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12 Best Horror Books of All Time (Start with These)

By Andrew Peloquin  |  Updated April 3, 2024

12 Best Horror Books of All Time (Start with These)

Is life too good and your days too happy? Well, let me recommend some horror novels that will ruin the heck out of both.

I’m kidding, of course…and yet, fellow horror addicts, I’m not really, am I?

Sometimes, you just need a good old fashioned scare in your life. A bit of psychological cruelty? Some macabre jump scares? A proper body horror tale that will give you all the chills? Yes, please.

Horror is a truly spectacular genre. You’re basically paying to be terrified, disgusted, or to spend hours biting your nails and dreading what’s going to happen next. We horror addicts bring this on ourselves because we just can’t get enough of that heart-pounding, jaw-dropping, stomach-clenching fiction we’ve loved since we were excitable and easily scared kids.

Long before I became a fantasy book reader (and, eventually, writer of 40+ books), I loved a good horror story. Some of my best—and worst —nights were spent staying up into the wee hours reading (and definitely not being able to fall asleep) scary stories.

  • There’s variety aplenty. Horror comes in a ton of different flavors: psychological horror, gothic horror, slasher fiction, supernatural horror, dark fantasy (my personal favorite), action horror, Lovecraftian horror, and so many more. Whatever your preferred type of dark, horrific fiction, there is always plenty of variety to choose from.
  • Too many books, too little time. I’ll be honest: I can only read a normal, human number of books per year, maybe 60 to 100 at most. There’s simply no way I can read all the books ever written, so if I haven’t heard of a few you’ve loved or included them on this list, we can simply chalk it up to the familiar reader problem of “too little time, too many great books”.
  • Preferences vary. While some readers may love the fantastical or supernatural styles of horror, others will find them far-fetched and unrealistic. Or maybe some readers dig the slasher fiction and others just think it’s overdone and unnecessarily dramatic. As the Spanish say, “Sobre gustos no hay nada escrito”—which roughly translates to “To each his own”. We’ve all got our favorite flavor of horror, and what works for me may not be your top pick. Keep that in mind as you read over my selections below.

Below, I’ve put together a list of the very best horror novels that have given me and many other readers countless sleepless nights and gut-wrenching nightmares. May they terrify and creep you out as they have done for me.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was the world’s first horror author, breaking onto the fiction stage more than 200 years ago with the truly riveting tale of Victor Frankenstein, scientist, dabbler in alchemy, and conqueror of death.

His creation, an 8-foot tall monstrosity of stitched-together human parts, is the epitome of a freak, monster, and outcast—an excellent reflection of all of us who feel like we don’t belong in a society that can carve out no place for us.

This is not only the originator of the horror genre, but also the inspiration behind body horror, monster horror, and the deeper psychological horror flavors we have come to know and love.

It seeks an answer to the most fundamentally human question: what is our purpose, and why are we here?

Published: 1818

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Nearly a century after Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, Bram Stoker gave us the masterpiece that is Dracula.

Inspired by the history and folklore of Transylvania, and modeled after the notorious Vlad the Impaler, it has become one of the most famous pieces of literature of all time.

Dracula does an amazing job of painting a dark, gothic picture, with atmospheric descriptions that ground you in the setting and make you feel the horror mounting with every page.

In addition to introducing a fascinating new form of villain—monsters who can change shape and use their abilities to control the minds of their victims—it also paints the picture of a tragic creature who is a prisoner of their own circumstance.

No “evil for the sake of evil” here, but a complex, intriguing, surprisingly human antagonist who is eminently relatable, even charming.

Expect plenty of tension, shocking moments, and a fascinating look into vampiric lore.

Published: 1897

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The year after Dracula was unleashed on the world of fiction, Henry James published this novella (in serial format in the Collier’s Weekly newspaper) that brought Gothic horror into the public eye. It’s thanks to this classic that the Gothic horror genre is as popular as it is today.

In The Turn of the Screw, a governess grows convinced that her two young charges—Miles and Flora—are haunted. The figures of a woman and man are seen around their estate, and the governess is determined to discover more and protect the two children, as is her job.

Inevitably, the story takes many turns for the darker. It’s a simple, straightforward ghost story, but eminently addictive and very easy reading. Read this story for a fun, classic Gothic horror romp.

Published: 1898

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

For those who love the haunted house style of horror, this is the cream of the crop.

The premise starts off simple: a family moves into an old mansion, which inevitably is haunted, causing them to flee. You’d think that’d be the end of it, but oh, no, no, no. The grief they suffered during their initial experiences as children haunts them into their adult years, inflicting trauma that eventually brings them back together years later.

Each has been scarred in their own ways, and that is the true exploration of humankind that makes this story so compelling.

There are spooky haunting scenes and jump-scares galore, but the reality—that the ghosts we choose to carry with us can do far more damage compounded over the years—is a sobering warning to all of us.

