It’s October. The leaves are turning brown and the nights are drawing in. It’s cold and it’s raining and it’s Halloween. The perfect time, then, to curl up with a good book and give yourself the creeps. But which book?
You could go for one of the classics – Dracula or Frankenstein or something by Lovecraft or Poe – or you could go with the zeitgeist and pick up Stephen King’s Cell, or even The Shining, if you haven’t read it already. Any of those would be perfectly good choices. But let’s face it, if you were gonna read one of those, you wouldn’t need me to recommend them.
Here, instead, is a list of 25 other horror novels guaranteed to give you nightmares…
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
The Chowder Society meets regularly to tell ghost stories. But not for pleasure. This group of old men has a shared secret, and something’s haunting them. Telling stories about the worst thing that ever happened to them helps relieve the pressure on their consciences, more or less, but eventually the past catches up with them.
Ghost Story is a cleverly constructed novel that drags you right into its world. It’s a lot like a Stephen King book, in many ways, with its small town setting and its expansive cast of characters, but it never feels derivative. Just scary.
Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
Yeah yeah, Game Of Thrones, yadda yadda yadda. Martin’s atmospheric (and self-contained) vampire novel is creepier. Set in 1850s Louisiana, the Fevre Dream of the title is a boat: the biggest, fastest, best steamboat imaginable, built to transport cargo up and down the Mississippi – and funded by vampires. Using a contained setting is smart and claustrophobic, and the idea of a boatload of evil bloodsuckers is a wonderfully scary one. It’s probably a bit longer than it needs to be, but what else would you expect?
House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Starting to read House Of Leaves feels like a massive undertaking. The book is huge, for one thing. It’s also massively complicated. It has footnotes, and those footnotes have footnotes. The pages are laid out strangely, so sometimes the words form spirals or other geometric patterns, and sometimes there’s only a single word on each page. It’s a book that asks you to really put some effort into reading it, then repays that effort by scaring the crap out of you. It’s the tiny details that really make it work – you’ll never put up a bookshelf again without thinking about it.
Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice
The later novels in the Vampire Chronicles series and the 1990s film based on it took some of the shine off Interview With The Vampire, but it’s worth revisiting. It’s tighter than Rice’s later sprawling tales; simpler, eerie, atmospheric and utterly compelling. Told from the perspective of Louis de Pointe du Lac, a 200-year-old immortal, it’s mostly a story of guilt and depression, enlivened by the presence of a glamorous villain, Lestat du Lioncourt, and made more poignant by the subplot about Claudia, a beautiful little vampire child who could never grow up.
Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite
Lost Souls is another vampire story. It’s built around road trips: all of the characters in this book are trying to go somewhere, even if they’re not quite sure where that is. They’re looking for their friends, family, identity, or just a party. The vampires in this book are probably the most hedonistics you’ll ever come across, constantly searching for their next high, whether it’s sugar, booze, sex, or, well, blood. They’re having way too much fun to bother with angst – that’s reserved for the human characters, who’ve got plenty of problems even before the vampires show up.
If you are, or have ever been, a teenage goth in messy eyeliner, you’re gonna love this one.
The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson seems to be having a bit of a moment right now. If you’ve not read her before, you’re in for a treat, and The Haunting Of Hill House is a good place to start—whether you’ve checked out the recent Netflix adaptation or not.
Eleanor Vance is a sensitive, anxious young woman, worn down from years of caring for her sick mother, so when she’s invited to be part of a team investigating the legendarily haunted Hill House, she jumps at the chance to escape her depressing life. But Hill House isn’t a good place for sensitives. Everything about it is scary, even the layout of its rooms, and soon all kinds of horrible things are happening. Or are they? Jackson implies more than she shows, leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps.
The Ruins by Scott Smith
Four friends go on holiday to Mexico together. Their plans mostly involve booze and sunshine, but when they make friends with a German tourist they get dragged along on his quest to find his brother at a distant archaeological dig. Any horror fan could tell you this won’t end well, and it doesn’t: the group soon finds itself trapped, without food or water, and beset by enemies on all sides. Including inside. Yeah, it’s the novel the film of the same title is based on – which means yes, it’s about killer plants. Sort of.
Really, it’s a kind of body horror, a story about the slow unstoppable decay of the human body. And it’s really, really harrowing.
