In any genre there are always those seminal works that are pure must-reads. They’re the classics, the stories that are either the foundational underpinnings or pitch perfect examples of what the genre has to offer. People have been telling scary stories for as long as they’ve been, in fact, telling stories. There’s just something addictive about a bit of bone-chilling terror. But the sheer breadth of the horror catalog can be a little daunting – particularly when you’re talking the must-reads. Ever the glutton for punishment, I’ve taken a stab at pulling together twenty-five must-read classics, from the 1800s through the 1980s. Let us know your favorite horror reads in the comments!
With The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson crafted one of the most influential haunted house tales of all time. It’s a slow burn masterpiece that relies as much on its deeply drawn characters as its potentially haunted setting to methodically ratchet up the dread and terror.
Anne Rice essentially reinvented the popular mythology of the vampire with her Vampire Chronicles series, and it all began with Interview with the Vampire. Rice’s influence on the vampire genre in the latter twentieth century is difficult to overstate and Interview is still one of her best.
For me personally, this was the most difficult pick. I debated The Shining, The Stand, and ‘Salem’s Lot. However, I just can’t escape the fact that It is just so quintessentially Stephen King. If you only read one Stephen King novel, the sprawling story of a group of kids fighting a timeless evil in the twisted of community Derry, Maine has to be the one.
Dracula is the definitive vampire novel. It quite literally defined many of the tropes and conventions that are now staples of the of the vampire genre. Beyond underpinning an entire subgenre, Dracula is a tale of obsession, loss, and repressed sexuality.
There are times when it feels like I read Ray Bradbury as much for his absurdly well-written prose and use of metaphor as his forays into all things horrific. Something Wicked This Way Comes is the gold standard – it melds Bradbury’s keen sense of nostalgia, unfettered imagination, and gleeful wordsmithing into one brilliant and unsettling package.
Although it’s also widely considered one of the first science fiction novels, the macabre horror of Frankenstein is undeniable. Its influence has stretched through two centuries of horror and it remains a foundational piece of the genre.
Beloved wrecked me the first time I read it. At its base, it is a ghost story – and an incredibly well-told one – but the horrifying secret at its core, and the way Toni Morrison expertly peels away the layers of guilt, desperation, and trauma that define the tale, make this Pulitzer Prize-winner a singular and devastating appearance.
Any discussion of Gothic horror and its genesis should include Elizabeth Gaskell. The dread-inducing collection of stories in Gothic Tales is a perfect example why. Her works are darkly surreal, blending local legends, fairy tales, and an incisive understanding of mankind’s darker inclinations into a deeply unsettling collection of eerie tales.
Daphne du Maurier; Introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Rebecca is a classic study in obsession and sustained suspense. Readers are inexorably carried along with the unnamed narrator’s increasingly intense fascination with the death of her husband’s first wife. What unfolds is intricately woven mystery as unnerving as it is shocking.
Richard Matheson is arguably best known for I Am Legend, his seminal post-apocalyptic pseudo-vampire novel, but he’s also one of the finest short fiction writers of latter twentieth century. Matheson’s occasionally pulpy and always terrifying short stories influenced virtually every major horror writer to follow in his considerable wake, including the likes of Stephen King and Peter Straub. They also had a major impact on Victor LaValle, who both edited and wrote an introduction for this collection. LaValle is no slouch in the horror department himself and well worth a look.
Thomas Tryon; Introduction by Dan Chaon
It was arguably the success of novels like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other that ushered in the paperback horror boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s. With The Other Tryon’s takes a deep dive into humanity’s darker side. Set against a bucolic farming community, the story eschews the supernatural in favor of more mundane, if no less horrifying, scares.
William Peter Blatty
If you only know William Peter Blatty’s terrifying masterpiece by way of its classic adaptation, pick up a copy of the novel that inspired it. Blatty manages to imbue an eerie sense of plausibility into the story that makes it all the more unsettling.
