The creepiest epistolary horror novels

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always admired epistolary novels—stories told in the form of diaries, letters, or other mass media. They seem so real and so much more believable than plain narratives. When dealing with fantastic subjects, like paranormal phenomena, any technique that can draw the weird back into the real world helps me become more invested as a reader. It’s a quality I’ve also tried to capture as a horror writer. Moreover, the epistolary format pairs well with unreliable narrators, often filtering stories so as to make them more ambiguous and disturbing. From the many epistolary works I’ve read over the years, here are my picks for the most compelling—and creepy.


I wrote...

Smithy

By Amanda Desiree,

Book cover of Smithy

What is my book about?

It details an ill-fated attempt by psychology students during the 1970s to teach sign language to a chimpanzee. Unfortunately, the researchers have set up their experiment in a deserted old mansion long reputed to be haunted. As they observe Smithy’s erratic behavior, some team members begin to wonder if he really is using ASL—to communicate with a spirit.

This epistolary novel simulates a found footage documentary. The characters’ letters and diaries, combined with post hoc media commentary, create an ambiguous environment in which readers can decide for themselves what really happened to Smithy and the other occupants of Trevor Hall.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Episode Thirteen

Amanda Desiree Why did I love this book?

This chronicle of a doomed reality TV show taping feels the most like a modern found-footage movie of any epistolary novel with its addition of instant messages and video footage to diaries and emails. The converging of different media corroboration adds a high level of realism to the story—an impressive trait that’s often lacking in cosmic horror.

Further, I’m impressed by the breadth of subjects Di Louie covered (Hindu mythology, occult mysticism, 1960s/1970s pop-culture references) and the way he expanded the haunted house trope beyond my expectations.

This book captivated me so much that I was more interested in reading it than in sightseeing while on my vacation.

By Craig DiLouie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Episode Thirteen as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. Led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin, it delivers weekly hauntings investigated by a dedicated team of ghost hunting experts.

Episode Thirteen takes them to every ghost hunter's holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This brooding, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It's also famously haunted, and the team hopes their scientific techniques and high tech gear will prove it. But as the house begins to reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might…


Book cover of Wylding Hall

Amanda Desiree Why did I love this book?

This phantasmagorical oral history unfolds during one of my favorite time periods, the psychedelic late 60s/early 70s. It also fuses two of my favorite sub-genres, folk horror and haunted houses.

I could easily visualize the setting and the different characters as I read their statements and tried to piece together the reality of what happened during the band’s infamous time at Wylding Hall.

By Elizabeth Hand,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Wylding Hall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After the tragic and mysterious death of one of their founding members, the young musicians in a British acid-folk band hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with its own dark secrets. There they record the classic album that will make their reputation but at a terrifying cost, when Julian Blake, their lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen again. Now, years later, each of the surviving musicians, their friends and lovers (including a psychic, a photographer, and the band s manager) meets with a young documentary filmmaker to tell his or her own version…


Book cover of Dracula

Amanda Desiree Why did I love this book?

Older than the rest and still one of the best, Dracula was my introduction to the epistolary format. My eleven-year-old self was pleasantly surprised when the diaries and letters never gave way to straight narration. Reading the book gave me the chance to see how much detail was left out of the various movie adaptations.

After a slow start with Harker’s travelogue, the book unleashed some gruesome and haunting imagery. I thought Renfield’s scenes were especially chilling. I can’t wait to check out the complete, uncut version of the novel, released in Sweden as Powers of Darkness, to see what other creepiness Stoker originally planned for his readers.

By Bram Stoker,

Why should I read it?

22 authors picked Dracula as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 17.

What is this book about?

'The very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years' Arthur Conan Doyle

A masterpiece of the horror genre, Dracula also probes identity, sanity and the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire. It begins when Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula purchase a London house, and makes horrifying discoveries in his client's castle. Soon afterwards, disturbing incidents unfold in England - an unmanned ship is wrecked; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman's neck; a lunatic asylum inmate raves about the imminent arrival of his 'Master' - and a determined group of adversaries…


Book cover of Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

Amanda Desiree Why did I love this book?

I know the concept of a sasquatch attack on a remote commune sounds silly on the surface, but Brooks crafts it into a realistic, serious story. As a believer in the possibility of Bigfoot, I was fascinated to see how disastrously an encounter between humans and cryptids could conceivably go.

The naivete of the settlers in the wilderness is even more distressing than the hostility of the animals. Unsettling news reports (of which the characters remain unaware) interspersed with diary entries underscore their desperation and peril. I thought the situation was completely credible. Really, we ought to have more sasquatch horror books.

By Max Brooks,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Devolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

FROM THE #1 BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF WORLD WAR Z

'TRUE TERROR' Guardian 'NAIL CHOMPING SUSPENSE' Total Film
______________________________________
As the ash and chaos from Mount Rainier's eruption swirled and finally settled, the story of the Greenloop massacre has passed unnoticed, unexamined . . . until now.

But the journals of resident Kate Holland, recovered from the town's bloody wreckage, capture a tale too harrowing - and too earth-shattering in its implications - to be forgotten.

In these pages, Max Brooks brings Kate's extraordinary account to light for the first time, faithfully reproducing her words alongside his own extensive investigations into…


Book cover of The Moth Diaries

Amanda Desiree Why did I love this book?

Of all the epistolary horror stories I've yet encountered, this is the most bizarre and puzzling, thanks to a disturbed, unreliable, maddening, yet pitiable narrator.

Is the young diarist insane, or is she the only person who can see the truth of what’s happening in her sheltered boarding school? Is the new girl, Ernessa, a vampire? Is Ernessa even real at all? I couldn't tell, but I kept wondering.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery and the experience of trying to determine what was actually going on.

By Rachel Klein,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Moth Diaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Writing in the form of a journal this novel tells the story of odd goings-on in a girls boarding school in the late 1960s. The unnamed narrator is a student at the school, she is intellectual and somewhat aloof and associates with an intense clique of girls. When Dora (one of the strangers) is found dead one night, a tragic accident is at first suspected. But then the rumours begin to circulate about Ernessa, the loner of the group. Is she a bad influence? A spoiled brat? Or is she a vampire?


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The Truth About Unringing Phones

By Lara Lillibridge,

Book cover of The Truth About Unringing Phones

Lara Lillibridge

New book alert!

What is my book about?

When Lara was four years old, her father moved from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of over 4,000 miles. She spent her childhood chasing after him, flying a quarter of the way around the world to tug at the hem of his jacket.

Now that he is in his eighties, she contemplates her obligation to an absentee father. The Truth About Unringing Phones is an exploration of responsibility and culpability told in experimental and fragmented essays.

The Truth About Unringing Phones

By Lara Lillibridge,

What is this book about?

When Lara was four years old, her father moved from Rochester, New York, to Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of over 4,000 miles. She spent her childhood chasing after him, flying a quarter of the way around the world to tug at the hem of his jacket. Now that he is in his eighties, she contemplates her obligation to an absentee father.




The Truth About Unringing Phones: Essays on Yearning is an exploration of responsibility and culpability told in experimental and fragmented essays.


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