Click If You Dare: 100 Favorite Horror Stories
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Who doesn't love a good scary story, something to send a chill across your skin in the middle of summer's heat? And this year, we're celebrating the 200th birthday of one of the most famous scary stories of all time: Frankenstein — so a few months ago, we asked you to nominate your favorite horror novels and stories, and then we assembled an expert panel of judges to take your 7000 nominations and turn them into a final, curated list of 100 spine-tingling favorites for all kinds of readers. Want to scar your children for life? We can help. Want to dig into the dark, slimy roots of horror? We've got you covered.
As with our other reader polls, this isn't meant to be a ranked or comprehensive list — there are a few books you won't see on it despite their popularity — some didn't stand the test of time, some just didn't catch our readers' interest, and in some cases our judges would prefer you see the movie instead. (So no Jaws, sorry.) And there are a few titles that aren't strictly horror, but at least have a toe in the dark water, or are commenting about horrific things, so our judges felt they deserved a place on the list.
One thing you won't see on the list is any work from this year's judges, Stephen Graham Jones, Ruthanna Emrys, Tananarive Due and Grady Hendrix. Readers did nominate them, but the judges felt uncomfortable debating the inclusion of their own work — so it's up to me to tell you to find and read their excellent books! I personally, as a gigantic horror wuss, owe a debt of gratitude to this year's judges, particularly Hendrix, for their help writing summaries for all the list entries. I'd be hiding under the bed shuddering without their help.
And a word about Stephen King: Out of almost 7000 nominations you sent in, 1023 of them were for the modern master of horror. That's a lot of Stephen King! In past years, we've resisted giving authors more than one slot on the list (though we made an exception for Nora Roberts during the 2015 romance poll — and she's basically the Stephen King of romance.) In the end, we decided that since so much classic horror is in short story format, we would allow authors one novel and one short story if necessary.
So screw your courage to the sticking point, and dive into this year's list! Here are some quick links to make it easier for you to navigate:
Blood Roots, Zombies And Vampires And Werewolves, The Fear In Our Stars, Horrible Homes, Final Girls, Horribly Ever After, Hell Is Other People, Short And Sharp, Scar Your Children, The Kids Aren't All Right.
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Mary Shelley's tragically misunderstood monster turns 200 this year, and he is still lurching along, one of the most influential creations ever committed to the page. While reviewers at the time condemned Shelley's "diseased and wandering imagination," her vision of human knowledge and technological advancement outstripping humanity's ability (or inclination) to use that knowledge responsibly still resonates today.
OK, it wasn't the first vampire novel, but Bram Stoker's most famous work was certainly the first book to pull together all the qualities we now associate with vampires — except the sparkling: Transylvanian, aristocratic, dangerous to young women, so, basically Bela Lugosi (who was actually Hungarian, but oh, that accent). Much like its monstrous companion Frankenstein, Dracula wasn't initially regarded as a classic — but once the film adaptations began to appear, it quickly achieved legendary status.
'Young Goodman Brown'
Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story is the ur-American horror tale. Published in 1835, it's short and savage: A young husband travels through the dark woods and stumbles upon a satanic orgy. Everyone he knows is there, including his lovely young wife. Then he wakes up in his own bed. Was it all a dream, or do his neighbors lead secret double lives? Is his wife a blushing bride or an emissary from hell? Modern America still lives in the shadow of these implications.
'The Tell-Tale Heart'
Why do you think I'm mad? I'm just nervous. Nervous, I swear. Look at how calmly I can write up this summary of one of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous stories, about an unnamed narrator recounting how he killed the old man with the "evil eye." It wasn't the man, you see, but his "evil eye"! But what's that noise? Louder! Louder! Louder! It is the beating of his hideous heart!
"I have been in love with no one, and never shall," whispers the lovely vampire, "unless it should be with you." Long before Dracula had any brides, Sheridan Le Fanu's deliciously shivery novella gave readers a thrill with its barely-veiled lesbian subtext. Though lesser known than Bram Stoker's work, "Carmilla" was a great influence on Dracula — and a classic in its own right.
'The Turn Of The Screw'
Nobody's entirely sure what evil lurks at the heart of Henry James' seminal story, but we can all agree that it's creepy as heck. Written in the form of a manuscript by a former governess, now dead, it describes her experiences caring for two unfortunate children on a country estate that may or may not be haunted by the ghosts of former estate workers ... who may or may not be communing with or somehow controlling the children. As with several of the stories on this list, readers are left to judge whether the horrors are real or whether our narrator is merely mad.
'The Great God Pan'
Creating a hole in a human head is almost never a good idea, particularly when it's done by a mad scientist who wants to open up the skulls of mankind to the spiritual world. This story of a half-divine woman who inveigles men to their doom shocked critics in its time — and was a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft and authors in his orbit. (And the great god Pan here isn't much like the Pan of Greek myths; he is closer to being one of the Lovecraft-inspired Elder Gods.)
'The Monkey's Paw'
That old saying about being careful what you wish for predates W.W. Jacobs' classic spooky story — but there may be no better illustration than this tale of a father, a son and three wishes gone horribly wrong. "'The Monkey's Paw' gets us to do the work of dreaming up the monster on the other side of the door. But it's no less real for that. Really, it's more real, probably," says judge Stephen Graham Jones.
Two friends, never named — though one, we learn, is "devoid of imagination," so remember that as you read — are on a canoe trip down the Danube during its summer floods. This seems foolhardy enough, but then they decide to make camp on an island that turns out to be packed with monstrous, night-walking willow trees who definitely don't want them there. This story was reportedly one of H.P. Lovecraft's favorites, and we can see why.
