Whether it’s morbid humor or downright macabre, everyone needs a spooky-themed read now and then—and that doesn’t just mean thrillers. Whether you want a modern or a classic, non-fiction or a novel, an epic poem or a play, we have nine sinister stories for you.
1. For the Brooding Romantic: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre has an undoubtedly tragic beginning, complete with a ghostly visitation and a deadly epidemic. Jane is an orphan surrounded by deaths—those of her parents, uncle, and best friend—and long abused by her aunt and the superiors at her boarding school. After boarding school, Jane goes to Thornfield estate to work as a governess, where she is tormented by deranged laughter coming from the attic in the night. What’s more, the strange demeanor of her boss, Mr. Rochester, along with their ensuing love affair, build the story into a thrilling romance-turned-horror.
2. For the Historical Fiction Aficionado: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Erik Larson’s widely acclaimed historical novel The Devil in the White City follows two men: Henry (H.H.) Holmes, the devil, and Daniel Burnham, the architect of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Burnham is turning Chicago around from a city that was practically a wasteland to “the White City.” However, Chicago’s most notorious killer, H.H. Holmes, is lying in wait. After Holmes attends the hugely successful fair with his new bride and her sister, he takes them back to his infamous “castle,” a labyrinth built to accommodate his murderous habits. This fictionalization of a true-crime tale adds suspense and theatrics to one of the most infamous murder cases of American history.
3. For the Ghostly Thespian: Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is one of Shakespeare’s most tortured and complex protagonists. Visited by the ghost of his recently-deceased father, Hamlet discovers that the king was, in fact, murdered by his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, in order to usurp the throne. Claudius amplifies this blow to the late king’s memory by marrying his wife and Prince Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, shortly after the king’s death. Hamlet’s ensuing torment over whether or not to kill Claudius in revenge for his father’s death—punctuated by murders, madness, and suicide—seal his fate as a classic tragic hero.
4. For the True-Crime Junkie: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara’s true-crime story paints a grisly portrait of the then-unidentified Golden State Killer, who ran rampant throughout California from 1974 until 1986. McNamara not only coined his now infamous moniker, but she is also widely credited with drawing the attention to this four-decades-long unsolved mystery that led to his capture. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark just might be the greatest true-crime novel of the decade, and any murderino or Dateline-watcher will be absorbed by this book from the first page.
5. For the Fan of the Supernatural: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
As for paranormal tales, Mary Shelley’s classic exploration into the question of what makes us human remains unsurpassed. Dr. Frankenstein achieves his obsessive goal of reanimation and unleashes his creation upon the world. As the monster discovers his lonely fate, he seeks revenge on his creator. This classic horror laid the foundation for many of its successors, and its questions about the humanity of scientific creations have only become more relevant in today’s world.
6. For the Creepy Classics Lover: Inferno by Dante Alighieri
The oldest text on our list, Inferno paints a grisly landscape of hell—in all its regions, creations, and horrors—informed by Dante’s medieval context. This epic poem describes in graphic detail the torment of sinners in the afterlife, giving readers a disturbing perspective of medieval theology. While Dante’s melodrama adds subtle humor for today’s readers—for example, his fantasies of meeting his hero, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and of his enemies being tortured for their sins—his scenes of human suffering paint a bleak picture of life after death.
7. For the Grim Poet: “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
Though these are a series of distinct poems and short stories, Poe’s defining and ominous style cemented his canon in the history of poetry are best represented in these three works. Death of a one true love, murder, and foreboding omens tie these tales to one another, giving readers a feel for Poe’s gothic style of poetry. Plus, they are great starting points from which to enter Poe’s extensive collection of other grim works.
8. For the Macabre Humorist: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty’s first publication, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is the memoir of Doughty, a twenty-three-year-old novice mortician. It follows her from her first job as a crematory operator, filled with morbid misadventures, to her time in mortuary school, where she develops a passion for changing the way people view death and dying. Doughty’s sharp humor and unusual enthusiasm for undertaking make this book a distinctive combination of creepy and clever.
9. For the Dystopian Devotee: 1984 by George Orwell
A picture of a dystopian future, Orwell’s classic novel is gaining relevance as it is referenced more in the media today more than ever before. In Oceania, the homeland of 1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, most everyone is constantly surveilled by the government, or “Big Brother.” This totalitarian regime goes to great lengths to maintain power—burning “dangerous” books, altering history, forcing citizens to participate in allegiance rituals, and eradicating love and intimacy; that is, until Winston and his lover, Julia, defy Big Brother’s rules in pursuit of knowledge and freedom.