The 21 Best Horror Books of the 21st Century

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The 21 Best Horror Books of the 21st Century

Last year, Paste brought you our picks for the 30 best horror novels of all time, but let’s be real: not everyone wants to read the dense prose of Dracula and Frankenstein in 2016 (even if the classics are totally worth reading). And with legendary scribes including Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson casting their immense shadows, throwing out such a wide net often results in passing over more recent gems in favor of time-tested standards.

With that in mind, Paste is proud to present our picks for the 21 best horror novels of the 21st century, just in time for Halloween reading. It’s worth acknowledging that the list is very white and very male—while authors like Alyssa Wong and Emily Carroll are tearing up the short fiction and comic worlds, the novel-length arm of the genre appears slow to diversify. We hope that the next roundup we compile will more fully represent the genre’s passionate readership. With that in mind, click through the gallery* for the best house-haunting, serial-killing, spine-chilling horror of the new millennium.

*The books are listed in alphabetical order by title.

My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix


2016

Grady Hendrix is building a brand: gimmicky on the outside, surprisingly scary on the inside. Horrorstör, his 2014 horror breakthrough, plopped readers into a haunted faux-IKEA full of torture instruments—beyond what the real-life stores already stock. His follow-up, My Best Friend's Exorcism, dials back the meta-factor; aside from the yearbook-style packaging, this tale of '80s gal pals dealing with a demonic intrusion could easily a have been a paperback original during horror's boom period—and that's a compliment. Abby and Gretchen are best friends for life on the eve of the first Bush presidency…until Gretchen gets lost in the woods and comes back different. Abby, already an outcast in her swank private school, faces as much peer pressure as she does pea soup in her quest to cleanse her best friend's soul. —Steve Foxe

Bird Box by Josh Malerman


2015

With your eyes closed and your imagination unfettered, you can envision creatures whose monstrosity knows no bounds. Detroit-based author Josh Malerman manifests an apocalypse of the obscured in Bird Box, in which undiscovered entities start appearing around the world and just one glance of their grotesquery drives people to suicide. In the book's unforgettable introduction, our protagonist travels down a river with black fabric knotted around her eyes, shepherding two similarly blinded four-year-olds, rowing their way to an uncertain sanctuary while any sound they hear could very well be one of these monsters sloshing ever closer to the bow of the boat. —Jeff Milo

A Choir of Ill Children by Tom Piccirilli


2003

The titular phrase "a choir of ill children" is used four or five times throughout the late Tom Piccirilli's haunting Southern Gothic, first in reference to the off-kilter musicality of protagonist Thomas' three brothers (conjoined at the head) speaking in unison. Thomas, the heir of Kingdom Come's most prosperous family line, enjoys an equal mix of fear and respect in town, from the granny witches in the swamps to the compulsively nude preacher's son to the sheriff nursing a mighty Napoleon complex. If that sounds comedic, that's because there is a perverted sense of dark humor punctuating the novel's scenes of shocking violence and grotesquery. Like the great Michael McDowell and Karen Russell, Piccirilli mines his southern setting for the full range of the region's complicated, messy magic. —Steve Foxe

Coraline by Neil Gaiman


2002

You've got to hand it to Neil Gaiman: he excels when it comes to assembling an enticing fantasy/adventure lark that turns dark. This modern day Alice In Wonderland starts out quite charming, with the precocious Coraline Jones and her parents moving into a mansion full of quirky flat-mates and a talking cat. But the stakes rise when a monstrous entity masquerading as Coraline's mother kidnaps the girl's real parents, leaving Coraline to rely on the assistance of eerie allies in the ghosts of children ensnared by the spell of "Other-Mother." The grotesquery levels peak particularly high on the scare-o-meter for horror fans when Coraline has to figure out (and eventually fight) her way to conquering this intensely fearsome foe. —Jeff Milo

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle


2012

Victor LaValle cites Shirley Jackson as an influence, and that lineage is easy to identify in this literary piece that's as much about institutional failings as it is about the bison-headed devil wandering the halls of a mental institution. Pepper, the novel's protagonist, can't quite recall the crime he (supposedly) committed, but he knows he was only supposed to be held in New Hyde Hospital for a few days at most. LaValle wrings dread out of Pepper and his fellow inmates' helplessness, sticking to Jackson's level of unease instead of attempting all-out terror. By the end, the reality of the titular devil is almost ancillary to the horror that's been revealed. —Steve Foxe

Fellside by M.R. Carey


2016

M.R. Carey—better known to comic readers as former Lucifer and X-Men scribe Mike Carey—is poised to gain legions of new fans once the film adaptation of his praised The Girl With All the Gifts hits stateside. The novel, which puts a new spin on [mild spoiler] the zombie genre, is stellar, but not as genuinely scary as his follow-up, Fellside. The elevator pitch is "Orange is the New Black with a ghost," but Carey lives up to his initialed namesake M.R. James in constructing the haunting, near-gothic atmosphere of a British women's penitentiary inhabited by more than the living. For Jess Moulson, accused child-killer, the ghost may be her only ally in a fight for survival against the prison's more aggressive residents—and her quest to do right by the spirit layers on surprising twists until the very end. —Steve Foxe

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay


2015

In this Bram Stoker Award-winning tale, author Paul Tremblay (whose next outing, Disappearance at Devil's Rock, is absolutely chilling if a bit baffling at the very end) manages to both examine the possession subgenre and break new ground with its tired tropes. Fourteen-year-old Marjorie Barrett starts displaying signs of schizophrenia, or maybe it's just teenage rebellion…or maybe it's something more. Before long, Marjorie's out-of-work father agrees to let a reality-TV crew film an attempt to exorcise his daughter's demons. Cutting between the events of the show and an interview with Marjorie's younger sister, filmed 15 years after the show's conclusion, Tremblay walks a razor-thin edge between confirming and denying which forces are actually at play within Marjorie's head, keeping readers guessing well after the final page is turned. —Steve Foxe

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill


2007

Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box remains one of the most startling horror debuts in recent memory, announcing the arrival of an all-time great scaremonger. The premise should be grounds for immediate ridicule—a past-his-prime rock star orders a ghost off of eBay—but Hill shapes the laughable pitch into a breakneck tale of terror. Judas Coyne is the rare horror protagonist that grows more likable as he fights to survive, reckoning not only with a chilling spectre but also with his own checkered past. —Steve Foxe

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski


2000

Arriving at the turn of the new millennium, House of Leaves seemed, for a brief moment, to herald a new dominion of horror, told in nesting stories with footnotes, endnotes, sections in code, colored clues in the text and other formal experiments. Author Mark Z. Danielewski has apparently moved on to more impenetrable works, though, and few have taken up his complicated call to arms. But if you take the time to cut through the Infinite Jest-like structure of Danielewski's doorstopper, you'll be rewarded with a legitimately unsettling premise: the family in the story within the story has moved into a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. What slowly unravels from this disconcerting discovery makes for a disturbing—and literal—descent. —Steve Foxe

John Dies at the End by David Wong


2009

Horror and comedy make for frequent yet not always compatible bedfellows, with the latter genre often hogging the pillows. David Wong's John Dies at the End combines Cronenbergian disgust with stoner humor as the titular John and his bud Dave discover Soy Sauce, a drug that exposes its users to a parallel dimension. Wong, who cut his teeth writing for Cracked.com under his real name, never loses sight of the horror side of the equation, ratcheting up the gonzo comedy to make the existential dread all the more pervasive. The sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It, makes for a fun follow-up, especially if you're a fan of zombie media. —Steve Foxe