'salem's Lot, by Stephen King
The perfect Halloween novel, even though the bulk of it is set during September. Autumn marks the death of the year in my eyes (with winter as its burial), and so it's fitting that a book depicting the gradual, cancerous death of a town should be set in the fall. Stephen King's second novel and still one of his finest, 'salem's Lot is maybe the greatest vampire story ever written, both paying homage to and improving upon Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Novelist Ben Mears returns to the remote Maine village he called home for a brief period in his childhood--a period marked by a traumatic occurrence he hopes to call upon again as inspiration for his next work. Unbeknownst to him and most of the town's population, a centuries-old vampire has made Jersalem's Lot his new haven, leading to a rash of disappearances and unholy conversions. The efficiency with which King depicts the vampires taking over the town is nothing short of unnerving, and it all builds to one of the best, tightest climaxes in a work of horror. I make a point of reading this every October and it'll likely remain a tradition for a long time.
The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Please ignore the awkwardly PhotoShopped cover. Though the above image makes Kiernan's novel out to be a work of erotic fantasy, The Red Tree is in fact a marvelous haunted house story. Writer Sarah Crowe (seeing a pattern here?), recovering from the death of her girlfriend, rents an old farmhouse in the Rhode Island woods. While trying to overcome her partially grief-inspired writer's block, Sarah is prompted by the discovery of a professor's manuscript to look into the bloody history of the house and its grounds, in particular the red oak whose position relative to the house seems to defy geometry.
There aren't any huge scares in The Red Tree, nor is there anything significantly disturbing. Rather, Kiernan drives the book--and the reader's attention--forward through the use of uncanny atmosphere, needling you with the idea that there's something implacably but nevertheless very wrong about the old farmhouse. The resolution, while understated, is downright unsettling. Subtle horror at its finest.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Straddling the line between horror and adolescent fantasy, the late Bradbury's 1962 novel explores nostalgia, youth, aging and belief in a way that, while not overtly scary for kids, might be found disquieting for adults. It depicts the arrival of a strange, fantastical carnival in a Midwestern town, heralding Halloween a week before the 31st. It attracts best friends Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, as well as Will's much-older father Charles, but a brief visit reveals the carnival's sinister nature.
Something Wicked is just a great book for this time of year, even ignoring its actual October setting and references to Halloween. You'll have to read it to see what I'm getting at, but it embodies the concept of "trick or treat," of disguising oneself for the season, pretending to be something you're not and believing it. It's an old book, but in spite of its age strangely doesn't feel dated.