Horror Gems for the Haunting Season

It’s that time of the year again, when other­wise mild-mannered readers turn into ravenous fiends searching for a terrifying fix. Instead of just turning to old standbys like the works of Anne Rice, Stephen King, or Peter Straub, why not try one of these 21st-­century options that will deeply satisfy horror-hungry readers but that have a much higher chance of being on the shelves come Halloween time.

David Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field (Overlook. 2011. ISBN 9781590205792. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781590205389) has an imaginative frame that should please readers looking for the unsettling feeling of horror without all the gore. Jack Durkin is the current caretaker of Lorne Field, but he is merely one in a 300-year line of Durkin men who have held the job. From spring until first frost, Jack’s life is dedicated to pulling the weeds that grow in Lorne Field. Why? Because the weeds are vicious monsters, and if not weeded, they will grow to their full form, leave the ground, and destroy the world! Then again…they might just be weeds. The only way to know for sure is to stop taking care of the field.

Alden Bell offers an original, captivating, and different take on the zombie craze in The Reapers Are the Angels (Holt. 2010. ISBN 9780805092431. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781429929677). Temple, a 15-year-old girl, is struggling to survive after the zombie apocalypse. The Southern landscape through which she wanders alone is desolate, menacing, and eerie. This is not an action-based thriller, however. Yes, Temple is running away from killers, both human and the undead, but Bell’s narrative is focused more on the people and places along Temple’s route. The mashup of Southern Gothic and psychological suspense set in a zombie wasteland creates a heartbreaking, atmospheric, and terrifying treat of a novel.

In his historically accurate retelling of Sir John Franklin’s doomed search for the elusive Northwest Passage, The Terror (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2007. ISBN 9780316017459. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780316003889), Dan Simmons supposes, after the ships became trapped in the ice, that it was a monster that finally did in the crew. This intricately plotted story comes equipped with its own menacing, and historically predetermined, atmosphere—a trapped crew with no way out, no communication with the outside world, depleted food stores, cannibalism—but the addition of some supernatural bite makes it a nice Halloween pick, especially for readers interested in learning history while being ­frightened.

David Wong serves up a side of the giggles along with a large helping of scare in John Dies at the End (Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. 2012. ISBN 9781250035950. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429956789). The fictional character named David Wong talks directly to the reader as he relates the fate of his friend John. After trying a new drug, “soy sauce,” David and John realize that what they thought was a bad trip is ­really a newly opened portal to Hell, and now a deluge of murderous monsters are flowing into the world. This spoof is written with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and readers will find themselves alternating their smiles and cringes as they compulsively turn the pages. Have no fear, although the title gives away the ending, David and John manage to return for the equally engaging sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders.

One of the most critically acclaimed genre novels in recent years, Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth (HarperPerennial. 2009. ISBN 9780061430244. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061843471) is a gritty story of underground crime and urban werewolves who can morph at will. Told in visually arresting free verse—the text creates a jagged right-hand margin on the page that mimics the shape of sharp teeth—the novel’s style boldly echoes its unnerving tone. With competing packs of modern lycanthropes, romance, violence, and a complex story line, Barlow treats readers to a fearsome and gory ride.

A great hidden horror gem is Leopoldo Gout’s illustrated novel, Ghost Radio (Morrow. 2009. ISBN 9780061787829. pap. $12.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061981678). Joaquin is the host of a popular paranormal call-in radio show in Mexico, but as he prepares to bring the show to America, the ghosts of his past begin asserting themselves quite literally into Joaquin’s life. He tries to confront the specters before he goes completely mad, but, unfortunately for him (but great for readers), that choice may be making things worse. Gout puts readers directly into Joaquin’s head, resulting in an absorbing and unsettling read as they follow Joaquin’s descent into madness. Audio buffs take note: with its radio setting, Ghost Radio is particularly creepy in audio format.

This column was contributed by Becky Spratford, a Readers’ Advisory and Teen Librarian at the Berwyn Public Library, IL. She is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror, 2d ed. (ALA Editions, 2012) and a proud member of the Horror Writers Association. For more horror suggestions from Spratford, visit raforallhorror.blogspot.com

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net


  1. Sue Duran says:

    This is a great article! Gives me some ideas for new reads. Thanks!

  2. Gina says:

    I second The Caretaker of Lorne Field, I LOVED it. I loved The Terror, too. John Dies at the End is on my to read list. Now off to check out the others in your story.

    • Neal says:

      Hi Gina,

      I am very happy to hear that so many of Becky’s picks were your favorites as well. I hope you find a few new titles to enjoy as you scout out the rest of her list.