Rosemary’s Baby effortlessly weaves its suspense through the oft-mundane everyday lives of the young couple at its center. There’s an inkling from the beginning that something is not quite right, but the reader’s realization, paced alongside Rosemary’s own, is what lifts Ira Levin’s masterpiece to a different level.
A Ghost Story
The Woman in Black feels like a throwback to a much earlier period. It’s a bit shocking to realize this Victorian chiller was published in 1983. That’s a very good thing. The Woman in Black is a pitch perfect ghost story – one that takes its time and lets the fear slowly creep in and envelope the reader.
Anne Rivers Siddons
The House Next Door is an oddly overlooked slice of horror that deserves a spot alongside the haunted house heavyweights (The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Hell House). Best known for novels like Peachtree Road that center around the sagas of wealthy southern families, Anne Rivers Siddons nonetheless quietly crafted a brilliantly creepy haunted house tale that has stood the test of time.
Dean Koontz has leaned a bit more into sci-fi and pure thrillers for most of his prodigious career, but on the occasion that he embraces full-on horror it’s invariably worth a look, and Phantoms is one of his best. It builds on classic urban legend with more than a small debt to Lovecraft, and is precisely the sort of page-turner that made Koontz a perennial bestseller.
The Damnation Game proved without a doubt that Barker could sustain his particular brand of unrelenting terror over the course of an entire novel. Following Books of Blood, The Damnation Game delves into the darkest recesses of Barker’s imagination for a particularly depraved tale tinged with cannibalism, incest, and all manner of macabre.
And Other Stories: 75th-Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
The Bloody Chamber is, at base, a series of fairy tale retellings. What lifts the whole package and sets it apart is Carter’s understanding of the dark undertones of virtually every fairy tale ever conceived. She pulls those darker elements to the forefront, deftly inverting every classic trope.
A Vintage Movie Classic
The idea of a seemingly innocent child committing heinous acts has become a fairly common trope in horror, but when The Bad Seed was published in 1954, it proved a tremendous shock for its readers. March’s matter-of-fact prose style lends an air of both authority and plausibility to this story of a mother slowly realizing the true evil of her young, murderous daughter.
Odds are you’ve never read a novel quite a like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Geek Love, centering around a family of circus “freaks,” is bizarre, mesmerizing, and perverse. It’s a shocking lamentation on the human condition, of torment and trauma. Ultimately, it turns a sort of fun house mirror on societal ideals, presenting a delirious and disturbing vision in return.
Henry James; Introduction and Notes by Susie Boyt; General Editor Philip Horne
Henry James seminal ghost tale is one of those foundational texts for the horror genre. There are still very few authors who have done the traditional ghost story better. James keeps the scares and narrative subtle, but no less dread-inducing. The fact that even after the final page it’s not precisely clear what’s happening — that very uncertainty is the genius of “The Turn of the Screw.”
Bret Easton Ellis
American Psycho is a gleefully over-the-top slasher flick in prose form that also happens to be an absurdly biting, post-modern cultural dissection. It’s dark, for sure. There’s cannibalism, necrophilia, all manner of torture. But it’s also a wholly unreliable descent into pure madness – but also maybe not. This one is as thought-provoking as it is unsettling.
There’s a lot of great horror scattered across Dan Simmons’ eclectic bibliography. Summer of Night is one of my favorites. Falling on a spectrum somewhere between Bradbury and King, it is a tale of small towns and ancient evils, but there’s an eerie sort of quality that taints the nostalgic hue in a way that separates it from those clear influences.
Best known for scripting the likes of “Beetlejuice” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” McDowell’s brilliantly terrifying novels are once again making their way onto the radar of horror fans. The Elementals is arguably his best work – a southern Gothic-tinged haunt that is claustrophobic and disturbing.
While it’s on the list of novels overshadowed by their adaptations, there really is just something about experiencing Hannibal Lecter in print that even the brilliance of Anthony Hopkins can’t quite match. And while Thomas Harris may have overextended with perhaps too many sequels, Silence of the Lambs is an unrelenting and bone-chilling descent into the darker – and very plausible – recesses of humanity.