'The Yellow Wallpaper'
Charlotte Perkins Gilman drew on her own experience of illness and powerlessness for "The Yellow Wallpaper" — prescribed a "rest cure" for her nerves, she was forbidden to work, to touch pen or pencil, allowed only two hours' intellectual stimulation a day and commanded to live as domestic a life as possible. It nearly broke her, and she later said she wrote this story of a young woman driven mad by a rest cure and some unfortunate wallpaper as a direct message to her doctor.
'Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad'
Between 1904 and 1925, M.R. James, an ascetic British scholar who lived his entire life at boys' schools, either as a student or a professor, turned out four short story collections that transformed ethereal phantoms into hideously corporeal apparitions with too many teeth, too much hair and plenty of soft, spongy skin. His characters merely had to read the wrong book, collect the wrong artifact or bump into the wrong person on the street, and soon one of his creations would be slithering into their safe spaces — their warm bedsheets, their cozy parlor, their beloved study — and enveloping their faces in a soggy, smothering touch.
The Werewolf Of Paris
Kind of a Les Miserables for lycanthropes, Guy Endore's 1933 novel is The Great American Werewolf Novel. A man journeys through 19th century France, seeking to destroy his nephew — whom he suspects of having inherited the family curse — and along the way giving readers a tour of man's appetite for carnage, with stops during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. What does it matter, Endore asks, if a werewolf kills a few people, in the face of a political system that kills thousands?
I Am Legend
Richard Matheson's novel about the last man left after a plague turns humanity into vampire-zombie hybrids is as much a meditation on loneliness as it is a horror story. (Spoiler alert: Things don't end well for the dog.) I Am Legend was turned into several movies, and it was also a major influence on horror master George Romero, who once said he had taken the idea for Night of the Living Dead from Matheson's novel.
Let The Right One In
Sometimes we'll tell you to see the movie and skip the book, but in this case, you should read the book, too. Lonely, bullied Oskar befriends his new neighbor, Eli — who seems to be a 12-year-old girl, but is actually a centuries-old vampire. She has a few other secrets, too, but we'll let you find those out on your own. Let the Right One In is a skillfully spooky mix of horrors supernatural — vampirism — and sadly mundane — alcoholism, bullying and child abuse.
The Vampire Chronicles (First Triology)
In 1976, Anne Rice released Interview with the Vampire and no one much cared. In 1985, she released the swaggering, sexy The Vampire Lestat to massive sales, which retroactively turned Interview into a bestseller. What had changed? AIDS. Suddenly, everyone got scared of blood and bodily contact. Rice's sensuous, sexy vampires with their raw desire seemed suddenly so much more dangerous and decadent, like a raised middle finger to condoms and fear. The party continued with the third book, Queen of the Damned, but the series began to stutter after that.
Minion (Vampire Huntress Legend Series)
Author L. A. Banks was a pioneer in black supernatural fiction and horror, says our judge Tananarive Due — and this saga of Damali, a young spoken-word artist who discovers she is part of an ancient struggle between good and evil will appeal to both fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood. But Banks adds extra layers of African spirituality, mythology and musical knowledge — Damali's guardians and guides travel with her in the guise of her backup band, camouflaging their weapons as instruments.
The real Donner Party apparently wasn't scary enough for Alma Katsu, who recasts the story of the infamously ill-fated pioneers as supernatural horror. We know the Donner Party, trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevadas, turned to cannibalism to survive the winter – but what if there was more to it? What if it wasn't plain old wolves that killed that young boy and stripped his flesh? What if ... something ... is following the wagon train as the snows close in, tempers fray and death circles closer?
Those Across The River
World War I veteran Frank finds himself broke and unemployed in the midst of the Great Depression, so he decides to try for a fresh start by moving back the rural Georgia town where his family once owned a plantation and writing a book about the estate and the awful events that happened there. Needless to say, this is a bad idea. Those Across the River is one of many books on this list that dig into the ways that humanity's great evils — war and slavery — can haunt countries and generations.
Something is out there — something you can't see. Something you must not see, because one glimpse will drive you violently insane. In Josh Malerman's near-future apocalypse, it has been five years since "The Problem" began, and only a few survivors are left. One of them is a young woman with two small children in tow, who must get them 20 miles to safety, all while blindfolded to avoid catching sight of the mysterious horrors.
Feed (Newsflesh Series)
What if journalism was our last line of defense against a zombie apocalypse? (As a journalist, I ... well, actually no, this book scared the bejesus out of me.) In Mira Grant's zombified world of 2040, humanity is confined to tightly patrolled safe zones and bloggers are their primary source of entertainment and information. Brother and sister team Georgia and Shaun Mason are chronicling a presidential campaign convoy that gets attacked by zombies — leading them to uncover a vast conspiracy to use fear of zombies to force social change.
World War Z
Inspired by actual oral histories of World War II, Max Brooks' zombie-apocalypse novel chronicles a world on the brink of collapse after a zombie plague. In Brooks' dystopian vision, corporate malfeasance, government repression and incompetence allow the plague to run wild, eventually leaving just a remnant of humanity left to start planning a D-Day (Z-Day?) style attempt to retake the world from the mindless hunger of the zombies.
The Girl With All The Gifts
Young Melanie — only 10 years old — isn't entirely sure why she needs armed guards or why she is so different from the adults who feed and educate her. And then she gets her first taste of human flesh. Melanie is one of the "hungries," humans infected by the cordyceps fungus (which exists in our world for real, though it mostly attacks insects), and a lot of the horror in M.R. Carey's novel — apart from all the gooily gross descriptions of the infected — comes from what the few remaining "normal" humans do in the face of a fungal apocalypse.
