5 Spooky Stories to Get You in the Halloween Mood

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For many of us, the Halloween countdown starts as soon as fall rolls around. When the leaves turn orange and the darkness creeps in, it’s the perfect time to cozy up with a scary story or a nail-biting horror movie. Now, with All Hallows’ Eve just around the corner, I’ve put together this list of five bone-chilling stories to prepare you for the spookiest day of the year!

1. Pet Sematery by Stephen King

Stephen King Pet Sematary book cover with cat and graveyard

Stephen King has become one of the modern world’s most celebrated authors, publishing over 60 novels in his lifetime. He can terrify even the hardiest of horror readers with his hauntingly vivid settings, convincing characters, and unexpected twists — and the 1983 novel Pet Sematary is hailed by fans as one of his best.

It begins innocently enough, with the Creed family moving to a quiet town in Maine. Little do they know, their new house sits near an ancient animal burial ground — where the bite is much worse than the bark. When the family cat gets run over, only to return the next day acting strangely, the Creed family and the reader know that things are about to get very freaky.

2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

One of the most famous horror books of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the source of many a bolt-necked costume — but how many know the original tale? When Shelley wrote this novel, her goal was to “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature… to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”

Two centuries later, she’s clearly succeeded: just about everyone recognizes the name Frankenstein. While it’s commonly associated with the half-dead, half-alive humanoid monster, Frankenstein carries the name of the scientist behind the creation, Dr. Victor Frankenstein — who must choose between his life’s work and the safety of humanity. That said, to really appreciate the nuanced terrors of this classic Gothic novel, one simply has to read it.

3. 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith

30 days of night book cover with man screaming

30 Days of Night is a three-issue horror comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith that’s guaranteed to keep you awake… and petrified. When the small town of Barrow, Alaska is plunged into a midwinter month of darkness, the area becomes a hunting ground for a group of bloodthirsty vampires — and its residents must fight like hell to survive.

Templesmith’s illustrations bring Niles’ words to visceral life, a no-holds-barred portrayal of the graphic violence and gore throughout the story. Though none of the stories on this list are exactly easy reading, take heed that 30 Days of Night is not for the faint of heart.

4. Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling scary novel cover with legs coming out of a white wall

Though best known as a sci-fi author, Octavia Butler has also conjured up many multi-layered horror stories to make your skin crawl. Fledgling is a perfect example — this thrilling novel tackles issues of race and identity under the guise of a sinister vampire plot.

The story kicks off with immediate suspense, as a young girl named Shori wakes up with no knowledge of who or where she is. It only gets more disturbing as she discovers that she’s actually a 53-year-old vampire, wanted dead by an unknown figure. Though aware it could lead to her own demise, Shori is desperate to find out more about her past and identity — and as she goes from fledgling to full-on vamp, she finds that the only one she can trust is herself.

5. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book cover with a skeleton head over a graveyard

For anyone who loved sitting ’round a campfire as a kid and sharing urban legends passed down through generations, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is just the chill-inducing companion you’ll need for Halloween. Compiled by editor Alvin Schwartz, this book includes some of the most harrowing short stories ever told.

Many have questioned its classification as a children’s book — and rightly so. From haunted houses to people getting eaten by worms, the descriptions and illustrations may leave you a little queasy. However, if you’re looking for a bit of nostalgia with your Halloween reading, then this is the book for you.

Whether you’re planning to spend your night trick-or-treating or under the blankets with hot cocoa and a scary movie, I hope that these spooky stories have gotten you into the Halloween spirit. Have a hauntingly good one!

Guest post by Savannah Cordova from Reedsy – Twitter / Instagram

Book Recommendation “Girl on Fire”

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Puzzle Box Horror’s book recommendation of the week is Gemma Amor’s “Girl on Fire.” Gemma Amor is a Bram Stoker Award nominated horror fiction author, podcaster and voice actor based in the UK. Her books include Cruel Works of NatureDear Laura, White PinesGirl on Fire, and These Wounds We Make. She’s also co-creator, writer and voice actor for horror-comedy podcast Calling Darkness, starring Kate Siegel. Her stories are feature on the NoSleep PodcastShadows at the Door, Creepy and the Grey Rooms podcast.

