Sure, you can pop in a scary movie or binge a spooky show this Halloween. There's nothing that will get you more into the horror mood, however, than a ghastly good book that explodes your imagination with all things creepy and kooky.
The masters are always there, of course – Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson and the rest – but there's a treasure trove of new stuff that'll keep you up at night, and not in that insomniac way. If you don't have a book that gets under your skin in October, you're just not living right.
Here are four books you'll want to read – some with a historical bent, all with intriguing female characters — to make the most of your Halloween season:
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"Basketful of Heads," by Joe Hill and Leomacs (DC Comics, 184 pp., ★★★½ out of four)
Hill’s prose works are always good for some scares, but his comic-book work is top notch as well. “Heads,” with art by Leomacs, centers on a young woman who finds a very strange weapon on a coastal Maine island circa 1983. When a group of escaped convicts captures her boyfriend, she gets a hold of a magical Viking ax and takes it to the bad guys. However, when she chops off their heads, they stay alive and are usually not happy about their decapitated predicaments. Hill carves out a new aspect of his famous dad Stephen King’s horror landscape – plus name-checks the infamous Shawshank Prison – while also packing the proceedings with a delightful heroine, all sorts of dismembered organs and deliciously ghoulish gallows humor.
"Cardiff, by the Sea," by Joyce Carol Oates (The Mysterious Press, 288 pp., ★★★ out of four)
Oates delivers a strong quartet of novellas that all focus on women dealing with various suspenseful and nerve-wracking situations. The moody tone is set right from the start, with the title tale throwing a curveball at an academic who, adopted when she was a toddler, gets a fateful call that she's inherited an estate in Maine and goes on a dizzying, disturbing investigation into her biological family's dark history. From there, “Miao Dao” features a teenage girl who escapes the drama of her parents’ divorce by befriending a sickly kitten; “Phantomwise: 1972" is a throwback tale featuring a pregnant college sophomore finding solace in a skeezy visiting professor when she can’t get an illegal abortion; and “The Surviving Child” focuses on the relationship between a stepmother and a boy haunted by the violent deaths of his mom and sister.
"The Residence," by Andrew Pyper (Skybound Books, 352 pp., ★★★ out of four)
Cross White House history with “The Shining” and you’ve got Pyper’s occult-filled novel, which takes ghostly inspiration from a real-life presidential period. Before moving to Washington, newly elected leader Franklin Pierce loses his son Ben in 1853 to a tragic train accident, and grieving wife Jane reluctantly moves into their new digs. The first lady holds a seance to communicate with her boy, which opens the door to a demonic presence with whom she’s quite familiar, and existing spirits plus supernatural goings-on give the new president a whole lot to stress out about in addition to running a country on the brink of civil war. Add in the presence of a creepy kid and there’s plenty of satisfying horror to be had, though “The Residence” also presents an interesting love story and nicely weaves in America’s struggles with war and slavery.
"Ring Shout," by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor, 192 pp., ★★★½ out of four)
Those who love “Lovecraft Country” – the HBO show or the Matt Ruff novel – will appreciate this similarly themed supernatural spin on American history that also speaks to modern times. “Ring Shout” takes readers back to 1922 Macon, Georgia, where the Ku Klux Klan is comprised of not only the usual racist white men but also shapeshifting demon Ku Kluxes hiding under those robes and pointy hats. A trio of Black female bootleggers are ready for a fight, though: sharpshooting rabble-rouser Sadie, a World War I Harlem Hellfighter named Chef, and their leader, Maryse, who brandishes a magical sword. With a high-profile re-release of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" set to raise the Klan's profile again, they’ll need all the help they can get against the apocalyptic designs of the fearsome Butcher Clyde in a thrilling narrative that mines African folklore, body horror and pulp adventure.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Halloween reading: These four tomes will get you in the horror mood