25. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
Were this list inclusive of short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The October Country would be a serious contender for the top spot. Something Wicked This Way Comes doesn’t rank quite as high, but still embodies what makes Bradbury so influential in the world of the dark fantastic. It’s hard to imagine Neil Gaiman or Stephen King having their current careers had Bradbury not paved the way with his deeply human, quietly terrifying brand of horror, and Something Wicked, like so many of King and Gaiman’s best-loved works, also deals in that particular childhood fear of growing older and away from youthful innocence. A traveling carnival brings tempting delights and sinister frights, and readers young and old should find this one to be a timeless autumnal classic.
24. The Terror by Dan Simmons (2007)
From Song of Kali and Carrion Comfort to a host of sci-fi classics, Dan Simmons is no stranger to lengthy literary outings. The last decade or so found the author hitting his stride with immersive historical horror fiction, the best of which is the story of the HMS Terror’s failed search for the Northwest Passage. While most of the horrors awaiting the ship’s crew are all-too-real—shrinking rations, scurvy, bitter cold—there’s a looming supernatural presence driving the survivors farther from civilization and any hope of rescue. Don’t wimp out of reading this in favor of the AMC television series—Simmons is a long-time genre master finding new ways to reinvent himself each decade.
23. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
It’s hard to downplay the horrors that hide inside Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Ellis received hate mail, death threats and became the subject of immense criticism after serial killer Paul Bernardo was found with a copy of the book. And it’s understandable why the book was a bit, uh, shocking in the ‘90s. Ellis’ twisted satire of upper-class living played out much like Less Than Zero, another tale of hyper-wealthy individuals searching aimlessly for something in a world where everything was handed to them. In Patrick Bateman’s case, a Wall Street yuppie finds murder as his escape. He tortures a homeless man. Breaks a dog’s legs. At one point, he gets his hands on a chainsaw. For some, it may seem like senseless violence for nothing—but the whole tale is a deep delve into Ellis’ own alienation and madness in the late ‘80s. And years later, it’s also a pretty good satire that looks toward the one percent.
22. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988)
It’s a little odd getting around The Silence of the Lambs’ third-person present tense: “Starling looks down the corridor,” etc., but once you get used to it, it’s a device that ends up perfectly suiting the novel. The narrator’s impartial voice floats above the proceedings, never siding with one character or settling exclusively onto their perspective—at times, the third-person narration gives us glimpses into the minds of Clarice Starling, Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. What the novel also does particularly well is make us probe into the motivations and ambition of Starling, going beyond her desire to simply help people and catch a killer. Opposed at nearly every turn by the institutional roadblocks erected in the path of female FBI trainees, the reader can sense the desperation of Starling and her borderline selfish desire to stand out and prove herself to her entirely male superiors. You can also sense this is part of the reason that Lecter takes an interest in her, finding her ambitions an interesting character trait that he can use to wrap Starling around his finger. This is actually one of the cases where it’s helpful to have seen the film in advance, because you can read Lecter’s dialogue and imagine it being delivered by Sir Anthony Hopkins. That’s a damn good combination to make for a compelling reading experience.
21. Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
By the time Pet Sematary was published in 1983, a mythology had grown around it. Rumors among King’s fans suggested that the book was too frightening to publish, the sort of death-saturated manuscript you had to read wearing rubber gloves. There was some truth to this. When a cat belonging to his daughter was killed on the busy truck route in front of his house, King wondered: what would happen if he buried the cat, and three days later it came back, somewhat altered? And what if a child were killed, too, then came back changed (and not for the better)? In the novel, doctor Louis Creed takes a job at the University of Maine Infirmary and moves his wife, daughter and two-year-old son Gage into a house by a busy interstate. The highway soon consumes his daughter’s cat and later his son. But the permanency of death is a hard lesson for a parent to learn, and when Creed interferes with the natural order, fate slams him tenfold with retribution. King once wrote that horror writers are afraid to open the door all the way and show the monster’s face. In Pet Sematary King swings it wide. Beyond? The darkness and the dim shape of Oz, the great and terrible, awaits.
20. Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971)
Richard Matheson is perhaps better known for an earlier work, the sci-fi/horror I Am Legend, which has been repeatedly butchered on film under various names. Hell House gets the nod on this list because it is a purer distillation of Matheson’s horror approach, and an exemplary use of the haunted house—a theme that occupies at least 10% of this list. The researchers who enter Matheson’s “most haunted house in the world” find themselves subjected not only to supernatural perversions, but to attacks on their own sanity. By the final page, no title short of Hell House will feel appropriate.
