Art Works Blog

Gimme Goosebumps! A Scary Reading List

We know you have your Halloween playlist handled--really there's no such thing as too many times to listen to "Monster Mash" or "Thriller"--but what about your Halloween reading list? Don't worry, we took care of that for you. Below is expert advice from NEA Literary Fellows on novels, poems, and stories that will scare the stuffing out of you.

Kerrin McCadden 

Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" is a story about sentencing, but the way Kafka's story delivers sentencing--a torture machine and its blind justice--has disturbed my waking life more than any other story. One lone man acts as judge, and the sentence he metes out is written on the condemned person's body with tiny needles by the machine until death, twelve hours later. Most terrifying to me, beyond the slow reveal of the machine (which I have just spoiled) and its slow deaths, is probably the bowl of warm rice pudding the dying person is allowed to lap. "In the Penal Colony" is terrifying, yes, but becomes utterly so because the one who loves the machine best achieves nothing in his final communion with it. I almost want to say don't even read this story, but I also want to say go read it right now, but don't read it while eating rice pudding.  

Rachel Richardson

I recommend Katie Ford's new poetry collection, Blood Lyrics, which is not costumed or ghoulish, but terrifyingly intimate in its portrayal of human mortality. The book describes a harrowing premature birth, and then parallels this privately traumatic event with the global scale of ceaseless war. Ford's light touch and lyricism in drawing this connection make the book riveting and ultimately affirming, even as your heart remains in your throat throughout its pages. 

Martin Pousson

Naming a favorite spooky story is like confessing a preferred vice: how to choose? Edgar Allan Poe or Joe Hill, Mary Shelley or Kelly Link, or just my latest favorite spooky writer: Justin Torres & his “Starve a Rat,” a hauntingly good tale that proves erotica and horror are not separate genres after all.

Golda Goldbloom

Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is a story that has haunted me for years. My first published story was inspired by it, I teach the story in every graduate class I've held, and I go back to it often to remind myself that what I am disturbed by is not actually in the words. 

As far as most scary novel? I don't read scary books, but in 1980, I was trapped in the Athens airport for a couple of days. I was bored out of my mind and began to search frantically through the little gift shops for something to read in English. The only book I could find was a hard cover copy of Stephen Kings' The Shining. After reading it, I was so terrified that I sat at the feet of the armed police and wouldn't move. I was 16. 

Elizabeth Hughey 

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury is a creeper. The story is very short and simple: children living on Venus experience sunshine for the first time in their lives, which happens for only two hours every seven years. It's not until the last lines that you feel the slap of horror, and then the story haunts you forever.

Traci Brimhall

Sylvia Plath spoke as the dead in [her poem] "Lady Lazarus" and in "Edge" she let's the body of a dead woman say, or "seem to say." That the dead want to warn us or frighten us is not a new idea, but the thought that death is perfection, that a dead woman could fold her dead children back into her body like the petals of a rose at night, terrifies. How could the moon ever get used to it?

Chris Feliciano Arnold

"Riding the Doghouse" is a dark gem of a short story by Randy DeVita, plucked from the little magazines by Stephen King for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2007. It's the tale of a 12-year-old boy who spends a week each summer riding across the country with his father, a truck driver who only has one rule for his son: "Don't touch anything when I'm not in the truck." Naturally, the narrator violates the rule by getting on the CB radio while his old man makes a pit stop, and the voice on the other end gives him a chilling warning about his father's mortality."

Clare Beams

I first read Kelly Link’s collection Magic for Beginners at a time when I was just discovering the strangeness of my own writing, and “Stone Animals” put a spell on me. A family moves to a haunted house, but the haunting expresses itself as a vague wrongness with more and more of the family’s own possessions--toothbrushes, articles of clothing, the alarm clock, the cat--and then a wrongness with the family itself; it’s ultimately not at all clear that the house is to blame for what happens to them (as, perhaps, is the real source of our fear in most haunted stories). Between all of that and the fabulous, gothic hordes of rabbits on the front lawn, this story will forever have my terrified devotion.

Marcia Douglas 

The literary ghost who haunts me the most is Toni Morrison's Beloved. When Denver says, "Beloved is my sister. I swallowed her blood right along with my mother's milk," she speaks for me too.

Justin Torres

The story I chose is "A Real Doll" by A.M. Homes, which is funny, and deeply, deeply creepy, and ultimately, quite scary in what it has to say about sexuality, gender, and casual violence.

V.V. Ganeshananthan 

For Halloween, I recommend my friend and former colleague Michael Byers' book, The Broken Man. I read it all in one go a few years ago, when I was alone in a strange place and wanted to spend a few quiet hours lost in a story. That was exactly the right way to read it. It's set in the fantastic and monstrous world of filmmaking, and will creep you out, but delightfully so.

Meg Day

I don't really know if this is so much Halloween-ish as it is terrifying, but I choose Danez Smith's "alternate names for black boys." Each number in this piece is its own grenade, its own epitaph, its own poem, everything blown open in slow motion and expanding in the sun. Sometimes the most frightening things are what's right in front of us, made fresh. 

Kelle Groom

This January, when I arrived to spend four months as the sole resident of James Merrill's house in Stonington, Connecticut, one of the first things to catch my eye was a copy of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Though drawn to the cover (a shadowy, gated mansion with yellowed windows like eyes, green sky streaked with darkness), I was afraid to read the book during my solitary winter in the rooms where James Merrill had used a Ouija board to call spirits for more than twenty years. But in summer, when I arrived in Virginia for another residency, the book appeared again on a shelf--almost following me--and it was a great pleasure to read this chilling and beautifully written story of four visitors who are called to Hill House to find out if it's haunted.

Simone Muench


With the meticulous sentencing and profound density of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” William Gay’s “The Paperhanger” is Southern doom at its finest: exquisitely rendered, but ghastly. Gay constructs a contemporary gothic vista replete with a ruined veranda, a great marmalade cat, a woman self-medicating on vodka martinis, and “an event so cataclysmic that it forever divided time into the then and the now, the before and the after.” Like the exotically labeled, dark and bitter San Miguel beer the main character drinks, this story both intoxicates and marks us with darkness.

Hear more from the NEA Literature Fellows above and many more by visiting Writers' Corner on 




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