When most people think about horror, the first things that come to their minds is probably a movie — maybe the ’70s classic
The Exorcist, or something more recent, like the Korean zombie thriller Train to Busan. But horror films couldn’t exist without horror literature. Beloved movies like The Exorcist and the Hannibal series all began on the page, while classic Gothic novels have been reinterpreted so many times they feel more like Hollywood staples than novels at this point. As time has passed, it’s become a reciprocal relationship: Horror fiction draws on cinema for inspiration, too. But there’s more to horror novels than just the potential for cinematic adaptation, or vice versa. On the list below, you’ll find horror novels and short story collections that don’t need to be filmed to be terrifying; the words on the page are enough to do the job. In Kay Dick’s strange and utterly unfilmable short novel They, for instance, the bad guys never appear and are never named. But you might just wind up staying up all night worrying about them anyway.
The advent of film isn’t the only thing that’s shaped the genre, either. Since the 19th century, when still-beloved Gothic classics like
Frankenstein and Dracula made waves, the genre has diversified. Not only does it include all kinds of stories, from romance to humor to vampire sagas, it also features work by writers of diverse backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations, and incorporates traditions from across the globe.
Read on for a list of the best horror books to read now.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article. 1 Frankenstein
If you’re looking for a horror classic, there’s no better place to start than
Frankenstein. Though it’s more often cited as one of the first examples of science fiction, it’s had just as much of an influence on horror writers and filmmakers. Much of the novel is dedicated to the philosophical questions raised by scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of his Monster, but the Monster also stalks Victor from one country to the next, lurks in secret in his house, and murders more than one innocent victim. If that doesn’t sound like something that’ll keep you up at night, what does? 2 Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
It’s impossible to talk about horror without mentioning Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the horror short story. You might have read “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” in school, but they’re worth a reread: Poe’s chilling short stories have stood the test of time. In the most disturbing of these tales, violence happens outside the frame — but the implication is even more disturbing than a more straightforward description would be.
3 Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales
Countless horror writers and directors have drawn on this classic by Robert Louis Stevenson: Like
Frankenstein, it’s had a long afterlife. If you’re interested in reading a classic but don’t want to tackle something too long or challenging, this is a great option. Stevenson tells the story of his virtuous doctor who transforms into the malicious Mr. Hyde in a compact, suspenseful novella. It’s no wonder the story still resonates today. 4 Dracula Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have both left indelible marks on contemporary culture — but unlike Stevenson’s novella, Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel is a sprawling epic. Though it’s a commitment, fans of the countless film adaptations of Dracula, from the German silent classic Nosferatu to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, will relish this familiar tale in its original form. The story begins with Jonathan Harker traveling from London to Transylvania to handle a sale of property to the mysterious Count... and things go sideways from there. 5 The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories
This haunting classic is less plot-driven than
Frankenstein or Dracula; instead, it focuses on a governess who finds herself unnerved by her new charges and the estate where they live, which she begins to believe is haunted. As with most of Henry James’ fiction, the meat of the story lies in what’s unspoken, and the governess’ palpable dread of the ghosts — who may or may not be real — and simultaneous obsession with and fear of the children will linger long after you turn the last page. 6 Blind Owl Blind Owl isn’t for the faint of heart. The narrator of this short novel, a man who illustrates pen cases for a living, is slowly losing touch with reality. He’s addicted to opium, feeling scorned by a distant lover, having terrible visions — and fantasizing about murder. Sadeq Hedayat, an Iranian writer who also spent long periods of time in Europe, fused the influences of Western writers like Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe with Iranian folklore in this dizzying, claustrophobic window into one man’s deteriorating mind. 7 The Midwich Cuckoos
John Wyndham was a prolific science fiction writer in the early and mid-20th century, perhaps best known for the post-apocalyptic novel
The Day of the Triffids. But he also made a splash with The Midwich Cuckoos, in which aliens impregnate every woman in a small English town. The resulting children are blond, uncanny, telepathic... and up to no good. The novel was adapted into horror classic Village of the Damned in 1960, and remade by John Carpenter in 1995. 8 The Haunting of Hill House
It’s impossible to pick a single novel as the greatest horror novel of all time, but Shirley Jackson’s magnum opus would be near the top of anyone’s list. Though the recent, popular Netflix adaptation was entertaining, it shared little with Jackson’s novel apart from the title; the original is a much darker and more disturbing tale. It’s hard to summarize just what makes
The Haunting of Hill House so special: There’s nothing remarkable about the plot, which involves a group of people visiting an old house and trying to find evidence that it’s haunted. The real magic — and fear — comes from Jackson’s pristine sentences and her ability to conjure real terror out of the most seemingly insignificant detail. 9 Something Wicked This Way Comes Something Wicked This Way Comes may be Ray Bradbury’s best novel. The story follows two 13-year-old boys who must battle the evil forces animating a malevolent traveling carnival that visits their small town. As its plot and setting suggest, it made a lasting impact on Stephen King, who borrowed liberally from its plot set-up in creating It. 10 The Exorcist The Exorcist is more famous as a film than as a book, but it began as a novel, and you’re unlikely to find a more terrifying read. Author William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, was inspired by a real story he’d heard about a 1949 exorcism in Washington, D.C. In the novel, he pits an aging Jesuit priest against a demonic child whose atheist mother doesn’t want to believe that her daughter might actually be possessed. 11 The Other
This novel by Thomas Tryon, reissued by the New York Review of Books, is less well-known than some other installments on this list, but it’s truly terrifying. Tryon takes a cue from Robert Louis Stevenson by writing about doppelgangers: in this case, twin brothers Holland and Niles Perry. Though they’re only 13, Holland is already displaying deeply disturbing behavior, which Niles — the kind and sweet half of their symbolically split personality — tries to paper over. But he won’t be able to cover up for his brother forever.
