We all had that book as kids — a book with such a terrifying book cover that we had to keep it under our beds or in another room between readings. As we got older, we (mostly) became able to tolerate even the scariest book covers, but one some level, those same childhood feelings about creepy book jackets remained: What could possibly be inside a book with such a frightening cover? And how would reading it change me?
For me, that scary book cover belonged to In a Dark, Dark Room — Alvin Schwartz's classic tome for kindergarteners who are interested in ghosts and beheadings — a book whose cover frightened me, but also thrilled me with its taboo power. I didn't know at the time, of course, that spooky horror fiction covers are an art form with a proud pedigree: beginning with EC Comics' "Tales from the Crypt" and the other pulp comics and magazines of the '50s, scary covers became part of the culture of scary books, enticing readers as they repelled them with a promise of the horrors that lurked inside their pages.
These 11 book covers below are among the most enticing and repelling around. Some of them sell the promise of a much scarier tale than the actual story they cover; some barely approximate the frights that you'll receive inside; but all draw you in with the promise of a book so scary, it'll change your life. Or at least make you sleep with the book thrown under your bed for a while.
NIGHT SHIFT by Stephen King
King's books are usually given tasteful and restrained covers, ones that rarely match the chilling content within (probably so your dad doesn't get embarrassed reading them on the commuter train). But some of his '70s publications have pulpy covers that come a little closer to reflecting the stories of magic, evil, and emotionally troubled alcoholic writers that fill his books. This specific cover, which I encountered in my town's public library as a small child, continues to periodically haunt my adult dreams (and yes, that painting is a pretty accurate rendering of one of the stories inside).
GOOSEBUMPS: THE CURSE OF CAMP COLD LAKE by R. L. Stine
A children's book that looks disturbingly like the cover of an Iron Maiden album, this book actually some of the series' freakiest and most disturbing moments (i.e. not with some crap about a nonsense haunted camera).
THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP AND OTHER WEIRD STORIES by H. P. Lovecraft
Evoking Lovecraft's signature "cosmic horror" on a book cover is a tough balancing act — many editions of his books have covers that look cheesy, like something a 10th grader would get sent home from school for doodling in the margins of their math book. But this recent edition — part of Penguin's recent collection of horror classics, curated by acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro — comes the closest to artfully capturing the otherworldly menace that fills Lovecraft's tales (even if this guy does look a smidgen like The Creature from the Black Lagoon).
BOOKS OF BLOOD by Clive Barker
Stumbling across a Clive Barker paperback in the home of your pot-smokingest aunt/ uncle has been the ruin of many a childhood — Barker's wildly popular tales of gushing blood, erotic madness, demons, and also more gushing blood remain some of the most depraved stories to get widespread publication and acclaim. This book cover comes closest to visually depicting the experience of stumbling into Barker's work —"Agh, how did I accidentally end up in a demon orgy? Ah, well, better make the best of it."
THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James
James' genre-defining tale of a governess unearthing the terrifying secrets of an eerie country manor is often beset by too-classy covers that want to convince you that the book isn't tawdry just because it may (or may not) contain ghosts. Of course, there's nothing tawdry about ghosts — so why be ashamed of this book's status as a ground-breaking horror classic? This Australian version by Collins Classics comes closest to conveying the book's aura of restrained menace — sure, the doll only plays a small role in the actual book, but at least we can all agree that Victorian dolls are pretty uniformly horrific.
I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson
Matheson's classic "Who's the real monster, you monster!" tale about life after the apocalypse has had a number of different covers since its original publication in 1954, each imbued with varying degrees of frightitude. But this terrifyingly jacketed recent reissue edition by Tor tops them all, packing way more scares into a single photo than were had in the Will Smith film adaptation (spoiler: the real monster in any Will Smith film is Will Smith).
WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson's final novel is one of the only horror classics that I can think of that has had a terrifying cover in every single edition — after all, you'd have to be a fool to think you could draw more readers to this gothic story by playing down its crumbling mansions, family anguish, and poisoned blackberries. But this recent Penguin re-issue, with cover art by comic artist Thomas Ott, captures the book's darkness and claustrophobia better than any other edition I've seen.
THE GHOST WRITER by John Harwood
True story: This story about ghost stories came highly recommended to me, and I've owned my copy for several years. I have even taken it along with me through an apartment move. But I just can't get past the cover model's Carnival of Souls makeup and the way she's falling through the center of a spiral stair case (never a good thing). I've never been able to crack open the damned thing, but if it's good (and/or as scary as this cover), please let me know.
MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs
Miss Peregrine is actually a quirky, fast-paced fantasy, rather than the literary Nine Inch Nails video promised by its cover (and that goes double for the downright scarifying photos included in the book's picture insert). But this eye-catching book jacket is a piece of art in its own right, and probably deserves a decent amount of credit for the book's success.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK by Alvin Schwartz
You can be honest here: this is a safe space to admit that the cover of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ruined your life. Or at least your childhood. If I wanted to know what a skull with all the skin peeled off looks like, I'd go to a morgue, Stephen Gammel! The illustrations in this series — including the covers, which are just laid out in bookstores, where anyone can see them! — are more life-ruining than a thousand straight-to-DVD Hostel sequels, if you ask me. And yet, I was kind of bummed out when they reissued Scary Stories with tamer illustrations a few years back. Is it because, even though they made me spend the rest of my life convinced that there were spiders inside my head, I can still respect these drawings as art? Or is it because I think future generations of children should have to suffer like I did? Six of one, half a dozen of the other, I'd say.
IN A DARK, DARK ROOM by Alvin Schwartz
Okay, fine, I'm an adult now who has a job and pays taxes and has done all sort of real, genuinely frightening things, but really LOOK AT THIS DAMN THING!