Growing up and now living back in Upstate New York, I’ve always loved Halloween. The temperatures drop, the leaves on the trees turn kaleidoscopic colors, and the air smells like ripe apples and cinnamon sticks. Yeah, there’s the trick-or-treating and the gluttonous consumption of candy afterwards but seeking out and reading scary stories has been the most anticipated Halloween activity for me ever since I could read. I remember fatefully discovering Stephen King’s collection of short stories, Night Shift, when I was in junior high school and—for the first time in my life—being genuinely too scared to go to bed.
That rush of primal fear was a powerful emotion—a sensation I’ve tried to revisit every Halloween season since that first reading of Night Shift. So, with the image of my 14-year old self sleeping with a baseball bat next to my bed thanks to Mr. King, here’s a list of some “must read” indie novels perfect for Halloween!
NightWhere by John Everson
Originally published in 2012 by Samhain, Everson’s novel—about an adventurous married couple, living in Chicago, that have an “open relationship” and have experimented extensively with bondage and domination/discipline—blew me away. Still to this day, one of the creepiest, most twisted, nightmare-inducing novels that I have ever read. Everson now publishes this through his Dark Arts press, which is good news for all of those readers who have yet to read the novel I called a “dark, decadent, and disturbing masterpiece.”
Seed by Ania Ahlborn
Ahlborn self-published this novel in 2011 before hooking up with Simon and Schuster and becoming a horror phenomenon. Now the author of almost a dozen novels, her debut still remains my favorite. Seed is a creepy little story about a guy who, after managing to escape an evil presence that tried to “consume him” as a child, now has to face it irrevocably changing his six-year old daughter. Reminiscent of early King, I loved Ahlborn’s evocative writing style, which was supersaturated with dark imagery throughout. Her poetic narrative enriched every sequence, no matter how mundane. Bedsheets were “pooled upon the floor like discarded snakeskin” and moss hung from trees like “a tangle of witch’s hair.” When I reviewed this novel for BN.com, I called it “shockingly dark and sublimely creepy.”
To Be Devoured by Sara Tantlinger
Tantlinger’s debut novella, originally released in 2019 and nominated for a prestigious Stoker Award, chronicles a woman’s slow descent into madness. Written in first-person and powered by Tantlinger’s lyrical style, this story is a twisted blend of psychological horror and literary fiction. Readers will be hooked after just a few sentences: “Something is dead over there, hidden among the tall trees separating my property from Mr. Landon’s. Between our homes rests a football field-sized strip of land, lifeless and brown from the December days. The early hour stretches on outside, morphing periwinkle clouds into buttery tones of the rising sun. They don’t stop circling the trees; those poor, ugly, bastardized versions of birds. ‘Bird’ doesn’t seem like the right term. Birds eat insects, seed and grain—the turkey vultures feast on marbled strips of the deceased…”
New Hope by Steve Hobbs
Set in the remote Maine town of New Hope circa 1986, this exceptional debut is an enticing blend of supernatural fiction, horror, and coming-of-age tale. The story revolves largely around almost 18-year old Miri Jones, the daughter of the town’s chief of police. Attractive, intelligent, athletic, and tenaciously inquisitive, Jones’ dream is to follow in her father’s footsteps and do something similar, perhaps working as an investigator for the FBI. When she discovers the mutilated corpse of a young man while jogging on a woodland trail, she embraces her inner Nancy Drew and vows to solve the mystery, even though her father warns her to stay away… It’s fitting that Stephen King is mentioned in the storyline. This debut novel from Hobbs—who was raised in Maine—is very much comparable in tone and ambiance to King’s debut novel, Carrie. ‘Salem’s Lot meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Monsterland by Michael Okon
With a tone and narrative content that should appeal to both young adult and adult reading audiences, Okon’s Monsterland is a page-turning fusion of fantasy, horror, and apocalyptic fiction that follows Wyatt, a high school senior as he and a group of friends secure tickets to the grand opening of a revolutionary theme park that features real life monsters… Teen themes blended with a bevy of monsters makes this a fast-paced and fun read. The Breakfast Club meets The Walking Dead!
Pretty When She Dies by Rhiannon Frater
Originally self-published and later released by Permuted Press, the first installment of this cult classic trilogy is literally unputdownable. Revolving around a woman who wakes up to find herself buried in a shallow grave—and a newly turned vampire—this novel about her bloody journey of self-discovery across Texas is everything a vampire story should be: It’s gruesome, mesmerizing, and existentially profound.
Posthumous by David S.E. Zapanta
This debut novel originally released in 2013—the first installment in Zapanta’s Cadabra Rasa saga—is easily one of the most innovative and imaginative works of zombie fiction I’ve ever read. Set in a world where people, through the use of licensed medical witch doctors, can be reborn after death—“the ultimate second chance”—Zapanta explores the political, sociological, and economical consequences of a world where Warmbloods live side-by-side with the undead (don’t call them zombies). Reanimates don’t need to eat or sleep: they’re the “most ideal workforce ever imagined.” And although the Cold Wars are long over—and the living and the undead have a tenuous truce—there are more than a few humans who hate what the undead are doing to their country and are plotting to bury them forever. This is so much more than a zombie novel; the storyline (particularly the backstory) is meticulously constructed and downright fascinating; the cast of characters is fully fleshed out; the dark humor is spot on; and the social commentary is, well, biting.
The Nosferatu Conspiracy Book One: The Sleepwalker by Brian James Gage
The first installment of Brian James Gage’s Nosferatu Conspiracy saga is a deliciously dark blend of occult fantasy, alternate history, and apocalyptic fiction that will have readers furiously turning pages until the end.
The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
Jones has written some unforgettable novels (Mongrels, Burnt Offerings, The Only Good Indians, et. al.) but perhaps his most audacious is the self-published The Last Final Girl, an homage to ‘80’s slasher flicks written like a screenplay that will appeal to anyone who loves horror movies. The first line is a great indication of what’s in store: “A wide grimy blade cuts into a neck hard before we can look away, the blood welling up around the meat, the sound wicked and intimate.”
The Damp Chamber: And Other Bad Places by Frank Chigas
Originally released back in 2004—and from the looks of it, sadly out-of-print—I need to include this hardcover collection of short stories on this list because it’s one of the most memorable indie releases I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Not only were the horror stories exceptional—I described the collection as having “the stylish storytelling prowess of Stephen King, the audacious gruesomeness of H.P. Lovecraft… and the cerebral machinations of Algernon Blackwood”—but the book itself was lovingly produced, from the stunning cover design to the inner illustrations to the story layout to the font selection. A collector’s item if there ever was one…
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.