The Portalist has previously rounded up the 50 best fantasy and 50 best sci-fi books, and now we're looking at another side of speculative fiction: horror. If you're searching for a scary read that will leave you sleepless and shivering, look no further than our recommendations for these best horror books.
For the purposes of this list, each book we chose had to have at least one speculative fiction element. This means we excluded greats like American Psycho, Jaws, and The Silence of the Lambs. The selections were also limited to one book per author, and we included novels, novellas, and short fiction anthologies.
Below, in chronological order, is our list of to-die-for horror books waiting for you to crack them open...if you dare.
1. Frankenstein, 1818
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is arguably the earliest sci-fi book.
The novel follows Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious scientist with an interest in alchemy. After the death of his mother, Victor—obsessed with mastering death—successfully brings life to a Creature made from disparate parts.
When the Creature escapes the laboratory, Victor must grapple with the violence he’s unleashed on the world, and onto his abhorrent creation.
2. The Complete Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, 1827-1849
The Complete Short Stories
The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe hardly need an introduction. From "The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Cask of the Amontillado," the works of Poe—and the figure of Poe himself—cast a long shadow on the horror genre.
3. Carmilla, 1872
This Irish novella recounts the story of Laura, a lonely, privileged Irish girl initially delighted to have the company of a mysterious young woman named Carmilla.
But there are unanswered questions around Laura’s visitor. And her intentions towards Laura are both unnerving and intoxicating….
An early vampire story with sapphic undertones, Carmilla has been remixed, reimagined, and paid homage to countless times in the horror canon.
4. Dracula, 1897
This iconic Gothic novel introduced characters that have become horror archetypes, and forever immortalized vampires in our collective consciousness.
An epistolary story inspired by Transylvanian folklore, Dracula follows a mysterious count who—after a visit from a British solicitor—moves to a small seaside town in Britain and terrorizes the locals.
5. The King in Yellow, 1895
The King in Yellow
This influential collection of short stories about the ominous and supernatural has influenced everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s bibliography to HBO’s True Detective.
6. The Scarlet Plague, 1912
The Scarlet Plague
One of the earliest plague horror novels (preceded by Poe's "Mask of the Red Death"), The Scarlet Plague is set in both 2013 and 2073.
It follows a survivor of the devastating scarlet plague, who attempts to describe the fall of the old world to his grandchildren.
7. Who Goes There?, 1938
Who Goes There?
This horror novella inspired both the 1951 film The Thing From Another World and John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing.
The tale of arctic terror depicts what happens after workers on a research base in Antarctica uncover a futuristic ship frozen in the ice. The novella has inspired not only films but also games, comics, tribute short story anthologies, and more.
8. Conjure Wife, 1953
This Retro Hugo Award-winning novel follows a college professor who learns that his wife is one of many women practicing witchcraft. He encourages her to abandon the dark arts, and in doing so upsets a delicate balance his wife's craft has maintained.
Damon Knight praised Conjure Wife as "easily the most frightening and (necessarily) the most thoroughly convincing of all modern horror stories [...] I am not ashamed to say that I jumped an inch out of my seat."
9. I Am Legend, 1954
I Am Legend
This post-apocalyptic vampire novel by sci-fi writer Richard Matheson subverts all expectations for the genre, and demonstrates that horror and sci-fi can be a match made in hell.
As far as he can tell, Robert Neville is the sole human left alive in Los Angeles. His neighbors and family fell to the plague, but emerge as uncanny versions of themselves at night. So Robert throws himself into research, hoping to discover a cure for the affliction that has made him the last of his species.
10. Midwich Cuckoos, 1957
The Midwich Cuckoos
The inspiration for the Village of the Damned films, The Midwich Cuckoos is set in a small English hamlet that becomes the home of a generation of menacing, hive-mind children with terrifying telekinetic abilities.
11. The Haunting of Hill House, 1959
The Haunting of Hill House
An influential ghost story, Jackson’s novel follows a paranormal investigator and three individuals with past supernatural experiences who agree to visit an isolated house among the hills.
