By: Emma Taylor
With its visceral, primal, and psychological imagery, horror-themed media attracts just as many slavish devotees as it does squeamish detractors, and has for centuries. Though attitudes change across time, culture, and geography (and, along with them, narrative devices), horror’s core always remains the same. The most successful examples channel internal and external anxieties — many of them universal — and kick them right back to their readers with nauseating accuracy.
Not every book here is necessarily of the horror genre, but is included as a means of diversifying the list and showcasing other reads fans might very well love. All boast some element endemic — but not exclusive — to horror books, be it atmosphere, characterization, narrative tropes or something else entirely. And do please quell that rage over inclusions or exclusions. Literature is subjective. This isn’t some be-all, end-all of book recommendations, merely one reader’s opinion of millions.
- Frankestein by Mary Shelley: This epistolary classic continues to ravish pop culture, showing absolutely no signs of stopping whatsoever. Dr. Frankenstein and his existential monster both rightfully became some of the most visceral icons of the horror genre.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker: While not the first vampire novel ever penned, Dracula is indisputably the most popular example of the genre. The eponymous monster stands at the center of a pretty comprehensive reflection of Victorian sex and gender mores.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: Robert Louis Stevenson dug deeply into the most disturbing corners of the human psyche when sculpting this terrifying story of dual identities. Horror fans looking to take their novels with two additional shots of crime and science-fiction would do well to seek out this classic thriller — if they haven’t already, of course.
- Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan la Fanu: Before Count Dracula — a quarter-century, actually – there was the seductive, dangerous Carmilla. The eponymous antagonist serves as a veritable Platonic solid for future female and lesbian vampires used in all media forms.
- At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft: Most of H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre could have ended up here, but his At the Mountains of Madness is an essential read for Cthulhu aficionados. His use of science and rationalism to explain preternatural phenomena makes it particularly intriguing and engaging.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: As spoiled rotten villain protagonist Dorian Gray descends further and further into a world of overindulgent decadence and hedonism, an enchanted portrait suffers the abuse. This being a horror novella — and Oscar Wilde being Oscar Wilde — things dissolve into body horror of near-Cronenberg proportions once everything catches up to dear Mr. Gray.
- It by Stephen King: Like many of the writers featured here, a significant chunk of Stephen King’s entire career could’ve made the cut. It won because it simultaneously exploited collective coulrophobia and reinforced exactly why it’s a thing in the first place.
- The Italian by Ann Radcliffe: Anxieties regarding the French Revolution and Inquisition get channeled into Ann Radcliffe’s intense gothic thriller. Religion especially plays a central role in creating and motivating her novel’s memorably twisted villains.
- The Complete Short Stories by Edgar Allen Poe: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and plenty more of Edgar Allen Poe’s legendary short stories pack a gut-wrenching punch into comparatively smaller spaces. Most of his body of work is so thoroughly nightmarish, it comes as no surprise that they sport such endurance and influence.
- We by Yevgeny Zamyatin: One of the original dystopian works, We features a totalitarian society terrifying to anyone even the slightest bit concerned about losing their individual identity and autonomy. It’s a different sort of horror than the typical monsters and madness with which readers are more familiar, but still a worthwhile read for fans of twisted, horrifying fiction.
- Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust, the legendary German figure who made an infamous bargain with Satan himself, unsurprisingly makes appearances all over different media outlets. This two-part play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of the most popular.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: Contemporary horror master Stephen King cited Shirley Jackson as one of his greatest influences in Danse Macabre, and for good reason. Her lauded masterpiece blends the supernatural with the psychological and packs it all in a deadly, possessive home.
- Vathek by William Beckford: Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, William Beckford channeled Islamic culture in this novel of a caliph resorting to desperate, horrific measures to obtain the supernatural abilities needed to keep him ruling. What it ultimately gets him is something far more sinister…and eternal.
- Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice: Lestat, one of the most recognizable vampires in all of literature, made his debut in the first novel in The Vampire Chronicles series. Here, he makes the controversial decision to turn a young girl and raise a young daughter — among other atrocities, of course.
- Konjaku Monogatarishu by Anonymous: Konjaku Monogatarishu compiles traditional stories from across Japan, China and India, not all of which contain horror elements. The Buddhist morality tales focusing on karmic retribution make for the most chilling reading of all.
- Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: Most literary critics and historians consider this horror classic the very first work of gothic horror, kicking off an entire genre and revolutionizing how writers approach twisted, visceral content. Inside the eponymous castle lurks a curse out to end an aristocratic family’s lineage.
- The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells: Science fiction meets horror on an island inhabited by a mad vivisector and his simultaneously sympathetic and wholly terrifying creations. Despite their regimented society, the bioengineered creatures eventually override their human elements with something far more animalistic.
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: In Henry James’ quintessential ghost story, made all the more terrifying by his thoroughly adroit use of ambiguity and atmosphere. A startling evil — never fully revealed — slowly dismantles the lives of a governess and the two children placed in her care.
- Psycho by Robert Bloch: Horror icon Norman Bates (and his…ahhhh…”mother”) began life in the pages of this bloody 1959 novel. Lurking in a small motel bearing his surname, a litany of disturbing family secrets mean gruesome consequences for visitors and locals alike.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: More of a mystery novel than a work of straight up horror, Rebecca nevertheless involves a tense, deeply psychological atmosphere fans of the latter genre will find tantalizing. The awkward central character struggles with her new husband, the mystifying death of his first wife and the fiercely loyal housekeeper stuck on her memory.