'The Shadow Over Innsmouth'
"Even among unrepentant Lovecraft readers, 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' can start arguments," says judge Ruthanna Emrys, our resident Lovecraft expert. "The Deep Ones, hybrids between humans and their ancient, aquatic brethren, are among Lovecraft's most compelling creations, and it's a rare Lovecraftian anthology that doesn't include a story or five about their amphibious exploits. On the other hand, Lovecraft's terror of Other People is on full display here. Close parallels are drawn between having kids with non-human monsters and having kids with natives of Pacific islands, and there are repeated shudders over Innsmouth folk speaking languages other than English. If you can handle this sort of thing it's an entertaining read; whether you read it or skip it, modern takes like Sonya Taaffe's 'All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts' — also on this list — provide compelling alternatives." Emrys has also written a thoughtful essay for us on how to think about Lovecraft — check it out.
The Ballad Of Black Tom
Victor LaValle grew up reading H.P. Lovecraft — but when he got older, he began to recognize the racism in those stories he had loved. The Ballad of Black Tom is a powerful response to Lovecraft's racism, taking one of his most hateful stories, "The Horror at Red Hook" and recasting it in the voice of a young black man in 1920s Harlem (and, let's not forget, making a much stronger story out of it). LaValle doesn't look away from this darkness at the root of modern horror — instead, he builds something strange and angry and new on top of it.
Two men, Abe and Dan, have both lived through terrible losses. They take up fishing together, which sounds perfectly peaceful and soothing — until they decide to look for a fabled fishing spot called Dutchman's Creek, which doesn't exist on any maps. It does appear in legends, though, generally featuring a huge, scary monster — but Abe and Dan press on into the upstate New York wilderness, and untold horrors await.
Laundry Files (Series)
Charles Stross' Laundry Files series starts off as half spy-thriller pastiche, half satiric take on the practically-Lovecraftian horrors of office bureaucracy, but it quickly gets into actual horrors like war, fascism, climate change and the inability of humanity to stop metaphorically punching ourselves in the face. "Manages to be both funny and gut-churningly terrifying," says poll judge Ruthanna Emrys.
The first novel for Kathe Koja and the first book published by Dell Abyss, a legendary experimental horror imprint, The Cipher struck like lightning and won the Bram Stoker Award for best novel. A pair of starving artists in a burned-out industrial helltown find a hole in their storage space that swallows anything, and it's not long before someone sticks their hand in — and then things get really weird. A shot fired across the bow of a horror industry that was becoming increasingly misogynistic and conservative, it reminded readers that another early name for horror literature was "the weird."
John Dies At The End
There's a drug, it's called soy sauce, and it lets people see into other dimensions. How long will it take for all hell to break loose? "David Wong is an editor for Cracked.com and his John Dies At the End books (three and counting) deliver the overeducated, undermotivated smarty-pants tone of the best Internet writing, in an anything-goes whirlwind of flying dogs, reality-warping drugs and monsters made out of frozen meat," says judge Grady Hendrix.
At The Mountains Of Madness
"'At the Mountains of Madness' is a classic of cosmic horror and one of Lovecraft's best stories," says judge Ruthanna Emrys. "The terrifying thing isn't meant to be the strange creatures — one hesitates to call them monsters — but the simple fact that all civilizations, all species, fall eventually to entropy. Of course, 'Mountains' inevitably shows off Lovecraft's own well-known prejudices as well, since what actually brings down the ancient civilization of the Elder Things is a slave revolt, with the story squarely on the side of the slaveholders. The definitive abolitionist shoggoth story has yet to be written (though Elizabeth Bear's award-winning 'Shoggoths in Bloom' is an excellent starting point)."
'All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts'
What must it be like to know your family will all return to the deep to live forever under the waves in fabled Y'ha-nthlei — and to know that a genetic quirk dooms you forever to dry land? Or worse, to live trapped between wave and shore? Poll judge Ruthanna Emrys calls this story "my single favorite modern deconstruction of Lovecraft. ... Sonya [Taaffe] is among my favorite emerging voices and not nearly enough people have heard of her."
A dental technician turned manga artist, Junji Ito is one of horror's singular visionaries. He employs tight, precise draftsmanship to deliver stories that are hard to read, not because they can become grotesque, but because they take ideas (living over a greasy restaurant, falling in love with a house) and pursue them to their logical, and deeply disturbing, ends. While his short stories like "Hanging Balloons" and "Glyceride" are more upsetting than anything else on the market, most people discovered him through his epic, novel-length manga, Uzumaki, about a town where everyone is obsessed with spirals. If you think that sounds harmless, then you don't know Junji Ito.
Communion: A True Story
"How does a book published as nonfiction sneak onto a list of fiction?" asks judge Stephen Graham Jones. "Easy: Read it all as made up, while also, for the scare, completely and 100 percent (secretly) believing in it, because not believing in this case draws a bull's-eye on your back that can only be seen from the sky." Our judges had a hard time deciding between Communion and Whitley Strieber's equally scary fictional Roswell alien tale Majestic -- so why not read them both?
'The Repairer Of Reputations'
Robert W. Chambers' "King in Yellow" stories "are a foundational classic that doesn't get as much attention as Lovecraft for the simple reason that there are only four of them," says our judge Ruthanna Emrys. "This is the best of the lot and a sterling example of a story where the narrative undermines the narrator's prejudices (and eventually everything else he says). It starts with the main character talking approvingly about a rising fascist movement complete with 'suicide chambers' and forced removal of Jews, but quickly becomes obvious that the author is not in sympathy." She also points out that Chambers was one of the first authors to imagine a book (or in this case a play) that harms its readers.
The Haunting Of Hill House
One of the finest haunted house novels of the 20th century — if not any other century. A scientist convenes a group of four paranormally-experienced people at a mysteeeerious mansion, hoping to find some concrete evidence of the supernatural. What could go wrong? A lot, it turns out, as things begin to go bump in the night, and one of the four, Eleanor Vance, seems fall further and further under the house's evil spell. But are the ghosts real? Or is Eleanor just disturbed? The uncertainty is part of the scare.