12 ‘Salem’s Lot
It’s impossible to pick just one (or even two) books by Stephen King to include on a list of best horror books. His work has defined the genre, and he’s been so prolific over the course of his career that there are dozens of options to choose from. But there’s no better place to start than
‘Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel (after Carrie) and one of his most critically acclaimed. Set in small-town Maine, like so much of his work, it follows an aspiring writer who discovers that his hometown is overflowing with vampires. 13 Interview with the Vampire
If you want to read about vampires, there’s no better option than the vampire novel to rule them all: Anne Rice’s first book featuring her famous vampire Lestat,
Interview with the Vampire. Like so many other books featured here, it was adapted into a film, featuring Tom Cruise as the monstrous but captivating Lestat and Brad Pitt as his woebegone sidekick. As fun as that movie is, there’s nothing quite like diving into Rice’s world, which is darker and sexier than anything Hollywood would allow on screen. 14 They They is a somewhat unconventional choice for a horror list, as there’s not much violence, and what little there is takes place elsewhere. But the novel, which was recently rediscovered and has been reissued by McNally Editions, is an exquisite portrait of the constant fear that comes from knowing that violence might strike at any moment. The book is comprised of a series of stories, all of which revolve around artists in coastal England who are being surveilled (and sometimes controlled) by mysterious authoritarian. The novel’s subtitle — “A Sequence of Unease” — tells you everything you need to know. 15 The Bloody Chamber
In this short story collection, feminist writer Angela Carter repurposes familiar fairy tales to tell stories about women’s sexuality and agency. Carter was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and other Gothic writers, but her stories are bloody in a way that 19th century fiction couldn’t be. The author isn’t afraid to depict the female body or to show women committing acts of violence — nor does she hesitate to delve into how sexuality intersects with violence and power.
16 Red Dragon
There are few characters in modern fiction more iconic than Hannibal Lecter. While
The Silence of the Lambs may be his most memorable appearance on screen, if you want to read about the sophisticated cannibal, you should start with the first Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Red Dragon, which provided the source material for much of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV show, introduces readers to FBI profiler Will Graham as well as to Hannibal Lecter, who’s already been captured and is in prison at the beginning of the story. 17 The Elementals
Though you may not know Michael McDowell’s name, there’s a decent chance you’re familiar with his work. He wrote the screenplays for the Tim Burton classics
Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and has also published novels, including The Elementals — which was underappreciated when it first appeared in 1981, but has grown in esteem in recent years. McDowell blends haunting Southern Gothic imagery and mood with a family story that’s by turns darkly funny and tragic. 18 The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story
This delicious novel by Susan Hill is a throwback to earlier Gothic novels like
The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca. Narrator Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, travels from London to the north of England to help settle an estate — only to discover that the deceased has a mysterious connection to a nameless woman in black who haunts the town. As Arthur digs deeper into the story, he uncovers a long-hidden secret that raises more questions than it answers. 19 The Graveyard Apartment
Japanese writer Mariko Koike doesn’t mess around in her masterpiece
The Graveyard Apartment. Though it’s not overly gory, Koike indulges in one horror trope after the next as she builds to a terrifying conclusion. As the novel’s title suggests, the protagonists — a young family in ’80s Japan — move into an apartment that borders a graveyard, and soon discover that the building’s basement is haunted. The rest of the tenants move out, one by one, until only the family and whatever is living in the basement are left. 20 It It had become so ubiquitous in popular culture that it’s easy to forget that it’s a deeply strange novel: It clocks in at over 1,000 pages long, features an orgy involving characters in middle school, and the villain is an evil clown. And it’s hugely popular, and has been ever since it was published in 1986. There are plenty of reasons It shouldn’t work, but sometimes, authors taking audacious risks pays off. It is bold, transgressive, and utterly consuming — by the end, you’ll feel like you’ve read a whole series, not just one book. 21 Beloved
Toni Morrison’s masterpiece
