Something about October always seems to bring out our desire to be frightened. Maybe it’s all the hoopla over Halloween, or the bite in the air, or night coming at 6:30, or the beginning of the season associated with death, or all of these, but October is definitely the creepiest month. So if you’d like to embrace that chill in the air, we’ve put together a list of terrifying books guaranteed to keep you up at night. Though ’tis is the season for spooky literature, for this list we decided to opt out of the horror genre. After all, the books that terrify us most are the ones that show us what humans — not vampires or werewolves or zombies — but the people you meet on the street, are capable of in their darkest moments. Click through to read our list of some of the most terrifying books out there, and let us know which novels chill you to the bone.
Room , Emma Donoghue
The very premise of this novel sends a chill down our spines. A girl, kidnapped at age 19, has been held in a secret room for the last seven years. Repeatedly raped by her captor, at the novel’s start she has a five year old boy, Jack, who has never been outside the room. Jack is the narrator, and the terrifying story unfolds in his childish tones and particular viewpoint, the reader, of course understanding much more than the storyteller. When the kidnapper visits the room in the evenings, Ma makes Jack hide in the wardrobe, where he listens, and reflects, “I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.” On the days when Ma is overwhelmed by her plight and succumbs to a listless depression, Jack describes her as “gone,” and patiently waits for her to return. When they — spoiler alert — make it to the outside, the question becomes whether the real world is really any safer or better than the one that was all their own.
Coin Locker Babies , Ryū Murakami
The first line of this surreal and captivating novel tells you (almost) all you need to know: “The woman pushed on the baby’s stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.” The woman, convinced the baby is dead, then tapes it inside a cardboard box and leaves it in a coin locker in a train station, throwing away the key. The baby is alive, however, and found, along with another baby boy in an adjacent coin locker. The two, Hashi and Kiku grow up troubled, each in their own particular way, but it’s Kiku who decides to take revenge on the city of Tokyo by finding a substance called DATURA, that sends any who ingest it into a terrible, uncontrollable bloodlust, and releasing it into the water supply. A disturbing coming-of-age story and a end of the world tale all in one, we stayed up a few nights after we finished reading this, looking suspiciously at our water glasses.
The Road , Cormac McCarthy
To us, this is one of the most terrifying of the many post-apocalyptic novels out there. Partially it’s the Blair-Witch-syndrome –since we don’t really know what’s going on, we don’t see the cause of destruction, it scares us all the more — but it’s mostly the starkness and realism of the aftermath, the deep sense of solitude in a destroyed world where almost nothing exists except the protagonists and a few sad, charred remains of life. Even the rare glimpses of other people are laced with fear, since humanity has turned against itself. We shudder, and we keep reading.
A Clockwork Orange , Anthony Burgess
There is nothing more horrifying than random acts of “ultra violence” led by a teenage sociopath who takes pleasure in causing others pain, no matter who they are. Except maybe the Ludovico Technique, an experimental form of aversion therapy in which said teenage sociopath is forced to watch scenes of graphic violence, his eyes clipped open, while taking drugs that make him sick. Or maybe the fact that Burgess’ publisher didn’t believe that Americans would buy Alex’s redemption at the end of the novel, and convinced him to leave out the last chapter and keep Alex a hopeless violence-crazed lunatic in the US edition.
The Yellow Wallpaper , Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In this epistolary short story, the reader watches helplessly as a woman, seemingly suffering from post-partum depression, descends into complete psychosis. Locked in a room in their vacation house by her husband (for her own good, of course, as she is suffering from what he has diagnosed as “nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency” and needs to rest), she begins to become obsessed with the wallpaper. With nothing else to look at, she begins to see a figure behind the the pattern on the walls, a woman trying to escape. In her deepest level of psychosis, she begins to strip the wallpaper from the walls to free the figure — and of course, herself — circling the room over and over calling out “I’ve got out at last!” as her horrified husband faints before her.
The Beach , Alex Garland
So this book made us never want to deviate from the guidebook again. Richard, a young Englishman travelling in Thailand, is given a secret map to an island no tourists ever find — the kind of place an adventurous tourist can’t resist, of course. As it turns out, the island is home to a tight community led by a powerful woman dead set on keeping their lives a secret from the outside world. Of course, the borders of no utopia can ever hold for long, so after a few weeks of paradise the world begins to come apart at the seams, the residents devolving into violence, paranoia and backstabbing. Richard and his friends escape with their lives, but barely. We’d rather just go to Disneyland.
Battle Royale , Koushun Takami
There’s no other way to say this: this novel is about schoolchildren who are kidnapped and forced to fight each other to the death. Set in an alternative Japan, the government has instituted something called the “Program,” in which 42 students are kidnapped, then equipped with metal collars and isolated on an island where they are required to kill each other until one student remains. The metal collars, the children are told, will be detonated by the supervisor if they go out of bounds or break the rules –and if no one dies in 24 hours, everyone’s collar will be detonated at once. Just as you might be if you knew 41 other people were crawling around your neighborhood trying to kill you, you’ll be tense and terrified the whole way through.
We Need to Talk About Kevin , Lionel Shriver
Though the narrative of school shootings is less in the forefront of our minds now as it was when this novel was published in 2003, this novel, voiced by the mother of the perpetrator of a school massacre, still cuts to the bone. The story of the murders, in fact, isn’t half so harrowing as the experience of the mother as she attempts to find some reason for her son’s actions, some reason that probably isn’t there.
Bastard Out of Carolina , Dorothy Allison
Allison’s stunning, semi-autobiographical first novel is narrated by Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, who details her young life in South Carolina. Her mother, Anney, 15 years old at the time of her birth and tormented by the fact that Bone is deemed illegitimate in the eyes of the state, keeps her family afloat by working at a diner and ultimately marries Glen, who is gainfully employed and seemingly gentle. However, when Anney gives birth to a stillborn child and Glen loses his job, he begins beating and sexually abusing Bone. Anney is aware, and leaves him, but always returns. In the end, Anney walks in on Glen raping her daughter and fights him off, but winds up throwing herself into his arms, unable to leave him even after the sight she has just witnessed. A powerful coming-of-age story, the novel shows how strong a child can be in the face of adversity, but also turns our stomachs when we witness how strong that adversity can be.
Johnny Got His Gun , Dalton Trumbo
Again, the basic premise of this anti-war novel is almost more terrifying than any violent turn of events in any other book we could imagine. Like a sickeningly real version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in this novel Joe Bonham, a soldier in World War I, wakes up in a hospital bed to find that he has lost his arms and legs, and that his face has been completely mutilated, leaving him without eyes, ears, or mouth. Trapped in his body with no means of expression, Joe tries to kill himself but cannot. Deprived of that option, he decides that he should be toured across the country to make clear the ravages of war, and finally manages to communicate this desire to his doctors by banging his head against his own pillow in Morse code. But of course such a thing would be unthinkable, and by the end of the novel it becomes clear that Joe will live out the rest of his life this way, trapped and helpless.