Let Us Speak Of Horror Novels

I love me some horror.

But I gotta be honest: I haven’t read much great horror recently. In part because it’s harder to find — like I mentioned yesterday, you don’t see it with its own section anymore.

I want to read some kick-ass horror again.

So, recommend a horror book. Or, if you prefer, the oeuvre of an entire horror author. (I for one will, any day of the week, recommend the horror stylings of Robert McCammon. Uh, SWAN SONG, anyone?)

Here’s the key, though. I don’t want to hear only the recommendation. I want to know why. I want to know why it’s scary and, beyond that, why it works for you as a great story. Let’s crack this nut a little wider. What makes for effective horror fiction? Talk about it. Open up your Hellmouth and belch out some diabolical troofs.

And if you don’t read horror: why not?

Get to it, little monsters.


  • Clive Barker: Books of Blood.
    Why? Old as they are they are proper horror. You can smell the blood, taste that iron tang, see the viscera gleaming. (in short: he writes gud)
    I don’t get scared by horror stories, (my mortgage scares me) more often these days I get disgusted and a little depressed by the serial killing type of horror that is often peddled. For me, a great horror story is beyond that which happens. It fucks with your head, it doesn’t recall real life tragedies. Maybe that’s just me. I like my horror from beyond the pale, not from the latest news bulletin. Mr Barker did that.

  • I might have missed them, but no one seems to have mentioned these from among my favourites:

    Cabal by Clive Barker

    The Pilo Family Circus by Wil Elliot

    Pilo in particular is a great book. It does things with clowns and circuses you would never imagine and is an incredibly well realised book.

  • I’m pretty sure I mentioned it the other day, but Martin Lastrapes’ Inside the Outside is great. Seriously so. You mentioned head, heart, and gut, and his novel hits them all.

    Imagine if Aronofsky had directed The Last House on the Left, sort of. Because it’s about cannibalism and a cult-ish religious sect and lesbians and murder, but it’s seriously good writing. Highly, highly recommended.

  • Someone mentioned Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs, and I’ll second that one. Great Book.

    Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (yes, it’s spelled right). Also, Handling The Undead by him, great stuff.

    Creatures, edited by Paul Tremblay and someone else who’s name escapes me, sorry, is a great anthology.

  • This is a neat question! Lessee…

    “Blindsight” by Peter Watts is very well done horror fiction that I found compelling even as it gnawed on my brain. All of his stuff seems to be imaginative and well-written, while simultaneously being a real wrist-opener of a read. High quality, but not *fun,* if that makes sense. A bit like watching “Hotel Rwanda”: well done film, but you need a bit of an emotional run up. The story itself is about the expedition sent to find out what’s going on when the world figures out that someone or some thing took a flash photograph of the world from space… and now knows where we are. I’ve found it to be more successfully Lovecraftian than Lovecraft for a modern audience.

    Other candidates…

    “John Dies At The End” by David Wong is the kind of novel I’d be surprised if Chuck hadn’t already read, since it has a rollicking high-energy dark-humour that I’d expect to be right up his alley.

    Here’s the blurb:


    It’s a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. On the street they call it Soy Sauce, and users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human.

    Suddenly a silent, otherworldly invasion is underway, and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John and David, a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs.

    Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity?

    No. No, they can’t.


    What’s not to love?

    Also, I’ve been heavily recommended “Unwind,” by Neal Shusterman, and what little I know about it has meant I’m waiting for the same kind of emotional run-up I needed for “Blindsight.” The premise is that the US fought a Civil War over reproductive rights between anti-abortion and pro-choice, and eventually a compromise was reached: all abortion is banned; unwanted children are open-season until they turn eighteen. The process by which they can be legally harvested for organs and other such resources while being kept alive (since the compromise precluded death at any point) is called unwinding…

    It’s theoretically a Young Adult book, but looks *utterly chilling.*

    Actually, that’s another very effective horror book I’ve read: “The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray,” by Chris Wooding. It’s also pitched at YA, but the only concession to the age-range is that the language is simpler to read than it could be. The ideas themselves are complex and *dark,* and the story is set in a semi-abandoned Victorian London infested with near-Lovecraftian monsters called the Wych-Kin.

    From my perspective, considering how often YA books have been the ones to scare the brown-stained pants off me, successful horror is about imagination and the quality of the writing, rather than about how they’re marketed or pitched.