Published: 1959

The Stand by Stephen King

We could do an entire list on only Stephen King books (and who knows, we might one day soon?) because there are just so many to choose from. For the sake of this list, though, I’m limiting to just one book from the master of horror.

I will always be a fan of The Stand because of its fantastical dystopian flavor. In its pages, we discover a world ravaged by influenza, its population decimated, and the few survivors struggling to eke out an existence in a harsh world.

At its core, The Stand is strong because of its characters—from the virus-immune Stuart Redman to the mystical and mysterious Mother Abigail to wicked and devilish Randall Flagg. We’re drawn inexorably into a journey from which there is no escape, and we’re swept along on a tale that dives deep while still feeling like the epic Lord of the Rings fantasy book series that inspired it.

Published: 1978

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Ghost Story plays with one of the favorite pastimes of campers: ghost stories told sitting around a fire.

It’s literary fiction with a horror flavor, with sharply written characters, a complex and enthralling narrative, and a plot that will keep you turning pages one after the other to find out just what happened.

After all, what could be so horrifying that the four protagonists of the book have to keep telling ghost stories to attempt to make sense of them?

Published: 1979

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Would you believe me if I told you that this novel is supposed to be based on real-life events? Yes, The Exorcist is inspired by the possession of a Mr. Roland Doe in the 1940s, which makes its supernatural aspects all the more chilling.

Though it was released in the 70s, it’s still one of the most terrifying, spine-tingling horror novels to this day. Though the scenes begin as merely eerie, they quickly turn terrifying and disturbing as evil permeates a seemingly peaceful middle class home and the young Reagan is transformed into a truly monstrous being.

Macabre, bloody, and absolutely addictive, it’s a modern horror novel I cannot recommend highly enough.

Published: 1971

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Anne Rice breaks the mold with Interview with the Vampire—instead of presenting vampires merely as monstrous, thirst-driven beasts of the night, she paints them as bored immortals plagued by ennui, victims of their own circumstances and prisoners of eternity.

The story dives deep into themes of love and loyalty, morality and humanity, and the combination of this exploration into the psyche of these immortal beings melded with the Gothic flavor of storytelling creates a truly unique and spectacular novel that every horror fan needs to read at least once.

Published: 1976

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon is the first Hannibal Lecter novel, and I’d argue the strongest and most compelling.

In its pages, we’re given a glimpse into the mind of Will Graham, an FBI profiler with the uncanny knack to understand serial killers and psychopaths. We’re also introduced to the psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a man to whom Graham is connected and from whom he often seeks advice.

Well, thanks to the Hannibal movies (starring the amazing Anthony Hopkins), we know exactly where that is going. But Will doesn’t, so we’re given the pleasure of watching him go along with Dr. Lecter’s advice, which sends him inevitably on a downward spiral into darkness. And make no mistake: the antagonist—the Tooth Fairy, aka the Red Dragon—is a downright villain, a truly terror-inducing character that splashes every page with blood and gore.

It’s disturbing and brilliant and thoroughly addicting from start to finish, and an amazing start to your Hannibal Lecter journey.

Published: 1981

World War Z by Max Brooks

Zombie horror is a fairly new sub-genre compared to some of the other styles (Gothic, monster, body horror, etc.), but for those of us who love it, there’s an immense wealth of books to choose from.

None are quite as “authoritative” as World War Z, though.

Written by the same author who penned the fictitious but surprisingly helpful The Zombie Survival Guide, it looks at just how quickly a virus could spread around the world in our modern, highly connected society, and what—if anything—can be done to combat, slow, or stop it.

It’s an action-packed thriller that plays up the horror to brilliant effect, and is one of the greatest horror novels of the 2000s.

Published: 2006

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Research suggests that many of the world’s most influential figures—from presidents to CEOs to financiers—are likely to experience personality disorders like narcissism or sociopathy. In many cases, it’s the reason for their successes and achievements.

American Psycho takes us into the mind of one such: Patrick Bateman, investment banker, narcissist, and, ultimately, serial killer.

Through his narration, we are given a glimpse into the highly aberrative and distorted way he perceives the world, the justifications and rationalizations for his actions, and his descent into torture, necrophilia, and cannibalism.

It’s a truly terrifying read because of just how real it feels. After all, we all know someone who could be a Patrick Bateman, right?

Published: 1991

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

On my recent trip to Argentina, I discovered this absolute masterpiece of dystopian horror.

In this world, a virus has transformed all animal meat to make it poisonous to humans, leaving only one source of meat available—yes, you guessed it, human flesh.

We are taken on a horrorific hell-ride through the factory where this new “special meat” is produced, and we’re walked through the absolutely gut-churning details of how human beings are turned from living, breathing creatures into the food on your (or the characters’) dinner plate.

This is absolutely not for the faint of heart or soft of stomach. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself suddenly seriously considering going on a vegetarian diet for a while after reading this book.

But if you can look past the graphic, bloody horror, you’ll find it’s a brilliant, witty skewering of our modern consumerist lifestyle—and the things we humans will do to get what we want.

Published: 2017

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