6 Atmospheric Horror Novels to Read, Recommended by Author Grady Hendrix
If you ask Grady Hendrix how long it took him to write his latest bestselling horror novel, The Final Girl Support Group, the official answer is seven years. Really, though, the book has been brewing since 1987, when Hendrix saw A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors in a South Carolina theater. One of the movie’s plot points has stuck with him ever since: the idea of a final girl from a previous franchise installment—Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson, in this case—showing up in a sequel to provide therapy services for a slasher’s other victims. It struck Hendrix as “the best idea the genre ever had,” and he meant to get a book out of it.
He finally began to work the idea into a novel in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2020 that he arrived at the version that hit bookstores in July 2021. Somewhere along the way, a conversation with Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians and My Heart Is a Chainsaw, helped Hendrix clarify his vision. The two agreed that the roots of slasher movies go all the way back to fairy tales.
“Little Red Riding Hood is the ur-slasher,” Hendrix tells Mental Floss. “It's a good young girl who goes out into the dark woods and is warned not to do exactly what she does, and is attacked by this very predatory male figure, and has to defeat him through wits, not through a show of strength, and it's all about masks and disguises. It's a straight-up slasher.”
So besides the countless slasher movie references splattered throughout The Final Girl Support Group, there are shadows of a much older form of horror fiction: the fairy tales that, in Hendrix’s words, “bled into urban legends like The Hook and The Roommate and The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” before metastasizing into horror movies such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. “One of the big reference books for me,” Hendrix says, “was Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, which is her revisionist fairy tale book.” The writings of historian Marina Warner were also crucial in stringing together the bones of Hendrix’s story; he cites Warner’s 1998 book No Go, the Bogeyman, a survey of male monsters in folklore and fairy tales, as a key influence.
While Hendrix’s other novels, including 2016’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism and 2020’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, often tap into classic horror movie tropes, the author has also become a champion for a different sort of historic horror: the genre fiction that flooded bookstore shelves and drugstore spinner racks in the 1970s and ’80s. Hendrix wrote 2017’s Paperbacks from Hell and, along with Too Much Horror Fiction blogger Will Errickson, has partnered with Valancourt Books to reissue out-of-print classics such as David Fisher’s The Pack and Lisa Tuttle’s Familiar Spirit.
So when Mental Floss asked Hendrix to recommend a few books to get us in the mood for the year’s spookiest season, it’s probably not surprising that he turned to the heyday of mass-market horror. But rather than the lurid potboilers that many people associate with the paperback horror boom, Hendrix’s list gravitates toward fall reads steeped in creepy ambience. “When it comes to this time of year, I want my horror to be a little more emotionally loaded, a little less action oriented, and a little more atmospheric,” he says.
Read on for six horror novels recommended by Hendrix to set the mood for fall and winter.
1. Harvest Home // Thomas Tryon
“The first one I'm going to throw out is a classic that so few people have read: Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home. It came out in the ’70s, and it was a huge blockbuster—they made it into a miniseries with Bette Davis [1978’s The Dark Secret of Harvest Home]—and it is a slow burn. I think it’s very apt for today. It's about a family that decides to get away from the wicked city and all their screens and telephones, and they move to this beautiful upstate town where life moves slower, called Cornwall Coombe. And they discover, of course, that there are secrets in the corn. This and [Stephen King’s] Children of the Corn really set the mold for American folk horror. … It's also a great book about 'not all guys, not all men,' because the lead is a really nice, really smart, really woke dude. But he just can't live with ambiguity. He has to have answers to all his questions. Everyone keeps saying, 'stop asking questions; some things you just don't need to know.' And he can't live with that. It's a very ‘dude’ thing, where you have to have certainty. And it doesn't lead anywhere good.
“I've had some people tell me they think it's slow, but I think it's really deliberately paced. And this is the time of year when I kind of want to lose myself in a big book anyways, so screw that person. They're dumb.”
Buy it: Amazon
2. The Tribe // Bari Wood
“[The Tribe] is the great work of Jewish horror fiction. There's better known Jewish horror fiction, there's Jewish horror fiction written by more famous people, but this is the masterwork. Bari Wood wrote big, fat bestsellers in the ’70s and early ’80s, and this book is from ’81. She's forgotten now. The core story is about a son of a Holocaust survivor, who gets mugged and murdered sort of randomly in Brooklyn. His best friend is a Black police officer who's navigating that whole thing of feeling like the token minority in the New York Police Department and trying to balance his friendship with this kid, and this kid's dad, who was part of a tight-knit Brooklyn crew of Holocaust survivors. The whole story is about community and tribes, and how New York is full of these small, insular little worlds that all rub up against each other. It's also about this group of Holocaust survivors and what they may have done to survive the Holocaust and how, for them, the war never ended. When someone kills one of them, it's an existential threat and they react with all force and speed, with sort of occult methods. It is a big, sprawling, beautifully written novel about New York and what New York was like in 1981, and surviving and generations and families.
