IT , Stephen King
All right, let’s get this out of the way up front: Stephen King is the you-know-what of horror, and if there wasn’t this pesky rule about keeping it to one book per author, this list could almost be wholly populated by his terrifying reads. This book might be the scariest of the lot, and has the added bonus of being about fear itself — the scariest thing of all. There’s also a murderous, shapeshifting clown.
Piercing , Ryu Murakami
This novel isn’t “boo” scary; it’s more like “set your teeth on edge for days and make you never want to be close to anyone for the rest of your life” scary. The protagonist, overcome by an urge to pierce the flesh of his newborn child, decides to do the right thing by capturing a prostitute and taking his issues out on her. There is much talk of cutting Achilles tendons and the horrifying things that can build up in a ostensibly normal person’s soul.
The Exorcist , William Peter Blatty
You’ve seen the movie, right? Well, the book is a hundred times more frightening. Think about that.
Ghost Story , Peter Straub
Straub is another master of contemporary literary horror, and Ghost Story, which was his breakout book, remains one of his best. The Chowder Society, a group of old men who gather to tell each other ghost stories, are set upon by the horrors of their past — and some other horrors as well. Plus, Straub pays homage to the entire genre, something that could have been hokey in lesser hands but turns out to be fairly devastating in his.
American Psycho , Bret Easton Ellis
This book is one of the most disturbing modern classics around, so upsetting that in some countries it still has to be sold shrink-wrapped. Sure, there’s all the violence and upsetting sex, but what’s really terrifying is that the inside of Patrick Bateman’s head might be the inside of anybody’s.
Hell House , Richard Matheson
It was tough to put Hell House above I Am Legend, but hey, the world is full of choices, and this writer finds haunted houses scarier than vampires. And, as Stephen King commented, “Hell House is the scariest haunted house novel ever written. It looms over the rest the way the mountains loom over the foothills.”
Dracula , Bram Stoker
Sure, you’ve seen every iteration of vampire there is by now, but the original still has the potential to keep you up at night.
The Handmaid’s Tale , Margaret Atwood
Many speculative novels could have made this list, but Atwood’s vision is one of the scariest of all, perhaps because it just feels so possible — in it, the world is run by a religious, misogynistic society that keeps women as breeders and laborers. It’s fundamentalism taken to its furthest point, something that should terrify everyone down to their not-yet-uniform-issue boots.
The Best of H. P. Lovecraft , H.P. Lovecraft
Or really any Lovecraft, who is the Captain of the heebie-jeebies (At the Mountains of Madness would be a solid choice, but “Best of” covers all the bases). This is a man whose guiding principle was “cosmic horror,” so you’d better believe he’ll chill you to your bones.
The Turn of the Screw , Henry James
A classic ghost story. Henry James knows what he’s about.
House of Leaves , Mark Z. Danielewski
Not only is this book a mind-blowing haunted house story, it’s also the only one on this list to actually give the reader the feeling of claustrophobia via the very act of reading. A singular, expansively existentialist horror story that will invade your mind for years to come.
The Haunting of Hill House , Shirley Jackson
Here’s another haunted house story — or perhaps the haunted house story, so often is it referred to as the best in its category. It’s a much more standardly built classic than House of Leaves to be sure, but don’t let that fool you. It’s the oldest houses that have the most ghosts.
The Silence of the Lambs , Thomas Harris
Here’s another example of a film so famous it outshines the book in the public imagination. But here’s some news: the book’s way scarier.
Rosemary’s Baby , Ira Levin
Ditto this one.
The Amityville Horror , Jay Anson
Your typical paranormal horror story, made much more terrifying by the fact (or at least the claim) that it’s all true. You may have to see it to believe it, but you really wouldn’t want to.
The Trial , Franz Kafka
The fear Kafka produces is an existential kind of fear, but it’s fear nonetheless. What’s scarier than a lifetime of isolation, misunderstanding, and relentless pursuit by forces that you can’t understand but who have complete power over you? Not much.
Books of Blood , Clive Barker
Bleak, bloody and extremely psychologically upsetting, the first book in Barker’s series of short stories was hailed by Stephen King as “the future of horror” when it came out in the mid-‘80s. With some 30 stories in the collection, there’s something to terrify everyone.
Blood Meridian , Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s 1985 masterpiece may not be horror, but it’s certainly horrifying: bleak, bleak, bleak, and bloody, and bleak, a book that may or may not leave you with no faith in humanity whatsoever.
Heart-Shaped Box , Joe Hill
No, not Courtney Love’s nether regions (although…), but rather the debut novel of contemporary horror great Joe Hill. The premise is a little hokey — an aging rock star buys a poltergeist-infected suit that turns on him — but the story will keep you up all night.
Carrion Comfort , Dan Simmons
Simmons has a number of strong contenders, but this one might just be the scariest. In this world, a tiny cadre of humans have The Ability — that is, they can psychically control anyone, even from a distance. Don’t buy it? The novel won the Bram Stoker Award, The Locus Poll Award for Best Horror Novel, The World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and The August Derleth Award for Best Novel. Just saying.
The Complete Tales and Poems , Edgar Allan Poe
You just can’t have a list of creepy, mind-melding horror stories without a little Poe, who knows just how to catch you with your heart in your throat. Or under the floorboards. Either way.
Dawn , Octavia Butler
Butler’s science fiction and horror tends to be terrifying and beautiful at the same time — not an easy feat — in which a tentacle-covered alien race saves the last members of humanity, but demand a steep price. Junot Díaz called this one the scariest book he’d ever read, writing, “This book still gives me nightmares and teaches you right quick that no trade is ever free.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin , Lionel Shriver
Every mother’s nightmare is that her son is a monster — and that she might be, too. Now we can all live it!
