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The best spooky reads for summer, according to a horror writer


You listeners out there know I love a good scare. So for our series asking authors for summer reading recommendations, we had to get some picks to keep us reading through the nights with all the lights on. And Joe Hill has definitely scared me. He's the author of "The Black Phone" and "A Heart-Shaped Box." Many of his books have been adapted for TV and film. Welcome to the program.

JOE HILL: Hey, Ayesha. Thank you so much for having me on.

RASCOE: Let's start with the collection. It's called "The Wishing Pool And Other Stories." Tell me about this.

HILL: Well, so "The Wishing Pool And Other Stories" is by Tananarive Due. She is a novelist and a screenwriter who also happens to teach an acclaimed course in Black horror at UCLA. But you don't need to enroll to get schooled. "The Wishing Pool" is a master class in horror fiction and sci-fi written by one of the very best in the genre.

RASCOE: And so what type of stories are in there? You don't want to give anything away, but just give us a little teaser.

HILL: Right, yeah. I mean, my favorite story is called "The Haint In The Window," which is about the last Black bookstore in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Our hero is a bookseller who has begun to realize there's a ghost sharing his nearly empty shop with him. And let me tell you, it goes from heartwarming to terrifying like a muscle car going from 0 to 60. I just loved it.

RASCOE: What about another pick of yours? - "Hidden Pictures." What does that offer us?

HILL: Ooh. "Hidden Pictures" is a first novel about a young recovering addict who gets a job as a nanny in an upper-middle-class household. She finds herself caring for a little boy named Teddy. Teddy is sweet and precocious and loves to draw. And the thing he really loves to draw is the dead woman who he says is standing in the corner of the room right now.

RASCOE: That's not good. That's not good, Teddy.


RASCOE: (Laughter).

HILL: No. Best of all, Teddy's pictures are in the book.

RASCOE: And who wrote this? It's a debut novel by who?

HILL: "Hidden Pictures" is by Jason Rekulak. It's very funny about parenting in the 21st century. But let's face it - "Hidden Pictures" is mostly about one thing - which is that little kids can be freaking scary.

RASCOE: (Laughter). So is there one on your list that might be best for folks who are sort of dipping their toe into scary books? Like, 'cause not everyone loves to be horrified like me. So, like, somebody who wants just something scary but not too scary.

HILL: There is a book on my list - "The Last House On Needless Street" by Catriona Ward. Catriona has won or been nominated for pretty much every major prize in horror fiction in the last five or six years. She's hit the genre like an absolute freight train, and there's really no wrong place to start with her work. But I think "The Last House On Needless Street" is the best place to jump in. It's a mind-bender in the same class as "Gone Girl" or "The Girl On The Train" but with more of a horror edge.

There is a lot packed into this book. There is the unsolved abduction of a small girl and her sister who wants justice. There is an isolated alcoholic who is keeping a teenage girl locked in his house, supposedly for her own good. Some of the story is also told from the viewpoint of his cat, who is wiser and more fearless than any of the human characters. You know, if you want your fiction to rip the rug out from under you, turn you upside down and drop you through a trap door, this is your book. You won't be disappointed. You might be dizzy when it's over, but you won't be disappointed. And I think, you know, if you're more of a thriller person than a gross-out and gore person, "The Last House On Needless Street" will be your safe space.

RASCOE: So you can't really talk about scary stories or scary books without talking about haunted houses. And you have something that looks like a haunted house book - "Tell Me I'm Worthless."

HILL: By Alison Rumfitt. "Tell Me I'm Worthless" might be the book I'm most excited to share, but I would caution NPR listeners that this one is not for the faint of heart. Alison comes across like the twisted daughter of Clive Barker and Shirley Jackson. And "Tell Me I'm Worthless" is an intense read full of shocks and graphic sex and buckets of gore. It's about an evil house that, in a sense, is a dark, towering monument to fascism and hate. And there's a red room at the center of this place, and you do not want to spend time there.

RASCOE: Red rooms are really bad. You got to avoid the red room (laughter).

HILL: Yes, don't go in the red room. It's also a story about a culture war that's been chewing people up in the real world for a couple years now - the battles around transgender lives. Alison Rumfitt is definitely the girl who overstudied for the final. The book is in conversation with just about every great haunted house story written in the last 200 years, from "The Haunting Of Hill House" to "Rebecca" to "Turn Of The Screw." It's brilliant. It's actually too brilliant. She's making the rest of us horror guys look bad.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HILL: But what are you going to do? She's upping the game, and we all have to live with it.

RASCOE: Yeah. So see - now you - everybody has to step their game up now. Yeah.

HILL: Yeah. Yeah.

RASCOE: (Laughter) So and some people just love vampires. And you've got a book for those people, though. The book is "Rovers."

HILL: Yeah, "Rovers" by Richard Lange. And no one who loves horror fiction will be able to put this book down or resist it. "Rovers" is about two Dust Bowl brothers, Jesse and Edgar, who were killed in the 1930s and returned as vampires. And they've been living on the back roads ever since. If readers feel like they know these two guys, that's maybe because they somewhat resemble the tragic brothers from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men." The story takes place in the summer of 1976 on the bicentennial weekend. A decent young woman finds herself in the crosshairs of a gang of motorcycle-riding bloodsuckers. And Jesse, either heroically or stupidly - you decide - intervenes to save her. Boom - just like that, the bodies start to pile up.

The thing that strikes me about "Rovers" is how beautifully it's written. Lange's prose sings. He reminds me of writers like Denis Johnson and Robert Stone. What he's doing writing horror novels - I have no idea. Anyone who writes like this ought to be out there writing the kind of fiction that wins National Book Awards. But his professional judgment is our gain. Great vampire novel.

RASCOE: Awesome. And so one last pick - an author that people are probably familiar with has a great title, "A Head Full of Ghosts."

HILL: Yeah, Paul Tremblay has written one great horror novel after another, including "The Cabin At The End of the World," which was made into a pretty good film this year, "Knock At The Cabin." But if you're totally new to his work, I recommend going back to where he kicked things off - "A Head Full Of Ghosts," which won the Bram Stoker Award in 2015.

"A Head Full Of Ghosts" is a genius concept. It takes the situation we know from "The Exorcist" - a young girl's apparently possessed by Satan - and then imagines it happening to a financially strapped middle-class family today. What would they do? Well, obviously, before they'd call for the exorcist, they try to get their own reality TV show.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HILL: So that's what happens. Marjorie Barrett's possession becomes a season of must-watch TV and a cultural phenomenon till the shocking final episode, which, years later, has left people haunted and full of unanswered questions. It is a great possession novel - certainly the best one since "The Exorcist."

RASCOE: Oh, wow. Oh, well, that is high praise - very high praise. Joe Hill is the author of "Horns" and co-creator of the "Locke & Key" series, which I am a big fan of. Thank you so much for these. And yeah, I got a lot of reading ahead.

HILL: Ayesha, this was a blast. Thanks so much for talking to me. Stay scared. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.