The 30 Best Horror Books of All Time

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The 30 Best Horror Books of All Time

So, maybe it’s April. But horror is a genre that transcends season—one that’s only amplified in spookiness when the leaves start turning. Last winter, I battled Michigan’s sub-zero temps with The Shining (the book, and the residents of The Overlook, sympathized…) I drew up some summer night sweats with Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted—and never looked at candle wax the same way again. And right now, I’m working my way through a puzzling, claustrophobic read during the spring. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is currently straining my brain.

And while horror is a genre some casual readers write off, any good horror novelist will tell you the root of our most terrifying scenarios rests deep within the mind. The scares within the next 30 books? They’ll stick with you longer than any knee-jerk gag you’ll see in the theater this summer. Yeah—even if it’s in 3D.

We’ve all got different favorites, so we’d love to hear yours in the comments section below. Oh—and sleep tight in the next few months.

American Psycho


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, both tales 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 1 percent. Tyler Kane

The Amityville Horror


Jay Anson
1977

After years of controversy, Pocket Star books might not publish The Amityville Horror with its former tag, A True Story. But if you ignore the lawsuits that surround the book, a terrifying story remains. Anson's Amityville follows George and Kathy Lutz's family, who—and this is a ghost story red flag No. 1, guys—bought a six-bedroom home at a bargain price. There's a catch—there always is, with these spooky houses—and as it turns out, the house was the scene of horrific crimes. The story is engrained in the American mind from here: the Lutz's daughter develops an imaginary friend. George starts waking up at 3:15 a.m. most nights. They've got an awful lot of flies for late December, too. Readers will recognize that The Amityville Horror set the template for a new generation of haunted house stories for a reason. Tyler Kane

Books of Blood (Vol. 1-3)


Clive Barker
1984

These collections of short stories are what launched Clive Barker into superstardom in the world of fantasy/horror fiction, and they're very much an accurate sampling of the guy's aesthetic, particularly his obsession with dualities: pain and pleasure/physical and intangible/fantasy and reality. Many of the stories here have been adapted into feature films of varying qualities, from "Rawhead Rex" to "Candyman" to "The Midnight Meat Train." For whatever reason, though, the one that always stuck with me is a feverish story called "In the Hills, The Cities." In it, a pair of lovers are on vacation in a remote, uncharted rural area of Yugoslavia when they blunder into a confrontation/ritual between two cities where the citizens of both cities bind themselves together to form massive, communal giant creatures. This time, however, something goes wrong, causing one giant to fall and kill the thousands of people who have been lashed together. The other "giant" goes collectively insane at witnessing the carnage and goes on a path of destruction. It's a story filled with Barker's truly disturbing imagery and penchant for uncomfortably physical details. His fiction always appears to be coming from a guy who has spent entirely too much time in a charnel house. Jim Vorel

Broken Monsters


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 from a young horror writer to watch. Steve Foxe

Carrion Comfort


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. Tyler Kane

Coraline


Neil Gaiman
2002

In a recent episode of Louie, the neurotic everyman 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 YA 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. Sean Edgar

The Damnation Game


Clive Barker
1985

The Damnation Game proved that Books of Blood wunderkind Clive Barker could sustain his brand of fear beyond the duration of a short story. Barker's most compelling skill—the ability to blend lust and revulsion, desire and disgust—is on full display. In this depraved galleria of a novel, with graphic depictions of incest and cannibalism, an in-over-his-head bodyguard attempts to interfere a Faustian pact to save the relatively innocent daughter of a wealthy degenerate. After the first few years of his career, Barker more often delved into dark fantasy than straight-up horror. The Damnation Game, published between Barker's debut short story collection and the fatefully successful novella The Hellbound Heart, is still the purest long-form expression of the man's penchant for plunging the darkest corners of the human imagination. Steve Foxe

Dracula


Bram Stoker
1897

The Dracula tale is possibly 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. Tyler Kane

The Exorcist


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. Steve Foxe

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus


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 teenage 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 its 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. Sean Edgar