Horror movies and their terror-inspiring special effects are great at getting you into the Halloween mood, but when it comes to a more intimate horror experience, you just can’t beat a good, old-fashioned book. Written words have the ability to get into your head and stay there, using your own imagination to up the scare factor long after you’ve finished those last pages.
This Halloween, we’ve rounded up some of the chilliest, scariest and downright horrific horror books out there, from classics to more modern takes. Whether you’re in the mood for a spooky ghost story, a helping of psychological terror or a downright gory tale, we’ve got you covered with 20 of the best horror books ever written below.
1. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2010)
Adapted into two films (a Swedish-language one and an English-language one starring Chloë Grace Moretz), two stage plays, a comic book series, and most recently a Showtime series, it’s safe to safe that this Swedish vampire thriller is one of the most iconic horror novels of the modern era. An instant bestseller in Sweden when it was first published in 2004, Let the Right One In is a dark, lonely, and disturbing tale where the vampires aren’t the scary parts, it’s the ugly truths of humanity that will make your skin crawl.
2. Coraline By Neil Gaiman (2012)
Technically speaking, this is classified as a children’s novella, but don’t be fooled—Coraline is a proper horror story. Neil Gaiman began writing his first children’s novel in the 1990s, and when it was finally published in 2002, Coraline took the literary world by storm and won the Bram Stoker Award, Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. The battle for young Coraline’s soul has been adapted into an Academy Award-nominated stop animation film, a graphic novel, and even an opera, but our favorite version of this modern classic is the audiobook edition narrated by Neil Gaiman himself.
3. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker (2007)
“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.” What more can be said about this 1980s classic by the horror master himself, Clive Baker? Not much, except that you might know The Hellbound Heart by another name, Hellraiser. Inspired by underground New York City S&M clubs of the 1970s, this take on the darker side of pleasure is on the shorter side but still packs a terrifying punch. If you’ve seen the original film and found yourself aching to know more about what the Cenobites are up to, then you’ll want to read this novella as the story dives a bit deeper into the sadomasochistic depths of their extradimensional realm. Just don’t expect the name Pinhead to appear anywhere—the seminal demonic being is nameless in the original text.
4. Audition by Ryū Murakami (2010)
Some horror books are so haunting, their imagery so disturbing, that they stick with you long after you finish the last page. Audition is one of those books. Another short read on the list, this one is not for the faint of heart, and those who are currently single and dating may want to stay away from this one as it might put you off on swiping right for a while. Seven years after the death of his wife, Aoyama, a documentary filmmaker, decides it’s time to remarry when he meets and falls in love with a young woman named Yamasaki. Blinded by his instant and total infatuation, Aoyama is too late in discovering that she is a far cry from the innocent young woman he imagines her to be.
5. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2020)
One of the most unflinching and grisly books on this list, Tender is the Flesh expertly blends body horror with dystopian elements in what will surely be considered one of the greatest horror novels all time in the years to come. The story follows Marcos, a worker at a local processing plant where the meat being prepared for mass consumption is human meat. After an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans, the governments initiate the “Transition,” where eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. One day while on the job, Marcos comes across a live specimen of such fine quality he can’t help but start to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.
6. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2021)
More chilling and atmospheric and less horrifying than other books on this list, Mexican Gothic is a great place to start if you are a horror weeny and your reading tastes lean more towards slow burns with a historical fiction bent. After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. There are many secrets that hide behind the walls of High Place, and as Noemí digs deeper, she unearths stories of violence and madness. Sweeping and seductive, creepy and gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s masterpiece won the Locus Award, British Fantasy Award and Goodreads Choice Award for Best Horror.
7. Come Closer by Sara Gran (2011)
A suspenseful and tense page-turner, the horror of Come Closer resides in this simple question: As Amanda’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, is she possessed by a demon, or is she simply insane? Readers will know something is wrong with Amanda from the very first page, and the tension doesn’t let up until the very end. Described as “a new kind of psychological thriller” by George Pelecanos and “this year’s scariest novel” by Time Out New York, Come Closer has become a modern classic “with a kick that will stay with the reader for days afterward” (The Dallas Morning News).
8. A Certain Hunger By Chelsea G. Summers (2021)
In the male-dominated world of cannibalistic serial killing, it can be hard to stand out as a woman, but with determination and the culinary skills even Gordon Ramsay would be envious of, you too can break the glass ceiling in this literal cutthroat business. Following the daily life of Dorothy, an elite Manhattan food critic with an urge she can no longer deny, A Certain Hunger is a worthy successor to American Psycho and a recent release that had the New York Times wondering why we look so delicious—to one another.
9. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (2016)
A retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, this historical fiction novel by Victor LaValle is the perfect spooky read for Lovecraftians and newbies alike. Set in 1920s New York City, Charles Thomas Tester hustles to take care of his family. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
10. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)
When world-renowned fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss says, “This book freaked my shit out,” you know you have a horror hit on your hands. Through the Woods is a graphic novel short story collection containing five mysterious, spine-tingling stories accompanied by incredibly creepy art that follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss. These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll. Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there…
11. The Haunting of Hill House By Shirley Jackson (1959)
Shirley Jackson is so renowned for her horror stories that there’s now a literary award in her name that’s given to horror and psychological suspense writers annually at Readercon. But it’s this tome that is by far her crowning achievement. Not only was it a National Book Award finalist but many genre fans look towards the haunting house tale and its rich tapestry of characters as horror canon. Meanwhile, the story has since been adapted into two feature films, a play and a Netflix series.
12. Dracula By Bram Stoker (1897)
Fans might not all love the particular way that this famous novel was written (there are plenty of letters, articles and diary entries to sift through, after all), but the story itself and the famed vampire in question absolutely withstand the test of time. Of course, the 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola didn’t hurt the book’s popularity, either. Over his career, Stoker wrote several pieces of fiction and non-fiction alike, but in 2018 a Time article revealed that Dracula may have originally been intended for the latter category. In our eyes that makes this book even scarier.
13. It By Stephen King (1986)
No matter how many screen iterations of this King tome are made, nothing can compare to the written prose with which this horror mastermind terrorized (yet mesmerized) readers. Creepy clowns, childhood trauma, and the way the “It” in question used the characters’ own fears against them all culminated in a memorable read that helped to solidify King’s place in the horror genre.
14. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus By Mary Shelley (1818)
Monsters have always been popular horror subject matter, but that’s largely thanks to the influence of this gothic horror novel, which Mary Shelley began writing when she was just 18 years old. The idea of playing God and then being terrified by the results is now a prevalent theme across the arts, while the horror book itself has spawned an interesting conversation about feminist criticism, given how critics at the time changed their tune once they realized the uncredited work they’d been kicking back and forth was actually written by a woman.
15. The Shining By Stephen King (1977)
Stephen King notoriously hated the way Stanley Kubrik adapted this novel into the 1980 film, despite the movie’s giant following. That’s in part because King’s tale is more nuanced and character-driven than the big-screen iteration, offering readers an in-depth look at a man driven to madness. Sure, it doesn’t have an elevator of blood, creepy twin girls or Jack Nicholson shouting, “Here’s Johnny!” but there are plenty of other ghastly and blood-curling moments in the written work, including a much more explosive ending.
16. House of Leaves By Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
One of the more recent horror books on this list, House of Leaves isn’t scary per se. But it is definitely a mood, one that sits with you well after you’ve finished it. The story of a house that is bigger on the inside than out is disturbing in itself, but it’s the way Danielewski plays with the book’s structure (at one point you need to rotate it in order to read it properly) that really makes this a unique and interactive read.
17. NOS4A2 By Joe Hill (2013)
Is there anything scarier than monsters that attack children? What about a monster that abducts children, brings them to a place called Christmasland, and then sucks their souls in order to restore his own youth? This vampiric novel (written by Stephen King’s son) follows one such monster named Charlie Manx. It was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award when it was released in 2013 and praised for its rich world of characters and nuanced themes of family and the price of creativity. Of course, the fact that it was also adapted into a TV series and a comic book only helped to bolster this book’s popularity.
18. Uzumaki By Junji Ito (2013)
This Japanese horror manga series, written and illustrated by Ito, first appeared as a serial in Big Comic Spirits in the 1990s. The story of the small coastal town Kurouzu-cho and the UZUMAKI spiral that haunts it has since been compiled into one single volume, and widely discovered by new and die-hard genre fans alike. So what makes it so terrifying? Unlike many other horror offerings, in which you can pinpoint the thing doing the terrorizing, in this story the Big Bad is nothing more than a spiral shape that infects an entire town and twists minds and bodies alike.
19. A Head Full of Ghosts By Paul Tremblay (2015)
One of the more modern offerings on our list, Tremblay’s horror book puts a whole new spin on the exorcist genre that makes it feel more relevant for new horror audiences. When a 14-year-old girl begins showing signs of acute schizophrenia, a local Catholic priest agrees to an exorcism — and he brings along a camera crew to capture the action. Fast forward to 15 years later and the girl’s younger sister recounts the horrific behind-the-scenes happenings of the hit reality show, not to mention the events that have gone down ever since.
20. The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2018)
The real-life story of the Donner Party — a group of American pioneers who migrated to California from the Midwest in 1846 but got stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountain range where they resorted to cannibalism to survive — is haunting enough on its own. Katsu’s retelling not only re-examines that terrifying story, but it adds in a creepy supernatural element for a whole new layer of chilling horror, making this a must-have for lovers of horror books.
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