The Girl Next Door , Jack Ketchum
Stephen King once called Jack Ketchum “the scariest guy in America.” This book, one of his many greats, is truly terrifying and torturous in every way. It investigates the horror families can inflict on each other, and will have you looking askance at every quiet house in the suburbs.
The Painted Bird , Jerzy Kosinski
In some ways, this list could be populated entirely by Holocaust novels, but this one might just be the most harrowing. In it, a young Jewish boy wanders around a series of small villages in Eastern Europe, encountering cruelty upon cruelty and sexual abuses that will leave you shuddering.
The Wasp Factory , Iain Banks
A violent masterpiece with a killer twist.
The Cipher , Kathe Koja
Jagged and surreal, Koja’s debut novel is both an existential masterpiece and scary as hell. A young couple find a hole in the floor of their apartment building, so black and bleak and alluring that it can’t be anything but oblivion. Obviously, they start poking stuff down it. They don’t like what comes back.
Lord of the Flies , William Golding
How quickly our dearly held civilization can dissolve into madness.
The Ruins , Scott Smith
Right now you worry about ticks when you walk through the tall grass. After reading this novel, you’ll never walk through the tall grass again. Smith makes a convincing argument that nature is trying to kill you.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary , M.R. James
Another giant of the genre, James is a must-read for any horror fan. His stories, though lacking in horrific details, will creep up behind you and sit on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, for a long, long time.
Naomi’s Room , Jonathan Aycliffe
In this terrifying book, a man’s daughter is kidnapped, mutilated, and murdered — but perhaps does not completely leave this world.
The Ritual , Adam Nevill
Campers in the woods is a pretty standard horror convention, sure, but this version is guaranteed to give you the creeps. You’ll rush to the finish — in a warm, well-lit place, of course.
Johnny Got His Gun , Dalton Trumbo
A World War I soldier wakes up in a hospital bed having lost all of his limbs and facial features, trapped in what’s left of his body, unable to move or, at first, communicate, or even kill himself. If that’s not horror, nothing is.
Incarnate , Ramsey Campbell
Campbell has a lot of scary books to choose from, but try this one, a psychological nightmare that stomps all over the line between dreams and reality.
The Woman in Black , Susan Hill
A mysterious, vengeance-filled spirit stalks an English town, appearing wherever children die. Subtle, short, beautiful and moody-scary, this one’s a classic Gothic ghost story.
The Great God Pan , Arthur Machen
If you think Pan is a cute little fellow with a pipe, check yourself. This terrifying novella, of which the great god Lovecraft wrote, “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds,” features brain surgery and Greek gods and murder. What more could you want?
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark , Alvin Schwartz
For every kid who grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, Schwartz’s series was the pinnacle of scary shit. Or perhaps it was Stephen Gammell’s ultra-disturbing illustrations. Either way, we’ve never forgotten the experience, so for children or not for children, this series makes the list. “The Big Toe,” you guys.
The October Country , Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a master of the macabre, and this classic collection will chill you, no matter in which month you read it.
White Is for Witching , Helen Oyeyemi
Lord, is this book unsettling. It will show you just what hunger can do.
Let the Right One In , John Ajvide Lindqvist
Vampires have become a little too familiar/sexy to be scary most of the time, but this existential, unusual novel brings them back into the dark, with streaks of pedophilia, bullying, castration, and love. As often, even scarier than the movie.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream , Harlan Ellison
In the title story of this collection, a supercomputer becomes intelligent and kills off the entire human race, minus five survivors, whom he has fun torturing as they struggle to survive. It is one of the scariest things you’ll read. And then you can play the video game Ellison made out of it.
The Collector , John Fowles
A chilling novel of obsession and abduction, with no end in sight.
The Store , Bentley Little
Here’s another book with a hokey premise — an evil, Walmart-esque store comes to consume a small town — that bears it out with a lot of scary.
Penpal , Dathan Auerbach
A truly creepy and unsettling book, Penpal began as a series of short stories posted on Reddit, but ballooned into a novel that asks the question: “How far can you go into the woods?”
In Cold Blood , Truman Capote
Sometimes hailed as the first nonfiction novel, Capote’s masterpiece, which dramatizes the murder of a Kansas family, also elicited a lot of questions, both at the time of its publication and more recently, about how non-fictional it really was. Either way, the book is a terrifying investigation into murder and the unstable minds of killers, its connections to reality, whatever they might be, only deepening the fear.
Swan Song , Robert R. McCammon
Now here’s the stuff of every aware citizen’s nightmares: nuclear war, with a healthy dose of unambiguous evil and crazy people on the side. Constantly compared to King’s The Stand, but somehow more brutal.
The Wolfen , Whitley Strieber
Maybe the scariest werewolf book of all time.
The Hot Zone , Richard Preston
Yeah, this isn’t even a horror novel, but rather an investigation into infectious viruses, particularly that time Ebola broke out 15 miles from DC, told thriller style. It will scare you into many extra hand-washings to come.
The Killer Inside Me , Jim Thompson
This novel is a horrifying, blistering, deeply upsetting trip into the mind of a psychopath, hiding in the body of a normal guy. Unlike certain other normal-guy-psychopath books, though, there’s no ambiguity of purpose. Monsters are among us.
1984 , George Orwell
And it just gets scarier and scarier.