Know Your Editor: Jonathan Messinger’s Scary Fiction Recommendations

When I’m not wrapping my brain around public sector procurement and a little issue known as the government shutdown, I freelance as a book critic. This is something I’ve done for almost my entire professional career, working as one of the last full-time book critics left on this Earth from about 2005 to 2012. While most people think that critics become stodgier and more conservative in their tastes as they advance in age, I found it to be the precise opposite: The only way to keep yourself interested is to diversify what you read. To that end, I found myself in recent years enjoying a good scary book. So just in time for Halloween, here are some books (not written by Stephen King) to put some fright back in your night.

Poe’s Children, edited by Peter Straub

This anthology of horror tales is, to my mind, the perfect Halloween read. I’ve pulled it off my shelves every year since it was published. Horror legends Straub and Stephen King both turn in solid entries, and King’s son Joe Hill’s “20th Century Ghost is also a personal favorite. But stories like Glen Hirshberg’s “The Two Sams,” about the deep psychological scars left on a young-ish couple after a series of miscarriages leads to a dance with demons, is a testament to the breadth of what can be included in the horror genre.

Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon

I feel like I’m cheating a bit with this one, because Chaon’s story “The Bees,” leads off both this collection of stories and Poe’s Children, but in the interest of making bold statements, I’ll just say it: It’s probably the greatest scary story every written. If “literary horror” is a thing—and your thing—then Chaon is certainly it’s finest practitioner. There’s definitely something Hitchcockian to Chaon’s brand of fright, where it’s often difficult to tell whether the otherworldly danger is the cause or the product of the characters’ psychological torment (hint: it’s both).

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Though not technically a “horror” novel, Night Film contains about 100 of the most frightening pages I’ve read in a long time. The story of a disgraced investigative reporter who’s trying to uncover the somewhat numinous mystery surrounding a cult horror-movie filmmaker (think Hitchcock meets Kubrick meets Roth), the book is also a pretty interesting take on the cult of celebrity. But when our protagonist makes it onto the filmmaker’s set, you won’t be thinking much more than, “Run!”

Autumn, by David Moody

I will forever by an evangelist for the classic Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, which was no doubt done a disservice by the milquetoast Will Smith film version. Moody’s Autumn is probably about as close to I Am Legend as a zombie yarn can get. I know, I know, between World War Z and Walking Dead, you’re probably a little zombied out. But if you can resurrect your interest in the genre, you’ll find few finer entries than Moody’s.

Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

I’ll come right out and say it: I haven’t read this book. Released just last month, it’s on my to-be-read list, preferably before Halloween. The story concerns a teenage girl named Sylvie, whose “paranormalist” parents go off one night to help lingering souls find peace, and end up murdered in an old church. From what I understand, it gets spookier from there. People I trust in the book biz have highly recommended this book to me, so I’m planning on cracking it this weekend. Book club, anyone?


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