Whether you’re a diehard fan or frightened of anything that goes bump in the night, chances are you’ve seen your fair share of horror films, be it in the theater or in your room with the lights off. Even people who claim they are too easily scared by horror movies seem eager to see them. Why? Because fear triggers elevated dopamine levels in our brains.
Most people literally become happier when exposed to set doses of fear. The same can be said about scary stories. Scary horror novels can produce the same chemical effect in our brains. So, if you’re feeling blue and need a bit of a nail biting pick-me-up, consider horror books.
Here are thirteen books that are easily considered the best horror books ever written.
1. A Head Full of Ghosts – A Story of Demons and Money
Paul Tremblay’s horror book won the Bram Stoker award for Best Novel in 2015.
It’s original and intense storyline has made it one of the best horror novels of the 21st Century. It centers around Merry, an eight-year-old girl who begins to worry that her older sister, Marjorie, has become possessed by the devil.
Struggling for money, Marjorie’s parents agree to be the focus of a new reality television series, which focuses on her demonic possession. Marjorie later confesses to Merry that she is, in fact, not possessed, but suffers from mental illness. As time progresses, however, Merry begins to suspect that Marjorie’s bizarre behavior truly is supernatural in origin.
Tremblay’s mix of Catholicism and commercialism makes his novel as refreshing as it is spine-tingling.
2. The Exorcist – A Lesson in Demons
To this day, the 1973 Exorcist film still manages to freak a lot of people out, but most people don’t know that this chilling tale first began as a novel. While the movie is a constant array of in your face action, the novel has a subtle build that will leave you dreading to turn the next page.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this ghastly tale, William Peter Blatty’s novel is of a young girl named Regan who develops an unnatural friendship with a spirit she met through a Ouija board. Soon, Regan starts to exude some strange and violent behavior, and her mother eventually realizes that her precious daughter has become possessed with a demonic entity.
The tale concludes with a terrifying exorcism performed by two Catholic priests … but not everyone will survive. Many researchers believe that Blatty was inspired by the events of a real exorcism performed on a boy named Robbie Manheim in St. Louis, in 1949.
3. House of Leaves – A Tale of Madness
Mark Danielewski’s novel is more than just a scary ghost story, it is a work of art. The story centers around a family who slowly discover that the interior of their house is somehow larger than the exterior.
As the characters slowly dip into madness, the reader is along for the ride, as many of the book’s pages are formatted in a myriad of bizarre ways. What makes this horror novel so unique is that most readers will have a visceral reaction not just to the story, but to the book itself.
While such an undertaking is not for the faint of heart, the story’s chilling conclusion will leave you feeling happy to be sane, and not a member of the Navidson family. Should you find you love House of Leaves, be sure to check out its chilling sequel, The Whalestoe Letters.
4. Books of Blood – A Feast of Carnage
This three part series is made up of short scary stories that will undoubtedly give you goosebumps. After the collection was published, Clive Barker became a household name … if said household enjoyed horror, that is.
Most of the stories center around ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in gruesome and strange predicaments. A majority of the stories deal with ghostly apparitions and vicious demons. But others focus on the flaws of humanity and how, in certain circumstances, man has a tendency to turn on his fellow man in a violent, often hateful, manner.
Some of the collection’s more grisly tales have been adapted into full feature films, including the popular film Candyman, and The Midnight Meat Train. What makes Books of Blood so horribly satisfying is Barker’s penchant for intricate details. That, combined with his imaginative and visceral story plots will have your mind spinning long after you finish Books of Blood. If you’re interested in graphic novels, eighteen short stories out of Books of Blood have been adapted into a comic book series titled Tapping the Vein.
5. Rosemary’s Baby – The Devil’s Son
Ira Levin’s 1967 book is considered one of the best horror novels, as it launched the success of the horror industry on a commercial level. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are a young couple trying to start a family as they move into an old, well established apartment complex called the Bramford.
They quickly make the acquaintance of the Castevets, their friendly but eccentric neighbors who seem to dote on Rosemary. After Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers that the Castevets are actually a part of a Satanic cult, and she starts to suspect that they want to help Rosemary in her pregnancy so they can sacrifice her infant to Satan. But the truth behind Rosemary’s child is much more disturbing.
After the critical acclaim of Levin’s novel, horror books became much more mainstream and popular in the United States.
6. The Silence of the Lambs – A Psychological Delight
Many people have seen the 1991 film adaptation of this novel, but few know it first began as a book.
FBI agent Clarice Starling has been instructed to visit the notorious Hannibal Lecter, a highly skilled forensic psychiatrist and serial killer who enjoys eating his victims. Clarice hopes to inadvertently gain Lecter’s trust and derive his help in solving a new serial murder case with a highly skilled and mysterious killer.
As Clarice continues to visit Dr. Lecter the two form an unlikely bond, and the cannibal feels inclined to give Clarice clues as to the identity of the murderer. Clarice must solve the case before her superiors, who underestimate her abilities. Thomas Harris manages to incorporate a sense of urgency and intensity that is not felt in full by the film.
7. It – One of the Best Horror Books of All Time
There’s a reason Stephen King is considered one of the best horror writers of all time, and It is chiefly among said reasons.
