21 Scary Books That Are More Terrifying Than Any Horror Movie
A lot of people get in the autumn spirit with scary-movie marathons, but I much prefer the slow, unspooling terror of a good horror novel. I've got 21 terrifying books that are scarier than any horror movie I've seen, so people like me can enjoy their spooky falls just as much as the movie buffs.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, you should know that I am not the kind of person who thinks that horror movies and books should only be read in the fall. Anytime is a good time to get spooked by a great story, so you should return to this list and others like it whenever you're in the mood, not just during the so-called horror-movie season.
Don't get me wrong, horror movies are great and all, but even the longer ones don't have time to build up a sense of true dread, in my opinion. The ones that do — I'm thinking here of Get Out, The Shining, and Alien, for example — are the exceptions that prove the rule. By contrast, horror novels have hours upon hours to develop their characters and ramp up the suspense, which means you're practically shaking as you turn those climactic final pages.
And because books require you to imagine all of the action taking place, your mind can come up with horrific images that special-effects directors can only dream of. I can still "see" Pennywise the Dancing Clown hug Adrian Mellon to death underneath that bridge in Derry. That scene was not in either the 1990 miniseries or the 2017 film adaption of Stephen King's IT, but I remember it vividly, nonetheless.
Reading does that to you. After all, who among us doesn't remember what Luna's bedroom ceiling looked like, or what happened when Ron won the Quidditch Cup for Gryffindor? Those scenes didn't make it into the Harry Potter movies, but we all know how they would have looked on screen, because the reader's mind is a magical thing, don'tcha know?
This is all to say that the 21 terrifying books on the list below will stick with you long after you have closed their covers. Be prepared for their gory scenes and disturbing passages to echo around your head for years to come, and be sure to savor them when they do. Check out my picks and share your favorites with me on Twitter!
'IT' by Stephen King
With the all-new film adaptation sweeping box offices across the country in 2017, there's no better time to read Stephen King's scariest novel: IT. This book is about fear, and not just how or why we experience it, but how easily it can be turned against us. Yes, there's an evil clown in IT, but he's just the tip of the deeply disturbing iceberg that is this novel.
'Zombie' by Joyce Carol Oates
'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson
Reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, you might get the sense that you've seen it all before. Centering on a group of four people who assemble to investigate a possibly haunted house, this is the book that launched 1,000 horror tropes.
'Lovecraft Country' by Matt Ruff
'White Is for Witching' by Helen Oyeyemi
Known as Pie-kah in the U.K., Helen Oyeyemi's White Is for Witching centers on a small, motherless family whose daughter, Miri, is compelled to eat things that are not food.
'A Head Full of Ghosts' by Paul Tremblay
'Night Film' by Marisha Pessl
Like House of Leaves above, Marisha Pessl's Night Film takes an unconventional approach to fiction, digitally enhancing its narrative with website screenshots and a companion app that functions as a decoder for some of the novel's mysterious images.
'The Hot Zone' by Richard Preston
The only nonfiction title on this list, Richard Preston's The Hot Zone documents the conditions under which an outbreak of Ebola, or a similar viral disease, could occur. Take this one with a healthy dose of wine to calm your nerves.
'The Cipher' by Kathe Koja
In Kathe Koja's The Cipher, a young woman's obsession with a dark hole in their apartment building pitches her boyfriend into a spiral of terror as the depths of that darkness begin to call to him.
'Penpal' by Dathan Auerbach
Based on Datha Auerbach's creepypasta posts to Reddit, Penpal purports to be the recollections of a young man trying to sort out a strange series of childhood events, including a batch of unexplained, candid photographs taken of him and his best friend.
'The Tailypo' by Joanna Galdone
While y'all were scaring yourselves silly with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I was terrified of a different kind of monster. The creepy swamp thing from Joanna Galdone's Tailypo pursues a hunter to reclaim its missing tail, and its disturbing chant has a way of haunting you for decades.
'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream' by Harlan Ellison
If the Hieronymus Bosch-like cover illustration didn't freak you out enough, rest assured that the title story in this collection will. It's the tale of a godlike A.I. that toys with its last human victims in a hellish domain. Check it out if you want to know what true body horror is.