The House Next Door
Anne Rivers Siddons was best known for writing posh fiction about posh Southern people when she turned out this perfect haunted house novel. Taking one part economic anxiety from Robert Marasco's Burnt Offerings, one part emotional unease from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and adding her own observations about Southern yuppies, she updated the haunted house formula to include this beautiful, modern home that wages unrelenting psychic warfare against its owners. Everyone has felt, at some point or another, that their house hates them. Siddons' book explains exactly how much.
At first, haunted house books were about intrepid investigators unraveling the secrets of a cursed fixer-upper (see: The Haunting of Hill House). But Robert Marasco knows what really scares us: Money. Burnt Offerings created the formula of a family getting a fabulous deal on a piece of property they can't possibly afford, then being brutally punished for their sins. In this 1973 novel, Dad tries to drown Junior, Mom becomes an obsessive neat freak and Grandma's health fails, until the only thing they can do is run screaming into the night, losing their entire deposit. Every modern haunted house book about a deal that is too good to be true — from The Amityville Horror to The Shining — has its roots here.
"The Shining is one of those rare novels in which the premise pulls us in immediately," says judge Stephen Graham Jones, "before we're even through listening to the whole sentence: A writer at an empty hotel for the whole winter — and just like that, we're racing down those hallways, throwing balls at the wall, no schedule, a stocked pantry, a typewriter waiting over there and thousands of feet of floor space for us to fill with our imaginations."
House Of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski was weird right from the start, as his debut novel House of Leaves amply proves (even the footnotes have footnotes, and eventually they take on a life of their own). Partly a haunted house story, partly a love story, partly an account of a fictional film, partly a saga of mental illness — and did we mention that it's written in different colors for different concepts and multiple fonts to designate the multiple narrators? -- House of Leaves will rummage around in your mind and leave it ever-so-slightly different afterwards.
Proclaimed "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today" by Stephen King, Michael McDowell spent his career slumming in the low-rent paperback trade — but that didn't keep him from becoming one of the great 20th century chroniclers of Southern life. Rooted in Alabama, McDowell's characters explored haunted houses choked by sand dunes, pierced their dead mother's hearts with ceremonial knives and married into families of amphibious river monsters but remained always recognizably human. Though he is best known for writing the screenplay for Beetlejuice and contributing to the one for The Nightmare Before Christmas, McDowell's books are being rediscovered now by readers who want more humanity with their chills.
The Woman In Black
The heir to M.R. James' tradition of quiet, chilly ghost stories, leavened with some of Daphne Du Maurier's keen psychological insight, Susan Hill has spent years tending her small corner of the horror garden. Her 1983 novel, The Woman in Black, is essentially a slim thesis on the return of the repressed, but it has had an enormous impact, spawning a viewer-scarring BBC adaptation in 1989 and a two-person stage play in 1987 that has become one of the longest-running plays in West End history. Reading Susan Hill feels like standing in a dark room and feeling an ice-cold child's hand slip into yours.
A lot of readers voted for Bret Easton Ellis' best-known work, the slasher novel American Psycho. But our judges felt that Lunar Park was a stronger choice."You go into Lunar Park knowing it's a novel," says Stephen Graham Jones, "but then Bret Easton Ellis tricks you into forgetting that, at which point he can set up scare after scare, run you through this navel-gazing haunted house of a life — not necessarily his. But maybe."
The Bone Key
Shy, awkward museum archivist Kyle Murchison Booth gets tangled up with all sorts of supernatural creepies in Sarah Monette's story collection — sometimes literally, as in the case of the demon lover whose touch leaves scars on his skin. In her introduction, Monette says she was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, but our judge Ruthanna Emrys says that unlike Lovecraft, "Monette makes these into intense character studies where every ghost and monster provides a window into Booth's anxious, lonely psyche."
A British acid-folk band retreats to a remote old country house for the summer to regroup and write music after one of their singers dies. But ... something ... is there with them. Or maybe it's not? They are, after all, all completely out of their minds on various substances the whole summer. Maybe there's a reason for all those dead birds in the house, for the doors that are locked and then unlocked, for all those odd little details that add up, day after day, reality fracturing a little more — until it breaks.
It's hard to tell what's scarier in this comic series about a Muslim woman and her multiracial neighbors: the evil spirits that haunt their apartment building or the real-life hatred and xenophobia those spirits feed on. Or the shadowy, scratchy art by Aaron Campbell, which will give you creeps for days.
After Scott Smith's debut with a black-as-night best-selling thriller, A Simple Plan, everyone wanted to know he was going to do next. And it turned out that he wanted to do next was write about Yankee tourists getting trapped in Mexico by a sentient plant. The Ruins could have become a travelers' advisory on the dangers of Latin American tourism, but instead it's a cautionary tale about the risks of bumbling around foreign countries and assuming their culture and traditions only run as deep as what you see on the manicured grounds of your five-star resort.
Published in 1938, Rebecca wasn't just a massive sales success and it wasn't just the basis for a blockbuster 1940 Hitchcock film that won two Oscars — it also inspired a resurgence of gothic romances (those unavoidable books with covers featuring women running from houses) 20 years later. A tour de force of first-person narration, Rebecca sweeps readers into the point of view of a woman who feels so little right to exist that we never even learn her name. In 1960, Ace Books editor Jerry Gross relaunched the gothic romance after spotting his mother reading Rebecca. "They don't write like that anymore," she told him. She was right.
'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?'
Sulky teenager Connie is tired of being compared to her perfect older sister. She wants to hang around with the older kids; she wants to talk to boys. What she gets is an encounter with one of horror's great monsters — Arnold Friend and his creepy gold car. Joyce Carol Oates has said this story was inspired by a real-life serial killer, but everything beyond that has been debated endlessly — is it a feminist fable? An allegory for the changes America was going through in the 1960s? Both? And what do those numbers on the side of Arnold's car mean?