On the surface, It is about a group of kids who must band together and battle Pennywise, an evil clown that terrorizes and kills children. But as the story progresses, we realize the clown’s machinations are far more intricate and far scarier than originally thought.
Pennywise uses fear itself as a weapon against his victims. Don’t be surprised if after you finish this gruesome and imaginative journey, you find yourself a little fearful of clowns, it has happened to a lot of people.
If an iconic novel about a terrifying clown piques your interest, be sure to read it by this summer! A new adaptation of the film is being released this September, and it looks downright terrifying.
8. Bird Box – The Latest Classic in Horror
Josh Malerman’s Bird Box may be his first book, but it has quickly been considered one of the best horror books in recent times.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the story centers around Malorie, a young college student who, along with her sister, begin to hear about people suddenly going mad and attacking each other after seeing something that could not be properly identified.
Soon, these attacks are happening all over the globe, and Malorie and her sister must barricade themselves in their house in order to survive. Described as chilling and beautiful, what is most shudder-inducing about this book is the fact that the root of all evil is unknown … and could be around any corner.
9. Amityville Horror – A House of Sheer Evil
If true scary stories interest you, then you’ll want to check out Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. On November 13, 1974, a man named Ronald DeFeo Jr. rose from his bed in the middle of the night and murdered six of his family members while they slept.
A little over a year later, the Lutz family moved into the Long Island home and began to experience a series of paranormal phenomenon. Strange things began when Mr. Lutz found himself suddenly waking up every day at 3:15 AM, which he would later learn was the time DeFeo murdered his family. The house often grew infested with flies, and the family began to see apparitions standing in front of the windows of the house.
The novel is based on their recounts, from insidious imaginary friends, to demonic voices. Many writers and horror enthusiasts agree that The Amityville Horror forever changed the way readers enjoy and anticipate haunted houses.
10. Heart Shaped Box – A Story of Revenge
This 2007 novel by, now much acclaimed, novelist Joe Hill is about a retired rock star named Judas Coyne. Rich and bored, Judas develops an interest in the paranormal and starts to collect all manner of macabre artifacts.
When he is emailed about a suit where a ghost now dwells, Judas can’t resist and purchases the suit without a second thought. But not long after the suit arrives, Judas realizes that the spirit within is dangerous, and out to make Judas’ life a personal hell. To his horror, Judas discovers that the suit once belonged to the father of a girl he had briefly dated … a girl who allegedly committed suicide right after the breakup.
Judas must fight against the spirit in the suit by discovering what really happened to his former girlfriend once and for all. Hill went on to win the Bram Stoker award for Best First Novel the same year Heart Shaped Box was published.
11. The Haunting of Hill House – The Art of Subtlety
This 1959 book by Shirley Jackson is still considered one of the best horror novels of all time. The story centers around a woman named Eleanor and three other companions who visit an eighty-year-old mansion that is reputed to be haunted.
Not long after Eleanor and the other guests check in, they begin to see strange phenomena, such as apparitions wandering in the hallways at night, and ghostly writing on the walls. Over time, it becomes clear that Eleanor is deeply affected by the house. But what isn’t clear is whether or not the house is truly haunted, or if Eleanor suffers from mental issues and just believes it is.
The subtle spookiness of this novel brings it continual praise. The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted into two films, though neither will chill you quite like the novel itself.
12. The Turn of the Screw – The Ultimate Mind Game
Henry James’ novella was first published in 1898, and yet continues to be easily considered one of the best horror books ever written. The story is one of a governess, hired to care for two children who have inadvertently been put in the care of their disinterested uncle.
Not long after the governess is put in charge of the children, she begins to see two supernatural apparitions on the grounds. Worried that the children have somehow developed a relationship with these ghosts, the governess tries her best to protect them and their innocence, but her efforts have dire consequences.
Much like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, James’ subtle style and flair for the gothic will have readers guessing if there truly are apparitions, or if the governess has slowly succumbed to madness.
13. Swan Song – Post-Apocalyptic Madness
Robert McCammon’s novel feels a little closer to reality than it originally did in 1987. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the novel follows a series of characters trying to survive in New York after a nuclear bomb has been dropped onto the city. The group tries to find a safe place to restart their lives, but the promise of a better tomorrow does not come until a homeless woman named Sister Creep and a girl named Swan, who has strange, untapped abilities, meet.
Each protagonist must combat The Man with the Scarlet Eye, a demonic force that tries to embrace and create chaos in a world that is trying to rebuild from the ashes of war. McCammon paints an elaborate, but terrifyingly real portrayal of mankind’s inclination to turn against each other when faced with fear. Often described as a complicated and terrifying journey, McCammon’s ability to describe the horrors of a post-apocalyptic marks Swan Song as one of the best horror books of all time.
The Best Horror Novels Continuously Make the Cut
While a majority of these scary books were written in the 70s and 80s, there’s a reason why they continuously make the cut in terms of pure horror. Whether writing about girls who can crawl backwards down a staircase or a grisly clown that lives in the sewer, these tales keep you in a terrorizing vice grip and simply refuse to let go.
While you may want to buy yourself some chocolate or watch a video of puppies when you’re feeling down, consider picking up one of these amazing horror novels first. They may be just what you were looking for.