Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Not you? Well, we all like to think we’ve grown out of stories that caused us to beg our folks to keep the landing light on. But, in truth, we haven’t.
Literature is awash with scary books. We don’t mean solely stories devoted to the evisceration of helpless maidens or the gouging of innards for the sadistic pleasure of unhinged sociopaths – although they do make things go bump in the night.
No, there are spine-tingling psychological thrillers, novels that depict some future dystopia or books that pull no punches in describing how things really are as miserable as the most cynical old sod would have you believe.
UPDATE: Spooky Season is well and truly upon us, so we've added some more recent horror titles to our list to celebrate. Below you'll find two new additions: The Hunger by Alma Katsu, a reimagining of the story of The Donner Party, and Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage, a suspenseful psychological thriller about a mother and daughter.
So, without further ado, and with a little fanfare, we present to you the 30 scariest books ever written.
If we've missed the book that kept you up for a month, add your suggestions at the bottom. And upvote your personal favourite. And if you fancy more scares, then our best horror TV shows list is for you.
1. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Published in 1983
If you relish catching a dose of the heebie-jeebies while reading, then this is the book for you. Stephen King himself has declared this his most frightening work, and who are we to argue? Death, insanity and bizarre burial rituals are just a few of the gory themes that pervade this majestic work of horror writing. Those of a fragile bent are advised to steer well clear.
2. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Published in 1971
If you thought William Friedkin’s adaptation of The Exorcist was petrifying, just wait until you read the source material. Inspired by real events, Blatty’s story of demonic possession and exorcism cuts right to the quick. When 12-year-old girl Regan MacNeil starts to behave irrationally her mother soon realises that she has been possessed by evil spirits and turns to the church for help. The manner in which the priests Father Merrin and Karras fight to rid Regan of the demon is unforgettable.
3. Hell House by Richard Matheson
Published in 1971
Blurbs on books that suggest things like ‘those of a nervous disposition should not read this’, are more often than not marketing hokum designed to intrigue and inspire the potential reader to part with their hard-earned cash. In this case, it’s true.
A marvellous and thoroughly intelligent suspense thriller, Hell House concerns just that – a house that corrupts and destroys all that enter it. Four people try to rid the house of its evil potency with violent consequences. No less an authority than Stephen King declared Hell House to be the scariest haunted house novel ever written.
4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Published in 1897
The finest example of Victorian gothic horror. The characters that Stoker brings to life are vivid, memorable, unsettling… not least Count Dracula and his nemesis Abraham Van Helsing. Although Stoker wasn’t the first to pen vampire literature, his rich and powerful novel about bloodsuckers came to define modern perceptions of the folkloric undead.
5. The Silence Of The Lambs by Thomas Harris
Published in 1988
You thought Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning adaptation was scary? Prepare for the real deal. Sociopath Dr Hannibal Lecter is even more terrifying on page – his torturous, playful and gripping mind games with FBI trainee Clarice Starling are a master class in suspense and drama. The serial killer Buffalo Bill is no less menacing and it takes a sturdy disposition to emerge from the book unscathed. You have been warned.
6. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published in 1959
There's been renewed interest in this novel thanks to a Netflix adaptation last year. But Shirley Jackson's classic gothic horror novel is a fantastic read in its own right. It's a twisting and turning ghost story that plays on psychological terror just as much as horror. It's one of those books you'll think about for days (or even years!) after your first read. What's more, famous modern writers including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King credit Jackson with inspiration for their horror and fantasy writing.
7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Published in 1938
Even now, generations removed from the publication of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic classic, the name Rebecca conjures up untold chilling imagery.
The scariest aspects of Rebecca are those things that are left unsaid – from the lack of a name for the narrator to the mystery behind the titular character’s gloomy death. And the questions posed in the novel and the lies that prop up a supposedly perfect marriage keep on haunting the reader to the bitter end. As for the housekeeper, the evil Mrs Danvers… well, let’s not go there.
8. Blindness by José Saramago
Published in 1995
An unnamed city descends into anarchy when near universal blindness affects its inhabitants. Those in authority move those affected into a holding area and deprivation follows. Saramago’s disturbing book centres on the fortunes of a few of those trying to survive this terrible curse, but its real power lies in the way those in positions of power fail time and again to ease the burden of suffering.
A prophetic novel that eerily foretold the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, its devastating effects on New Orleans and the US government’s risible response.
9. The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Based on the true (and very grisly) story of The Donner Party, The Hunger is a deeply unsettling exploration of human nature – and the horrifying consequences when people are pushed to their breaking point.
10. The Trial by Franz Kafka
Published in 1925
Having no power or control over your fate and wellbeing is perhaps the disturbing thing you can experience. Such is the hand doled out to K, the protagonist of Kafka’s mesmeric novel.
Dominated by a shadowy and heartless bureaucracy, K is soon resigned to his inevitable end. Almost 100 years old, but having lost none of its clout, The Trial is an absurdist classic that strikes at the heart of that which humans fear most – powerlessness.
11. Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
Published in 1954
The manner in which society can quickly descend into madness is a frightening concept. The manner in which this can seemingly happen at any strata – in this case a bunch of well-heeled boys on a desert island – is even more shocking. William Golding’s allegorical novel questions the very essence of human nature – are we good or evil? – and does so in the form of a boy’s own adventure novel. Have we really come that far from our savage ancestors? A shocking – and petrifying – piece of fiction.
12. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Published in 1818
Prompted by long colourful conversations with her future husband Percy Shelley and the scourge of straight English society, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or, The Modern Prometheus) is regarded as one of the first genuine science fiction novels.
It’s archetypal gothic horror and although the story of an ambitious doctor ‘creating’ a monster is well worn, it still speaks to – and spooks - readers nearly 200 years on.
13. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
Written by playwright and filmmaker Zoje Stage, this is one hell of a tense novel. There's psychological suspense and horror in a tale about the bonds between a mother and her daughter.
14. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Published in 1924
Another dystopian classic. We was written against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and what the author Zamyatin saw as the betrayal of the ideals of that era of tumult.
It concerns a future police state where all citizens are known by a number. Every aspect of life is controlled in this experimental prison. It emerges, however, that there is life outside of this One State and social protest becomes a very real – and hopeful – cause. A principal influence on George Orwell and his chilling vision of a future in totalitarian meltdown, 1984.
15. Requiem For a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
Published in 1978
Hubert Selby Jr. doesn’t do jauntiness, or whimsy, or anything that you might find adapted in a Richard Curtis film. Instead, he grabs the reader by the eyes and chucks a load of unsettling and realistic miserablism into their brain.
Requiem For A Dream could well be his masterpiece when it comes to scaring readers out of any comfortable view of the world they may possess. A gripping book that details four individuals' sorry descent into drug addiction as they seek their own slice of the American Dream. The American Dream, of course, being an unobtainable myth for most.
16. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Published in 1991
An easy choice? Perhaps, but any list that discards Ellis’s colourful and controversial tale is, to use the parlance of the day, an epic fail. Patrick Bateman’s descent into madness, his graphic retelling of the gory murders he seems to revel in and his glorification of vapid consumerist culture all go hand-in-hand. As well as being hideously disturbing, Ellis’ book is very, very funny, packed with 80s music references and hilarious streams of consciousness.
17. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Published in 1985
No Country For Old Men, The Road or The Crossing would be equally at home on this list, but Blood Meridian just edges them as the McCarthy novel that sets the most nerves on edge. An historical revisionist Western, Blood Meridian follows the fortunes of The Kid as he runs with the Glanton Gang, a ferocious cadre of scalp hunters. Distressing enough, you might say, but in his depiction of Judge Holden, McCarthy has conjured up evil incarnate. Beyond scary.
18. Pollen by Jeff Noon
Published in 1995
A modern science fiction classic, Pollen tells the story of a distorted near-future Manchester where people are dropping dead from a bizarre pollen.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the book paints a lively picture of a drug-induced dream world and touches upon crime fiction and alternative counterculture. But the manner in which so many people happily sneeze to their deaths is one that plays havoc with readers. A bold, enjoyable, but ultimately disturbing tome.
19. The Witches by Roald Dahl
Published in 1983
In Dahl’s evergreen tale, witches are on a mission to rid the world of children by turning them into mice. Only a small boy and his cunning grandmother can save them from extremely sticky ends. A daring, distressing book that doesn’t pull any emotional punches – not least its powerful ending.
20. The 120 Days Of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
Published in 1905
Although published in the early years of the 20th Century, the Marquis de Sade’s unforgettable work was actually written in 1785. Dealing with the immoral desires of four wealthy young men, de Sade takes the reader far beyond any cheeky and salacious avenue and into the territory of the insane, the unholy and wanton evil bloodlust. The anti-50 Shades of Grey, we implore you not to buy this book for your better half lest they think you a tad unhinged.
21. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Published in 1969
Much like The Stranger, Slaughterhouse-Five explores the random nature of life and questions the idea of free will. Billy Pilgrim is an ex-POW who survived the destruction of Dresden in World War II thanks to being locked up in a cellar. Back home he becomes an optometrist but he’s also a time-traveller, visiting events in his life at haphazard moments. He knows when and how he will die and doesn’t appear to have a problem with this. His daughter thinks he’s mad, but he’s merely fatalistic. Vonnegut’s coruscating anti-war novel is hilarious, engaging and incredibly shocking.
22. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Published in 2019
The long-awaited sequel to Atwood's classic 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale is here. It skips ahead 15 years and tells the story of what happens after the events of the first novel through the eyes of three different women living in Gilead. As you'd expect, the Republic of Gilead still maintains its power, but there's signs things could be changing.
23. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
Published in 1977
Bob Arctor lives in a house of inveterate drug users steeped in the burnout of the 1960s counterculture. Arctor is also an undercover cop reporting on the activities of these seditious individuals.