Author Gemma Amor headshot

SYNOPSIS: Ruby Miller is free at last. Free from her past, her tormentor, her shitty family and the even shittier odds she was given at birth. But freedom has a price, and when the young girl hell-bent on starting a new life crashes her cherry red 1989 Pontiac Bonneville on America’s loneliest road, she finds out just how dear that price is. From the Bram Stoker Award nominated author of Dear Laura and White Pines comes a new novella, a searing tale of fire, revenge and redemption, a coming-of-age tale with a bite, because, let’s face it… happy endings are for children, and some girls just want to watch the world burn.

Review by Ben Vicariously 4/5 stars.

This story starts with a bang (literally) and is paced like wildfire, zipping through a tale of a young girl’s burning fury being unleashed upon the world. Ruby’s traumatic past haunts her still, and all she wants to do is see the world burn. She is the girl on fire, and her killing rage is both righteous and overwhelmingly destructive. Unfortunately for those around her it is only going to escalate.

To read the full review, click here!

Girl on Fire by Gemma Amor is available now.

Book Review: The Burning Girls Explores the Horror and Hope of Religious Faith

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The Burning Girls horror book Cover
The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

Is there anything more complex than religious faith? Faith can be ineffably inspirational and intractably inflexible, a source of hope to motivate some of humanity’s greatest heroes and an excuse to defend some of our most despicable monsters. And when most people talk about the subject, they tend to focus on one quality to the exclusion of the other. 

So it’s to the credit of British author C.J. Tudor that her novel The Burning Girls incorporates faith into horror story in a humane and principled manner. The book’s title refers to two young girls martyred in the 16th century for their Protestant beliefs. Today, villagers in their hometown remember “the Sussex Martyrs” as champions, holding memorial ceremonies and constructing twig dolls in homage. And sometimes, the girls’ flaming ghosts appear as omens to those who are in trouble. 

The most important troubled person is Reverend Jack Brooks, a vicar who has been moved, along with her fourteen-year-old daughter Flo, to the tiny Sussex village Chapel Cross from her urban parish in Nottingham. Jack brings along her troubled past, including the murder of a young parishioner, her husband’s shadowy death, and a family history that she does not want to discuss with anyone, including us readers. 

Despite her increasingly weighty baggage, Jack makes for a kind and engaging lead. Serving as the narrator for the majority of the book’s chapters (Tudor employs third-person voice for chapters focusing on other characters), Jack is quick with a quip and a forgiving aside, without ever feeling like a saint. The mercy she extends to others stems from an awareness of her shortcomings. When she begins judging a colleague for engaging in a sin of omission, she checks herself and thinks, “Who am I to judge?” 

This isn’t to say that Jack doesn’t make mistakes. She gives into anger and (like all parents) constantly flubs in her decisions with Flo. But given how easily this smoking, swearing, horror-movie-watching woman of the cloth could become a “cool priest” cliché, there’s something refreshingly real to Jack’s grounded approach to the transcendent, especially to a lifelong practicing Christian like me. The Burning Girls insists that everyone has their demons and fights them their own way. 

Despite the certainly admirable quality of this theme, the novel does become laden with tragedy. Everyone from a small-time reporter to a fellow vicar’s wife has a tragic backstory, which can become overwhelming. Given the mundane atrocities that mark The Burning Girls, pyro specters and crooked exorcism blades seem excessive.  

The problem is exacerbated by Tudor’s sometimes too-lean prose, which prioritizes snappy dialogue over clearly defined spaces and characters. The book often reads like a script, as conversations between characters can go on for over a page, with little more than a signal phrase to break it up. As a result, the characters feel thin, as we’re forced to construct our mental image of them from the things they say, rather than the physical attributes the narrator allows us to see. This tendency crosses over from frustrating to irritating when the characters indulge in pop-culture references, talking about Evil Dead, Bill Hicks, and (with surprising frequency) The Usual Suspects. Unless you’re Nick Hornby, readers shouldn’t know more about your protagonists’ movie collections than we do about their physical features. 

