Top Ten Horror Stories of all Time
Growing up in the 1980s in a remote sixteenth-century farmhouse in deepest, darkest Somerset, England, did wonders for my imagination and interest in the macabre.
There were always these rumors that someone had been murdered by musket shot in one of the lower rooms of the house, while the ghost of a little girl was said to walk the back passageway between the old servants’ quarters and the living quarters above. Her spirit was spotted on three separate occasions by three different people while we lived in the house. Although her presence seemed less malevolent and more curious, the same could not be said of the unkind thing that watched us unseen from the corners of the attic, its unsettling glare and the cold spots keeping you from lingering too long within that top room of the house.
With a childhood spent under the constant belief that I was growing up with ghosts, it’s little surprise then that I was drawn to reading and writing horror stories, and eventually wrote three published novels (at the time of writing) associated with horror. The sheer number of books I’ve read and enjoyed in this wonderful genre is large, but the list below came to me very easily, so I suppose these must be my favorite ten horror books, listed in no particular order.
- The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty – 1971
As a teenager I watched, as many of us did, the banned film of the book (which scared the bejeebers out of me), but I always suspected that the novel would go deeper still into the psyche, torment, and revulsion of demonic possession. I wasn’t wrong. Blatty managed to create something that reads so harrowingly as if it were taken from real life (I believe it was inspired by a case of demonic possession Blatty had witnessed as a student twenty years earlier), making the book feel even more compulsive and involving. There’s nothing sentimental, overblown, or sensational about what happens. It’s a slow descent into the maddening horrors of the devil’s domain. Blatty should be, and has been many times, applauded for writing something so daring and bold, without censor or caution. A big influence on my own trilogy, particularly (obviously) in the sections regarding demonic possession.
- The Shining – Stephen King – 1977
As is the case with all (I am sure) writers, I am a huge fan of King’s work. But this is, in my opinion, his best. The setup of the blighted Jack Torrance, his loyal but struggling wife, Wendy, his talented but troubled son, Danny, the isolation of the demonic hotel, the closing in of the elements as if hell is surrounding the place, the desperation of fellow “shiner” Halloran—all of the ingredients are utterly spell-binding and perfectly paced. As the novel grips you tighter within its grasp, your reading of it and associated emotion becomes increasingly frantic, as the characters are plunged into deeper and darker chaos and as you, the reader, are dragged down with them. Budding writers, regardless of genre, should start here to learn their craft.
- From Hell – Alan Moore – 1999
Alan Moore, for my money, is one of the greatest authors Britain has ever created, and it’s only because of the medium he has (largely) written for—comics—that his work is not better known. But you mention the film adaptations of his novels (V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen, as well as From Hell) and people’s eyes light up. From Hell is a huge work that investigates the crimes of Jack the Ripper and all those in some way connected with the crimes. But what the book also does is expertly and in vast, precise detail provide a snapshot of the horror and destitution of Victorian life and the lengths people would go to in order to make sense of their place in the world and to simply survive within it. Rarely has a book so engrossed and horrified in equal measure as this one.
- The Amityville Horror – Jay Anson – 1977
In a similar vein to The Exorcist, this book had a huge influence on me and my appreciation of the unseen spaces around us and the spirits with whom we may, or may not, share them. A lot has been written about whether events within the house upon which the book is based are true, or whether the entire thing is, in fact, an elaborate hoax. But, when reading it in my early teens, the scene of the cloud of flies in the window struck with shocking clarity when I discovered the window of the attic of my family’s house also filled with flies in exactly the same manner as the haunted house of Amityville!
- The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien – 1953
Okay, so this might seem a strange choice for a top ten of horror, but there are parts within The Lord of the Rings that I would completely categorize within the horror genre: the crossing of the Dead Marshes, the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the schizophrenic breakdown of Gollum and, in particular, Shelob’s Lair. A fetid giant spider, the putrid waste of her lifetime of feasting, the isolation and darkness of her lair’s passageways, the entrapping strands of webbing—the whole chapter reads like a monstrous, terrifying journey through hell.
