I love horror. My friends and family know this well, and have endured year after year of me being obsessed with Halloween, dragging them to opening night showings of new horror films, and deceptively suggesting they read horror novels. I love the thrill of being scared, of diving into the unknown, unsure of whether the characters (or you) will make it out alive.
In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve compiled my seven all-time favorite horror novels, which will provide some fun as well as a good overview of the different subgenres within horror. Read at your own risk!
The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.
One of my first exposures to the horror genre was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a stone-cold classic that has cemented itself among Dracula and Frankenstein as a pillar of the entire genre. I first read the novel back in middle school, and was taken by the lore and scares of the titular mansion, followed by a month-long obsession with the admittedly bad 1999 film adaptation The Haunting (I would later see the light and instead seek out the 1963 version.) Subsequent rereads of the novel have peeled back the layers and revealed a more nuanced work.
The real masterstroke of Jackson’s novel is in its ambiguity. While many readers view this as a true haunted house tale, there are critics who fervently argue the novel is not horror, arguing there is nothing supernatural taking place, with the events all confined to Eleanor’s imagination. I tend to flip-flop between the two schools of thought with every re-read. To be clear, the scares are incredibly potent, many of them taking place just out of focus which only amplifies their effects on the reader. This is a home run of a novel and the finest literary achievement of the entire horror genre.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
by Iain Reid
Maybe the end was written right from the beginning.
As a frequent reader of horror, it does take a lot to frighten me, and nothing has shaken me to my core quite like Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. With an incredibly simple premise of a woman and her boyfriend traveling in a snowstorm to visit his parents, Reid is able to dial up the unease to unbearable levels. I originally read this novel in about three days, and experienced back-to-back nights of terrifying nightmares, a rare occurrence for me.
I eluded to what makes this novel so scary, and it’s the intangible sense of unease that lingers over every page. It’s the questions the parents ask, the uncanny photographs, and the Dairy Queen that is inexplicably open during a blizzard. Reid’s novel is an exercise in unsettling the reader, pushing them to the edge, and leading to a switch-flip ending that feels like wearing glasses for the first time, the entire novel finally coming into focus. The 2020 film adaptation is also quite good, but very different from the novel, using the story’s framework to explore other themes.
by John Langan
When you turn off onto whatever secondary road you need to take, and you’re following its twists and turns back into the mountains, and the ground is steep to either side of you, opening every now and then on a meadow, or an old house, you think, ‘Here, there are secret places.’
In horror circles, John Langan’s The Fisherman has achieved modern classic status, and you will find no argument from me. Many horror novels take place on an intimate scale – like the haunted house – and use that to their advantage as their characters are left with a sense of inescapability. Langan though, ever the disciple of Lovecraft, writes at a massive scale. The Fisherman is one part examination of grief, one part dense folklore, and one part unimaginable cosmic horror, all combining for a literary novel at an epic scope.
For me, the middle section is what sold me on the novel, with a 150-page deep-dive into the history of a small town. That is exactly what I want from horror, similar to the sections in Stephen King’s IT about the history of Derry, Maine. Years later, I am still thinking about this novel, and I have yet to find cosmic horror done as well as in this novel, an exemplary work of that subgenre.
The Dead Zone
by Stephen King
Some things were better lost than found.
A list of horror novels would feel empty without one from the master of horror himself, Stephen King. I read quite a few of his books, including maybe his best novel Misery, but the one that I enjoyed the most has to be The Dead Zone. While it’s decidedly more of a thriller than a straight horror novel, King still employs plenty of chills in this story of a man who wakes up from a coma with the power to tell a person’s future with a single touch.
King is a master of the small-town novel and the novel’s first part involves our main character, Johnny, assisting the Castle Rock police in tracking down a serial killer. King does a great job of fleshing out Johnny’s life, especially his relationship with his girlfriend Sarah. It’s in those small, human elements where King really shines. His novels are certainly filled with scares, but they also pack a lot of heart, which is a big reason why he has remained one of the most popular writers for the past 50 years. If you’re looking for a place to start with King, I recommend giving The Dead Zone a go.
by Michael McDowell
It’s bad when the dead talk in dreams.
The horror community’s reappreciation of the works of Michael McDowell has led many readers to discover his unique brand of Southern gothic horror, and while his Blackwater Saga is probably the centerpiece of his oeuvre, The Elementals is his leanest, meanest, and scariest work. Following two families who visit their remote, Victorian summer homes on the Alabama Gulf Coast for a bit of a respite after a death in the family, only for the sins of the past to begin swallowing them whole.
Like all gothic fiction, The Elementals is a slow burn for the first half, but its pulpy soul takes over in the back half and it doesn’t relent. McDowell spends a lot of time to fully flesh out the characters, constructing the intricate family dynamics like a house of cards, making the ending all the more satisfying when they all come crashing down. It’s a novel that has haunted me since I finished it last year, and it immediately became an all-time favorite.
Summer of Night
by Dan Simmons
The sunset was that long, achingly beautiful balance of stillness in which the sun seemed to hover like a red balloon above the western horizon, the entire sky catching fire from the death of day; a sunset unique to the American Midwest and ignored by most of its inhabitants. The twilight brought the promise of coolness and the certain threat of night.
Dan Simmons is a writer of unbelievable talent, able to write classics across genres, like his sci-fi opus Hyperion, the modern classic historical horror novel The Terror, and the unclassifiable Carrion Comfort. For me, his finest hour is Summer of Night, a novel of childhood horror that rivals the best of Stephen King.
The narrative follows a group of friends in the 1960s who band together to stop an unknown evil from taking over their town, but don’t be fooled by that Scooby-Doo-esque premise, Summer of Night is a dark, terrifying novel. What makes it so memorable is that Simmons employs the same tools used by Ray Bradbury before him, with heavy childhood nostalgia and a small-town Midwestern setting grounding the reader, allowing the plot to take them on a wild ride complete with a haunted school, a reanimated teacher, a ghostly soldier, and giant worms.
While I am including this on a list being published in October, I have to recommend waiting for the height of summer to indulge in this one. You won’t regret it.
by Victor LaValle
A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral. A great fairy tale tells the truth.
Horror and fantasy are two genres that don’t always blend successfully, but when they do it’s a kind of alchemical reaction. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is a novel that can best be described as a dark fairy tale, but it’s informed by real horror and certainly deserves a spot on this list.
Apollo and his wife Emma are living a happy New York City life with a new baby, until Emma commits an incomprehensible act and seemingly disappears. This sets Apollo on a quest to understand his wife and child, into a labyrinthian New York City that may lie just outside of sight. LaValle is a novelist and cultural critic who has written extensively on the history of horror, including the racism that informed the life and work of his favorite writer, H.P. Lovecraft, and The Changeling is clearly the work of someone who knows the genre inside and out. It’s a beguiling novel, and I found it impossible to set down.