness is the real horror...” (So Just Eat Your Aunt’s Pie, Ok?)
I find the holidays a good time for horror. Whether the festive season makes you happy or miserable, you can read about people who are (hopefully) in more immediate and serious trouble than you. If your family has gathered, as so many do at the holidays, you can finish the last page of a novel that’s put you through the wringer and go hug your family tight. The experience of gathering with family can be either wonderful or claustrophobic, sometimes both; most of the books I’ve chosen below thrive on the claustrophobia and paranoia that can set in among people in tight quarters, and haunted house stories are particularly relevant.
I should warn up front that I am not a fan of splatterpunk. I like my horror based in character development rather than violence or gore, and I require the people on the page to be more than cardboard cutouts. I don’t like it when the monster is revealed and explained on page eight; I want to be creeped out on the long road to being terrified. These ten stories are also, I believe, great examples of horror built slowly, as much through character as through plot.
Horror fiction often culminates in violence, but for me, the essence of good horror is not violence but evil: evil’s terrible ability to twist decent people and caring relationships into something unrecognizable. Violence is only a symptom of evil, after all; corruption of love and kindness is the real horror, and holidays or no, these ten books never fail to remind me that the world could use a little more love and kindness right now.
The Shining, by Stephen King
For my money, this remains the greatest haunted house story ever told. Financial desperation forces the Torrances to spend the winter in the empty Overlook Hotel, and the Overlook is always hungry for new guests. Haunted places work best on haunted people, and while I enjoy Kubrick’s film, I find that it lacks the rich characterization and historical resonance of King’s novel. Jack’s struggles with alcoholism and rage; both parents’ damaged relationships with their own parents; the sinister provenance of the hotel itself…these details make a good story great.
The Terror, by Dan Simmons
This was a lucky buy: I needed a book to last a long plane ride, and The Terror was the thickest book on the shelf. Two ships are trapped in arctic ice as any number of horrors close in: frostbite, starvation, disease, malaise and, worst of all, something unseen and malevolent out on the ice. Simmons creates convincing historical characters both lovable and loathsome, and for the old-school horror fan, he gives a surprising but beautifully executed shout-out to Poe.
Within These Walls, by Ania Ahlborn
At the outset, this looks like a standard (if well-written) haunted house novel, but what has occurred in this particular house gradually becomes almost unbearable. Ahlborn is routinely fearless about venturing into forbidden territory in her work, and while that fearlessness can create a disturbing experience for the reader, she also knows how to wield her understanding of the taboo to write good and effective horror stories, like this.
Echo, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Don’t start reading this one at bedtime; Echo has easily the creepiest opening scene I’ve ever read. When mountaineer Nick returns from a disastrous attempt to scale an ill-reputed Alpine peak, severe physical injuries are the least of his problems. Nick has gone into the void, and his loved ones will be forced to follow. H.P. Lovecraft has many would-be successors, but I believe Heuvelt comes closest here to exploring Lovecraft’s nightmare visions of beyond.
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
In the picturesque town of Millburn, four charming old men have kept an ugly secret for decades. But, as in all the best horror novels, the past has teeth. When the snow falls, all of Millburn becomes haunted. This is a very scary book, and while I sometimes find Straub’s outlook too grim to really enjoy, here he gives us enough love and nobility to balance out the hopeless night.
Hide, by Kiersten White
Fourteen random people, some good, some awful, are tabbed to compete in a reality show set in an abandoned amusement park. The opportunity seems too good to be true, and of course it is. Hide is a good monster novel that morphs into something even more compelling: a morality tale targeting reality TV, influencer culture, and the many complacencies of wealth and privilege.
The Deep, by Nick Cutter
Did I mention claustrophobia? The Deep takes place in a tiny laboratory station located at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. There is no room for conflict or paranoia in such an environment, but of course all of the characters have weaknesses that can be exploited by…something. Plot is almost incidental; setting controls this story, and what a setting Cutter creates. For sheer, suffocating atmosphere, I’m not sure I’ve read anything to compare.
Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco
This is a fine haunted house story in its own right, but I recommend it particularly for Marasco’s keen understanding of emotional fault lines. As in any good haunted house, healthy relationships are slowly fractured, but Marasco’s depiction of the specific incidents of stress is as true as anything I’ve ever read. I can actually feel these characters pulling apart in any given scene: small irritations turning murderous, welds coming undone.
NOS4A2, by Joe Hill
Can Christmas itself be terrifying? You bet. In addition to a pair of unforgettably awful villains, Joe Hill gives us Christmasland, a nightmare I won’t even try to describe. NOS4A2 also features one of my favorite heroines: Victoria McQueen, a smart, tough woman battling both evil and lifelong mental health issues. You’ll never see Christmas the same way again.
The Witching Hour, by Anne Rice
The only Anne Rice I’ve ever liked (sorry, vampires), but I like it a great deal. For centuries, the Mayfair family has been haunted by a darkly seductive presence known only as Lasher, a source of both great wealth and great tragedy. Lasher can be terrifying, but he’s also an undeniably sexy devil, and the sinister temptation he presents keeps the story moving when it might otherwise bog down. This is horror that reads like a good potboiler, entertaining as hell.
Erika Johansen’s The Kingdom of Sweets is available now from Dutton.