Author Todd Keisling’s Top 10 Horror Novels
Last week, while discussing plans for the final book of the Monochrome trilogy, my editor asked me to recommend some horror fiction. I thought for a moment before rambling off a long list of books and authors that I would consider mandatory reading—not because they’re benchmarks for the genre (some are, some aren’t), but because they were a huge influence on me. And yet she sort of caught me off guard with the question, and I know I didn’t answer her fully, properly.
All of this coincided with my living room. I had to rearrange furniture last week, a chore which involved relocating my book collection and moving a giant bastard of a bookcase. I spent my fair share of time sifting through those stacks of books, and in light of all these recent Top Ten lists (along with my editor’s request), I started thinking about which books were most influential to me over the years.
So this is partially for me and the sake of nostalgia, for my editor who wants to read more horror fiction, and for all the readers out there who might want some insight into one author’s madness. What follows is a list that isn’t meant to be definitive of the horror genre; this is just a list of books that were incredibly influential on me and my writing style. Without these books, I probably wouldn’t be a writer today:
1 – Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – Alvin Schwartz
This book scared the shit out of me when I was a kid, and even now I still find its contents unsettling. “But Todd, it’s a kid’s book. This isn’t real horror.” No? Go read the story “Harold” and tell me that isn’t horror. Or the one about the lady who gets called to an early church sermon with the dead. Oh, and there’s also the one about a spider that lays its eggs in a girl’s face. In her face. Yeah. Sleep tight, kids.
2 – The House With a Clock In Its Walls – John Bellairs
Question: How do you get a kid interested in reading while simultaneously preparing them for the works of Bradbury, Gaiman, and maybe even Barker?
Answer: Give them this book. This was the first story I ever read by Mr. Bellairs, and when I finished I went back for more. This novel tells the story of a recently orphaned young boy named Lewis who goes to live in an old mansion with his uncle Jonathan—an odd, eccentric fellow who happens to be a wizard. Thing is, that old mansion used to be owned by a warlock named Isaac Izard who built a doomsday clock and hid it somewhere within the walls. That clock also happens to be counting down to the end of the world. By the way, if your uncle has a spell to resurrect the dead, don’t cast it in the cemetery where the warlock’s dead wife is entombed. Bad idea.
3 – Welcome to Dead House – R.L. Stine
Welcome to Dead House is a story about a family moving to a new town and discovering the residents are very much undead. It’s the first book in the long-running Goosebumps series. I was in 4th grade when I read it, which . . . makes me feel incredibly old, but that’s beside the point. I had over 50 of these books by Mr. Stine, and out of all of them, I still maintain that he never surpassed the first. While the other books in the series were equally formulaic, this first book was a little darker, a little more gruesome than its followers. None of the others captured my imagination quite like Dead House, and I read it so many times the cover fell off.
4 – Tick-Tock – Dean Koontz
Matt mentioned Phantoms in his list (which is in my top five favorite Koontz novels), but if you put a gun to my head and say “Pick one from Koontz’s catalog,” I’m going to choose Tick-Tock. This was one of the first Koontz novels I ever read, and I did so in a single sitting, staying up way past my bedtime and into the early hours of the morning. This entire novel is basically one big cheesy chase sequence, beginning with detective novelist Tommy Phan discovering a rag doll on his doorstep, and escalating into a night of horror as a creature sprouts from the doll and proceeds to stalk Tommy across the city. And then the story gets weird.
5 – Night Shift – Stephen King
I discovered King’s work when I was about eleven years old, reading stories like The Gunslinger and It and The Long Walk (one of his excellent Bachman novels), but I didn’t really appreciate his craft until I first read Night Shift. This is his first collection of shorter fiction, and in my opinion, also his best. So many classics reside in its pages: I Am the Doorway, Trucks, Sometimes They Come Back, The Ledge, Quitters, Inc., Children of the Corn. Take your pick. You get a glimpse of a guy trying to find his voice, writing with an unflinching honesty that is both terrifying and endearing. Years from now, if my son ever asks what the big deal is about Stephen King, I’ll hand him this book and tell him to see for himself.
