I’ve been kicking this project around for a while, either for my own social media sites, or for the wonderful new site, The Life Sentence, which I think is an absolute gem. With THE RIDGE, the most recent of my outright-supernatural thrillers due for a handsome new mass market edition on October 27—adorned with a Stephen King blurb that never fails to make my heart skip a beat or two—the time seemed right for publication, but really the time seems right for me today, or rather tonight.
You see, it’s just past 3 a.m. when I type this. I’ve been in bed for four hours, reading, turning the lights off, reading again, rinse and repeat. It’s just not a night for sleep. Outside on the porch, a steady northwestern breeze is blowing, taking down dry leaves, the ones that will always make me think of THE PROPHET now, of innocent girls in Chambers, Ohio shaking them free from their hair, twenty years apart, and of two brothers crushing them heedlessly beneath their boots, bound for different missions.
We had full color today (here’s a picture) but after a few more days of this wind the tree will be picked clean and the spooky limbs of the Halloween Tree will be left. It’s Ray Bradbury’s season with THE HALLOWEEN TREE, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. And others. Oh, certainly others. So many. So my challenge—and attempt to give something back to readers who have recommended so many fine titles to me this year, and who have said such kind words about my own efforts—will be a countdown clock to October 27. No, not to Halloween—you should have your own scary movie and book in hand by then.
In between, because the publishing folks do like to encourage you to buy my own work, God bless them, we’ll probably also run some blurbs and quotes central to THE RIDGE. I’m grateful for all of them, but most of all for this little endeavor.
Note: The books are picked for fear factor and quality of writing, yes, they need a dose of the supernatural, yes, but also a feel for the season. They need to reach my autumnal heart in some way. So this isn’t a list of my favorite horror novels. Just the books I’m thinking of as the leaves lose their last chilled grasp on branches, and an eerie moon rises beyond.
We’ll give you a break for football, family, or pulse-restoration, and nominate books only on weekdays. Starting with:
Day 10 – Wednesday, Oct. 14
THE NIGHT COUNTRY, by Stewart O’Nan.
Here’s why I have to hate Stewart a little bit—gems like this, evidence that he could wander into any literary territory and dominate it. But, Lord, how I love this book. If you were to take a night drive in autumn in the right part of the country and say, “How should this feeling read?” THE NIGHT COUNTRY is your answer. Perfect in tone, slickly circular in execution, and forever haunting. I return to this one each fall. (Really.) I first read it on a bus back to New York from Boston when I was 21. I’d just come from meeting Dennis Lehane for the first time, and we sat on the rooftop deck of his apartment overlooking Fenway and talked books and I tried to maintain my cool (yeah, right) and he mentioned O’Nan. I confessed that I hadn’t read him yet. Dennis fixed me with a “well, now, that tells something about you…” look, and by the time I was on the bus back to the city, I had A PRAYER FOR THE DYING and THE NIGHT COUNTRY in my hands. I opened with the latter, simply because the fall smell was in the air. And it came through in those pages, too. That, and so much more.
Day 9, Thursday, Oct. 15
INTENSITY, by Dean Koontz.
This was one of the first books to put a real scare into me, and for that I can thank my aunt. We would crash at her place on visits to Cleveland, and I occupied an air mattress on the floor of her office, which was the best seat in the house, because her books were stored just behind me. I don’t know if she would have recommended I delve into Koontz at that age, but knowing my Aunt Dorene, she probably wouldn’t have discouraged it, at least. I was with Chyna Shephard, a graduate student visiting the family of her wealthy friend in the California vineyard country, down under the bed with Chyna as boots entered and blood drops fell and….the lamp I’d hauled down from my aunt’s desk went out. Now THAT enhances the terror, let me tell you. But I got the rest of it done by flashlight, and for better or worse, I’ve never really been the same since.
Day 8, Friday, Oct. 16
HEART-SHAPED BOX, by Joe Hill.
This one arrived at a perfect time in my life, when I was struggling to write another PI novel and my creative brain was urging me ahead toward a ghost story, toward the book that would become SO COLD THE RIVER. Reading Joe Hill was like receiving an adrenaline shot loaded with pure story. He didn’t quibble, didn’t overwrite, didn’t underwrite. He was as naturally balanced on the emotional investment and the plot mechanics as any writer I’d encountered, and from the first chills to the creepiest road trip south you’ll ever take—albeit in one sweet ride—he delivers as only a master can. Highly recommended would be too faint praise. Without this book, I’m really not sure that I would have written SO COLD THE RIVER. I needed the challenge from new blood, someone out to prove that the supernatural thriller was far from dead, and Joe is, and has been, that writer.
Day 7, Monday, Oct. 19
CARRION COMFORT, by Dan Simmons.
This one’s a bit longer, but worth every page. It opens with concentration camps in the 1940s and proceeds from there to span decades and have you turning pages with rapid-fire intensity, a possession-tale of the highest order.