Beloved isn’t often thought of as a horror novel: It’s such a renowned classic of American literature that it’s easy for readers to forget what the story is actually about. But Beloved is, in fact, a ghost story. Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, and her daughter Denver are formerly enslaved people who live in a house that is visited by an unnerving woman named Beloved, whom they begin to believe is the manifestation of Sethe’s first daughter, who died years before. 22 Geek Love
In Katherine Dunn’s cult classic
Geek Love, the term “geek” refers to a performer in a macabre carnival, not a nerdy teenager. The novel tells the story of Olympia and her parents Al and Crystal, who decide to breed a set of geeks to increase the appeal of their traveling carnival. The resulting geeks are extreme and sometimes grotesque, but Dunn celebrates their strangeness. 23 The Gilda Stories
Activist and author Jewelle Gomez subverts traditional vampire tropes in her debut novel,
The Gilda Stories. The story begins as Gilda escapes from slavery in Louisiana in the 1850s, and follows her as she becomes a vampire and crosses the country throughout the next two centuries, all the way into the 2050s. Not only does Gomez challenge the status quo by making Gilda Black and bisexual, she upends classic vampire tropes (most of which involve murder) by inventing new ways for vampires to interact with, and even help, the people whose blood they drink. 24 Fledgling
Science fiction legend Octavia Butler is perhaps best known for her novels
Kindred and The Parable of the Sower. But Butler’s sprawling imagination captured practically every corner of the speculative fiction landscape, and in her final novel, Fledgling, she, like Gomez with The Gilda Stories, put her own spin the vampire novel. Butler invented an alternate species, the Ina, who resemble vampires from Hollywood movies but aren’t exactly the same; instead, she uses the Ina to explore ideas about the construction of race. 25 My Soul to Keep
UCLA film professor Tananarive Due is an
expert on the history of Black horror, from Beloved to Get Out, which was the focus of a class she taught in 2017. She’s applied her expertise creatively, too, in a long list of horror novels; her African Immortals series, which begins with My Soul to Keep, is perhaps her best known. My Soul to Keep starts with a marriage between two people who seem perfect for each other. Soon, though, journalist Jessica discovers that the man she thought was her dream husband is actually an immortal being — who may not have as much respect for her autonomy as she once imagined. 26 Skin Folk
Jamaican-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson is a prolific writer of novels and short story collections, many of which draw on Caribbean folklore and culture. In her collection
Skin Folk, she retells, reimagines, and finds inspiration in older Carribean stories, as well as a couple classic European tales from the Brothers Grimm. The range of stories and genres in this dynamic collection shows off Hopkinson’s skill and dexterity as a writer, and will leave you with a chill, but still wanting more. 27 White Is for Witching
Helen Oyeyemi has earned a reputation as an interpreter and inventor of folk stories and fairy tales in books like
Mr. Fox. In White Is for Witching, she stays in the realm of the fantastic, but shifts to a more menacing register. The novel follows a woman named Miranda whose childhood home is sentient and xenophobic — it lashes out at foreigners. Things get especially bad when Miranda falls in love with a Nigerian woman in college. And as if that weren’t enough, the house is also full of ghosts. 28 Zone One
Colson Whitehead is now best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels
The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. But over the course of his career, he’s experimented across genres, including the zombie novel. In Zone One, Whitehead draws on the work of Stephen King and Isaac Asimov to transform New York City into a post-apocalyptic landscape rebuilding in the wake of a zombie plague. 29 The Ballad of Black Tom
Classic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft was an
infamous racist — so it’s a bold move for author Victor LaValle to rewrite his short story “The Horror at Red Hook” from a Black character’s perspective. The Ballad of Black Tom brilliantly evokes 1920s Harlem, where young protagonist Tommy Tester finds himself sucked into the world of a wealthy white man who wants to summon the old gods — and possibly begin the apocalypse. In addition to being a gripping novel all on its own, LaValle’s book is also a clever and stinging critique of Lovecraft’s xenophobia. 30 Her Body and Other Parties
This debut short story collection by Carmen Maria Machado was published at exactly the right time: It first appeared in October 2017, just as the #MeToo movement was first emerging. Machado doesn’t necessarily make overt political statements in the stories in this collection, which are by turn grotesque, sexy, and funny. But, in the tradition of Angela Carter, she makes a larger point about women’s sexuality and the female body that felt particularly timely in the #MeToo era, and continues to resonate today.
