Winter brings the major holidays, revelry, and a general sense of coziness to many people around the world. It is also, though, the darkest time of the year, as well as the coldest one. For many of us, it brings isolation and a spiritual darkness, one that often finds its best expression in fictional terrors. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was of course one of the first, and Stephen King, in The Shining and Misery, has written two definitive classics in the sub-genre. Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, which I’ll be covering in the future, is another excellent one. For this list, I’m looking at some of my favorite wintery horror novels, ones that may have slipped your notice.
Several of these stories take place at the North and South Poles, while others explore winter landscapes closer to inhabited areas. Some engage directly with the holidays, but this isn’t a list about those festivities per se. These tales are instead centered on cold and darkness and blizzards and that aforementioned isolation. Monsters, psychopaths, madness, and spatial-temporal abnormalities are the primary villains here, but lurking behind them all is that frigid weather, that reminder of the larger and far colder universe surrounding our little bubbles of warmth.
At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
H. P. Lovecraft
“At the Mountains of Madness” is, strictly speaking, a novella, but Lovecraft crams so much incident into this tale it gives the satisfaction of a longer work. In 1930, a group of scholars explore the relatively newly-discovered continent of Antarctica, where they find fourteen bizarre beings buried in the ice. Soon dubbed the “Elder Things,” these creatures are somewhere between animals and plants, and they may not be quite as dead as the researchers first assume. When catastrophe strikes the expedition, a few of its members make their way even further south, soon coming across a massive and frozen city clearly of pre-human origin. What they find there will challenge not only their powers of survival, but their very understanding of history and humanity’s place on the Earth.
This story, initially inspired by Lovecraft’s fondness for the Edgar Allan Poe short novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” quickly outpaced its predecessor in terms of influence (and, likely, readership). “At the Mountains of Madness” was a clear influence on John Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?” which would go on to inspire The Thing. It’s an epic and chilly story and a must for any cosmic horror fan to read. It will also, fingers crossed, someday serve as the basis for a movie from Guillermo del Toro.
Maynard’s House (1980)
This all-but-forgotten haunted house novel is a great one to read if you’re in the mood for some wintery chills. Austin Fletcher is a traumatized Vietnam War veteran who has inherited a house in rural Maine from one of his fellow soldiers who died in the war. Hoping to find peace and quiet in a new and isolated environment, Fletcher arrives at his new house only to find it is shadowed by an old and disturbing history. Haunted already by PTSD, Fletcher soon is beset by strange experiences, including neighbors who may not actually exist. The novel works an interesting and emotionally resonant vein by moving between Fletcher’s flashbacks and his new home’s mysteries, and has some mind-bending twists awaiting you at the end.
Dean Koontz, when he was at the top of his game, could mix horror, science fiction, and mystery like no one else, and this is easily my favorite novel of his. When Jenny and Lisa Paige return from a trip to the small ski resort town Snowfield, they find almost everyone has vanished. Those who’ve been left behind have all died in strange ways. This modern takeoff on the Roanoke and Mary Celeste mysteries soon turns monstrous, as the women team up with a group of police and find that the force that depopulated Snowfield is by no means done with its work. I won’t say much about the nature of this evil, other than that Koontz was clearly influenced by both H. P. Lovecraft and one chilly eighties horror movie.
In 1998, a film adaptation was released starring Rose McGowan, Ben Affleck, and Peter frickin’ O’Toole. The movie was panned hard when it came out, but I remember being entertained by it, so consider giving it a chance as well if you’re looking for more wintry horror movies.
Midnight Sun (1990)
Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun is almost the polar opposite of Koontz’s Phantoms. Whereas the latter is (after the eerie opening) a fast-paced adventure in which monstrosities reveal themselves in all their icky glory, Midnight Sun is a slow-burn of a novel, more interested in creating a sense of bone-cold atmosphere and disintegrating psychology than in taking you on a rollercoaster ride. Compared to some of the blizzards of horror on this list, this one is a quiet and eerie snowfall wherein you just barely catch sight of something flitting across the white landscape.
Ben Sterling writes books for children, books his wife illustrates. When he inherits the familial home in the village of Stargraves, they move into the old place, hoping for a fresh start. Ben’s great-grandfather was an explorer who long ago visited frigid climes in order to learn the secrets of those who live permanently in the grip of winter. When the elder Sterling came back to England, though, he soon was found frozen to death behind his house, near the local forest. Now, Ben begins to feel the tug of something out there, something that will offer him wonders in return for a small price… This is a novel for those looking for eeriness and suggestion and can bear comparison with the best of Algernon Blackwood.
The Terror (2007)
In a list of novels about winter, this is the one most likely to really make you feel the cold, taking place as it does near the North Pole. Based (in part) on a real story, a tragedy that defined its age, Simmons’s novel is epic in size and character count. In 1845, Captain John Franklin was tasked with finding the “Northwest Passage,” a route along Canada’s northern shores and the islands around there that would allow quicker trade with China and other Asian nations. Franklin’s crew of 129 men and two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, soon vanished, leading to almost 180 years of theorizing and attempts to piece together the story.
