Horror writer Peter Straub's 6 favorite books
The author recommends works by Susan Hill, Neil Gaiman, and more
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (Picador, $17). This ominous, coruscating novel seems to derive from a visionary childhood experience of absolute evil that Mantel once described in a memoir. Alison, the weary, spirit-beset psychic at the core of the book, has learned this about messages from the dead: "You don't want them and you can't send them back."
The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill (Overlook, $15). In this utterly English ghost story, an elderly Cambridge don narrates a tale to a onetime student. That story is a vehicle for another nested within it — of a brutal, inexplicable occurrence during a long-ago Venetian revel. You cannot do this kind of thing better than Hill does.
The Jolly Corner by Henry James (free at Gutenberg.org). Both a great ghost story and a classic doppelgänger narrative, this lovely novella concerns a New York native who returns to the city of his birth after decades in London. What might have he become had he stayed in his vulgar homeland? A night spent wandering the empty rooms of the mansion where he grew up provides a chilling revelation.
The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson (Coffee House, $17). A Mormon teenager discovers that his father's infidelity may have given him a half brother, and he contrives to meet this sibling while he's researching a murder from the past that was hushed up by the Mormon Church. Subtly but irrevocably, the world and the protagonist's selfhood become estranged. This is one of the bravest, most searching novels I know.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, $15). For me, this is Gaiman's most successful foray into adult fiction, though delivered with the emotional directness of Stardust and Coraline. An unnamed narrator explores the rural Sussex of his childhood, with unsettling results.
The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc, $16). A schizophrenic girl becomes fascinated by a painting in a museum. A few years later, she meets a homeless young woman and invites her to share her apartment. After that, most of this beautiful novel is up for grabs, including whether or not this new roommate is "the drowning girl" in the painting.
—Peter Straub is an award-winning writer of horror fiction — the author of Ghost Story, A Dark Matter, Lost Boy Lost Girl, and 14 other novels. His new book, Interior Darkness, is a 16-story collection drawn from his 45-year career.