In the spooky spirit of Halloween, I’m listing my favorite classic horror novels. I read all of these books in a single semester in a Gothic Literature course some years ago, and each left a creepy impression on me:
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1816). Shelley’s masterpiece about a scientist and his “monstrous” creation is my favorite of the group. We’re all familiar with the shambling, pathetic monster of early movies and probably grew up thinking he was the bad guy (and that he was the one named Frankenstein). Once I finally read the book I realized a) the scientist who created the creature was named Frankenstein, and b) the creature turns out to be more human than his creator. The most accurate movie version I’ve seen is Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 version with Branagh as Victor Frankenstein and Robert DeNiro as the Creature.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). At less than one hundred pages, this story is more of a novella than a novel. Those Victorians! So prim and proper on the outside, but seething with sin on the inside. All that badness had to come out somehow, and Mr. Hyde is the result. He’s not really described as a werewolf, but he certainly fits the bill: a wild, almost bestial creature, free to express all the vices and feral impulses of repressed human nature in howling ecstasy. I watched the 1931 version with Fredric March, but nothing more recent. I’ll have to investigate more modern versions.
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1899). The original bloodsucker, the granddaddy of them all. Written as an epistolary novel (a series of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, etc.), it tells the tale of Count Dracula’s sinister plan to settle in England and terrorize the locals. Luckily, Dr. Van Helsing helps Jonathan Harker and his friends fight back and save Harker’s wife Mina, and England itself, from the terrible menace. All the old films are fun to watch, but I liked Francis Ford Coppolla’s 1992 version with Gary Oldman as Dracula, and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing. It takes a few liberties, blending the plot from Stoker’s novel with the historical and mythical figure of Vlad the Impaler, but it certainly is entertaining.
- The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959). A ghost story told with enough ambiguity to make it interesting. Are the guests at Hill House suffering from mass hypnosis, and nothing is really happening? Is a poltergeist causing the paranormal activity through Ellie? Or is the house really haunted or somehow alive, causing all the supernatural phenomena? You decide. The 1963 movie called The Haunting is a great adaptation; the 1999 remake was simply silly.
- Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin (1967). This story about a young couple who move next door to a group of Satanists is pretty chilling. Poor Rosemary unwittingly becomes the mother of the Antichrist, proving that evil isn’t “out there”, but disturbingly close to home. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary in Roman Polanski’s 1968 movie.
- The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty (1971). While all of the above books are entertaining, and fascinating from a literary point of view, this is the one that really terrified me. I’ll be honest–the idea of demons scares the hell out of me. Re-animated corpses, werewolf-like creatures, vampires, even ghosts and Satanists, I can contemplate with a fair amount of equanimity; but the idea of a purely evil entity that can possess and corrupt innocent little girls (or anyone!) fills me with a very real, horrible dread. The book was scary, and the 1973 movie? Well, I’ll never watch it again, if I can help it.
Have fun scaring yourself this Halloween!
What about you? What are your favorite horror novels, classic or modern? What horror movies do you like to watch on Halloween? Leave a comment, and we’ll talk about it!