Day 6, Tuesday, Oct. 20
This is a special day to me—10 points and a free copy of THE RIDGE to anyone who guesses why—and one that has appeared in a couple of my books. Or no points (sshhh, they don’t count!) and a copy of THE RIDGE to the first person to identify what books I’m talking about, too. And today’s book is…drumroll….
CHRISTINE, by Stephen King.
Don’t lecture me about which King book is best or brightest or scariest—let’s agree that when he’s at the top of his game, they’re all pretty damn great. CHRISTINE comes to mind for a couple reasons. One, it evokes the rural Maine of my wife’s childhood in a perfect way; the way she speaks of the place is the way they live it in this novel. And it’s fall again, don’t you know! Why, we even have a football star suiting up for the new season. It’s sure to be full of glory for him. Until it isn’t. And then there’s harmless Arnie, working on the car that he will no-way, no-how get rehabilitated in time to save him from his high school blues. But this is The King at work, so you might just want to give it a shot. And don’t even try to tell me “but I saw the movie.” No. Not good enough. Move to the back of the class, and take your assigned reading with you.
Day 5, Wednesday, Oct. 21
GHOST STORY, by Peter Straub.
This novel used to be spoken of as frequently as THE SHINING or THE EXORCIST it seemed, yet I have the sense—hopefully misguided—that it needs a second wind. GHOST STORY is a clinic in storytelling. Note that I said storytelling, not a mention of horror. Because while Straub can horrify with ease, he can write with the best of them when he is on, and he is absolutely locked-on with GHOST STORY, a novel that demands to be remembered, if not re-read, from the first time through. It’s a marvel of narration and structure, and all of it works….right down to the chills along your spine.
DAY 4, Thursday, Oct. 22
We’re getting close now, so the book should be…why, it should be OCTOBER COUNTRY, of course, by Ray Bradbury. The author of such remarkable novels as SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and DANDELION WINE and FAHRENHEIT 451 left plenty to choose from, but the title lays it out pretty clear, as with THE HALLOWEEN TREE. The stories in OCTOBER COUNTRY prove that this writer could do it all, and he did his best macabre short stories in this collection.
DAY 3, Friday, Oct. 23
THE EXORCIST, by William Peter Blatty.
This classic should come as no surprise at all, but deserves inclusion on any list. Blatty is a master of terror, understanding the slow burn, the urgent, terrifying moment, the unease “settling down” before things explode again. When I run into one of those readers who smartly informs me that she doesn’t care for those “spooky stories” I offer two up fast: The Exorcist, and The Shining. I have a sneaking suspicion that those readers won’t already be corrupted by the movies, if they refuse to read the novels. These are two—along with Shirley Jackson and Poe and Henry James and many others—who deliver the literary goods while never straying for that sacred thing: story. And will it scare you? If you have a pulse, and an ounce of empathy, then hell yes, you should be scared.
Day 2, Monday, Oct. 26
It would only be fair if I told you what I’ll be reading over Halloween. Thanks to your tips on Twitter and Facebook (always appreciated!) I have a crisp hardcover of A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay. I trusted O’Nan’s blurb, which raves: ““Paul Tremblay is an astonishingly talented writer, but even better, he’s twisted, and fun. A Head Full of Ghosts is mind-bending—scary, sad, sweet, funny, sick… terrifying, hilarious, smart, and satisfying.” If it’s good enough for Stewart, I am sure to be thrilled. And the opening pages have hooked me already.
Day 1, Tuesday, Oct. 27
Okay, for the final day of my October Reads Countdown, I’m cheating and loading you up with multiple picks. But it’s fine! Stay with the theme and picture this – it’s the last house you hit on your trick-or-treat run, and what is the best-case scenario there? Obviously, it’s that they don’t limit the treats at that point. You get a little extra for your efforts, for hanging in until the end of the game. So we’ll close in gluttonous treat fashion, with:
1. King-sized treat: IT, by Stephen King. Is your preference for a scary read one involving monsters, the supernatural, human villains, night terrors, subterranean passages, lonely woods, or…gasp…clowns? Good news – IT has you covered, no matter what. The tour-de-force of horror, in all its hefty glory, is a must-read.
2. Classic treat: The Hershey’s of October chillers has to be THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. The greatest haunted house tale of all time? Perhaps. Don’t dismiss the legendary Richard Matheson’s HELL HOUSE, though. These are the Halloween treats that simply must be present in the bag. If you haven’t read Shirley Jackson or Richard Matheson, there’s no time like the present to make amends.
3. Bite-sized treats: Deliciously dark and nuanced and sadly so much more remembered for their film treatments than their original stories is the Daphne du Maurier collection DON’T LOOK NOW, also published as NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT. Sharp-eyed readers of THE CYPRESS HOUSE won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of her novel REBECCA, but the short stories in this collection are gems. Including a little tale called THE BIRDS. Didn’t know that the Hitchcock classic was adapted from the same woman who wrote REBECCA? Well, I’d urge you to give it a read.