The Red Tree
Sarah Crowe may be a novelist, a storyteller by nature, but she is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators in Caitlin R. Kiernan's dark tale of love, obsession and suicide. Sarah moves into a spooky old house, where she unearths a manuscript written by a former resident about his fixation on the gigantic red oak near the house. The tree seems to be connected to a series of murders and accidents ... but then, Sarah's own sanity is slipping, as reflected in the journal entries that tell her story.
Just a magical girl and her dog ... up against unfathomable evil. Seven years after a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union blows America apart, the country is an unrecognizable hellscape, overrun by competing armies, poisoned by toxic rain and sunk in the permanent gloom of a nuclear winter. Young Swan — along with her dog Killer and her pro-wrestler buddy Josh — must face down the entity known as "Friend" to avert further horrors — and with her power over growing things, restore life on Earth.
'The Screwfly Solution'
This 1977 short story by Alice Sheldon is still scarily relevant today in its depiction of a world devastated by a disease that causes men to murder women, and the religious movement that helps justify the killings. Notably, Sheldon is better known by her pen name, James Tiptree Jr. — her true gender wasn't known until late in her career. And today, the James Tiptree Jr. Award is given for works of sci-fi and fantasy that expand our understanding of gender.
'Left Foot, Right'
Nalo Hopkinson "uses Caribbean mythology to create stories that are as horrific as they are character-driven and fresh," says judge Tananarive Due. And this story of loss and guilt and grief, of sparkly red shoes and a young woman coming to terms with an accident that cost several lives is both. It'll warm your heart at the same time it sends a chill down your spine.
Amanda has it all — a great career as an architect; a happy, tidy marriage ... and a strange voice in her head that tells her to shoplift, pick up random men and drop obscene prank documents on her boss's desk. And the dreams — at night, she dreams of a woman with sharp teeth, standing beside a bloody sea. Is this the demon Naamah, who has apparently been visiting Amanda since her childhood? Or is she just losing her mind? (Amanda herself is pretty certain it's a demon.)
Perhaps we should put a content warning here: Poll judge Ruthanna Emrys says Livia Llewellyn's work is "occasionally X-rated, with a dash of Y, Z and WTFBBQ." However, she adds, "I'm a hard scare and it scares me." The stories in Furnace are surreal and gorgeously written, shot through with equal parts lust and confusion, dripping with bright blood. Read with care.
The Bloody Chamber
A gallery of darkly glittering fairy tales, Angela Carter's 1979 book takes "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Bluebeard" — among others — and mutates them until they're poisonous draughts of sex and death, garnished with baroque curlicues of sadomasochism and cruelty. A decadent, throbbing book in which the Beast licks off Beauty's flesh, the Erl-King is garroted with his own hair, and Little Red Riding Hood is warned about men who are "hairy on the inside" before throwing her clothes in the fire and seducing the wolf, it resulted in Neil Jordan's feverish and ravishing movie, The Company of Wolves.
Through The Woods
Don't step foot in the forest — or if you choose to, read cartoonist Emily Carroll's short story collection first, so you get an idea of what you might be up against. Carroll's illustrations are shiveringly gorgeous, all bloody washes of red and icy blue shadows, spidery black and faint yellow glows in the darkness, woven through with skittering lines of story. "These are tales of strange things that come from or go into the woods — and what they did to people, or had done to them, along the way," says our reviewer Amal El-Mohtar.
Neil Gaiman's chronicle of Death's little brother Dream isn't strictly horror (he is more a mopey goth, annoying and still somehow compelling), but our judges agreed that vast swaths of his realm, the Dreaming, are pretty horrific. And then there is the 1989 story "24 Hours," about a villain who steals an artifact from Dream and uses it to trap a group of people in an all-night diner and torture them — forcing them to confess their sickest secrets, worship him as a god and ultimately kill each other in gruesomely beastly ways. Where's Dream? He shows up at the end and doesn't do much (*shudder*).
Her Body And Other Parties
Carmen Maria Machado's debut story collection is an unsettling mix of ghost stories, campfire tales, the things young girls whisper to scare one another at sleepovers (the woman with the ribbon around her neck, ugh) and even Law & Order reruns. They run the gamut from fairy tale to horror, but all of these stories consider the bodies and experiences of women, the violence visited on them and the ways they respond.
White Is For Witching
Teenage Miranda Silver is tormented by a craving for things that aren't food, like chalk and plastic, and as this early novel by Helen Oyeyemi opens, she is dealing with her mother's death and the malevolent spirits in her house. Lush and incantatory, packed with twins, strange hungers and hauntings, White is for Witching is a cornucopia of creepy scares.
Oh Laura, oh Lizzie — maybe you should just have stayed home. But who can resist the temptations of "Figs to fill your mouth, Citrons from the South, Sweet to tongue and sound to eye?" And who wouldn't peep at goblin men, no matter how dire the consequences? I'll buy, I'll buy.
There is a line you can draw between the ghosts and spirits of horror and the silver nitrate ghosts that flicker across the frames of early silent films, and Gemma Files makes the connection clear in Experimental Film. Film critic Lois is at a low point in her life when, one night at an experimental film screening, she sees a few fragments of mysterious silent footage featuring a woman in a shimmering dress, moving through fields and speaking to workers; this is Lady Midday, a spirit fading along with her films, who sees in Lois a chance to regain her powers.
You know this story even if you haven't read it: A seemingly-idyllic New England village gathers for an annual lottery, at which it is gradually revealed that one resident will be stoned to death to ensure a good harvest. Outraged New Yorker readers canceled their subscriptions when "The Lottery" first appeared in 1948, appalled at Shirley Jackson's insinuation that their comfortable lives might be hiding horrors. But some letter writers wondered whether such rituals were real, and if so, where could they be seen?
