The 30 Best Horror Books of All Time

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Ghost Story


Peter Straub
1979

Stephen King declared Ghost Story the finest in its genre in 1981 with the non-fiction horror critique, Danse Macabre, and for that reason, 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. Tyler Kane

Girl Next Door


Jack Ketchum
1989

Ketchum's twisted tale of under-your-nose terror got some extra attention in 2007, when a limited-run feature film brought the story back into the horror conversation. The novel, which is based on the Indiana murder case of Sylvia Likens, follows single mother, alcoholic and next-door neighbor Ruth, who takes in two nieces after their parents die in a car accident. Ruth's rapidly deteriorating state creates a hellish environment for the nieces and her own kids alike, and The Girl Next Door will make you think twice, thrice—Hell, probably forever—about handing your kids off to anyone. Tyler Kane

Haunted


Chuck Palahniuk
2005

There's a reason people fainted during Chuck Palahniuk's "Guts" readings. The story, which told tales of sexual adventures gone wrong in vivid detail, also pushed readers forward at an unstoppable pace—to the point where they arrive at phrases like "piss slit of his boner" and "pearl diving," stopping isn't an option. In the early 2000s, however, fainting seemed to be the only way out of "Guts," one of Haunted's many stories that were paced too fast to unread. Though he's told tales of satiric horror recently with Doomed, Palahniuk's roots are in the eerie and grotesque. And Haunted, a short story collection that pulls together more like a novel, is the Northwest writer at his horrific best. Tyler Kane

Haunting of Hill House


Shirley Jackson
1959

If you go by the consensus of the literary community, Haunting of Hill House isn't only a book that revolutionized the modern ghost story—it's also the best. Shirley Jackson's chilling, lean haunted house tale follows Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator and Eleanor Vance, a young woman with a bit of a knack for that whole paranormal thing. With the help of a young artist named Theodora and Hill House heir Luke Sanderson, the three examine the old mansion—a cold, labyrinthine home. The rooms seem to shift, the architecture makes no sense, and without the ghosts—and oh, there are ghosts—it's creepy by itself. But the heart of Hill House 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. Tyler Kane

Heart Shaped Box


Joe Hill
2007

An over-the-hill rock star buys a haunted suit on the Internet. It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, not the plot of one of horror fiction's most important debut novels of the last decade, but Joe Hill throttles into his premise and never lets up. While Horns is fast and punchy and NOS4A2 is sprawling and darkly fantastical, Heart Shaped Box is like a long motorcycle ride straight into despair. Judas Coyne, Hill's Rob-Halford-meets-Glenn-Danzig protagonist, confronts both a sinister spirit and the intersection of his own myth and humanity, joined by his two loyal hounds and the latest in a string of female groupies named after their states of origin. Eight years and several major works from Hill later, it's clear that this chilling debut wasn't a fluke. Steve Foxe

Horns


Joe Hill
2010

Most heavy drinkers have regret-filled mornings, but most don't get them as bad as Ignatius "Ig" Perrish. Joe Hill's second novel, Horns, tells the story of Ig's discovery of—what else?—horns growing out of his head. And with them, he's been granted some other-worldly power that inspire an uncomfortable version of honesty, one he utilizes to uncover what really happened to his one true love, Merrin. Horns is part absurdist comedy, part romance, part terrifying, but it's worth a read just to see Hill's cleverly placed puzzle of a novel come together. Tyler Kane

House of Leaves


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… Steve Foxe

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream


Harlan Ellison
1967

Those waiting around for forthcoming post-apocalyptic stories: the past has a few gems, too. Take Harlan Ellison's terrifying I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Though it blurs the line between sci-fi and horror, combining both visions of a computerized cold war and one man's struggle to deal with the fallout, Ellison's tale is rooted more in terror than looking toward technology with a cautionary eye. It follows three AMs—first called "Allied Mastercomputer"—as they control a three-country cold war. After one AM absorbs the other two, the computers wipe out all human existence, save four men and one women. When the protagonist, Ted, realizes AM's sole purpose for keeping the remaining humans alive is torture, he murders the remaining survivors, but before he can execute himself, he's sentenced to a punishment worse than death. Spoiler alert: Don't read the title. Tyler Kane

It


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, the ability to make an entire town forget about the atrocities it commits. 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. Jim Vorel

John Dies at the End


David Wong
2007

A rollercoaster of weird, sprung from a hallucinogenic (and possibly demonic) drug known as soy sauce and written in bracing, punchy style shooting swift sentences, often sliced to seven words or less, and stung with spicy diction detailing psychedelic imagery and delivered with sustained breathlessness. Something of a punk-rock-ified, video-game-esque tear and tumble into the Weird Tales tradition, Wong (aka humorist Jason Pargin, of Cracked.com), charismatically clusters together a hip and highly evocative narrative of monstrosities, with plenty of barbs any 17-year-old could snigger at… Think of it as the horror-heavier cousin to Ready Player One. Jeff Milo