Stephen King counts Hill House as one of the greatest novels of the late 20th century, and Damon Knight praised it as “in a class by itself.”
12. Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury’s lyrical, haunting contributions to speculative fiction can’t be overstated.
His short fiction is perhaps his most terrifying, but this 1962 novel about two boys drawn to the traveling carnival in their small town—and who soon learn that Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has a dark and mesmerizing underbelly—is as chilling as it is unforgettable.
It’s also been a noted influence on authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and R.L. Stine.
13. Rosemary's Baby, 1967
Although perhaps eclipsed in the popular consciousness by Roman Polanski’s film adaptation, Ira Levin’s novel is a tour-de-force in its own right.
Young married couple Rosemary and Guy have recently moved into Manhattan’s notorious Bramford building. Guy, a struggling actor, grows close to their eccentric neighbors in the Bramford, but Rosemary can’t bring herself to trust them.
When Rosemary becomes pregnant after a deeply-upsetting night with Guy, Guy’s career begins a meteoric rise—and Rosemary receives a dire warning about the baby growing inside of her.
14. The Exorcist, 1971
You’ve seen the movie, sure. But if you haven’t read the source material then you’re short-changing yourself.
A compulsively-readable exploration of faith and the existence of evil, Blatty’s novel—which depicts the possession of 11-year-old Regan MacNeil—has had an immeasurable impact on horror novels and film.
15. Burnt Offerings, 1973
The small Rolfe family is desperate to escape their hot apartment for the summer, and the rental house on an isolated stretch of Long Island beach seems like an oasis.
The only catch is that the owners' mother is staying in the home, and the Rolfes have been given some very specific instructions about how to care for her. But the house's secrets can't ruin their summer...can they?
16. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 1981
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Collection
Over a ten-year period author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell published three short story anthologies that have since traumatized generations of readers.
The creepy tales—which draw on folklore, urban legends, and other source material—are ostensibly intended for children, but they terrify adults, too.
In fact, these volumes are so upsetting that they’ve been the subject of controversy and challenges by parent groups.
17. The Woman in Black, 1983
The Woman in Black
In this frame story, a young lawyer visits an isolated seaside manor to manage the estate of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. He soon realizes that the deceased lady had a dangerous reputation among local children—and that she may not be entirely gone.
A classic ghost book with a shocking climax, The Woman in Black has been adapted numerous times, including into a long-running play in London's West End.
18. The Books of Blood, 1984
The Books of Blood
Clive Barker’s six-book horror short fiction series Books of Blood forever transformed the literary and film horror landscape.
The first volume features short fiction like “The Midnight Meat Train,” about a New York commuter who runns into a serial killer; “Sex, Death and Starshine,” which follows a theater company with supernatural fans; and “The Yattering and Jack,” about an incompetent lesser demon.
19. The Ceremonies, 1984
A slow-burning story of ancient evil and the terror of being a pawn in someone else's game, The Ceremonies is a cult favorite novel about Jeremy, a professor who moves to Jersey to spend his sabbatical studying Gothic horror.
But Jeremy doesn't know that everyone in his life—from his girlfriend back home to his neighbors in Jersey—are being manipulated by an evil that landed on earth centuries ago.
20. It, 1986
We all float down here. There are countless novels by horror master Stephen King that deserve a spot on this list. But as we've limited our selections to one book per author, we chose a King title that’s had an enduring influence on American pop culture (and damaged the psyche of several generations of children).
It’s also a lynchpin novel in the wider King universe, with Easter Eggs and connections to many of his other books.
It tracks a group of friends from childhood through adulthood as they’re forced to face a mysterious evil haunting their hometown of Derry, Maine.
21. The Graveyard Apartment, 1986
The Graveyard Apartment
If real estate seems too good to be true, it probably is. In Mariko Koike’s acclaimed novel, which was translated into English in 2016, a family moves into an apartment building with lots of space for their young daughter and pets. And because many of the units are unoccupied, the building promises to be peaceful as well.