In The Terror, Dan Simmons tells that story, from the optimism and enthusiasm that accompanied the expedition’s launch to the grim reality that begins to set in when the ships become icebound. After a year of sheltering from the hideous cold in their ships, the crew meets a new threat, something large and hungry that wanders these frigid lands, something that makes polar bears look like teddy bears.
With a cast of dozens of named characters, all (with one exception) British men, you’d think you’d have a hard time keeping them distinct, but Simmons does a great job gradually distinguishing them, allowing us to see which of them are decent people and which are barely more human than the unseen creature hunting them. Also, check out the limited TV series they made of the novel starring the always awesome Jared Harris.
Dark Matter (2010)
Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter tackles a terrain similar to that of Simmons’s The Terror, but her novel is more intimate, psychological, and lonely. Jack Miller is a poor young guy who in 1937 signs up for an expedition to Spitsbergen, an archipelago far to the North of Norway which until the 1920’s was a sort of Artic Wild West, unclaimed by any one nation. Jack and his crewmates plan on spending a few months in a cabin of their own making while they investigate local conditions, but the expedition soon runs into trouble. Class-conscious Jack, at first uncomfortable with his fellow men, finds worse to be disturbed by when he starts seeing a weird figure around the camp.
Dark Matter is short, cold, and to-the-point. Paver’s major influences here are the two James’s of ghost fiction (Henry James and M. R. James), and she takes their tack in telling a quiet, suggestive story in which far more is suggested than shown. This is a fine and chilly little nightmare, and it also features one goodboi of a husky for those who love literary pups.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016)
Boy, is this a strange novel. A young couple, the narrator and her boyfriend Jake, are making a cross-country trip to see his parents for the holidays. While Jake seems confident of their relationship, she is secretly considering “ending things.” After a memorably bizarre stay with the parents, the two head back out into the snow where a weird fate awaits them both. This may sound banal enough, but throughout the novel odd slippages of character and incident keep intruding, forcing the reader to time and again reassess what’s happening here. A melancholy and surreal tale, it’s best read at something like a single sitting. Readers looking for a straightforward terror story will likely be frustrated, but for those of us who love David Lynch, Robert Aickman, Kelly Link, and that sort of brain-bending, this short novel can provide just the right and pleasurable puzzlement.
Noah Cabot is a merchant seaman on the Arctic Promise, a cargo ship headed toward an oil drilling platform in the Arctic Circle. Noah has recently lost his wife to cancer and her father, the Arctic Promise‘s captain, holds him to blame. As if the tension between the two isn’t bad enough, their ship is suddenly locked in ice and the crew starts coming down with a strange illness. Far off on the frozen sea, the crew can barely make out another structure and, in a last bid at finding help, a few of the seamen set out for it. And that’s when things get really dark…
The Terror, Dark Matter, and Stranded together make a fascinating trilogy of sorts, sharing roughly the same setting and similar initial dangers, but each spins off in their own direction, exploring different sub-genres of horror. I would say more about MacLeod’s tack, but a lot of the fun (and fear) in this novel comes from its surprising turns, so just check it out.
The White Road (2017)
Set in the early days of blogging and Internet video fame, The White Road concerns Simon and his friend Thierry, whose website chronicles Simon’s dangerous and morbid adventures. Simon’s latest ploy is to descend into the Welsh Cwm Pot caves, which have been closed off since a group of spelunkers were lost in its depths. When his grisly quest to find their corpses ends in further tragedy, Simon emerges traumatized and uncertain of his own taste for fame. But the chance to climb Mount Everest and film some of the unrecovered bodies littering the way to the summit draws him into one more adventure. There may be, however, more than novice climbers and corpse-sickles awaiting him in these dizzying heights.
I’ve never wanted to go caving or mountain climbing less than when reading this somber and eerie novel. Both sound like ridiculously dangerous and painful endeavors, and it’s to Lotz’s credit that she conveys real details about both while upping the ante with potentially supernatural threats as well. As with most of her other novels, The White Road manages to be both adventurous and enigmatic.
The Only Good Indians (2020)
Stephen Graham Jones
In this novel, Stephen Graham Jones combines mystery, monsters, and slasher dynamics with an involving story about cultural identity and the persistence of amorphous guilt. 10 years ago, four young Blackfeet men did something terrible, an act that wasn’t only cruel and thoughtless, but that also violated their tribe’s deepest beliefs. Now, one by one, they are going to have to answer for their mistake, as will many of their loved ones. The second half of this tale takes place during one momentous and bloody winter, a winter that will leave you chilled in more ways than one. Will anyone survive this bizarre vengeance, much less understand the fate lowering itself on them?
Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians isn’t his first novel, not by a long shot, but it is the one that’s finally brought attention to this endlessly inventive and lyrical author. Jones isn’t afraid to break his reader’s heart, nor does he shy away from some pretty gnarly horror, but there are further layers of meaning and emotional tone to his writing than this can capture. If you’ve read this one already, check out his back-catalogue of twenty+ novels and collections. Believe the hype: Jones is here to stay.