- “The Black Cat” – Edgar Allan Poe – 1843
Poe is probably my favorite writer of the macabre. His stories are short vignettes into the mental torment and breakdown of individuals who stare too long into the Abyss, and the Abyss leaves its mark. Endlessly black and constantly sinister, “The Black Cat,” like all Poe’s stories, is perfectly paced, structured, and revealing of the human condition, something both appalling and yet seemingly always terrifyingly accessible to the reader. I love the way Poe examined mental illness, greed, and guilt a century ahead of his time. Though clearly based within the era that they were written, the themes of his work are perhaps as valid today as they have ever been.
- The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham – 1951
No book terrified me as a child quite like The Day of the Triffids. Triffids, giant plants capable of communication and locomotion and armed with a lashing toxic stinger that can kill, are farmed for the valuable oil they contain. They pose little risk to man when observed closely and treated with caution, but when a dazzling meteor shower blinds the world’s population, the Triffids become the superior race on earth, striking and then devouring victims at will for their own food. One can quite clearly trace a line between the slowly shuffling Triffids and zombies twenty years later. I read it recently and found it hadn’t aged as well as other books of the time, but the scenario is still horribly vivid and still graces my nightmares from time to time.
- The Rats – James Herbert – 1974
James Herbert was probably my second-favorite author after Tolkien whom I read during my childhood. I devoured his books: The Fog, The Spear, The Survivor, all of them slightly dangerous with their generous smattering of cheap sex, ghastly deaths, and monstrous creatures. But The Rats was the one that stayed with me. It’s easy to view Herbert’s style as being throwaway and simplistic, but its readability and accessibility are why his novels work so well, why they pull the reader in so quickly, effortlessly, and refuse to let go. There’s been a lot written about what the real meaning of The Rats might be, of social commentary on inner-city Britain, of class and political divides. The horror genre enables the writer to use horror to emphasis social, political, and financial grievances. Perhaps Herbert was trying to do that with The Rats, but the brilliance of it is that whether you enjoy it on a deep or superficial level, its ability to move, terrify, and make you wonder remains as fresh and affirming as it did forty years ago.
- Wytches – Scott Snyder – 2014
My second graphic novel on the list, Wytches, got me into a whole heap of trouble with my final book of the Darkest Hand trilogy! Because I loved it so much, I decided I wanted to use witches as a major theme within The Risen. Having written a version with witches in, my agent pointed out that there had been no witches in the earlier books, so I had to rewrite the entire thing, putting me nearly five months late for my deadline! So I should hate this book, but how can you not love it? It’s a deliciously dark and wonderfully clever story about curses, dark unspeakable horrors hiding in the depths of woods, and the monstrous things we will do to achieve our dreams. Genuinely terrifying!
- The Beaver Book of Horror – Daniel Farson – 1977
This was the book that first got me into horror. I would have been eight or nine. The cover of these two innocent-looking kids (who looked uncannily like my sister and me at the time buying it) in an armchair surrounded by these ghastly monsters creeping up around them transfixed me and the details within it, covering all aspects of horror, from vampires to Jack the Ripper to ghosts, snagged my interest in the genre forever more. But it was chapter three (and I can still remember that despite not having read the book for over twenty years!) about werewolves that utterly beguiled me. Included was an etching of a werewolf with a spear in its arm and a woman in its jaws, and I sat and looked at this picture for hours and hours wondering and thinking about whether these monsters really did exist. The book seemed to suggest they did. And perhaps they do, if only in our minds?
Tarn Richardson was brought up in a remote house, rumoured to be haunted, in Somerset. He has worked as a copywriter, written mystery murder dinner party games and worked in digital media for nearly twenty years. He lives near Salisbury in England. His latest book, The Fallen is the follow-up to his debut novel, The Damned, and the second in a series of three featuring tortured Inquisitor Poldek Tacit.