The horrors in John Fowles' first novel are purely human — it is Fredrick's monstrous desire for and feelings of entitlement toward beautiful art student Miranda Grey that drives the story. Where before he had been happy collecting and immobilizing butterflies, now it's Miranda he must pin down and keep. And how dare she be so ungrateful, so unwilling?
Give this to the Shackleton fan in your life, but then run away quickly. No heartwarming tale of ice-bound persistence here; The Terror takes on Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage in which he and both his ships were lost. Franklin's real fate — frozen and starving, locked in the Arctic ice — is awful enough, but Dan Simmons ratchets up the horror with a mystery and a monster that looks like a giant polar bear.
Our readers loved Dean Koontz, and our judges agreed that Intensity, his tale of a woman frantically fleeing a murderer, was their choice for the list and a natural fit in this category. There are no evil spirits here, no Elder Gods under the waves — just a tense duet between "homicidal adventurer" Edgler Vess, addicted to the intensity of experiences, and intended victim Chyna Shepherd, who turns the tables on Vess, risking her life to stop him.
The Girl Next Door
"The Girl Next Door takes us down step after step, until — too late — we realize we're in a small damp cellar, and then it grabs our head, makes us see what is going on over in the corner," says judge Stephen Graham Jones. "Worse, it leaves us there, doesn't allow us any of the usual outs, it makes us accept that this horror is a potential built into ... people? Society? All of us? Hopefully not, but if we don't guard against it, maybe so, too. The Girl Next Door is that guard."
The big star of the Dell Abyss imprint, Poppy Z. Brite (now Billy Martin) spoke in the language of the marginalized, the forgotten and the lost. Brite's first two novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, were inspirational texts for goth kids, gay kids, lost kids, unwanted kids — basically everyone the Happy Shiny '90s didn't have room for — telling them that no matter what anyone said, they belonged. Exquisite Corpse, on the other hand, was a romance novel about two serial killers so bleak and unforgiving, it almost ended Brite's career.
"Night They Missed the Horror Show"
"Night They Missed the Horror Show" is "a story that doesn't flinch even once," says judge Stephen Graham Jones. "It's a story that looks straight on at terrible things, yeah — but the real power of this story is that it has a clear moral center. It pulls off that impossible trick of getting us to side with people we have no business siding with, and then it punishes us for our complicity, it punishes us for leering, it leaves us feeling dirty and compromised. When horror is really working, it works like this." (And a language warning — there's some ugly stuff here.)
What hath the Internet wrought? To find the most original ghost stories these days, you have to dive into the online world of creepypasta: urban legends unleashed by anonymous authors online. Like a nest of squirming eels, these stories mutate, procreate and cross-pollinate with alarming speed and slipperiness, occasionally getting mistaken for reality. Penpal — and its close relative John Dies at the End — capture the spirit of online horror and trap it between two covers. Dathan Auerbach originally posted Penpal in serial form on Reddit's r/nosleep board, and while it loses something in book form, it's still a disconcerting tale about a kid who learns that his childhood may not have happened quite the way he remembers it.
Not strictly a vampire story, despite the license-plate pun of the title — but Joe Hill's tale of a child predator who whisks his quarry away to a place called Christmasland where their souls are imprisoned to the tune of sugary Christmas music is still plenty blood-chilling. With its biker heroine with supernatural gifts pursuing her classic-car-driving nemesis through roads real and strange, NOS4A2 is a wild ride.
The aliens in Octavia Butler's short story are awful-looking insectoids who implant their eggs in human hosts, but that is actually not what is horrible in "Bloodchild." While there is a touch of body horror in Butler's depiction of male pregnancy, what is scary here is the queasily familial relationship between the alien Tlic and their human hosts. The Tlic see humans affectionately, as big warm convenient animals. And the humans, though troubled, mostly return that affection.
Lord Of The Flies
Keep your vampires, werewolves and haunts — few things are as scary as "the darkness of man's heart." William Golding's tale of tale of castaway boys gone murderously feral has become shorthand for any situation in which people start turning on each other. "What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?" asks the ill-fated Piggy, and it's pretty clear what Golding thinks. Bonus: Stephen King got the name Castle Rock from one of the locations in Lord of the Flies.
The Handmaid's Tale
Blessed be the fruit ... of Margaret Atwood's horrifically sharp mind. This classic feminist dystopia is prominent in the public mind right now, and not just because it has been made into a TV series. Atwood's book mines true horror from what people do to one another (poor Offred, suffering through the Ceremony every month) — and to themselves. (Who really thinks Serena Joy was happy with her accomplishments?)
Toni Morrison's towering and beautifully crafted story concentrates the horrors of slavery into one singular horror — the apparition of Beloved, whose mother Sethe has killed her to spare her from being taken by slave catchers. While slavery has been over for a decade when the book opens, it's as much a specter in Sethe's new home as Beloved is and is destined to haunt and scar lives long after her unquiet spirit disappears. Beloved isn't a horror novel in the strictest sense of the word, but our judges felt it more than deserved a place here.
Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Octavia Butler's story of a young woman yanked backwards in time from the 1970s California to the slave quarters of a Maryland plantation is horrifying enough on the printed page, but John Jennings and Damian Duffy's graphic adaptation means you really can't look away. "The graphic novel makes the horror of imagining being whisked back to the slavery era even more visceral," says judge Tananarive Due.
The Devil In America
"Horror often tries to explain the inexplicable," says judge Tananarive Due, and Kai Ashante Wilson's novelette about the things lost to slavery and hellish destruction of a black town in the years just after Emancipation "is as good an explanation as any for why incidents of mass violence against blacks have peppered our history."