But beginning the first night in their new unit, the family is disturbed by deeply-unsettling forces.
22. Beloved, 1987
This Pulitzer Prize-winning literary horror novel is set in the 1870s. It follows Sethe, a formerly-enslaved woman who lives in a house she believes may be haunted by her eldest daughter’s spirit.
When Sethe makes an uncharacteristic decision to leave her home, she returns to find a girl calling herself Beloved on the porch. Sethe welcomes Beloved—and the revelations she brings about the past—inside.
23. Jurassic Park, 1990
Michael Crichton’s classic dinosaur novel is first and foremost sci-fi—but it’s also undeniably horror.
The book follows a group of consultants sent to the remote island Isla Nublar to sample its attractions, which include cloned velociraptors and other Jurassic predators.
The classic monster story has numerous imitators, but few subsequent novels harness the wonder and thrills of Crichton’s original.
RELATED: Scary-Good Sci-Fi Horror Books
24. Boy's Life, 1991
Praised by Kirkus Reviews for measuring up to the “childhood-elegies of King and Bradbury,” this novel won both the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award.
A creepy coming-of-age story set in 1964 small-town Alabama, it centers around a young boy who begins to see evil forces at work after watching his father fail to save a drowning man.
RELATED: Scary-Good Fantasy Horror Books
25. Uzumaki, 1998-1999
Originally published as a weekly serial before being compiled into three volumes in the late 90s and translated into Enlish in the early 2000s, this profoundly-unsettling cosmic horror series is set in a town obsessed with spirals. Body horror ensues.
26. Skin Folk, 2001
This short story anthology from SFWA Grand Master Nalo Hopkinson won the World Fantasy Award in 2002.
A mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, the collection deserves recognition here for unsettling stories like “The Glass Bottle Trick” and “A Habit of Waste.”
The Science Fiction Chronicle praised the anthology for displaying “the complexities of the seven deadly sins . . . and perhaps those of the seven deadly virtues.”
27. Come Closer, 2003
Has something broken in Amanda's mind, making her do things she can't remember and torpedo a life she loves? Or is someone—something—sabotaging her?
A breakneck story of obsession and haunting, Come Closer was called "hypnotic" by Bret Easton Ellis.
28. The Good House, 2003
The Good House
The Good House author Tananarive Due has a celebrated horror resume. She teaches a UCLA course on the Black horror aesthetic, and can be seen in the Shudder documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. On top of that, she’s also an American Book Award winner.
Her 2003 novel The Good House follows a woman searching for answers to her son’s untimely death—among other disturbing occurrences in the town of Sacajawea, Washington.
29. Let the Right One In, 2004
Let the Right One In
Originally published in 2004 in Sweden, this vampire novel explores obsession and cruelty through the eyes of a child.
When 12-year-old Oskar meets a young girl named Eli and learns she’s a centuries-old vampire, he grows devoted and kills locals for her to feed on. The movie inspired films in both Swedish and English—but the source material is even darker than its adaptations.
30. World War Z, 2006
World War Z
This ambitious-in-scope novel tells the history of the human-on-zeke conflict through interviews conducted with the United Nations Postwar Commission.
The book examines the origins and turning points of the zombie war from the U.S. to Antarctica, Israel, and beyond (ever wonder what would happen to astronauts on the I.S.S. during an apocalypse?). It's a novel that’s simultaneously horrifying and optimistic about humanity.
31. The Ruins, 2006
If you can stomach survival horror or body horror, then this tense standalone story about unfortunate tourists will twist you up and never let you go.
The setup is standard, but the execution is flawless: four American tourists visit an archeological dig in Yucatan near a Mayan village.
When the group arrives, the site is empty of scientists. They're soon trapped by locals with guns—but a greater danger is creeping closer....
32. The Terror, 2007
Dan Simmons is another author with multiple titles which could have landed on this list. Ultimately, though, The Terror deserves recognition for its flawless marriage of historical accuracy and horror.