Fortunately, Tudor balances these issues by moving the plot along swiftly. The author shows a deft hand at revealing clues and mysteries, allowing connections between the Sussex martyrs, the disappearance of two teen girls and a local priest, and Jack’s biography, to float into view with satisfying elegance. The reader feels like an active participant in the adventure, never ahead of the characters and rarely trailing behind.  

The Burning Girls treads some truly horrific ground, recounting some of the worst things humans can do to one another. And it does not shy away from the fact that religious faith often drives these acts of brutality. But it also shows us how faith can be a healing element, compelling us to care for each other, all the more in the face of such cruelty. 

Call of Cthulhu Manifest: Illustrating an Outer-God

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The time is once again upon us to take a plunge into the morbid and cosmic horror world of H. P. Lovecraft, once more staggeringly illustrated by the visionary François Baranger. I’m now two books into this series which is beginning to feel akin to a sort of cinematic universe, only retained on paper where it can truly pay tribute to Lovecraft’s original work. Whereas the first part of At The Mountains of Madness left me hanging on the edge of a sheer plummet into darkness, Call of Cthulhu, a much shorter tale, manages to contain it’s entire self within the confines of this gargantuan hardback. But only just. 

With this being a story I’m familiar with and one I managed to enjoy in a single sitting along with all of the gorgeous artwork it swims in, how did Baranger and Free League Publishing do? In short: terrifyingly well. 

Call of Cthulhu is a rather more nautical outing than it’s snowy predecessor in this series and, for those with sensibilities such as my own, holds far more capacity for cosmic horror and its suffocating vastness. This story deals primarily with scale: the ocean, the dreaded city of R’lyeh, and the tentacled megalith himself; almighty Cthulhu. Of course the narrative wades in accounts and letters and newspaper articles in classic Lovecraft fashion, but towards the final act things heat up to boiling point and we’re treated to several devastating views of the alien geometry of R’lyeh and the towering, tentacled form of the lumbering god himself. 

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I’ve mentioned in the past that Baranger’s art makes Lovecraft’s writing even more dramatic and far more accessible. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Cthulhu these days, or at least seen one of the countless artistic depictions of the squid-dragon goliath. He was an obvious choice for this next huge illustrated issue, and the payoff involves some truly chilling images.

In an age of plush toys and parodies it’s good to see my personal favorite oceanic behemoth in a style more befitting his true nature, and in a book big enough to support him. These hand-painted renditions depict the colossal elder god rising from unfathomable depths, looming over a fiery, decimated New York and roaring into the heavens beneath stomach-dropping storms. It truly is the best tribute to the visual horror of Cthulhu that i’ve witnessed, and serves as the perfect accompaniment to Lovecraft’s unsettling tale.

Call of Cthulhu book art featuring a giant monster in the ocean

Thematically, the narrative centers around madness and obsession, as is common in Lovecraft’s work, though perhaps not to the extent of detail and thoughtfulness as displayed in this masterpiece of a short story. Implications of extensive lore are found throughout logs, notes, newspaper articles, alien statues and accounts of outlandish dreams. Much of it is a story within a story as our narrator, Francis Weyland Thurston pores over his late uncle’s notes and a strange bas-relief depicting Cthulhu reigning over R’lyeh. Insanity is displayed through obsessive artistry, mass hysteria and primordial cultism. The pervading racism is unfortunately as apparent as we’ve come to expect from this particular author. While the ignorance much of Lovecraft’s work is rooted in should not be glossed over, the style of story helps separate art from artist and merely take this as the views and wording of Thurston and his uncle. 

Baranger’s art remains moody yet grounded and rooted in realism so that when our titular overlord finally awakens, first time readers can breathe a sigh of relief that such an intense story ends on more than just implication. Lovecraft himself would be delighted and terrified at these powerful renditions of his brain spawn. I for one can’t wait to see what comes next in the series; with such an extensive backlog to choose from we’re left with infinite potential for stomach-dropping cosmic horror imagery. 