6 – Books of Blood – Clive Barker
Following the publication of Barker’s debut collection (six volumes in all), Stephen King hailed him as the future of horror. And he was—at least for a while. I didn’t discover Barker’s work until I was in college, and while reading The Midnight Meat Train, I found myself wondering why the hell I’d waited so long. Barker is the only author I know who can write the most vividly disgusting, horrific scenes and make it all seem incredibly poetic and beautiful. Stories like Dread will leave you unsettled; stories like In the Hills, the Cities will leave you entranced; and stories like Rawhead Rex will absolutely disgust you. As I work on my own collection of horror stories, I find myself turning to this collection time and time again for inspiration.
7 – Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
Something I’ve always admired about Bradbury is that he had an uncanny ability to capture the essence of youth and wonder while juxtaposing it with the darker aspects of humanity. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a perfect example of this juxtaposition, pitting Will Holloway’s innocence against the temptations of Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, where the promise of adulthood comes with a price. The novel oozes atmosphere, perfectly capturing the small town vibe at the apex of autumn, and Bradbury’s prose is as crisp as the cool October air.
8 – The Shadow Over Innsmouth – H.P. Lovecraft
The first Lovecraft story I ever read was The Rats in the Walls; that story is also the first piece of horror fiction to ever give me nightmares. After reading that story, I was hooked on his work for years (and still am), but it wasn’t until I read The Shadow Over Innsmouth that I really appreciated Lovecraft as a storyteller. While on a tour of New England, a young man stops at the port town of Innsmouth where he sets about discovering the town’s dark history, and in the process uncovers more than he bargained for. Yeah, Lovecraft’s writing style can be dry at times, but in this case I feel the plot transcends his antiquated delivery: There are fished-eyed locals, an esoteric order worshipping the drowned god Dagon, and a century of cross-breeding the town’s women with the drowned ones from the reefs in the bay. What’s not to love?
9 – 20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill
I was skeptical when I learned Stephen King’s son had a book deal. Then I read Heart-Shaped Box and became a fan. And then I read his first published collection (which actually predates Heart-Shaped Box) and I became a believer. Allow me to indulge in hyperbole for a moment: 20th Century Ghosts is, in my opinion, the best horror collection of the last decade. Ever story in this book is a hit, from the self-referential Best New Horror to the tear-jerker Pop Art and the delightfully villainous The Cape. There’s even an ode to Kafka here (You Will Hear the Locust Sing) which gets extra points in my book. If you want a place to start with Joe Hill, start with this collection. You’ll appreciate his later novels much, much more.
10 – The Great and Secret Show – Clive Barker
Okay, I’m probably going to catch some flak for this one, and I’m okay with that. Many will argue that this isn’t a horror novel due to the heavy fantasy elements contained within, but I disagree with that assumption. Calling King’s The Dark Tower series strictly “Fantasy” is doing that storyline a disservice and the same goes for Barker’s The Great and Secret Show: the best novels transcend genre.
This book is about a secret conflict between two men turned demi-gods over a mystical realm called Quiddity. What is Quiddity? It’s a “dream sea,” a parallel reality that humans visit only three times during their lives: the first time they sleep after birth, the first time they sleep beside their true love, and the last time they sleep before death. Randolph Jaffe wants to visit Quiddity any time he pleases; scientist Richard Fletcher wants to stop Jaffe, as he knows that Jaffe’s presence will taint the dream sea and disrupt a natural order that has existed since the beginning of time.
Desire; ambition; nightmares made manifest; dark magic; men who cheat and become gods: this book has it all. The Books of Blood may be considered the pinnacle of Barker’s horror, but I believe he was just getting started. The Great and Secret Show is testament to that. My own series, the Monochrome Trilogy, wouldn’t exist without it.
I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
The Walking – Bentley Little
Intensity – Dean Koontz
The Dark Half – Stephen King
Great list, and thanks for bringing “The House with the Clock in its Walls” to my attention for the first time in decades. I had a shiver of delightful recognition when I saw that cover.
Thanks! I had to give Bellairs a nod because I don’t hear nearly enough about his work these days. He’s sorely underrated and overlooked.
Really interesting list! Nice to see some Bentley Little almost making the big ten. And, yes, ‘Cell’ is conspicuous by its absence..heh-heh…
Bentley Little gets a nod because he writes good, creepy stories. He can’t end them to save his life, but they’re great before their resolution!
Phantoms and Intensity are two of my all-time favs. I haven’t read most of the others on your list, so I really appreciate the heads up. 🙂
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