'I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream'
Lots of movies, books and stories have been built on the premise of an out-of-control artificial intelligence. But except for maybe HAL 9000, none of them are as scary as AM, the supercomputer created by warring nations in Harlan Ellison's horrifying short story. AM abruptly gets tired of the war, ends it by triggering a mass genocide and spends the next century or so working out its hatred of humanity by torturing the last five remaining humans — but not letting them die.
Books Of Blood
In 1984, Clive Barker burst onto the scene with one of the most remarkable debuts in horror: three volumes of short stories known as the Books of Blood. It was as if a band you had never heard of released a box set instead of a first album. Never treated with much respect in the United States (his American publisher only printed them in paperback), the stories raised the bar for horror, making it sexier, queerer and more poetic. Ranging from slapstick comedy to gross-out horror to breathtaking surrealism just in the first volume alone, each story is technically perfect and philosophically unnerving.
The October Country: Stories
Evil babies, mysterious jars, bodies in a lake, strange inheritances, monstrous families — whatever your favorite flavor of horror is, you're likely to find something to your taste in this collection. Ray Bradbury wrote these 19 stories early in his career, but they read like the work of a mature master, gripping and stylish. If you can, find one of the editions that includes the striking, stark-edged illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini; they'll add an extra frisson for your reading pleasure.
The Weird: A Compendium Of Strange And Dark Stories
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's massive anthology includes everyone from Franz Kafka to George R.R. Martin — and some of the weirdest stories ever assembled between two covers. It won a World Fantasy Award in 2012, and it's guaranteed to keep you occupied (and thoroughly creeped out) for a good long while. Alternatively, you can use it to squash any pesky monsters under your bed.
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
Tough guys are generally no match for the eldritch horrors of Laird Barron's Imago Sequence — which, if you had to sum it up, you could describe in an extremely reductive manner as H.P. Lovecraft meets Raymond Chandler. Imago Sequence is a great read if mere noir isn't dark enough for you, and it has a peculiar humor all its own — Lovecraft's Great Old Ones become, in Barron's world, crotchety but plenty scary old people.
Alone With the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell, 1961-1991
Modern horror's ultimate stylist, Ramsey Campbell started his career as a Lovecraft imitator before going off in his own direction. Specializing in the horror of cities, dirt, squalor and the general mind-shattering everyday degradations of urban life, Campbell creates a world in which there is no difference between our brutalist, lunatic buildings and their brutal and insane inhabitants. Strongest in his short stories, a massive selection of which are collected here, he writes from the point of view that our cities are haunted garbage heaps, and we're all just the ghostly, numb cadavers infesting their derelict ruins
Things We Lost In The Fire
Contemporary Argentinian politics provide plenty of horror in Mariana Enriquez' story collection — crime, abandonment, corruption, drugs; Enriquez grew up in Argentina during the country's brutal Dirty War period and draws on it in her writing. But then the horrors begin to creep in from outside the boundaries of our own world — haunted houses, evil rituals, disappearances that seem political but prove ... otherwise. "I guess I've always been a dark child," she told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro. "There's comfort in darkness for me."
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
The book that named this category — a generation of children were scarred by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Not so much because of Alvin Schwartz's stories themselves, which are certainly creepy but nothing to look under the bed about. No, it's Stephen Gammell's "ugh get it off me" illustrations, in all their skin-crawling scribbly watercolor blot glory, that haunt everyone who ever found this in their school library as a kid. They reissued this with updated, cutesified illustrations a few years ago — SACRILEGE. Gammell or get out.
If you were a kid in the '90s, chances are you read at least one volume of R.L. Stine's long-running and immensely popular Goosebumps series. Not, perhaps, the scariest books on this list — Stine has frequently said he avoids real terror — they're still a great way to warp budding young readers into a lifelong love of horror. (Also, Slappy the Dummy was extremely creepy, I don't care what you say.)
Daniel Kraus' book pays lip service to the hoary old story of a young boy who loses his mother and is sent to live, and bond with, his estranged dad. Only this time out, Dad is a squatter who lives in filth, and he and his son bond over his job: grave robbing. Learning the best ways to yank gold fillings out of corpses and how to remove their rings, the two learn to love and appreciate each other while going facedown into rat nests and cracking open coffins full of liquefying corpse-meat. Taking every societal norm — cleanliness, honesty, not desecrating the dead — and setting it on fire, this is literally the most anti-social book ever written.
The Jumbies/Rise Of The Jumbies
Young Corinne La Mer doesn't believe in Jumbies at first ... but that isn't stopping them from trying to take over first her family and then her entire island. Author Tracey Baptiste draws on her own Trinidadian heritage for this darkly fantastical duology that mixes mythology, folklore and the real-world horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. "I felt giving [children] this kind of story where something horrible happened, but something beautiful resulted from it, would be some small amount of comfort," Baptiste told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
The House With A Clock In Its Walls
Trafficking in the kind of American Gothic perfected by Ray Bradbury, John Bellairs' three books set in the fictional Michigan town of New Zebedee are lonely and charming and shot through with a sense of creeping damp and creeping doom. Sort of a Harry Potter for less sporty boys, they star chubby Lewis Barnavelt, who has been banished to live with his Uncle Jonathan after his parents die in a car wreck. The good news: Uncle Jonathan is a wizard. The bad news: Living with him means that Lewis will probably die. Simultaneously comforting and creepy, the New Zebedee books, with their scratchy illustrations by Edward Gorey, scarred children throughout the '70s and '80s.
After a series of traumatic events, seventh-grader Harper Raine — half-Korean and half-white — moves to a new house her friends say is haunted. Spoiler alert: It is. An evil spirit gets its hooks into her younger brother, and Harper has to break through to her repressed memories of the trauma in order to free him — with the help of her grandmother's knowledge of Korean tradition. Spirit Hunters is a genuinely scary read, full of ghosts and gore and family trauma.