19. The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
Stephen King’s magnum opus nearly didn’t make this countdown, fitting, as it does, more neatly into post-apocalyptic fiction or fantasy. At over 800 pages (more, if you’re reading the uncut edition), The Stand includes as much horror as any of King’s other novels, spurred by a viral outbreak that kills off 99.4% of the population. World-ending scenarios were on everyone’s minds in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as global tensions escalated and means of mass destruction proliferated. King isn’t content to simply explore a post-pandemic wasteland, though; The Stand is his most epic standoff between good and evil, the latter concept embodied by Randall Flagg, a recurring antagonist of King’s who becomes essential to the sprawling Dark Tower saga. Knowledge of that series isn’t necessary to undertake The Stand—just a month or so of dedicated reading time, and a hearty resistance to nightmares.
18. Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon (1987)
Robert R. McCammon was one of the most successful and prolific horror authors of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, before an editorial dispute prompted him to take a decade-long hiatus from writing. Swan Song, which tied with Stephen King’s Misery for a Bram Stoker Award for best novel, is a 960-page magnum opus of apocalyptic fiction that feels a bit too familiar in 2018. As the novel opens, various countries have already obliterated themselves in nuclear fire, and the United States and Russia are locked in a tensely escalating standoff. Once the bombs begin to fall, McCammon follows several motley bands of survivors, including “Swan,” a young girl who may have restorative powers necessary for mankind to emerge from the nuclear winter. Although not as widely read as King’s The Stand, Swan Song is one of the finest examples of apocalyptic fiction (even if it hits too close to home today).
17. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979)
declared Ghost Story the finest in its genre in 1981 with the non-fiction horror critique, Danse Macabre, which, as we’ve established, is high praise indeed. Peter Straub’s best-known piece isn’t as simple as its title lets on. Sure, we’ve all heard ghost stories, but this multi-layered story of paranormal revenge, told from the point of view of four aging men who kill time by trading ghost tales, under-promises and over-delivers. Though it took years for Straub to arrive at supernatural tales, Ghost Story will be remembered as his first critical success—not to mention his most beloved work.
16. Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
In an episode of Louie, the now-disgraced comedian declines carrying his daughter’s heavy backpack, explaining, “I would never take your burden. Struggling is how you get stronger.” Neil Gaiman was probably thinking similar things when he wrote Coraline, an insidious middle-grade masterpiece with the power to unsettle any generation. The titular Coraline, a plucky youth bored of her hyper-domestic parents, assumes the modern incarnation of Alice, crossing the looking glass into a far less hospitable wonderland. This surreal reflection houses a terrible queen, the Other Mother, who concocts a superficial world where young Coraline’s every wish is indulged. The downside? She may have to sew buttons over her eyes before sacrificing her soul. This novel dives into far darker, less whimsical depths than Henry Selick’s wonderful stop-motion film adaptation. Gaiman seamlessly crafts a reality that’s the antithesis of maternal love: cold, isolating, parasitic and directionless. It’s a grand, ornate adventure that wears its horror on its sleeve. Even better? Coraline arms parents with a anecdotal warhead for when their kids take them for granted.
15. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons (1989)
Possession tales are terrifying for a specific reason. With some of our most famous horror stories—ones that follow knife-wielding masked madmen, houses that consume humans, scorned telekinetic teens—the victim, even in death, retains control of his or her own mind. The same can’t be said for the dead in Dan Simmons’ 1989 classic, Carrion Comfort, a super-thick read that begins in ’40s concentration camps and travels through the decades with three old-age “mind vampires.” No, Carrion Comfort is a different kind of mindfuck—its antagonists don’t simply possess. They use the human mind to feed, prolonging their own lives at the expense of others. The 700-plus page epic is a beast to power through, but it’s a fresh take on two different tried-and-true horror tales.
14. Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (2014)
With 2011’s The Shining Girls and 2014’s Broken Monsters, South African novelist Lauren Beukes has established herself as a master of the horror/thriller. It’s tough to pick between the two novels, but Broken Monsters’ Detroit setting, outsider artist serial killer (Hannibal and True Detective fans will feel right at home), and unexplained otherworldly threat just barely edges out The Shining Girls’ impressive time-travel continuity. In both outings, Beukes masterfully rotates perspectives, slowly filling in a complete picture of the atrocities men will commit when given a push by a malevolent force. Where The Shining Girls focused more on one resilient survivor, Broken Monsters spreads its narrative love a little more evenly, finding a handful of struggling heroes eking out a living in America’s most emblematic capitalist failure. Beukes rejects easy “ruin porn,” though, refusing to reduce Detroit to a grimy background for elaborate murders. With its impeccably researched setting and its unflinching look at evils both known and unknown, Broken Monsters is the best work yet from a young horror writer to watch.
