Local authors share book recommendations for the Halloween season

THE HORROR, THE HORROR: Local authors share their favorite scary reads. Pictured, seated from left are Meagan Lucas and Melanie McGee Bianchi; and standing from left, Tessa Fontaine, Terry Roberts and Wayne Caldwell. Photo by Thomas Calder

Love it or hate it, there’s no escaping the scary thrills that Halloween inspires each year. For those less inclined toward horror films but still in the mood for something spooky, Xpress has you covered. In the spirit of All Hallows Eve, we reached out to local authors for their recommendations for seasonally appropriate, scary reads set in the South.

Eudora Welty’s “Moon Lake”

“‘Moon Lake’ is from Eudora Welty’s mythical short-story cycle, The Golden Apples, published in 1949. Town girls and county orphans clash at summer camp in southern Mississippi; the swampy backdrop is rendered like a gorgeous nightmare. The story’s action takes off when Boy Scout Loch Morrison pulls orphan Easter out of the snake-infested lake and tries to resuscitate her. The other girls watch the performance, enthralled, in a time-bending, 14-page scene that toggles magnificently between humor and horror. ‘Was there danger that Easter might call out to them from the other, worse side of it?’ Welty writes. ‘[That] her secret voice might work out of her terrible mouth like a vine, preening and sprung with flowers.’”

Melanie McGee Bianchi, author of The Ballad of Cherrystoke and Other Stories

Old as the hills

“My favorite Appalachian horror story is, as they say, old as the hills. It is found in Richard Walser’s North Carolina Legends. But scarier versions are included in both novel and poem. Asheville native John Ehle’s 1964 novel, The Land Breakers, tells of newlyweds Paul and Nancy Larkins, who laid their cabin’s fireplace and hearth over a rattlesnake den. They awaken with snakes crawling over their bed and the floor full of them. I’ll let you guess the outcome. The best version of this tale, however, is Hendersonville native Robert Morgan’s poem ‘Mountain Bride,’ which features Revis and Martha in the same horrible situation. Enjoy!”

Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloochee and Woodsmoke 

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing 

Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, follows 13-year-old Jojo as he navigates a visit to Mississippi’s Parchman prison to collect his father and the ghosts, literal and figurative, that stand in his way. The hauntings in this gorgeous, celebrated tale aren’t just the kind that spook you in the dark. Here, horrors of the past lay on top of the present, and the characters, both living and dead, reckon with racism and trauma as their stories unfold, and also the beautiful bonds among the living that give us reason to go on.”

Tessa Fontaine, author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts


“I encourage my fellow Ashevilleans to embrace our homegrown Appalachian cryptid monster, MOTHMAN! Primarily a West Virginia phenomenon, stories about Mothman abound all over our region. The best place to start is with John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, a nonfiction-ish recounting of Mothman’s sudden spooky appearance in Point Pleasant, W.Va., circa 1966. Some may recall these events from the 2002 Richard Gere film of the same name. The Mothman Prophecies is a sort-of-true Appalachian horror story that will leave locals totally freaked out and uncertain of whom to trust in these dark mountain woods we call home.”

— Leah Hampton, author of F*ckface: And Other Stories 

Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indian 

“I recommend Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, which isn’t set in the South, but Graham Jones was born in Texas, so I’m saying that counts. Besides, it’s beyond good and unsettling. The horror begins when four friends commit a crime against nature, against an elk and her calf. This elk mother, like most mothers, doesn’t forget the wrongs done to her child, and she takes on a human form to enact her revenge, one by one, against the four men who destroyed her life. My dreams were haunted by the Elk Head Woman for weeks, and yours probably will be, too.”

Rachel Hanson, writer and organizer of Punch Bucket Lit reading series

The royal creeps

“I don’t really read horror, but there are plenty of stories that probably qualify anyway. The first story I thought of was William Gay‘s ‘The Paperhanger’ — a story that gives me the royal creeps and that I sort of detest, but it’s a very very disturbing story and well done in that sense. Then there’s Joyce Carol Oates‘ ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ It is also incredibly disturbing. I think one thing in common with both stories that I hate, but that probably makes them so effective, is that they have violence to children at their core. I read both these stories for the first time when my kids were young, and they freaked me out!”

— Tommy Hays, author of The Pleasure Was Mine and What I Came to Tell You 

Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods 

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is quintessential Southern gothic. Two young children, traumatized by witnessing their mother’s murder, are taken in by their aunt, who lives alone in the woods. But the murderer is at large, and now he’s creeping around those woods after the children. It’s a compelling read, one that would have had me flipping pages to find out WHAT HAPPENED, but fortunately I ‘read’ the book on audio. Will Patton’s performance and his pleasant Southern voice allowed me to slow down and enjoy Frazier’s beautiful prose. Highly recommended for Halloween chills.”

Vicki Lane, author of And The Crows Took Their Eyes 

Creepy and intense

“I’m very particular about my horror — I don’t want to be grossed out, and I don’t like violence for its own sake, so this time of year I turn to local author Nathan Ballingrud. His writing is so beautiful, his characters complex, his stories just the perfect amount of creepy and intense.  Specifically, his collection North American Lake Monsters is so original but also deeply unsettling and the perfect read for the spooky season because it reminds us that monsters aren’t always the vampire and werewolf type but are most often horrifyingly human.”

Meagan Lucas, author Songbirds & Stray Dogs,

William Gay’s ‘The Paperhanger’

“The most unsettling short story I have ever read is William Gay’s ‘The Paperhanger.’ It begins with a horrific murder and then gets much, much darker. Among the story’s fans is Stephen King, who chose it for the Best American Short Story series. William was a friend of mine, and he told me that, upon reading ‘The Paperhanger,’ a woman he was romantically involved with immediately told him, ‘I can’t be with you anymore.’ William, rightly, took that as a compliment.”

Ron Rash, author of Serena and In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on ‘Serena’

Gothic thriller 

“One of my favorite gothic thrillers from WNC is John Ehle’s The Winter People, which is set in an isolated mountain community around the time of the Great Depression. The novel opens with the arrival of a stranger named Wayland Jackson, a widower who soon gets involved with a single mother named Collie Wright. When the father of Collie’s child appears suddenly, he dies in a midnight snowstorm. Was he murdered? If so, by whom? Who in this tightly knit community is responsible and who must pay the price? Ehle is a native of Asheville, and this suspenseful tale was made into a 1989 movie, filmed locally.”

— Terry Roberts, author of My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black and The Sky Club 



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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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