Ghost stories have been part of Japanese literature since the Heian period, from 794 to 1185, and modern Japanese horror is more accessible for English-language readers than ever before. Focusing on psychological horror and frequently incorporating folk religion elements including Shinto-style exorcisms, supernatural phenomena, and yokai, J-Horror titles are hair-raising stories that stick with the reader long after the book has been closed.
Okiku is a restless spirit dedicated to taking lives – the lives of people who kill children, that is. Until she meets a teenage boy who serves as host to an unspeakable evil.
The Girl from the Well is a little bit of a cheat, as it’s written by an American author, but the book has so many elements of Japanese horror that it’s a great way for unfamiliar readers to ease in: vengeful spirits, demons, and unexplainable supernatural phenomena.
The eponymous character of this horror manga is hated by both humans and demons – maybe for good reason, as terrifying things begin to happen anywhere he goes. This classic manga by horror master Kazuo Umezu serialized from 1968 to 1976, making it a great series for readers looking for a bit of J-horror legacy.
A doctor loses his wife in a car crash and becomes obsessed with reincarnating her, going so far as to save a sample of her liver in his lab – which goes about as well as one may expect of a book on this list: the sampled cells begin to mutate rapidly until they form into a new being determined to dominate the earth. This award-winning science fiction horror was authored by a microbiologist, which makes it even more terrifying.
A boy named Kouichi transfers into a new school and discovers the class has chosen to ignore a single girl. Convinced she’s being bullied, he ignores their warnings and interacts with her – only to set off a chain of horrific deaths in their cursed classroom.
Another draws on the classic J-Horror element of unexplained and unexplainable supernatural phenomena, which makes this novel incredibly frightening as Kouichi and his classmates try to break the curse. There’s also a manga version available in English along with the translation of the original novel.
Yusuke Kishi; translated by Camellia Nieh
The unemployed Fujiki wakes up in an alien landscape with only a portable device for company – and soon he suspects he’s somehow been brought to Mars for a deadly game pitting him against eight other players.
Touted as “a wicked satire on extremist reality TV,” The Crimson Labyrinth is a twisty introduction to the death match-style story found in other media.
A coastal Japanese town is haunted – not by a ghost or a demon, but by uzumaki: a spiral pattern, manifesting in the sea and in the human body. A young man named Shuichi tries to warn his girlfriend Kirie about the spreading madness, but in their town, it’s nearly impossible to escape the spiral pattern that comprises the secret shape of the world.
Junji Ito is a master of horror manga, and Uzumaki may well be the most terrifying of his work. Luckily for English-language readers, the three volumes of this chilling story are available as a single incredibly terrifying omnibus edition.
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Curious about other sci-fi/fantasy subgenres? Check out all of our So You Want To Read lists – we’re adding new ones all the time!