The 30 Best Horror Books of All Time

Books Galleries
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Let the Right One In


John Ajvide Lindqvist
2004

If fiction's taught us anything in recent years, it's that the vampire genre is a tired 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 puberty. Tyler Kane

Little Star


John Ajvide Lindqvist
2011

It's hard not to feel a bit bad for Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. Despite two stellar film adaptations of his vampire novel Let the Right One In, Stephen King comparisons take up more real estate on his American book covers than does his own name. With shades of Carrie, 2010's Little Star does little to dissuade that similarity. Two young girls, one extraordinary and one suffocating under her own feelings of mediocrity, connect online and form a friendship that will have terrible consequences. Lindqvist taps into the modern day fears that drive adolescent anxiety—less locker room, more Internet comment section—and stretches them out to their most disturbing logical conclusion. Despite a suggestion of the supernatural, it is the violence committed by very ordinary young people that will stick with you long after you've finished Little Star. Steve Foxe

The Complete H.P. Lovecraft


I remember that when I first started reading Lovecraft in high school, I could have quizzed strangers on the street. None of them would have known what the name "Cthulhu" meant, and this is decidedly not the case today. Lovecraft's cache as a name has never been greater, but a lot of it is sort of unfortunate association—people know of him because some of his surface-level imagery has been appropriated so many times in the last 10 years of pop culture. Cthulhu pops up as an antagonist in South Park for god's sake. The Internet is littered with plushies and stuffed animals of various elder gods. But how many of those people have actually read H.P. Lovecraft?
If you haven't, you should. It almost doesn't matter where you start. To really appreciate reading any of his collections of short stories today, though, one needs at least a bit of context. The reason that Lovecraft is still a famous name today (he was almost entirely unknown in his lifetime) is not because of his writing, which tended to be sprawling and purposefully archaic even for its time period, littered with weird alternate anglo-spellings like calling a lantern a "lanthorn" and describing every other object as "cyclopean." What makes him an enduring figure was his imagination, his conceptualization of terrible vistas in deep-off space and stories that span through the aeons of time. American horror writing of the time was steeped in the tradition of Poe—insular, wrapped in mysteries, stories about evil men doing evil things, or Universal-style monsters, but all of those can be overcome. Like King's IT (and H.P. is a massive influence on almost every King story), Lovecraft's monsters are so much greater in stature and totally outside our sphere of understanding. His protagonists are unlikable and ultimately powerless against fates far beyond their ability to comprehend, much less change. He preys upon the fear of a stoner or opium-addict laying in bed, wondering "What if we're just insects, about to be crushed under the foot of a giant so vast, we're not even aware he exists?" Jim Vorel

Lunar Park


Bret Easton Ellis
2005

Some say we're most afraid of things we don't understand. The unexplained bumps in the night, a seemingly motiveless killer. Carrot Top. But the very real ghosts that haunt Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park are known monsters: Patrick Bateman clones, a murderer replicating American Psycho's handiwork right down to the name of the book's victims. But like most good horror-rooted novels, Ellis' half-memoir, half-surreal tale turns its eye inward for a story that pulls apart an excess-filled life, and what it means when placed within a proper family. Say what you will about Ellis, the person: if you're not one for chapter after chapter of internal conflict about booze and drugs, Lunar Park might not be your bag. But the scariest part of this pseudo-memoir might be Ellis taking the humility-filled step forward to forgive his own past. Tyler Kane

The Metamorphosis


Franz Kafka
1915

Anyone who's been through puberty knows it: unexpected bodily changes are terrifying. But Kafka's tale takes unexpected change to a new level in Metamorphosis, where traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find his body is a little different, too. He didn't put on five pounds, nor did he find hair in weird places. In fact, there's no funny hair at all, because Gregor's turned into a giant insect. As you'd expect with the German author, the confounding circumstances are an afterthought in Metamorphosis. Instead, Kafka explores the consequences of a major cog in the family machine suddenly grinding to a halt. Tyler Kane