The doorstopper book imagines the possible fate of Captain Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage—an expedition that came to a mysterious end when the two ships disappeared.
33. Heart-Shaped Box, 2008
It wasn’t easy to decide which of Joe Hill’s fantastic novels to include on this list, but Heart-Shaped Box ultimately made the cut because of its humor and tense pacing.
Judas Coyne is a has-been rock star wiling away his retirement buying morbid souvenirs online. His most recent acquisition—the suit of a dead man, rumored to be haunted—lives up to its online listing.
Once the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box, people around Judas begin dying, and he learns that the suit was originally worn by a man who blamed Judas for his daughter’s death. Judas and his goth girlfriend embark on a road trip with their dogs, hoping to go where the curse can’t follow.
But as they soon learn, you can’t outrun your past…or the dead.
34. Zone One, 2011
This is a wholly unique zombie novel from Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant-winner Colson Whitehead.
Mark Spitz has stayed alive since Night One—the day the living were overrun by the dead—by refusing to get attached to anyone who’ll slow him down. But now humanity has won the war, and Mark and a group of sweepers are part of the team cleaning downtown Manhattan of the remaining catatonic zombie stragglers.
An unforgettable and horrifying glimpse at a decaying version of the modern world, Zone One demands multiple readings and will haunt you long after the last page.
35. Eutopia, 2011
Set in 1911, this genre-bending phantasm marries dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Centered around the era's eugenicist philosophies, the story focuses on a small town designed by modern thinkers to be a paradise—and the newly-awakened evil watching residents from the waters of a nearby lake.
According to Publishers Weekly, the story "blends Little House on the Prairie with distillates of Rosemary’s Baby and The X-Files to create a chilling survival-of-the-fittest story."
RELATED: 32 Must-Read Horror Authors
36. How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend, 2011
How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend
This anthology of horror short fiction and poetry comes from Linda Addison, the first African-American author to win the Bram Stoker Award (which she later went on to win four other times). She was also recognized as a Science-Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) Grand Master in 2020.
This unforgettable, landmark anthology uses lyrical writing to explore themes of possession and haunting.
37. Hex, 2013
First published in Dutch in 2013 and republished in English in 2016 with a revised ending, Hex takes place in a small town haunted by the ghost of a witch with a sewn-shut mouth.
The residents deal with the apparition through a commitment to secrecy and reliance on an app they use to track the witch’s whereabouts. But for the town’s youth, this terror has gone on too long….
38. The Girl With All the Gifts, 2014
The Girl With All the Gifts
This sci-fi zombie novel was adapted from the author’s Edgar Award-winning short story Iphigenia In Aulis.
The book centers around 10-year-old Melanie, a ‘hungry’ who’s unlike the other undead overrunning the world, and grows close to her caretakers on a British military compound. The book was also adapted for a 2016 film.
39. Experimental Film, 2015
This Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel follows Lois, a struggling film teacher and critic who becomes obsessed with the lost films of Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, a spiritualist who vanished in the early 20th century.
Lois believes this archival footage may revive her career. But she’s unprepared for what Iris will awaken in her, in this novel Jeff VanderMeer said “explores the world of film and horror in a way that will leave you reeling.”
40. Wylding Hall, 2015
This Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel is told in documentary format. It asks what happened when a British folk band gathered at an isolated estate in the British countryside to work on their new music years ago...and not all of them left alive.
The unique haunted house story received rave reviews, including from musician Richard Thompson, who praised its depiction of "a parallel gothic horror universe."
RELATED: Unsettling Horror Books by Women
41. A Head Full of Ghosts, 2015
A Head Full of Ghosts
Something is wrong with Marjorie’s older sister, Meredith. She suffers from nightmares that leave her climbing the walls, and the stories she’s started to tell Marjorie are eerie and suffocating. As Merry’s condition deteriorates, the family’s dire financial situation and increasing desperation leads them to seek help from strange places.