31 Things We Lost in the Fire
Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection has been compared to Shirley Jackson’s work, and it’s easy to see why: Enriquez’s stories are sharp, Gothic, and often preoccupied with women’s lives. But if
Things We Lost in the Fire was influenced by Jackson, it’s also a distinctly Argentinian work. Enriquez uses her fiction not only to comment on current social conditions in Argentina, from poverty to drug addiction, but also to allude to the military junta’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s, and the people who were disappeared during that time. 32 The Hole
This claustrophobic novel was a bestseller in acclaimed novelist Hye-Young Pyun’s home country of South Korea. It tells the story of Oghi, a man who inadvertently causes his wife’s death in a driving accident. He winds up in a coma as a result of the crash, and when he wakes up, he’s being cared for by his mother-in-law, who’s ignoring him in favor of uprooting his wife’s beloved garden. While Oghi’s mother-in-law digs bigger and bigger holes outside, he tries to figure out how to escape her care.
This Japanese horror classic was first published as a serialized manga in 1998 and 1999 before finally coming out in collected form in 2010. Since then, it’s attained iconic status in Japan and across the world, and has been adapted multiple times for film and television. In
Uzumaki, Ito tells the story of a group of teenagers living in a small Japanese town that has been beset by a spiral curse: The spirals that appear — to greatly unsettling effect — in this graphic novel cause of disastrous events but can also inspire chaos just by virtue of their appearance. As the novel progresses, the young protagonists journey deeper and deeper into the curse, risking getting lost in it forever as they attempt to free the town. 34 Comemadre
This novella by Argentine writer Roque Larraquy is about as gruesome as they come. The first part of the book takes place in 1907, in a sanatorium where doctors have built an experimental device that chops off patients’ heads in the hopes that they can see into the afterlife in the moments immediately following decapitation. The second half of the book takes place 100 years later, and shifts focus to the art world — while still maintaining Larraquy’s interest in severed body parts.
35 The Only Good Indians
Blackfoot Native American author Stephen Graham Jones is a veteran horror writer who’s published many novels and short stories; like some of the other authors on the list, he’s written plenty of books that could be included here. But
The Only Good Indians, one of his most celebrated novels, is a great place to start. It’s been compared to Get Out, and for good reason: Like that film, it includes elements of horror and social commentary. The book follows a group of young Blackfeet men who go hunting on land reserved for their tribe’s elders. But what started off a lark goes wrong and ultimately leads to murder. 36 Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Mexican Gothic, Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia draws on classic Gothic novels including Jane Eyre and Rebecca and infuses them with a pulpy horror sensibility. The novel’s protagonist, chic socialite Noemí, travels to a reclusive abode in the Mexican countryside where her cousin is living with her wealthy husband — whom she believes is poisoning her. Once Noemí arrives at the house, she gets sucked into the mystery of the family that lives there... and getting out may prove difficult. 37 A Luminous Republic
Spanish writer Andrés Barba’s unnerving novel
A Luminous Republic evokes The Midwich Cuckoos in its depiction of uncanny and even violent children; in this case, though, Barba uses his set-up to explore the effects of colonialism. The story follows a group of feral children who emerge from the jungle and begin scavenging food from an Argentinian city. Things grow more serious for the local adults when their own children run away to join them. 38 Reprieve
James Han Mattson’s
Reprieve is another novel that blends social commentary with horror. Its plot isn’t too different from that of Squid Game, albeit on a smaller scale: Four contestants play a game in a gruesome escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska. If they can make it through the game without saying “reprieve,” they win a life-changing amount of money. The only problem is that someone bursts into the room and kills one of them before the game is over. Mattson’s novel follows his characters for years after this shocking event, as they attempt — and fail — to move on from what they’ve seen and done. 39 Lakewood
Author Megan Giddings draws on the dark history of medical experimentation in America to craft a disturbing novel that’s been compared to both
Get Out and The Handmaid’s Tale. It follows Lena, a Black millennial woman who takes a position with the mysterious Lakewood Project to help pay off her family’s overwhelming debt. At first, the gig seems too good to be true: She doesn’t have to pay rent, and her healthcare is covered by the project. But soon she begins to suspect that she may not know the truth about the care she’s receiving. 40 We Cast a Shadow
Lakewood, We Cast a Shadow is a novel about race and medical experimentation — but in this book, the unnamed narrator is seeking out experimental medical treatment, not being subjected to it. The narrator, who is Black, dotes on his biracial son, Nigel, but worries obsessively about a birthmark on Nigel’s face that he worries will give away his biracial identity. When he hears about an experimental procedure that turns people white, he dedicates himself to attaining access to the surgery, no matter the cost.
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