Horror is a peculiar genre. If it’s meant purely to scare, then some of the heftier books on this list would have wracked up a body count, terrifying readers to death over 700 pages or more. And what is scary? What might shock one reader is laughable to another. Ghosts, serial killers, great heaving monsters, the loss of self-control, plagues, impossible physics and a creepy clown all figure into our countdown, with entries spanning from the 1800s to the last few years. One (obvious) author makes five(!) appearances, and easily could have qualified for a few more; another has written just one novel during his decades-long career. We narrowed our focus to prose novels, so please don’t ask after The Books of Blood or Uzumaki. And while we kept an eye on the diversity of our featured authors, the inclusion of women, authors of color and queer creators came naturally as we gathered the best of the best. We’re prepared for you to question our choices, we ask only that you leave the chainsaw at home before doing so. Without further ado, we present our choices for the best horror novels of all time.
1. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” These are the legendary opening words of The Haunting of Hill House, our pick for the best—and best-written—horror novel of all time. Shirley Jackson’s chilling, lean haunted house tale follows Eleanor Vance, a young woman with a bit of a sensitivity for the paranormal. Along with Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator, a young artist named Theodora and Hill House heir Luke Sanderson, Eleanor examines the cold, labyrinthine old mansion. The rooms seem to shift, the architecture makes no sense, and even without the ghosts—and oh, there are quite likely ghosts—it’s an unsettling visit. But the heart of the mansion isn’t necessarily the terror drummed up within its walls. What’s most troubling is its ultimate effect on the young Eleanor, whose steadily declining mental state hits a dead end behind the gates of Hill House in one of the most perfect conclusions in all of horror fiction.
2. It by Stephen King (1986)
Of all the King books revolving around plucky kids, these might be the pluckiest, most iconic and possibly the most annoying. The protagonists are a collection of fairly broad stereotypes (geek, fat kid, sickly kid, “the girl,” etc.), painted in an all-encompassing pastiche of ‘50s American life, but in the end that’s really the point. King remains and has always been obsessed with the turbulent years of early adolescence. The titular “IT,” on the other hand, is probably King’s most enduring and iconic monster, an interdimensional being of pure malevolence and alien mindset that seems so much simpler on the surface. An evil clown that kills kids? That could at least be dealt with in ways accessible to adults. Fighting the actual evil of It is a much trickier proposition, one that depends upon a perfect blend of mysticism and childhood faith necessary to overcome It’s greatest weapons: fear and entropy, and the ability to make an entire town forget about the atrocities it commits and allows. The ending of It is occasionally cited as its weak point, but it’s a big, fat novel that is far more about a journey, both in the ‘50s and ‘80s, and the horrifying visions suffered along the way.
3. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)
If fiction’s taught us anything in recent years, it’s that the vampire genre can be a tired—and ironically toothless—one. But Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist breathed new life into the eternally overdone tale with his debut novel, Let the Right One In, which tells the story of a bullied grade-school student named Oskar and his new friend and neighbor, Eli. Eli is brilliant, deathly pale—not to mention dirty and smelly. She only comes out at night, but more than anything, she’s a pillar of support to lonely Oskar. Maybe there’s blood, gore, KISS songs and acidic solutions that give this story its horrific edge, but at its, core Lindqvist penned a stirring tale of love and acceptance at the confusing phase that is (sometimes eternal) puberty.
4. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)
William Peter Blatty is better known today for the Academy Award-winning screenplay he adapted from his own novel than for the original text itself. Unlike The Shining, the film never diverges too widely from the source material, but that shouldn’t keep horror fans from picking up the novel. Blatty’s text has the time and space to better establish all of its key players, specifically Father Damien Karras, layering on the dread long before the pea soup starts flying. In a film full of movie magic, it’s still possible to close your eyes or look away. In the novel, Blatty asks the reader to imagine truly horrific things, and the depths of human imagination will always be a scarier place than a film editing room.
5. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
Frankenstein isn’t just an iconic horror novel; it’s a complete shift in perspective of what horror is and can be. Hanging with her pals in Switzerland’s Villa Diodati, a teenaged Mary Shelley conceived a fatally ambitious scientist committed to creating new life. Victor Frankenstein accomplishes his goal, synthesizing a lumbering, grotesque humanoid. This book brings the word monster under the strictest of scrutinies: the protagonist abandons his unconventional child, leaving it to stumble blindly through the world searching for its surrogate “father.” Who’s the real villain? The walking, talking science miracle feels, loves and suffers the abhorrent reactions of an uncaring humanity. We the reader have a new thing to fear: ourselves. We are the horror. We create our own monsters. And, like the Prometheus referenced in the secondary title, we burn in the flames we ignite. Frankenstein’s legacy can be felt centuries later. Just watch a neglected, misshapen child pushed to the bottom of a lake evolve into a vengeful teenager dismemberment machine, and Friday the 13th takes on a whole new flavor after reading this terrifying trailblazer.