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.

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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.

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'Zombie' by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates' 1995 novel isn't like other horror titles, but that doesn't stop it from being scary enough to keep you up at night. The story here centers on the narrator, who details, in stream-of-consciousness style, how he plans to create the perfect sex slave.

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'House of Leaves' by Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves has a reputation for being a novel that's both difficult and terrifying. Trust me when I say that this book — which reads a lot like a book within a book — lives up to the hype.

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'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.

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'Lovecraft Country' by Matt Ruff

Slated to appear on HBO as a series directed by Jordan Peele (Get Out), Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country follows a young, black sci-fi fan who sets out on a cross-country journey from Chicago to New England after the mysterious disappearance of his father.

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'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.

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'Annihilation' by Jeff VanderMeer

The first in a trilogy of weird fiction, Annihilation follows a group of four unnamed women — all scientists, of a sort — into an unmappable area that has claimed countless crews before them.

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'Fever Dream' by Samanta Schweblin

Lying on her deathbed in the middle of nowhere, the protagonist recounts the story of her arrival to an eerie child in Samanta Schweblin's short novel, Fever Dream.

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'Ring' by Koji Suzuki

When a cursed VHS tape gives a journalist one week to live, he throws himself into a race against the clock, investigating the tape's origins and the murder that he believes may be connected.

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'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang

After a violent dream puts her off of eating meat, South Korean housewife Yeong-hye becomes a vegetarian, a decision that puts immediate strain on her interpersonal relationships.

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'A Head Full of Ghosts' by Paul Tremblay

Eight-year-old Merry narrates Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts, introducing audiences to her strange family life, which now revolves around her sister, Marjorie, whose mental illness has been construed — by their father's hard-line Catholic faith — as demonic possession.

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'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn

A family of manufactured circus freaks takes center ring in this haunting novel from Katherine Dunn, in which the firstborn son and main attraction, Arturo the Aqua-Boy, acquires an extreme cult following.

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'Parasite Eve' by Hideaki Sena

The basis for the PlayStation game of the same name, Hideaki Sena's Parasite Eve pits humanity against an intelligent life-form, the titular Eve, who exists in mitochondrial cells, and awaits the birth of her "child."

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'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.

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'The Trial' by Franz Kafka

Left unfinished at the end of the author's short life, Franz Kafka's The Trial follows a court case brought against a man who cannot face his accusers, and has no idea what crimes he may or may not have committed.

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'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier

After marrying a widower, a new bride enters her new home, only to be accosted by the specter of her husband's first wife, Rebecca de Winter, whose spirit seems to have enveloped the entire estate.

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'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.

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'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.

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'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.

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'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.

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'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.

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