13. The Elementals by Michael McDowell (1981)
Michael McDowell’s recently recovered horror classic doesn’t feature explicitly queer characters, but his saga of the McCray and Savage families—and the sandy spirit that haunts their Victorian beach houses—is pure self-aware Southern Gothic through his singular gay voice. It possesses enough camp to nod at fellow friends of Dorothy and enough chills to titillate any scare-junkie. McDowell is best remembered as the screenwriter behind Beetlejuice, and he was celebrated by the likes of Stephen King before his early death from AIDS-related illness in 1999. With its sun-bleached setting, The Elementals is a sweltering read for horror fans and a potent reminder of the generation of talent lost to the AIDS epidemic.
12. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
The Dracula tale is possibly the most-embedded horror story in American culture, and if Let the Right One In, True Blood and the Twilight series are any indication, the classic vampire tale is still alive and well in the pop culture realm. Stoker didn’t invent the vampire in fiction—that was John Polidori in 1819, with The Vampyre. But Stoker’s Dracula molded the vampire story into the tales we know today, which blend gore, horror and romance in a neat, red velvet-covered package. Stoker’s Dracula was a critical success, but it’d be decades—and Stoker’s own death—before it’d prowl its way into culture as we recognize it today.
11. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
We owe Ira Levin and Rosemary’s Baby a great debt. Arriving in 1967, Rosemary’s Baby is often cited as the first major spark that ignited the horror boom, giving rise to most of the other titles on this list. If you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s film, then you know the story well: a young couple moves into a new apartment building, and there’s more to the kindly old neighbors than one might assume. Rosemary’s going to have a baby, you see, and everyone is very excited for the new arrival. Polanski’s adaptation doesn’t stray far from Levin’s source material, but it’s worth doubling back to the novel that quite possibly started it all.
10. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
Are two immaculate little children possessed by their former caretakers? Or is the kids’ current ward simply going batshit bonkers? Henry James posed this question in his 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, and like some literary Mona Lisa smile, any attempts to excavate its truth have just sprung more debate. This story within a story within a story relays a nameless host’s discovery of a manuscript about a poor woman hired to watch two bizarre adolescents. One of the kids, the young Miles, has been expelled from his school for unexplained reasons, save that he’s “an injury to the others.” And then the governess learns that the woman she’s replaced, Miss Jessel, got freaky with a farmhand, Peter Quint, before the pair shuffled off their respective mortal coils. What’s scarier than ghouls that prey on the innocent? Inter-class sexual shenanigans. Produced at the tail end of the Victorian era, a few of these themes are far more transparent then the alleged ghosts that embody them: passionate sex is bad news, especially if a lower-rung manual worker seduces you into his literal and metaphorical barnyard. Indeed, The Turn of the Screw unintentionally advertises its most sensual points of conflict. Everything else here suffocates the reader in creeping, ambiguous tension. Whether rural ghosts corrupted the innocent or not, we’re ultimately left with (117-year-old spoiler alert) a confused woman holding a small child’s lifeless body.
9. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975)
Carrie was an explosive start, but Stephen King’s second published novel best forecasted what to expect from the horror genre’s most outstanding author. Praised upon release as “Peyton Place meets Dracula,” a reference that only half-makes sense to most modern readers, ‘Salem’s Lot brought the vampire myth into the backyards of semi-rural Americans, and found King at his most ruthless; characters you come to love will meet grisly ends. Amusingly, the novel also features the first of King’s many writer protagonists. King sold ‘Salem’s Lot for an outstanding sum by today’s standards, let alone 1975’s, and never let up from there. This year’s The Outsider even touches upon some of the same themes, to chilling effect.
8. The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
For most modern readers, legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s stay at the Overlook Hotel looms large over Stephen King’s original novel. Nearly all of the moments lodged in the public consciousness—everything you’ve seen parodied on The Simpsons—are only in the film: the elevator of blood, the ghoulish twin girls, the typewriter, “Here’s Johnny!” Pushing past these iconic bits of pop culture reveals one of King’s greatest accomplishments, a hauntingly compelling look at a troubled man’s descent into madness. King’s novel is more sympathetic toward Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic writer (sound familiar?) trying to improve his family’s life by taking a job as caretaker of a remote off-season resort with a barely concealed violent history. The house wants Danny, Jack’s gifted young son, and puts the Torrance family through hell to get to him. King infamously hates Kubrick’s adaptation, and while it’s hard to debate the film’s quality or place in the horror movie pantheon, the novel is the more nuanced and, arguably, scarier version of the story, topiary monsters and all.
7. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (2013)
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.
6. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
The story within a story in House of Leaves would have been unsettling enough: a family moves into a house and slowly discovers that the inside is somehow larger than the outside. But Mark Z. Danielewski’s ambitions are much, much higher. House of Leaves is told in myriad ways, including layers of footnotes, sections with color-blocked words, fake interviews with real celebrities and passages that require you to transcribe the first letter of each sentence to reveal another chapter hidden within. The mounting terror of the Navidson family is all embedded within the story of a young tattoo artist losing his grip on reality. “Lovecraftian” has become shorthand for tentacles and elder gods, but Danielewski’s debut novel nails a different component of the genre grandfather’s legacy: true madness. The labyrinthine structure of this tome (over 700 pages) constantly calls into question the sanity of not just the protagonists, but of the person flipping the pages, too. House of Leaves isn’t a David Foster Wallace-level challenge for readers, but it does require an investment—and entanglement—that some may be too scared to allow, for fear that they might start hearing a growling in the walls, too.
5. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
Frankenstein isn’t just an iconic horror novel; it’s a complete shift in perspective of what horror is and can be. Hanging with her pals in Switzerland’s Villa Diodati, a teenaged Mary Shelley conceived a fatally ambitious scientist committed to creating new life. Victor Frankenstein accomplishes his goal, synthesizing a lumbering, grotesque humanoid. This book brings the word monster under the strictest of scrutinies: the protagonist abandons his unconventional child, leaving it to stumble blindly through the world searching for its surrogate “father.” Who’s the real villain? The walking, talking science miracle feels, loves and suffers the abhorrent reactions of an uncaring humanity. We the reader have a new thing to fear: ourselves. We are the horror. We create our own monsters. And, like the Prometheus referenced in the secondary title, we burn in the flames we ignite. Frankenstein’s legacy can be felt centuries later. Just watch a neglected, misshapen child pushed to the bottom of a lake evolve into a vengeful teenager dismemberment machine, and Friday the 13th takes on a whole new flavor after reading this terrifying trailblazer.
4. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)
William Peter Blatty is better known today for the Academy Award-winning screenplay he adapted from his own novel than for the original text itself. Unlike The Shining, the film never diverges too widely from the source material, but that shouldn’t keep horror fans from picking up the novel. Blatty’s text has the time and space to better establish all of its key players, specifically Father Damien Karras, layering on the dread long before the pea soup starts flying. In a film full of movie magic, it’s still possible to close your eyes or look away. In the novel, Blatty asks the reader to imagine truly horrific things, and the depths of human imagination will always be a scarier place than a film editing room.
3. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)
If fiction’s taught us anything in recent years, it’s that the vampire genre can be a tired—and ironically toothless—one. But Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist breathed new life into the eternally overdone tale with his debut novel, Let the Right One In, which tells the story of a bullied grade-school student named Oskar and his new friend and neighbor, Eli. Eli is brilliant, deathly pale—not to mention dirty and smelly. She only comes out at night, but more than anything, she’s a pillar of support to lonely Oskar. Maybe there’s blood, gore, KISS songs and acidic solutions that give this story its horrific edge, but at its, core Lindqvist penned a stirring tale of love and acceptance at the confusing phase that is (sometimes eternal) puberty.
2. It by Stephen King (1986)
Of all the King books revolving around plucky kids, these might be the pluckiest, most iconic and possibly the most annoying. The protagonists are a collection of fairly broad stereotypes (geek, fat kid, sickly kid, “the girl,” etc.), painted in an all-encompassing pastiche of ‘50s American life, but in the end that’s really the point. King remains and has always been obsessed with the turbulent years of early adolescence. The titular “IT,” on the other hand, is probably King’s most enduring and iconic monster, an interdimensional being of pure malevolence and alien mindset that seems so much simpler on the surface. An evil clown that kills kids? That could at least be dealt with in ways accessible to adults. Fighting the actual evil of It is a much trickier proposition, one that depends upon a perfect blend of mysticism and childhood faith necessary to overcome It’s greatest weapons: fear and entropy, and the ability to make an entire town forget about the atrocities it commits and allows. The ending of It is occasionally cited as its weak point, but it’s a big, fat novel that is far more about a journey, both in the ‘50s and ‘80s, and the horrifying visions suffered along the way.
1. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” These are the legendary opening words of The Haunting of Hill House, our pick for the best—and best-written—horror novel of all time. Shirley Jackson’s chilling, lean haunted house tale follows Eleanor Vance, a young woman with a bit of a sensitivity for the paranormal. Along with Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator, a young artist named Theodora and Hill House heir Luke Sanderson, Eleanor examines the cold, labyrinthine old mansion. The rooms seem to shift, the architecture makes no sense, and even without the ghosts—and oh, there are quite likely ghosts—it’s an unsettling visit. But the heart of the mansion isn’t necessarily the terror drummed up within its walls. What’s most troubling is its ultimate effect on the young Eleanor, whose steadily declining mental state hits a dead end behind the gates of Hill House in one of the most perfect conclusions in all of horror fiction.
—Tyler Kane & Steve Foxe