Neil Gaiman's tale of a young girl who steps through a strange door and finds a magical new family is charming ... at first. But then Coraline realizes her other mother and father aren't going to let her go home. "Coraline is deft and creepy and fun and dark and wrong," says judge Stephen Graham Jones. "It's our knee-jerk fantasy come to life too fast, without us having had time to draw boundaries around what we thought we wanted."
Down A Dark Hall
When 14-year-old Kit arrives at the Blackwood School for Girls (that's not an ominous name at all), she knows right away that there's something dark, something wrong about the strange old house. And that's before she even meets the other three students — and before they discover the strange new talents for painting, math, music and poetry that only come out as they sleep. Down a Dark Hall is a gothic classic, and one of Lois Duncan's best.
Teenagers Tom and Del are miserable at their extremely grim boarding school — tormented by staff and upperclassmen alike — until a tragic fire halfway through Peter Straub's book leads them to retreat to Del's uncle's spooky house in the Vermont woods (called, of course, Shadowland). Uncle Coleman is a master stage magician and, to put it mildly, not a very nice fellow. And it turns out that the magic he is teaching Tom and Del has much more to it than just stagecraft. Also, at one point the Brothers Grimm appear, making for a truly warped fairy tale of a novel.
A Head Full Of Ghosts
Old-fashioned and very modern horrors collide, explosively, in Paul Tremblay's novel. As a teenager, Merry Barrett's older sister Marjorie, begins to display signs of mental illness, leading her parents to consult a priest, who recommends exorcism and who brings in a TV production company to make a reality show about the troubled family, with tragic consequences. Years later, Merry begins to dig up the past, leading to what our reviewer Jason Heller calls a "bloodcurdling revelation ... as sickeningly satisfying as it is masterful."
The first horror novel to hit the best-seller list since Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca in 1938, Ira Levin's trim, sleek thriller stapled eyeballs to pages with its passionate commitment to "going ... there." Realizing that the scariest moments in horror happen in the lead-up, rather than the payoff, Levin decided that nothing could be scarier than pregnancy, when your womb is rented to an unseen tenant who turns your body into a life support system for nine months. Throw in what most mothers suspect anyways — that their child is the spawn of Satan — and you've got true horror. Precise, understated and without a single wasted word, director Roman Polanski cemented its legend with his scrupulously faithful blockbuster film adaptation.
William Peter Blatty's novel — and William Friedkin's subsequent movie — became a cultural landmark, helping launch the horror revival of the late '60s and early '70s. Rewritten, reinvented, deconstructed and just straight up ripped off numerous times over the years, the original story of a single mother and her daughter possessed by a demon can sometimes edge over into melodrama, but mostly it's a "what happens next?" read that grabs you by the throat with prose as primal and bloody as the King James Bible, forcing you to care about issues of faith and sin as deeply as Blatty did when he wrote it.
"Stephen King is the absolute worst brand-name author," says judge Grady Hendrix. "Open up a John Grisham or Nora Roberts book, and you know you're getting a legal thriller or a romance. But the only thing that ties Stephen King's horror novels, nonfiction, young adult and mysteries together is his name on the cover. True believers became aware of this with 1978's "The Woman in the Room," a story inspired by his mother's death, but it was "The Body" that told everyone else King had more to say than "Boo!" Made into the movie Stand By Me, it's still one of the great American coming-of-age stories." And, says Hendrix, it's got a dead body and the horror of growing up — so it belongs on the list.
'It's A Good Life'
Dr. Spock's 1946 Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care reassured nervous parents that their children were going to be just fine and that you couldn't hug them or love them too much. But books ranging from William Golding's Lord of the Flies to William March's The Bad Seed reminded us that a child's natural state is evil. Science fiction writer Jerome Bixby delivered the most economical reminder with his 1953 short story "It's a Good Life," since adapted into The Twilight Zone show and movie three times and into one episode of The Simpsons. A young boy gets everything he wants — or else he makes bad things happen with his mind, resulting in a town of helicopter parents who live in mortal terror of denying this little monster anything.
The dark horse among the trinity of books that kicked off the horror revival of the late '60s and early '70s, The Other will never be as well-known as Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist because it lacks a hit movie version. But just as The Exorcist owned the possession genre and Rosemary spawned a whole brood of satanic pregnancies, The Other gave us a graduating class of homicidal children and evil twins. The story of identical twins living on an idyllic farm, it slowly descends into madness involving drowned babies and hidden pitchforks. Possessing an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist and told in dense, poetic language, it's a hammer wrapped in velvet.
When you think of Canada's idyllic Prince Edward Island, you think of Anne of Green Gables, right? Not for long. The Troop brings that old urban legend about tapeworm diet pills to body-horrific life in a story about a group of PEI Scouts whose camping trip on a nearby island is rudely interrupted by an emaciated stranger ... and the genetically-engineered parasite he carries. Trapped on the island after the parasite takes their scoutmaster, the boys must survive however they can.
Written under the pen name Jessica Hamilton, this is a classic tale of a sociopathic young girl with powers far beyond the natural. Elizabeth – perceptive, detached, ruthless – becomes obsessed with an apparition in an antique mirror, a beautiful woman who says she is a distant relative – and after Elizabeth gets through with her murderous agenda, pretty much her only relative. Stylish and nasty, Elizabeth will make you look twice at any mirrors you may pass.
Grief and loss are truly, gruesomely haunting in Chesya Burke's short story about a mother unable to let go of her ghostly daughter and a daughter desperate to save her mother from the horrors she has brought on herself. Burke makes the pain of loss physical and malevolent, and her writing feels like riding in a car at night, watching strange things flicker at the side of the road. (Image: Getty/Chirag Rai/EyeEm)