Told partially through blog entries and from the perspective of both adult and child Marjorie, A Head Full of Ghosts won the Bram Stoker Award in 2015, and “scared the living hell” out of Stephen King himself.
42. Ghost Story, 2016
Stephen King counts this book as one of the greatest horror novels of the late 20th century.
'The Chowder Society' is a group of older men, lifelong best friends who delight in each other's company—and a spooky story.
But when Chowder Society members start to die, the survivors learn that ghosts and curses are no longer just the subject of a spooky yarn. And if they can't get answers soon, none of them will live to tell the tale.
43. A Collapse of Horses, 2016
A Collapse of Horses
Featuring disturbing tales of cannibalism, ominous deserts, and monstrous animals, the A Collapse of Horses anthology evokes "Kafka, some Poe, some Beckett, some Roald Dahl, and . . . Stephen King” (The New York Times Sunday Book Review).
44. The Ballad of Black Tom, 2016
The Ballad of Black Tom
Victor LaValle’s 2016 novel grapples with the racism and legacy of 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Dealing specifically with Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” it follows a Black musician in Harlem in the 1920s who’s invited to perform at the isolated home of a wealthy white man.
The Ballad of Black Tom won the Shirley Jackson Award and was nominated for numerous other honors.
RELATED: Weird Fiction That Takes You on a Ride Through the Strange and Unusual
45. Agents of Dreamland, 2017
Agents of Dreamland
Any work by award-winner Caitlin R. Kiernan would be at home on this list, but the 2017 novella Agents of Dreamland earns a space for its X-Files reminiscent, body-horror-fueled story of alien invasion.
The first in the Tinfoil Dossier series, it introduces paranormal special agents, a cult leader on the precipice of a horrific act, and a paleontologist faced with an inexplicable find.
46. The Hunger, 2018
This immersive historical horror novel imagines what might have happened to the ill-fated Donner Party. Featuring real-life historical figures, Katsu’s gripping book gets inside the mind of each of the pioneers on their passage to the West that ultimately ended in cannibalism.
This addictive retelling marries historical detail, immense empathy for its characters, and the possibility of a mysterious predator in the wilderness to depict one of America’s most well-known and infamous expeditions.
47. We Sold Our Souls, 2018
We Sold Our Souls
Grady Hedrix is another author with multiple titles that would fit well on this list.
In her heyday, Kris was a guitarist for a heavy metal band. But her glory days are behind her—and now, Kris knows that’s because a former bandmate sold Kris’ soul to the devil.
Determined to get justice for the rockstar she used to be, Kris embarks on a road trip to confront her band’s former lead singer.
RELATED: Ellen Datlow, Champion of the Frightening, Fantastic, and Far-Out
48. The Return, 2020
Two years ago Julie went missing during a hike in Maine. Her group of friends searched for her, and—when it became clear she wasn’t coming back—mourned her and tried to move on.
But then Julie returns, without answers about where she’s been. The friends get together for a weekend at a hotel to celebrate their reunion and welcome Julie home…but the Julie that returned is not the same Julie who left.
This engrossing read is a gripping look at the dynamics of female intimacy, as well as a pleasingly weird and horrific monster story.
49. The Only Good Indians, 2020
The Only Good Indians
This Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, Bradbury, and Alex Award-winning novel follows a group of childhood friends. Years after killing an elk on hunting land reserved for elders in their reservation, the men are stalked by a creature who wreaks havoc on the lives they’ve built as adults.
A unique and stunning exploration of generational legacies and the role of tradition in a colonized world, The Only Good Indians earned Stephen Graham Jones the accolade of “one of the best writers working today regardless of genre” (NPR).
50. The Book of Accidents, 2021
The Book of Accidents
This is a haunted house epic of which Stephen Graham Jones wrote, “the dread, the scope, the pacing, the turns—I haven’t felt all this so intensely since The Shining.”
The thriller follows the Graves family, who move to small-town Pennsylvania—and into the home where Nate Graves once endured abuse at the hands of his father.
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