The Ten Scariest Books of All Time…
As a seasoned horror author, I’m often asked not only what books I find the scariest, but also what novels have inspired me the most. Without further ado, I give you a handful of my favorites, though, when I say favorites, there are a few selections here that I’d only tackle once. I’ll explain…
- Dracula by Bram Stoker: This is one of those books I’d recommend reading only once. It was written in 1897, and it’s definitely not a novel you’d tote to the beach. The language is difficult, and the story tends to drag now and then, but if you’re looking for classic gothic horror, it all started here. Save this for a rainy season…and I say season because I’ve never met anyone who was able to push through this book in less than a few weeks. If you’re that person, hats off. All that said, it’s required reading for anyone who claims to be a horror nerd.
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin: I can gush on and on about how masterfully Ira Levin can weave a sinister undercurrent into an otherwise mundane tale, but if you want to experience it for yourself, look no further than Rosemary’s Baby. Yes, there’s a movie, but the book is so much better. It’s a quick read that’ll leave you wondering why you haven’t read more of Levin’s work. I highly recommend it, as long as you aren’t pregnant.
- Psycho by Robert Bloch: There are two movies—Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and that other one… the one where they cast Vince Vaughn as the lead. There’s also a show, which is good fun if you’re looking for a Norman Bates origin story. But there’s only one original, and when it comes to why this story has inspired so many spin-offs, Bloch’s novel will strip all that mystery away. This book is a bit of a slow burn, but it’s perfect pacing for the sleepy, middle-of-nowhere motel setting. A definitive horror classic in its own right.
- The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty: Believe it or not, but this is another one of those read-only-once novels for me. The Exorcist was one of the first genuine, honest-to-goodness horror movies I saw as a kid, and let me tell you, that film wrecked me. I couldn’t sleep for months, and the very concept of demonic possession haunted me for years. That said, when I was old enough and brave enough to pick up the novel, I was bracing myself for one hell of a bumpy ride. And while The Exorcist does have its seriously creepy moments, there’s lots of praying, lots of tossing about of holy water. Don’t get me wrong; it’s quintessential horror and it’s definitely worth putting in your wheelhouse. Just don’t expect it to be as terrifying as the movie version. Because, let’s be honest, how can anything be more terrifying than that?
- Carrie by Stephen King: No, not IT and not The Stand. For me, one of King’s best was his first. What makes Carrie so disturbing isn’t the poor girl’s supernatural powers; it’s not even that she sets the entire gym on fire; it’s the abusive relationship she has with her mother. King is one of the masters when it comes to fleshing out characters, and Carrie is no different. If you want to get a serious case of the creeps, walk a mile in Carrie White’s shoes, and then ask yourself… how did she not go nuts sooner?
- Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews: Since we’re on the topic of screwed-up families, if you want to one-up Carrie, get a load of the Dollangangers. This group is the epitome of cringe-worthy dysfunction. If you’re itching for a novel with a female antagonist, look no further than momma Corrine. She’ll make you call your own mother and thank her for not trying to murder you in your sleep.
- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: This book is, in my eyes, a masterwork when it comes to the unreliable narrator. It’s also up there when it comes to serious gore. I remember reading this while I was sick in bed with the flu, and while I wasn’t feeling well as it was, it was the first book ever to make me physically ill. That said, proceed with caution, but definitely proceed.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding: Whenever I put this on my list of “scariest books” or “books that have influenced me the most,” people raise eyebrows. What’s so creepy about Lord of the Flies? After all, you skipped reading it and went straight to the CliffsNotes in your high school English class, right? Should you have read it? The answer is: absolutely. Because when you throw a group of young boys onto a deserted island together only to watch them devolve into a bunch of ravenous monsters, you start to question your own morality. And if I could only take a couple of novels with me onto my own deserted island, Lord of the Flies would most likely be one of them.
- The Bachman Books by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King): At the risk of coming off as a King fangirl (which I most certainly am), I must include The Bachman books, which are made up of Rage, The Long Walk, The Running Man, and Roadwork. My two favorites are Rage and The Long Walk, both of which are truly disturbing, especially when read in our current political climate. These are tough to come by, as Rage was pulled out of publication by King himself due to a 1997 school shooting in which the novella was cited as inspiration for the heinous act. That said, you can only imagine…
- The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum: I’d say I’ve left the best for last, but really, it’s the most gruesome and disturbing. This is my third only-read-once selection, but it’s here because it’s a cornerstone of the modern horror genre. If you’re looking for a book that will make you wince, that’ll make your brain feel dirty, look no further. Most people I know who have tried to read this book don’t finish it. It’s that jarring, that dismaying. I did finish it, but it wasn’t without a heavy heart and a grimy feeling. It’s been over a decade since I read this book, and just thinking about it still makes me squirm. Jack Ketchum was truly a master of his craft, regardless of how ghastly some of his work is. He was a pioneer, and as he just passed on this January, will be missed by those of us who love a good scare. Because, while anyone can write something disturbing, Ketchum is one of the few who can write disturbing and make it stick to your heart like a deep, dark sin.