- Inferno by Dante Alighieri: The first segment of The Divine Comedy sees the author and his mentor Virgil descending through every layer of hell, awash in a haze of satire, sin and some of literature’s most nightmarish scenery. Even the nonreligious can look upon the bone-chilling, often nauseating punishments with a sense of visceral dread.
- Battle Royale by Koushun Takami: Horror buffs with an inkling towards gory splatterpunk tropes might find this contemporary classic simultaneously squirm-inducing and thought-provoking. Take a trip to Okishima Island, where high school students are forced into murderous games as a means of addressing overpopulation concerns.
- The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney: Mill Valley, California finds itself unwittingly terrorized by extraterrestrial pods capable of exactly replicating its residents; so competent are they, nobody even recognizes the switch. Though a work of science fiction, The Body Snatchers contains enough thrills to satisfy readers who enjoy sleeping with the lights on every once in a while.
- The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty: Based on an allegedly true story, William Peter Blatty’s memorable novel is one of the most popular literary works involving demonic possession. Pazuzu, named after a minor deity from ancient Assyria, completely overtakes the mind and body of little Regan MacNeil and taxes the two priests assigned to free her.
- The Stepford Wives by Ira Levine: The Stepford Wives succeeds as both a horror novel and a feminist fist-bumper commenting on the dangers of arbitrary gender roles. “Stepford wives” has entered into the lexicon because of Ira Levine’s talent at capturing the absurd (and absurdly common) phenomenon of forcing women into subservience with little concern for their own needs or wants.
- If You Could See Me Now by Peter Straub: Obsession over a dearly beloved cousin’s tragic drowning begins overwhelming a widower’s attempt at completing his dissertation. And when the murdered bodies of young girls begin popping up once he moseys on into Arden, Wisconsin again, things take a turn for the mysterious and supernatural.
- 1984 by George Orwell: Like all the best dystopian literature, 1984 mines the human psyche and spirit and welds it to some very real political, economic and social theories. Here, massive totalitarian (not, as commonly mistaken, socialism or communism) regimes battle it out for hegemonic power and keep their respective citizenries in complete repression.
- Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin: The eponymous figure trades his immortal soul for an extra 150 on earth and subsequently ends up wasting it all on finding someone to succeed the pact. Many of horror’s most influential authors, such as H.P. Lovecraft, looked at this novel about 19th Century British ideology when crafting their own oeuvres.
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham: Despite sitting in far more science fiction than horror collections, The Day of the Triffids still incorporates a right fair amount of (understandable) pants-peeing paranoia. A near-universal fear inherent to humanity is that of extinction, which John Wyndham writes as coming courtesy of the giant fronds of mobile, intelligent plants.
- The Monk by Matthew Lewis: Ambrosio, the holy man of the title, must watch in horror as his sexual transgressions lead to his life twisting him towards rape and murder. Only an encounter and bargain with the devil himself can end the veritable hell on earth…despite condemning him to a hell in hell…
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury: Sinister carnivals are by no means an original fictional trope, of course, but nobody writes one better than acclaimed author Ray Bradbury. Normally recognized as a science-fiction auteur, this haunting work blends together fantasy and horror in a memorable narrative about the penalties of granted wishes.
- The Fog by James Herbert: An earthquake releases a bizarre fog trapped beneath the crust, which drives everyone exposed to it insane — inspiring an orgy of murder, rape, pedophilia and other atrocities. John Holman, its first victim, ultimately proves the one man able to prevent its virus-like spread across the world.
- The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen: Dr. Raymond slowly drives a young woman insane as she keeps insisting on undergoing procedures to help her visualize the goatlike Greek god. Come to find out, she’s actually the deity’s daughter — and uses her powers to start wreaking murderous havoc throughout London.
- The Complete Short Stories by Ambrose Bierce: Not all of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories can be shunted beneath a horror heading, of course, but the ones that are make for some truly worthwhile reading indeed. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” concerning a Confederate supporter sentenced to hang, is probably his most recognized — likely owing to its startling twist ending.
- Perfume by Patrick Suskind: Smell plays an integral role in human sensation, perception and memory, which makes it a perfect candidate to sit front and center in a horror novel. Plucky central character Jean-Baptiste Grenouille lacks body odor, works as an apprentice in a perfumery and thinks slaughtering virgins will help further his career.
- Red Dragon by Thomas Harris: Hannibal Lecter made his literary debut in this novel, assisting special agents and profilers in bringing a serial killer known as “Tooth Fairy” to justice. Being both a psychiatrist and a murderous cannibal, he provides some bizarre, unique insight into the perpetrator’s mind.
- The Howling by Gary Brandner: Following the heroine’s traumatic rape and subsequent miscarriage and mental breakdown, she and her husband retreat to a small California town with the hopes of recovering together. Which kind of sort of doesn’t happen, seeing as how it’s full of werewolves and all.
- Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber: Though not exactly progressive in its gender politics, painting all women as beguiling practitioners of witchcraft — Conjure Wife still works as horror literature. When a sociology professor discovers his wife brews up potions and conjures up charms, his insistence she drop her old ways proves dangerous.
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: Literature’s most famous example of body horror comes courtesy of Franz Kafka’s existentialist leanings. Although Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers he’s now a massive bug, his family’s reaction and subsequent shunning make them far more monstrous.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry: Dystopian works understandably incorporate plenty of horror and macabre tropes, even though they don’t always necessarily get classified within the genre. The Giver is one such example, with its hyper-collective society completely lacking emotion and — most startlingly — the ability to perceive color.
This post was written by Albert Saliba