By Brittney Reed-Saltz
The truth is that there is never a time of year when I don’t want to read something scary. I’ve been a horror fan since my age was in the single digits, and there’s nothing I love more than being terrified by a book, or for that matter, by a movie, podcast, Wikipedia article, or YouTube video that I definitely should not have watched late at night but oops, here we are again.
But Summer might be my favorite time of year for scary books. I have some theories about why this is, but one of the strongest is nostalgia. As a child, I spent my summer vacations tucked away with horror novels. R. L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and Stephen King were my constant companions through muggy days, and I couldn’t get enough. I would devour their tales of terror with white knuckles and baited breath and a smile on my face, as I projected the nightmarish scenes on my rural hometown.
These idyllic summers laid the groundwork for my absolute favorite type of horror: the kind that happens in small towns. Your neighbors undergoing uncanny changes is even scarier when you know all of your neighbors and can see just how different they have become, and how weird they’re acting. If a murderer is loose in your town of less than 1,000 people, it’s not impossible that you’ll be the next victim. And if you’ve ever ridden your bike past a cornfield on a still day and heard the rustling of something among the stalks, even though there’s not a whisper of a breeze, and your blood runs cold despite the 100-degree heat, then you know one of the strongest and most distinctive thrills of fear available to human experience.
Of course Stephen King is the master of small-town Summer horror. IT is the magnum opus of the genre; the novella The Body, included in Different Seasons and serving as the inspiration for the movie Stand By Me, is also a classic of this sort. If by some slim chance you like horror and haven’t read these, start here.
Then, move on to some of my other favorites when it comes to rural creepiness:
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
What is is about found footage that’s so downright scary? I think it’s the undeniability that what you’re looking at is real, even if you don’t want it to be. In Universal Harvester, Jeremy is more or less content with his job at the local movie rental store. He gets to watch movies, and it’s a distraction from missing his mother, who died in a car accident six years ago. His routine is disrupted when a customer returns a tape and complains that there was something wrong with it. When he investigates, he discovers disturbing footage that leads him to investigate despite his reluctance to get involved. This character-driven novella mixes horror and mystery in an unsettling story about loss and change. Set in the 1990s, it’s also perfect for the current ’90s nostalgia trend.
Harrow County graphic novel series by Cullen Bunn
Harrow County has consistently delivered Southern Gothic witchcraft goodness since 2015. Now that the series is set to wrap up in June–and has been optioned for a SyFy Channel adaptation–it’s the perfect time to get on-board if you haven’t yet. This lavishly-illustrated graphic novel series follows a young witch named Emmy as she discovers her dark powers, avoids various dangers from townsfolk and outsiders alike, and struggles to work with and protect the various haints who inhabit the attics and hollers of her hometown.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
An oldie but a goodie when it comes to small-town horror. This book has it all: a crumbling family mansion, poisoned relatives, unhealthily devoted sisters, and suspicious villagers. Oh, and Merricat Blackwood, one of the best unreliable narrators in literature. Just how did the arsenic find its way into the sugar bowl that night? This atmospheric little tale is a must if you’re only familiar with Shirley Jackson because you had to read “The Lottery” in seventh grade English.
Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country & Other Stories by Chavisa Woods
I knew I had to read this book from the second I saw it, and the stories it contains did not disappoint. Woods brings a uniquely off-center perspective to this collection, blending mundane horrors with the occasional supernatural turn. The effect is sardonic and surreal, whether characters are using psychedelic drugs at a Mensa party, befriending a homeless woman who lives in a mausoleum, or coping with the Gaza strip appearing in miniature on top of their head like a mohawk. Great for fans of weird fiction and dark magical realism.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is not a name that most people associate with horror, but Beloved is one of the scariest books that I have ever read. Morrison examines the lasting psychological effects of slavery in a chilling historical ghost story that isn’t afraid to confront ugly truths or to experiment with form. It’s an intense experience, with moments of heartwrenching tragedy and injustice as well as disturbing supernatural horror, but it’s also a poetic triumph that will dizzy you with language. I was hooked from the opening paragraph’s matter-of-fact description of the haunting.
Twilight by William Gay
William Gay was a Middle Tennessee author who is beloved to those who have read him but, in my opinion, woefully unknown to too many people. His novel Twilight is a delightfully twisted piece of Southern Gothic horror that plays mercilessly with our fears of what happens to us after we die. Not to our souls, mind you, but to our bodies. Teenage protagonist Kenneth Tyler discovers macabre secrets about how local undertaker Fenton Breece has been treating the town’s departed. Breece retaliates against Tyler, hiring a murderer to take care of him, and the resulting cat-and-mouse will keep your heart pumping. Fans of Cormac McCarthy will find a lot to love here.
Off Season by Jack Ketchum
I’ve saved this one for last, but whether or not it’s the best depends largely on what you’re looking for in a horror novel. You’ll know whether Off Season is the book for you based on the frame alone: Cannibals in a remote area of Maine launch an attack on a cabin full of vacationers, with violent results that are described in all their bloody detail. This is a controversial book, but it’s wonderful for hardened horror fans who want a full-throttle read that illustrates why Stephen King called the late Jack Ketchum “the scariest man in America.” I definitely recommend reading it at night in a house by the woods for maximum impact, so if you’re planning a trip to Gatlinburg this summer, slip Off Season into your suitcase. Who needs sleep, anyway?