Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or just the rampant capitalism of America between Thanksgiving and December 25th, the winter holiday season is an ideal time to curl up with a terrifying book. As winter winds blow and houses are lit only by twinkling multicolored bulbs, the chill of a ghost story somehow becomes more potent. The tales below range from festive frights that twist Santa’s special day to outings that use unforgiving winters to heighten the horror. Grab a warm cup of cocoa, cloak yourself in a holiday-themed blanket and unwrap one of these chillers to pass the winter nights.
1. Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck
Set in the Swedish Lapland in the early 1700s, Ekbäck’s historical chiller-thriller takes place during one harsh winter as a family of Finnish immigrants establishes a new life for themselves. As in the breakout horror film The Witch, this fresh start is complicated by Christian norms of the time—and by the mysteries of the near-wilderness in which Maija, Paavo and their two children settle. When one of Maija’s daughters finds the mutilated corpse of a neighbor, other settlers brush it off as a wolf attack, despite marks that couldn’t possibly come from an animal. With the full weight of an unbearably dark Swedish winter bearing down on them, Maija and her family uncover the horrible secrets that permeate their new community. For readers in the northern hemisphere, Wolf Winter’s long winter will be felt bone-deep.
2. The Valancourt Book of Victorian Ghost Stories edited by Leah Moore
As Moore notes in the book’s introduction, Americans may associate the oral tradition of spooky stories with sitting around a campfire. But the residents of Victorian England placed the practice firmly in the Christmas season, as families gathered around hearths and scared each other in advance of Saint Nick’s arrival. Valancourt, a small publisher dedicated to preserving the best in out-of-print horror and queer literature, has assembled two volumes of Victorian Christmas tales, including festive frights from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott and even anonymous tale-spinners whose identities are lost to time. As with the classics of M.R. James and peers, the stories within are creepy rather than outright terrifying, which makes these nicely packaged volumes perfect for reading when the house is dimly lit with sparkling Christmas lights.
3. The Terror by Dan Simmons
If you’re looking for a frightening winter read that will last until spring thaws, Simmons has you covered with The Terror, his nearly 1,000-page tome about an arctic voyage gone wrong. Based on true events, Simmons charts the path of the twin ships Terror and Erebus, both of which disappeared save for a small number of crew remains to be discovered decades later. If shoveling the driveway is the worst of your winter chores, the myriad ways (some perhaps supernatural) by which Simmons’ adventurers succumb to the elements will make you appreciate the proximity of warm beverages and a cozy blanket. If The Terror along won’t keep you busy this season, Simmons’ The Abominable features similarly chilly frights, set on the snowy peaks of Everest.
4. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
Moore’s brand of dark humor doesn’t always make the cut on serious-minded horror lists, but his joyfully absurd take on Christmas zombies is undeniably fun December reading. When a young boy watches Santa Claus take a shovel to the head, he fears that Christmas is canceled and prays for God to bring back Santa and restore the festivities. Unfortunately for the residents of the little boy’s town (and fortunately for readers), the Archangel Raziel hears this plea and, not possessing as much intelligence as one might wish for a divine being, unleashes the undead by accident. As with Bloodsucking Fiends and Lamb, Moore has a knack for blending the profane with the humorous, which makes for a morbidly funny holiday read.
5. The Shining by Stephen King
It is by now infamous that King hates Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining, but horror fans who’ve read the novel will understand King’s displeasure. While Kubrick’s vision is iconic, his take on Jack Torrance, a writer struggling with alcoholism and abusive tendencies, is less sympathetic than King’s. In the novel, Jack genuinely fights his demons, for the sake of his career and out of love for his wife and (psychic) child. In the film, Jack barely maintains a sheen of sanity, and his isolation in the haunted Overlook Hotel quickly brings out his worst impulses. While Christmas doesn’t factor into The Shining, Jack, Danny and Wendy are holed up in the mountain resort for the winter season, and Jack’s increasingly tense relationship with reality should ring familiar for anyone visiting home for the holidays for just a little too long. Learn a lesson from Jack and avoid croquet mallets, boiler rooms and topiary animals.
6. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Not one to be outdone by his dear old dad, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns author Joe Hill unleashed full holiday terror for his third novel, along with a warm embrace of the nostalgia-tinged magic so frequently employed by Stephen King. In NOS4A2, both Victoria McQueen and Charlie Manx can slip out of time and space when they ride the right vehicle: Vic can find lost things on her rickety bike, and Manx can journey to “Christmasland” in his vintage Rolls-Royce Wraith. Beyond the cheery name and amusement-park shine, Manx’ Christmasland is the last place good little boys and girls want to end up, and Vic is the only child who escapes a ride on the Wraith. Much like Santa himself, Manx never forgets a child, and when Vic is too old for his tastes, Vic’s son will do. NOS4A2 represented a turning point for Hill, as his own career was established enough that he loosened up about his parentage, resulting in a novel that blends the best of Hill’s distinct style with his father’s influence—and the most quintessentially frightening take on Christmas in modern memory.
7. Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
While few horror novels can be described as “uplifting,” there’s a solid chance that Lindqvist’s seminal take on the vampire myth will drag you through the most emotionally harrowing journey on this list. Told over one of Sweden’s dark winters, Let The Right One In follows 12-year-old Oskar, bullied and emotionally troubled, as he befriends the unusual girl who moves in next door with an off-putting adult caretaker. Lindqvist’s prose, translated by Ebba Segerberg, is unflinching in its descriptions of pedophilia, mutilation and other unpalatable topics. Still, as viewers of either the Swedish or American film adaptations know, there’s a disturbing love at the heart of the bond between Oskar and the girl, which is what elevates Lindqvist’s tale to the top of the modern horror pile.
8. Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
Fantasy illustrator and novelist Brom revealed a macabre side to Peter Pan in The Child Thief before turning his attention to Santa Claus with Krampus. The European folkloric figure of Krampus, a demonic complement to Saint Nick who punishes wicked children, has permeated American culture in recent years, from the 2015 film of the same name to adorable novelty toys. In Brom’s lushly illustrated telling, a failed Appalachian musician discovers that Saint Nick isn’t so innocent when he’s caught up in an ancient tussle between Santa and Krampus on Christmas Eve. Brom’s eye-catching art brings the unsettling figure to vibrant life, while giving The Yule Lord the feel of a holiday picture book for adults.
9. Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Straub’s breakout novel updates the Victorian tradition of ghost stories told at old-boys’ clubs by moving the gentlemen to upstate New York—and by introducing a not-so-gentle secret into their pasts. Over the course of one snowy winter, the men of the “Chowder Society” find that an event from their youth may be coming back to haunt them after one of them dies and the rest begin to have nightmares of their own gruesome deaths. Straub, who has collaborated with Stephen King, established himself as a major voice in horror with Ghost Story by modernizing the framing tale of storytelling clubs so common in foundational horror tales from a century or more ago.
10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Okay, we’re having a bit of fun with this one, but there’s ample horror to be found in Dickens’ classic tale. Scrooge lives a miserly life, and three successive ghosts show him how he squandered his youth, how his greedy actions make life hell for those around him and how his current trajectory will lead to only more pain before he dies a lonely death. Even the Muppets version of the story has some frightening visuals when it comes to that last specter. While Scrooge’s tale ultimately has a generous ending, Dickens’ success solidified the relationship between Christmastime and ghost stories, leading to a proliferation of such tales and giving horror fans an extra reason to delight in the yuletide season.