Unfortunately, as he becomes addicted to Substance D, his personality seems to alter irrevocably – who is he? What is he doing? Why is he doing it? A powerful treatise that examines the causes of addiction and our reaction to it, A Scanner Darkly is a moving and highly charged piece of writing.
24. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Published in 1999
Giving up on life is, in the eyes of many, an unpardonable sin. But that’s what David Lurie, a man who sits in a privileged position as an academic in post-apartheid South Africa, seems to do in this haunting, Booker-Prize winning, novel. After being forced to resign his post after an affair with a student he loses everything he once cared about. His shame is that he seems no longer to care. He then lives with his daughter on her farm, but he is attacked and she sexually assaulted. As a bleak reading of human nature this is right up there.
25. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Published in 2002
Temptation, Oscar Wilde famously opined, was the only thing he couldn’t resist. So it is with many people. Unfortunately, temptation can lead to all sorts of bother, as the titular character of Neil Gaiman’s splendid horror fantasy discovers. When Coraline stumbles upon a seemingly perfect ‘Other World’ in her new flat she’s tempted to stay there. But perfection is just a mirage and upon discovering that her parents have been kidnapped and that she has to free the souls of three dead children, she embarks upon a chilling quest – to celebrate normalcy.
26. The Stranger by Albert Camus
Published in 1942
Free will is one of the most fiercely debated philosophical queries known to man. The extent to which we have choice over our actions will trouble the finest minds for eternity. Killing a man in cold blood for no discernible reason could suggest a skewed vision of free will, or, in the case of Camus’s masterpiece a symptom of existentialism and blind indifference to societal conventions. The Stranger is not scary like a Stephen King novel, but the themes it explores will haunt the mind long after the final page is closed.
27. IQ84 by Haruki Murakami
Published in 2009
Acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami has made a virtue out of the disturbing, the strange and the otherworldly. His most ambitious work, the three-volume 1Q84, is an addictive tale in which the space between reality and fantasy becomes ever more blurred. Outlandish cults, expert killers and terrifying leprechauns abound in this bizarre and slightly sinister slice of Murakami abnormality. Don’t have nightmares, folks!
28. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Published in 2012
The reason Ben Fountain’s heroic anti-war novel so haunts the mind is not the explicit depiction of some bloody battle, but the inhuman mistreatment of soldiers by the society that sent them to fight – and die – for some abstract idea of freedom.
Fountain manages to achieve the rare feat of prompting even the most anti-militaristic reader to root for the soldiers at the expense of the uncaring individuals that glibly seek to extol them. What is war good for? Absolutely nothing.
29. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Published in 1934
Originally banned in America for its depraved depiction of sexuality, Henry Miller’s most famous work was finally published in 1961.
Even then a judge in Pennsylvania had this to say about it: “(It is) not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” The reason the novel still manages to shock and scare is in its detailed portrayal of how low humans are prepared to go to satisfy their primal urges.
30. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Published in 1952
A book so dispiriting and so redolent of evil that it can only have been written from one place – the truth. Ralph Ellison’s diatribe concerning the black experience in the first half of the 20th Century sets the scene for many of the changes that were about to be bought about by the Civil Rights movement. However, the themes of social invisibility still ring true for many today, and that is even more saddening.
31. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Published in 1985
Dystopian novels are by their very nature distressing as they view the human condition and its future as both cynical and doomed. Atwood’s acclaimed novel is no different. Telling the alarming vision of a near-future America run by a totalitarian Christian government called the Sons of Jacob in which women and other undesirables are afforded second-class status, Atwood’s tale (adapted into one of 2017’s best TV shows) is unnerving because it has a certain plausibility about it – an emotion that will always strike fear into the human mind.
32. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Published in 2005
Rape, sexual abuse, serial murder, incest, corruption… if aliens were to be transported to Earth and given The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as a first book they would form a thoroughly bleak view of the human condition.
Stieg Larsson’s psychological crime thriller caused a global sensation upon its posthumous publication, but that doesn’t lessen its creepy impact. Not a light read in any sense of the word.
33. Cock and Bull by Will Self
Published in 1992
In Cock Will Self conjures up a lurid vision of a woman who grows a penis; in Bull, a man develops a vagina behind his knee. These two novellas cemented Self’s reputation as a florid, albeit intimidating, genius. The lady uses her penis to rape and mutilate her alcoholic husband, while in Bull, the fey gentleman with the knee vagina is raped by his doctor. If that doesn’t have you pulling the sheets over your head at night then nothing will.
34. Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
Published in 1959
Banned in the US upon publication, Naked Lunch is a series of vignettes exploring the narcotically charged adventures of William Lee (Burroughs’ alter-ego). Trying to describe anything as linear as a plot is a thankless task and only adds to the dizzying sense that the novel exudes. Reality has long since disappeared in Lee’s world and the disorienting events – orgies, murder, autoerotic asphyxiation among them – just heighten the unnerving tone of the book. Governments should actually make this required reading if they want to scare kids out of trying drugs.
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