You can’t do jump-scares in a book. There’s no computerized special effects, or actors covered with gruesome makeup and KY jelly. You can always put a book down for a few days. And yet, the creepy prose of horror’s greatest writers has the power to hold you trapped in a spell of terror that no film crew can match.
Here are 10 horror novels that are scarier than almost any movie you could be watching. Better read these with all the lights on, kids.
Top image: Michael Komarck art for “Call of Cthulhu”.
1. The Shining by Stephen King
The movie version of The Shining is a pop culture touchstone — but as usual, the book is even better than the movie. There’s a reason King is considered a horror master: The tense atmosphere and freaky supernatural occurrences get into the reader’s head and make you begin to doubt your own grip on sanity, along with that of the characters. Most people are probably familiar with the premise of the book: An alcoholic father takes a job as the off-season caretaker of an isolated mountain resort, in order to work on his writing and become closer to his family. The son is a psychic, a “shiner”, who can see the hauntings in the hotel. Sure the book is chock full of supernatural visions — but equally disturbing is the human-on-human violence. The child’s-eye view of his parents’ deteriorating relationship — and sanity — is meant to dredge up uncomfortable memories of childhood’s confusion and powerlessness.
2. Haunted: A Novel in Stories by Chuck Palahniuk
The one-star and five-star reviews of this book actually say the same thing — it’s absolutely disgusting and disturbing. A group of would-be writers answers an advertisement for a three-month writing retreat. When the attendees arrive, they’re locked in an old-theater, with dwindling supplies. The novel is actually a series of short stories strung together under the artifice of the captives telling tales, and the tales become more horrifying and grotesque as the situation deteriorates. A situation made worse by the participants themselves, as they begin to practice murder and self-mutilation in the belief they are in some kind of reality show. It is said that when Palahniuk read the first tale “Guts” on book tour, people were fainting left and right. The reader is freaked out, not just by the graphic violence and unnerving supernatural bits — but also, the uncomfortable questions about what people will do for fame.
3. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Four people venture to spend a summer in the reportedly haunted Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for proof of ghosts, Theodora, his assistant, Eleanor, a young recluse, and Luke, the heir to the house. The group begins to experience strange and unexplained events. That plot might be familiar to you if you’ve seen either the intense 1963 psychological thriller movie The Haunting or the goofy, bad 1993 version of The Haunting. Jackson was such a master of creating suspenseful tension that there is even an award named for her that recognizes contemporary literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. What makes the novel so effective is its unreliable narrator, Eleanor. Being limited by her incomplete perspective makes the reader just as unsure and vulnerable as she is. This perspective become more suffocating and tense as the line between the real and unreal and the living and dead becomes more and more blurred.
4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
While The Turn of the Screw has a gothic feel to it, Henry James was breaking away from a tradition of blatant “screamers” and “ragers,” and creating ghosts that were eerie extensions of the everyday. The story is about a young governess that takes a position at the secluded Bly house to care for an orphaned brother and sister. The governess begins to see apparitions of the former governess that died under scandalous rumors, and another dead servant Quint, who’d terrorized the house and possibly sexually molested the boy and other servants. She becomes convinced the children can also see the ghosts and are being hunted by them. The stiff and formal language along with the unfamiliar mores of the time might be a barrier to a modern reader — but if you let it flow over you, an eerie and unsettling scene takes shape. Nothing is ever explicitly stated in the story, from the crimes of the deceased servants to whether the children can actually see the ghost, to what was the actual reality of the ending. The written word allows for an ambiguity and unresolved tension that allows scholars to still argue about what was real and what might have been madness. The questioning for answers is what makes the story so creepy and evocative. Well, that and the creepy kids. Apparently unnerving, creepy children are not a new idea.
5. Books of Blood Volumes 1-3 by Clive Barker
Nightmare Magazine rates this collection of stories by Clive Barker as its number one horror book. This is probably a matter of taste, based on what kind of horror does it for you, but this collection of stories covers such a gamut that one is probably going to be one that hits your sweet spot. Of course the rest might sicken you with intense gore and general misanthropy. Barker always meant the stories to be published as a single work, so the collection represents that author’s singular vision of a book. This leads to a diverse collection of ghost stories, a gore-fest, and even a farce with a dancing chicken.