The Watcher by Charles MacLean
The horror genre thrives on unreliable narrators. Not being able to trust the person telling you the story makes for unsettling reading, and The Watcher makes fantastic use of that device. When Martin Gregory commits a brutal crime, not even he can understand why he did it, but through a series of therapy sessions (which the reader sits in on through both Martin’s account of events and the detailed notes taken by his psychiatrist) he starts to figure it out.
The further in you get, the clearer it becomes that something is going horribly, horribly wrong, but the book offers no concrete answers as to what that might be. It’s a dizzying read.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Written and set in the 1960s, Rosemary’s Baby somehow doesn’t feel all that dated – which makes it scarier. Although, yes, there are bits that wouldn’t happen nowadays, like when Rosemary runs to a phone booth rather than whipping out a smartphone, Levin’s tale of modern day Satanism takes place in a version of New York that doesn’t feel unrecognizable today. It’s mundane, somehow.
Rosemary and Guy feel like an entirely believable couple, with their in-jokes and petty disagreements. Levin doesn’t need any gothic trappings to make his story terrifying, he just uses normal people in a normal setting and lets a massive, hideous, supernaturally awful betrayal play out. Brrrrr.
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
Glen Duncan had dabbled in stories about the supernatural before this one, but The Last Werewolf is probably his first novel that can fairly be labelled “horror.” And it’s gorgeous. It’s stuffed full of sex and violence, drenched in Duncan’s typically lush prose.
The story unfolds through the diary entries of Jacob Marlowe, the werewolf of the title, as he flees from a monster-hunting society that’s looking to make his kind extinct. It’s intense, gory, and occasionally extremely upsetting. If you’re squeamish, maybe avoid this one.
Freeze Tag by Caroline B Cooney
Remember Point Horror? It was a YA series of short horror novels in the 90s, and back then, I read zillions of them. The only one I’ve still got, though, is Freeze Tag. It’s set in an idyllic suburban community where all the kids hang out and play games in the street after school and everything’s perfect… except it isn’t. Because down the road there’s a family that no-one likes, and a little girl with a particular talent for freeze tag. Anyone she touches freezes, literally, and if she doesn’t unfreeze them, they die. As a kid, the ending always confused me a bit, which makes me think I used to be a sociopath.
It’s a little moralistic, but still creepy.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
This is the oldest and most ‘classic’ book on this list, but it’s here for a reason. Atmosphere oozes from every page of du Maurier’s gothic tale of murder and mystery. The titular inn is scary enough, with its locked rooms, shadowy corridors, and brutal landlord, but even the gorgeous countryside beyond the inn is deadly, with its deceptive winding roads and concealed ditches.
Mary might be a more straightforward heroine than many of du Maurier’s protagonists, and the story is less nuanced than some of her later novels, but there’s something incredibly powerful about the way things unfold.
Let The Right One In by John Avjide Lindqvist
Two movies have been made of Lindqvist’s updated vampire story – and neither of them comes anywhere close to the terrifying brutality of the novel. Lindqvist paints a convincing picture of a small, miserable suburb that’s part of Stockholm but could be anywhere, and then he drops one hell of a monster into it. The gore is shocking, the characters superbly drawn, and the horror deeply disturbing. It’s not an exaggeration at all to say that Let The Right One In is one of the best horror novels ever written.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Joe Hill’s debut novel has a brilliant premise: a collector of macabre memorabilia buys a ghost on the internet, and is subsequently haunted by it. All the stale conventions of the ghost story – specifically the haunted house story – are shrugged off, letting Hill get down to the seriously scary business of his haunting without needing to explain why his hauntees don’t just move house.
The second half of the book falters a little, and there’s some very daft stuff in there, but the first half is constructed out of pure fear.
Affinity by Sarah Waters
Finally, a love story. Well, kind of.
A wealthy but troubled young woman is encouraged to become a “Lady Visitor” at a local women’s prison, but an unexpected friendship with one particular prisoner turns her life upside down. Selina Dawes is a well-known spiritualist, jailed after one of her séances went horribly wrong, but even in her cell she seems to be able to affect things in the world outside. Does she really have supernatural powers? It’s another story told from the perspective of a vulnerable and possibly overly credulous young woman, but Waters’ prose is gorgeous, and Victorian spiritualism is fascinatingly bonkers.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
Abby and Gretchen have been best friends forever, but after an ill-advised experiment with LSD, Gretchen starts to change. Though no-one else can see it, Abby becomes convinced that Gretchen is possessed, and sets about trying to save her, with less-than-ideal results. It’s Mean Girls meets The Exorcist, basically, with tons of nostalgic 80s detail and one scene in particular that’s so horrifying it’ll make you scream and slam the book shut.
