Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Let's kick off this list with the trilogy of books I've revisited most in my life, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Sadly, these books have been re-released without the original illustrations by Stephen Gammell, but enough copies of this edition existed that you can still regularly find them in used book shops, and don't compromise: it's those illustrations that make these stories come alive. These books kept me up when I was eight years old, and still do now,. The best tale by far, "Maybe You Will Remember," is featured in the third volume. Based on the reportedly true story of a hotel covering up an outbreak of the plague by hiding a body and lying to the deceased's relative, I was especially enamored of the endnotes which explained the "facts" behind the story and made the whole volume seem verifiable and plausible. I like an element of truth to my horror.
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
This book is an onslaught of vivid imagery and ambivalent, yearning horror. I lose the details of plot rather easily, but remember the way a book made me feel. The Orange Eats Creeps haunts me with a manic, trapped feeling, crushed and frantic. Like a hawk stuck in a canary cage. My mind still fixes on the image of a young woman sleeping on the floor of a convenience store, enough so that I can't rediscover her in a nightmare, but am instead stuck awake and dreaming of her.
Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl
Let's take a moment to acknowledge what a sick lunatic Roald Dahl was. Let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that he was a horribly mean person: insulting and bullying those nearest and dearest to him. Forget even the children's books despite their genius ability to pull out that wicked streak and imbue it with delight and moral import. Instead, let's imagine that Dahl had been delivered his due as a master of the macabre in adult literature. I dare you to pick up this collection and begin reading, "Man from the South," and dream of putting the book down before finishing it.
Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz
Say you decide to bike across the country one summer with your college roommate and, one night, while camping, a pick-up truck levels your tent (with you in it), and then the driver gets out and attacks you and your roommate with an axe. Miraculously, you both survive, but no one is ever arrested or tried for this horrific crime. You go on with your life and fifteen years later you decide to look for an answer. When you return to the scene of the crime, everyone in the small town knows who it is that did it, and the fear of this criminal is only trumped by the terror at everyone who stood by and allowed it to happen.
Hell by Kathryn Davis
Holy god, this masterpiece needs more people talking about it. Three homes exist in the same house simultaneously, each one haunting the other two equally. The dog of a 1950s house barks in the ears of the figures in a dollhouse. A young anorexic girl wonders why the community is blaming the stand-off-ish neighbor for the murder of her friend, while, in another era, an expert on domesticity tried to forget her daughter wasting away in the next room. This book pushes the limits of narrative layering to such an extreme it can be hard to parse which story a sentence or even clause is adding to, but it's this compounding that makes the story such an eerie amalgam.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I know. You were forced to read it twelve times between high school and college, and that's a shame because you analyzed it to death, but take a break and revisit it, perhaps especially after you've had a crisis where you wonder how much of your misery is of your own making and how much is the world working against you. Then, return to that attic room and take a peek behind the wallpaper again.
The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville
I'm including this book mostly for the final novella in this collection, "The Machine of Understanding Other People." It is both my sincerest hope and greatest fear that I might truly understand others consistently and well, and this story serves up a helmet that allows the person wearing it to do just that. It's a story with an immense amount of heart and warmth, but also a paralyzing sadness that pulls me back to consider its implications regularly.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Please don't bother with the movies -- Swedish or English. Read the book. It is so much fuller and smarter and more vividly told. You're allowed more fear and imagination and beauty and grief. I can be less keen on stories centering around solidly fantastic beings and creatures, like zombies or vampires or mummies, but the humanity is so plain and affecting here, even skeptics will get invested.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Link's story "Stone Animals" is one of the scariest I've ever read ever. Ever. Someone make a movie of "Stone Animals." Do it, and do it right, please. In a gentle and evenly paced way, show how every detail of one's wildest dreams can come true and then fossilize before your very eyes. Take all the Technicolor away, and show the world in its greyed out mourning.
Nylund the Sarcographer by Joyelle McSweeney
Is there anything better than a detective haunted by his own demons as he investigates a case? McSweeney dresses up this story to the nines with language thicker than poetry and philosophy that cuts much deeper than the surfaces the protagonist is focused on in this exquisite noir: "The Grandson walks a beat before, and as he passes under the brainpan of each streetlamp his silver hair lights like a fuse or like a pyramid of powder like a roomful of gas going up. They work down the long street: whump, whump, whump."
The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates
Are you the type that was floored by "Where are you Going, Where Have you Been?" a long while ago and you've been looking for that perfect balance of muted horror from her ever since? You're in luck, there's a collection just of her most mysterious and suspenseful stories. Who knew a random stranger saying hello could be so terrifying? Or that it would be so hard to prove your morals when trying to navigate the mind games of your junky son? I haven't read much Oates, but this book made me think I may be making a big mistake.
Something in the Potato Room by Heather Cousins
A poetry book that keeps you awake: now that's something! But what is the "something" in the potato room? You'll find out, but that won't be the end of it. The book thrums, like a steady pulse, a shadow behind every heartbeat.
One D.O.A. One on the Way By Mary Robison
If I were putting together one of those invite-any-five-living-people-to-dinner parties, I wouldn't invite Mary Robison because she most certainly would be sharper and wittier and prettier than me, and I'd end up in the kitchen, shedding tears into the dishwater while I listened to the other guests lose it with laughter. I love all of Robison's work, but this one has the sinister feel of staring at the writing on the wall and living with the threat of that impending doom. Can we all agree that anticipating a catastrophe is far worse than the catastrophe itself? Try going to sleep while waiting for that other shoe to drop.
Also on The Huffington Post:
Outrageous Nonfiction Stories You Wouldn't Believe If They Were Novels