“What's interesting to me is, Bari wrote the book the year she had to leave New York for tax reasons and moved to Connecticut, which she thought would be no big deal because it's right next door, and she hated it. She was like, What is there to write about? Squirrels? And so it’s a little bit like James Joyce, exiled overseas, writing about Dublin and rebuilding it in his mind. This is sort of her memory version of New York, and it's just all the more beautiful and sort of glimmering and shimmering for it. It's a really fabulous novel.”
Buy it: Amazon
3. Such Nice People // Sandra Scoppettone
“[Sandra Scoppettone] is best known as a mystery writer, and she wrote this book, I think, relatively early in her career. I'm a sucker for New England fall and Christmas stories, and this is a beautiful sort of sweaters-and-eggnog story that takes place over about two days, about this family. I think they live in Connecticut. Everyone's coming home for the holidays, and there are all kinds of little things [going on]: Mom's maybe having an affair, Dad’s sort of lost to having a midlife crisis—oh, and their middle son believes that the god that lives in the woodshed behind their house has ordered him to kill his entire family on Christmas Eve. Each chapter sort of hops between points of view, and you've got this ticking time bomb with this kid in the middle. It becomes this race against time, whether he’s gonna slaughter his entire family.
“It's one of these, I call them ‘WASP horror novels,’ which are these novels that came out mostly in the early ’80s and late ’70s, about affluent, upper-middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant families, and a son who’s just gone off the rails and everyone refuses to admit it, because it would make them look bad. It's a really fabulously written book, and I'm a sucker for that kind of atmosphere.”
Buy it: Amazon
4. The Search for Joseph Tully // William H. Hallahan
“Speaking of atmosphere, that takes us right to William H. Hallahan’s The Search for Joseph Tully. If you ever want to read a slow burn book, this is it. But it is gorgeous. And it's the kind of book where you don't quite figure out what's happening until literally the last line of the book. And all of a sudden, this giant deathtrap jigsaw puzzle just snaps into place around you.
“It's another New York-in-the-winter book, and it takes place in a Brooklyn tenement where everyone around them has sold out or been driven out by landlords to be redeveloped. It’s this lone tenement where the services are breaking down, in the middle of a vacant lot. The heat’s going off, everyone's sort of falling apart. And it's also one of the few reincarnation horror novels I've ever read. It's got a parallel story about this guy trying to put together this colonial genealogy of this wine dealer. It sounds boring—read the first page, and if you're not hooked right away, then don't stick around for the rest. But it's a fabulous book. And it's such a great winter novel.”
Buy it: Amazon
5. The Auctioneer // Joan Samson
“I always describe [The Auctioneer] as Stephen King's Needful Things written by Cormac McCarthy. It's just a tough, flinty New England novel about a farming community where everyone's sort of, you know, they live a little hand to mouth, but that's okay. It's the way they've always lived. And they are visited by this auctioneer who's real fast talking, and he just wants them to donate a few things they don't use anymore for a benefit auction for the local police department to raise a little money for new police cars. But the auctions don't stop, and bit by bit, he just strips this community to the bone. It's such a great book about group hysteria and living on the land.
“Joan Samson was an unfortunate story because she's such a good writer, and this book is so great. It was a huge hit when it came out. And then she died, I think, about three months after it was released, of brain cancer. But she was part of the back-to-the-land movement where everyone left the city looking for a better life in the country and went about hacking out these sort of subsistence livings, and she really captures this spirit of, OK, we've all come out to the countryside for this more pure way of life and it's not that much better because we're all still people.”
Buy it: Amazon
6. The Shadow Knows // Diane Johnson
“Diane Johnson was a literary fiction writer—still is, I think—and she wrote one horror novel, which is The Shadow Knows, and it was good enough that it got Stanley Kubrick to hire her to write the screenplay for The Shining. And it is bonkers! It takes place, I think, the week after Christmas or the week after New Year's, so it's kind of very bleak. It's sort of like an autumn hangover novel. It's about a divorced woman with two kids, and someone's calling her, saying that they're gonna murder her. It's told in first-person, and it's got such a great, dry sense of humor, and it's so morbid and fatal—it's almost like Wednesday Addams grew up to be a divorced mom and decided to write a book. But it really starts going a little bonkers, and it winds up being kind of a Through the Looking-Glass fever dream version of Blue Velvet, in a really strange way. It's just this weird, surreal, horrifying slice of highway-offramp Americana. I really love it a lot. It's one of those books like Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, where that first-person narrator’s voice just sinks a hook into your chin and drags you through.”
Buy it: Amazon