The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood
In Victorian London, old superstitions are being swept away by industry and rationalism. But outside the city, people still very much believe in magic. The Hidden People is narrated by Albie, a young city gentleman who sets off to a distant Yorkshire village to try to mend his late cousin’s reputation, after her husband kills her under the delusion that she’s a fairy changeling. Albie doesn’t believe in any of it… until he’s there. And then he starts to wonder.
Based on a true story, and inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in the fair folk, this is a super creepy read whether you want to believe or not.
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Black Rock has been haunted by a witch for centuries. She’s been around for so long, in fact, that for most of the time, the residents just ignore her. Over the years, they’ve come up with various strategies for dealing with the witch: they don’t use the internet, they don’t talk about her to outsiders, and they do whatever they can not to antagonize her. But then some teenagers decide to goad the witch, and everything goes spectacularly wrong. Not just creepy – it’s heart-stoppingly disturbing.
Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes
You know who Matthew Cannonbridge is, of course. He’s one of the most-loved authors of all time. He was friends with Byron, helped out Conan Doyle, and was BFFs with Dickens. All sorts of academic papers have been written about him. Cannonbridge! No? No. He’s an invention. Someone has been messing with literary history, rewriting the world, and the invention has sinister implications that range far beyond a few academic papers.
Literature geeks will especially love it, but this novel’s eerie enough to appeal even if you’re not familiar with the entire canon.
The Girl With All The Gifts by MR Carey
Melanie loves her teacher, Miss Justineau. And Justineau kind of loves Melanie, too, but that’s a bad idea, because Melanie is no normal girl. She’s a child ‘hungry’, infected from birth with the disease that’s turned most of the world into slavering zombies. So when the base Melanie’s been held at is overrun by hungries and she, Justineau, and the base’s scalpel-happy scientist are forced to go on the run, well, you can see how there might be problems.
Carey wrote this novel at the same time as he wrote the screenplay for the film of the same name, but whether or not you want to see that, it’s worth reading this for its imaginative and terrifying take on a familiar genre.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
A group of Classics students at a prestigious college get a little too caught up in their studies in Donna Tartt’s gloriously sinister first novel. As the title suggests, it’s rich with secrets; though right from the first page you know you’re dealing with a murder and a cover up, there’s a lot more going on than just that.
Tartt’s characters are by turns charming and repulsive, her landscapes beautiful but deadly, and her prose is just hypnotic. One to read and reread… and reread, and reread.
Versailles by Yannick Hill
Social media mogul Casey Baer is living the dream: wife, two kids, enormous mansion, and enough money to do whatever he likes for the rest of his life. But there’s something rotten at the core of it all, and his majestic oceanfront home, named for the palace in France, isn’t quite the happy home he’d intended. Monsters, literal and figurative, haunt its halls, and its many locked rooms evoke the scariest of gothic horrors.
Is ‘digital gothic’ a thing? It is now.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Faith’s father is a well-respected Victorian scientist until he starts to investigate a bizarre tree that’s said to feed on lies. Rejected by his peers, he takes his family away to an isolated Channel Island… and then dies, mysteriously, leaving Faith to pick up the pieces. Classified as children’s literature but lauded by critics anyway, The Lie Tree is a fascinatingly creepy story with a strong feminist undercurrent that’s worth reading no matter how old you are.
Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris
Nope, there’s not an apostrophe missing from that title. It’s deliberately ambiguous, a command rather than a promise, and it’s the name of the creepy hotel in this nightmarishly convoluted novel. When the Addison family stops off at the town of Good Night to take shelter from the snow, they find themselves drawn into a haunting maze that seems to ignore time as well as space. Morris uses language to disorient the reader as much as his characters, with startling effect.
A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Fifteen years ago, Merry Barrett’s older sister became the subject of a paranormal reality show when she apparently got possessed by a demon. Now, looking back, Merry wants to figure out what really happened – was her sister really possessed, or did she have schizophrenia? Or maybe she was just faking it? The demonic possession storyline plays out just as you’d expect, but the layers of doubt and uncertainty that Tremblay piles on makes this a compelling and intelligent read. (It gets extra points for the pitch perfect depiction of a blogger reviewing the TV show.)
Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, The Haunting Of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, Handling The Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Devil And The Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and The Collector by John Fowles.
After all that, my to-read pile is still a huge mess looming terrifyingly over my desk, but let’s open this up: what have I missed? What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?
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