6. The Terror by Dan Simmons
In 1845 the Franklin Expedition, which consisted of 126 men on the two ship the H.M.S Erebus and H.M.S Terror, went to the Arctic circle in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. None of the men returned alive from this expedition. Dan Simmons blends historical fiction and horror to tell of the deaths of these men. The two ships are trapped in ice for years and as the supplies dwindle and go bad, madness and disease descend upon the crew. In the midst of the more mundane murder and cannibalism, a giant unknown beast begins stalking the men and killing them off in ones and twos. Simmons is masterful at setting a scene with a great attention to details that shows off his extensive research (though this tends to make for very long books). The book is a harrowing tale of survival horror builds fear with an inescapable environment and boosts of adrenaline from being hunted.
7. John Dies at the End by David Wong
David Wong and his penis obsessed best friend John take a drug known as soy-sauce that opens their mind to a higher plane and reveals to them an lunatic array of monsters like wig-wearing scorpions, that threaten to infest the world. The book takes every pop culture trend of the past twenty years, peppers it with 14-year-old dick and fart humor, and blends it all together with a huge heaping of splatterpunk gore. This one is probably not going to be for everyone. However it does successfully blend laugh-out-loud humor with legitimate horror. Despite the absurdity there are thrills to be had with the grotesque monsters, the existential dread of facing things beyond your comprehension, and bugs staring out at you from air conditioning vents while you sleep. The book has already been made into a movie — but it’s hard to imagine how the foul-mouthed meditations on how shit the human condition is, and all the existential dread, is going to translate without words. The film will also be lacking descriptive phrases like “the heavy monkey of sleep rested its warm, furry ass on my eyelids”. The visual medium can’t always match the beauty of prose.
8. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
There was a golden age of horror movies from the late sixties to through the 1970’s, that was brought on by a renaissance of quality horror novels like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Shining. In a world where we’re all jaded by fountains of blood , it is a testament to a book’s quality that it can remain a staple on the “best horror novel” lists. The story is about an innocent young girl, who’s possessed by an ancient demon, an old priest that specializes in exorcisms and the research of demons, a young priest struggling with his faith after the death of his mother, and a police detective investigating a grisly murder. The book is engaging, and of course has its intense moments of supernatural activity and shocking moments that might be considered tame by today’s standards. The truly unsettling thing about the book — and what makes it linger as a classic — is how it tackles larger themes about belief and the unfairness of the world. It questions a god that allows an innocent to be struck down and made to suffer and questions why there is evil in the world. It leaves the reader very much aware of your own vulnerability and the vast unfairness of it all — which are the most terrifying things to contemplate.
9. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft is difficult to pin down or talk about because of his cult like status, but it is hard to have a list of scary books and ignore him. He redefined what horror could be and influenced pop culture from Arkham Asylum to the Evil Dead movies. But whether you find his stories immediately frightening depends on your ability to take his dense prose. Some think his wordy descriptions paint an eerie and unsettling world. Some just find him tiresome. The development of the Cthulhu mythology is all about the lingering slow burn. Lovecraft often follows a pattern in his short stories: an educated man encounters an ancient horror so vast and beyond comprehension that he is driven mad by the mere thought or glimpse. Despite all of our civilization and education, we’re powerless pawns against a large brutal universe of half-glimpsed horrors. Despite being such a famous property, there hasn’t been much of an attempt to bring it to the big screen. There just isn’t much to see, instead the subtle and dense prose builds up a thick mythology of cosmic horror.
10. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
Lovecraft often gets a free ride for his dense and archaic prose because, you know, his stuff is old and dated. The King in Yellow counters that theory. Lovecraft read this short story collection and was deeply influenced by how Chambers linked together stories by the device of a strange half-explained text of such a horrible and disturbing mythology that corrupted and brought doom upon any reader. The thing is, Chambers’ prose is brilliantly clear and clean, his characters are sympathetic in their doom… and he predates Lovecraft. The first-person narrative makes the corruption of the characters subtle but vivid. Only the first four stories of the collection are actually related to horror, so it’s slightly cheating to call it a horror book — and truthfully one of the most eerie and unsettling stories in the book is about the Prussians laying siege to Paris and the horrors of war.