Exploring the Roots of Folk Horror

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Defining the term “folk horror” and tracing its trajectory throughout history is somewhat of a Herculean task. For a term that sounds so simplistic, it is an incredibly complex and ever-expanding genre. Entire books have been written on the subject (such as Adam Scovell’s 2017 film criticism Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange), and there’s even a three hour long documentary about it titled Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, which itself features over one hundred examples from film.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched cover

And while much of the emphasis surrounding the conversation is placed on British movies, there are plenty of overlapping examples in film, TV, and literature from around the world. Not to mention the actual elements that make up the genre are diverse, and range from folklore to the occult to witchcraft. 

Simply put, it’s complicated.

To that end, this article is not going to be an exhaustive look at the genre (that’s what the books and documentaries are for), but rather a brief overview of the term, its tropes, and popular examples. Think of it as a primer; a starting place in the shallows of the vast ocean that is folk horror. Ready to wade in?

Origins of the Term

The British music scene experienced something of a folk revival in the 1960s, and that, coupled with the rise in Neopaganism, led to a general infatuation with and exploration of older belief systems. Bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin explored occult themes in their songs, and the writings of famous occultist Aleister Crowley gained popularity. It wasn’t long before the fascination with folk and occult themes found its way into the world of cinema. And that’s not to say that music was the only vehicle for introducing folk horror, as disillusionment with modernism and outrage at governing bodies engendered in many a desire to return to nature and the simpler, older ways of life. At the same time, our post-industrial life has made us unused to rural life and uncomfortable with isolation.

When cult classic The Blood on Satan’s Claws came out in 1971, the Kine Weekly referred to the film as “a study in folk horror”. The movie’s director Piers Haggard also used this term when describing his film. Later the term received renewed attention in 2010 when writer/actor Mark Gatiss interviewed Haggard during a section of the BBC documentary A History of Horror. These two moments, 1971 and 2010, appear to mark the emergence and then subsequent revitalization of the expression “folk horror”.

The Blood on Satan's Claws cover

Elements of Folk Horror

Though it can be difficult to pin down the exact definition of folk horror, there is a general agreement that it is more of a mood, an atmosphere, than anything else. You know it when you see it, though it may be hard to explain why. Even common tropes can vary widely depending on geographic region and time period, and movies with very dissimilar plots can still fall under the folk horror umbrella. But for the purpose of simplicity, we will highlight what writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell (owner of the Celluloid Wicker Man blog) describes as the “Folk Horror Chain”, or the four basic thematic/aesthetic tenets of folk horror: Rural Location, Isolated Groups, Skewed Moral and Belief Systems, and Supernatural or Violent Happenings.

Rural Location: This was a big one for movies in the 60s and 70s because it saw a move away from filming in studios and out into the natural world. This element typically involves a fascination with pastoral landscapes and locations outside of urban life. Often there is an outsider who stumbles upon or is forced into a rural community, and who usually becomes some sort of scapegoat or sacrifice to traditional/pagan beliefs. Some argue that this element also encompasses ideas of psychography and location being a “state of mind” in more urban communities, such as in Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Isolated Groups: This element typically takes one one of two meanings – either an individual is isolated from their normal physical environment or they’re isolated from those who share their same moral beliefs. For example, the characters in David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) find themselves stranded in the forest but also in discord with people who worship much different gods than they. This element is a link between the previous one and the next because isolation usually happens in rural environments, and it’s made even more upsetting because the antagonistic forces don’t act or think the same as the protagonist.

Skewed Moral and Belief Systems: In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Sergeant Howie finds himself in a community whose religious beliefs and practices are at odds with his own. Across other examples there is a common thread of “modern” or “Christian” beliefs finding themselves in direct conflict with occult or pagan beliefs. This collision of morality and religious belief leads into or is specifically connected to the final element of the chain.

folk horror ritual

Supernatural or Violent Happenings: Folk horror stories are often steeped in, or at least influenced by, folklore of the particular region they’re set in, and this final piece of the chain usually involves either supernatural beings or some form of ritualistic violence (or both) related to that folklore. Invocations of demonic entities, horrific sacrifices, occult practices, and pagan idolatry are all par for the course. 

British Folk Horror

The current popularity of folk horror, at least what our primary audience would be familiar with, owes a lot to British cinema, and in particular the Hammer Films production company. A group of films from the 60s and 70s, known affectionately as the “Unholy Trinity,” is what many point to as the birth of the genre. These movies are Witchfinder General (1968), the aforementioned Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). These three films helped distinguish some common characteristics of folk horror, namely the picturesque landscapes, the isolated communities, and the emphasis on sacrifices and supernatural summonings. And yet, showing how intangible the genre is, these are also three very different movies in terms of plot.

BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas cover

Strong examples of the genre can also be found in British television from the same time period. There was the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, which adapted several of M.R. James’s short stories with folk horror elements, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), A Warning to the Curious (1972), and The Ash Tree (1975). There was a drama series from the BBC, titled Plays for Today, with standout hits like Robin Redbreast (1970) and Penda’s Fen (1974). And there were still other enduring examples of the genre like Children of the Stones (1977), a miniseries made for children but still incredibly terrifying.

Though the British rise in folk horror began in the 1960s and 1970s, there was something of a resurgence in the genre in the 2010s. Some of these newer British films (and in the UK more widely) took the tropes and themes from decades previous and put their own modern spin on them, while others sought to return to folk horror’s roots, so to speak, with their emphasis on ritual, folklore, and mankind’s connection to nature. While there are many examples to pull from – folk horror appears to be trending right now – several standout movies include David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), Elliot Goldner’s The Borderlands (2013), and Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015). Another prolific filmmaker in the genre is Ben Wheatley, whose canon of folk horror movies includes Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), A Field in England (2013), and In the Earth (2021).

Kill List cover
Sightseers cover
A Field in England cover

Most of the common examples in British folk horror are from film, however there are many books from Britain that include plots and tropes from the genre. In fact, as it goes, some of the oldest examples of the genre are found in literature, from authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R. James. Some shining examples in more modern literature include Adam Nevill’s The Ritual (2011) and The Reddening (2019), Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014) and Devil’s Day (2017), Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex (2016), and Stephanie Ellis’s The Five Turns of the Wheel (2020) – as well as numerous comics, such as Simon Davis’s Thistlebone (2020) from 2000AD. 

American Folk Horror

Though the term originated in the British imagination, the evolving genre of folk horror has set roots in American cinema and literature as well. In some cases this involves American filmmakers creating movies very much influenced by the British tradition, such as Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1983), Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), Gareth Evans’s Apostle (2018), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). These films have strong similarities to their British cousins in regards to their emphasis on British landscapes and lore. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is another movie that could be included in this group, though it doesn’t fit the mold quite as well.

There are also many crossover elements between the genres of southern gothic and folk horror, and these commonalities can be seen in films such as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). There is also a sub-genre of film called “hicksploitation” or “hillbilly horror” which spawns from the southern gothic tradition and which, upon first glance, may not seem to have much to do with folk horror. Yet, when one applies Scovell’s folk horror chain theory, the similarities begin to arise. Films that would fit in this category include movies like John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

Old rusty tools in a toolshed

In American literature, elements of folk horror can be seen as early as the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. Other popular novels and short stories in the genre include Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (1973), Stephen King’s “Children Of The Corn” (1977), Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1984), Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988), Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015), John Langan’s The Fisherman (2016), and Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling (2017).

A Genre Diverse and Divergent

As we continue to reevaluate and redefine what folk horror is, we begin to notice a few common truths: the genre has existed in some form or fashion long before the 60s and 70s, and some version of it can be found in almost every country around the world. Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, early forms of mystical poetry, and even some of Shakespeare’s plays all have folk horror elements. The earliest example in film comes from the Danish-Swedish fictionalized documentary Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922). Sweden has Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Australia has Peter Weir’s The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Japan has Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). And on and on it goes.

Scene from Haxan movie

Also the more we explore the foundations and tenets of folk horror, the more we find examples which lie outside of the commonly accepted cannon, but which end up fitting the mold in diverse and interesting ways. Some titles here would include Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), and even the Paranormal Activity franchise. 

As it should be clear by now, attempting to box the folk horror genre into an easy-to-digest definition is simply not possible. We didn’t even get into the various histories of folklore and dark fairy tales around the world and their individual influences and appearances in the genre. We also didn’t get into the overlapping traits in genres such as science fiction and cosmic horror. What we did accomplish, hopefully, is to give you a taste of the world that you will carry with you into your own exploration of this wonderfully diverse genre known as folk horror.

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