The nights draw in ever further. The November darkness beckons – we’ve long cast off our cosy summer reads; we want to engage in something which can supply that thrill of discomfort and fear. So now’s the perfect time to pick out the best books for Halloween.
Clichés aside, the horror tradition is a rich vein of exciting and original fiction – and something that more than a few students on our London writing courses and online writing courses have tried their hand at. Horror is occasionally maligned as being unserious: a form which offers cheap thrills and queasy sensationalism at the expense of literary credibility. In fact, many of the literary ‘greats’ have had a stab (an unfortunate usage here, perhaps) at the ghost story, or even pure horror. ‘The Master’ himself, Henry James, wrote a number of superb supernatural tales (The Turn of the Screw now being the best known, thanks to a series of screen adaptations).
Here at CBC we thought we’d write up a list of our thirteen favourite pieces of horror fiction from the last two hundred-odd years, and we’ve tried to mix up some classics with a few lesser known treats. What became clear as we were compiling our list was how all the key ingredients to great horror fiction – atmosphere, drama, tension, suspense – are essential to any writer’s arsenal of techniques and tricks.
Horror is a powerful way for an author to show off their writerly chops; to create powerful and engaging narratives, full of fear and wonder, without having to worry quite as much about straightforward realism, or scientific credibility. It’s a form that allows a writer genuine freedom.
We hope you approve of our list: Happy reading (don’t have nightmares)!
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg
A contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the highland poet and novelist is now best remembered for this slice of Scottish gothic, in which an aristocrat is driven to murder by a mysterious doppelganger. A huge influence on another Scottish horror classic, R.L Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The Last Man (1826) by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein’s popularity and influence is so enormous that it is easy to forget that she wrote anything else. Shelley’s creepy, apocalyptic story of the last man on earth has won many admirers in recent years.
Uncle Silas (1864) by J Sheridan Le Fanu
Now perhaps better remembered for his sapphic vampire novella Carmilla (made famous thanks to the late Hammer horror adaptation The Vampire Lovers), the Irish novelist’s best work is arguably this lesser known chiller. Uncle Silas stands alongside Wuthering Heights as a powerful example of untamed, mid-nineteenth century gothic.
‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ (1904) by M.R James
From the master of the ghost story, this spooky tale about the haunting of a stuffy Cambridge academic is unforgettable stuff.
‘The Lottery’ (1948) by Shirley Jackson
No horror list can be complete without Shirley Jackson, now considered one of the greatest horror writers of them all. This short story about a horrifying annual ritual in a small American town has an ending which still packs a real punch (and was a big influence on The Wicker Man).
Forget Hitchcock’s film, du Maurier’s source novella, set in her native Cornwall, is even better (and it doesn’t have to rely on some occasionally ropy special effects).
Interview With the Vampire (1976) by Anna Rice
Anna Rice’s wholly original take on the vampire legend is still a cornerstone of the modern horror novel, and for better or for worse, there would be no Twilight series without it. But Rice’s novel still stands up as a powerful piece of fiction.
The Elementals (1981) by Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell wrote the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, but he also wrote a number of horror paperbacks during what is now considered a golden age for popular horror fiction. In the unforgettable The Elementals, McDowell turns a number of horror tropes on their head. Instead of it being darkness which haunts the main characters, it is a terrifying, unremitting sunlight.
It (1986) by Stephen King
In light of the current bizarre ‘craze’ of killer clowns apparently stalking young children in the U.K the U.S, Stephen King’s bestseller feels suddenly a little too close to home.
We thought it would be only fair to include an ex-CBC student in our list; Plague Land does an incredible job at capturing the horrifying atmosphere of the late medieval world, one ravaged by disease and murder.
The Loney (2014) by Andrew Michael Hurley
Initially published by tiny press Tartarus, Hurley’s debut was picked up by John Murray and became something of a sensation after being highly praised by none other than Stephen King. This atmospheric, Lancashire set slow-burner already feels like a modern classic.
David Mitchell’s haunted house tale originated as a twitter story, which he then extended into a short novel. Full of humour and dark wit, Slade House centres on the strange goings on at a mysterious house over four decades.
Myerson’s powerful novel of bereft parents and lost children is genuinely haunting; it hasn’t yet had anywhere near the level of success it deserves.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.