October Country


Ray Bradbury
1955

Bradbury's imagination was more combustible during the month of October. He understood, better than any, that this time of year embodied the hyper-activated imagination of an adventurous tween. Though he's known for sci-fi fare such as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury eventually realized he was "the illegitimate son of the Opera Phantom, Dracula and The Bat," as he admits, opening this book's 1985 edition. Whereas he showed his spookier sides with Something Wicked This Way Comes, these are pure macabre (or sometimes as tripped-out as a Twilight Zone episode). This collection's a fun (and often freaky) throwback to Bradbury's early days as talent writing for the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Paranoia strikes bone deep in stories like The Skeleton and A Small Assassin, while quintessential worst-nightmare scenarios materialize in The Man Upstairs. Though, the grim-reaper-conjuring story of The Scythe may be the most haunting of the bunch, rendered with such beautiful and terrible detail in a cyclone of colorful descriptiveness. Jeff Milo

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark/More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark/Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones


Alvin Schwartz, Illustrations by Stephen Gammell

The American Library Association cites the Scary Stories trilogy, released between 1981 and 1991, as the seventh most challenged series of books from 2000 to 2009. But let's level: can you blame any concerned '90s parents for wanting to keep these grotesque, plain-spoken tales of the eerie miles from their children's eyes? (For the record, we're happy few succeeded in this censorship.) Author Alvin Schwartz keeps his macabre tales direct and slim, cutting excessive adjectives and sticking to facts, including characters with strangely specific first and last names. But coupled with Stephen Gammell illustrations? These tales are insured tickets to childhood nightmares that leave beds wet and parents awake.
Ghost wolves tear through throats, butchers slaughter and sell their spouses and unexplained mothers with glass eyes and tails await misbehaving children. Gammell renders these elements in thick, otherworldly veins of ink, making everything look like it was grown from a petri dish in the ninth level of Hell. It's the perfect, fantastical complement to Schwartz's verbal economy, letting readers take the tales into deeper, weirder territory with the help of Rorschach-like illustrations. And with a new film adaptation in the works, a generation of former readers may soon find its offspring clinging by its side into the early hours of the morning. Sean Edgar

The Shining


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. Steve Foxe

The Silence of the Lambs


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, Lecter and Buffalo Bill. The latter killer in particular is more fleshed-out in the book than in the Oscar-winning film adaptation, which is a great version of the story in its own right. 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 Hannibal Lecter takes an interest in her, finding her ambitions an interesting character trait that he can use to wrap Starling around his finger. As in the film, Lecter is of course the star attraction in the novel, one of the most cunning and fun-to-read psychopaths in the history of fiction. This is actually one of the cases where it's helpful to have seen the film in advance, because you can read Harris' dialogue and imagine it being delivered by Sir Anthony Hopkins. That's a damn good combination to make for a compelling reading experience. Jim Vorel

The Turn of the Screw


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 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. Sean Edgar

World War Z


Max Brooks
2006

Zombie fiction has never come close to the cultural impact and artistic importance of zombie cinema, until World War Z came along. The living dead, thanks to Romero, were just one of those things that were born on screen through his movies. The tropes were established there; the imitators and knock-offs started there. Nobody had thought to take the idea of a zombie apocalypse and truly dive into the guts of everything else besides the violence, and that's what makes Brooks' book so incredible. If you're not aware, it isn't a true "novel"—rather, it's presented like a journalistic report in a series of dozens of interviews with people from all over the globe on how they survived the zombie crisis. The audience gets to see exactly how it all went down, and Brooks' gift is in making it all seem so reasonable, like something that could actually happen, because he considers every possible eventuality. He shows us how the infection could realistically spread around the globe thanks to human trafficking. He shows us how modern militaries could possibly be defeated via poor planning and mass defections. He shows us how society might be after 90 percent of humanity has been killed and an uneasy rebuilding period has begun. What happened to those astronauts orbiting in the International Space Station? The answer is provided. Why will mankind never be able to make root beer again? The answer is provided. Ignore the existence of the horrendous, slap-in-the-face film adaptation with Brad Pitt and simply read the book, because World War Z is easily the best piece of zombie fiction ever written. Jim Vorel