  • I’d like to read some straight up horror myself right now, actually. But I have two recommendations: one classic and one not.
    1) Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Yeah, I know. Dracula. Blah, blah I vant to drink your blahd. But really, since I read it lo many years ago, I still have the creeps. It is one of those novels that is not so much as horrific while you are reading it, but moreso afterwards, as it sticks with you. For me, it had a dreamlike quality that I still cannot quite pinpoint. Maybe it is just personal. I am a little afraid to read it again.
    2) The Nihilesthete by Richard Kalich. This is the ‘not so classic’ recommendation. It is the story of a sadistic NYC social worker who sets out to destroy a disabled genius artist. It is seriously twisted, but on a human level rather than supernatural. It is more likely to leave you depressed than scared, but horrific nonetheless.


  • Anything by Catilin R. Kiernan. Or rather, Everything.

    Something Wicked this Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

    The Lottery and Other Stories (Shirley Jackson)

  • @K Davies: And THE DAMNATION GAME was reprinted not long ago. Clive Barker does Faust and does it very well. Less viscera than BOOKS OF BLOOD but much more psychological horror.

  • @ mythago, et al.

    Oh, yah. Will +1 any Clive Barker recommendation. It’s true what you said about horror authors being A+ nice people and Clive Barker will eviscerate despite him being an awesome guy.

  • If you haven’t read them already:

    Dracula: Slow to start, but excellent when it gets going, Dracula is absolutely chilling in places, while the characters are helpless against a mysterious, sly monster, and a series of unfortunate circumstances. That is until van Helsing gets his act together, when the book changes from the characters being the prey to becoming the predators and the hunting begins.

    World War Z: A scarily real depiction of what could happen should the zombie apocalypse arise, with some utterly terrifying description of different zombie scenarios from around the globe.

    Other than that, I don’t read much horror, so don’t be surprised if they’re not up to your standards!

  • As a frequent (daily) reader of Cracked I’ve been meaning to get JDATE for a while now. All of the recommendations here drove me to the Amazon store where I experienced true horror. They want $10 for the ebook?! The paperback is only $8, and trees died for that shit! Guess I will have to swing by the old B&N on the way home today.

  • Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone else who read Swan Song. Call me crazy, but I actually enjoyed it more than the book it’s most often compared to, The Stand.

    I’m not sure if this qualifies as horror, but Clive Barker’s Imajica is the most amazing book I’ve ever read. It’s epic in size and scope, scary, weird, and magical. I read it in the 90’s, and when I finished the book I was incredibly sad to think I might never write anything nearly as amazing as Imajica.

  • I recently watched ‘Antichrist’ by Lars Von Trier, and it really made me think about the definition of ‘horror.’ I mean, so often we want to be entertained, but not really horrified.

    Or anyway.

    I guess what I love in any story is the sense of identifying with the characters, even the bad guys. That what really throws me when I read a good horror (I know, it’s part of what makes a good any kind of story), the fact that I was able to identify, and place myself in the shoes of, these horrible people. Then you start to question your own sanity.

    So for those reasons, I’d recommend ‘Let the Right One In’ by John Ajvide Lindqvist. It was pretty, and lovely, and sweet. And the monster of the story is everyone it shouldn’t be.

    ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis made me dry wretch at one point. But I still couldn’t put it down.

    ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris. Made me sad. The relationship the bad guy had with his blind co-worker just had such an honesty to it, that I really wanted everything to work out for them. And for him to stop killing people, too, I guess.

    ‘A Scanner Darkly’ by Phillip K. Dick made me paranoid for a couple of days. I was about two-thirds through, and I couldn’t shake the thought that someone on the train was out to get me.

    And there’s a bit in ‘The Girl Next Door,’ by Jack Ketchum, which actually made me breathe a sigh of relief and say (out loud) “Oh, thank Christ.” It just kept pushing, and pushing, and then it backs off just a little bit, and then you realise that the bastard Stockholmed you.

    Meanwhile, reading through all of the other posts, it appears I have quite a few new books to go buy…

  • If you haven’t read, “John Dies at the End” than do. It’s like someone took Bill and Ted, HP Lovecraft, William Burroughs and a deer carcass, threw them into a blender and strained the results through cheese cloth into an acid-laced Jack and Coke.
    If you have, try, “Lunar Park” by Brett Easton Ellis which is creepy awesome.
    Or if you’re lucky you can find a copy of, “The Drive-In” by Joe R. Lansdale. It reeks of axel-grease and confusion with a dash of Lovecraftian creepiness.

  • Night by Eli Wiesel is a non-fiction book. Based on real events in a nazi concentration camp. If real horrors done by real people to other people doesn’t scare the crap out of you, nothing will.

    For fiction try John Farris’ work, Son of the Endless Night. Great scary novel about demon possession. In the middle of reading this book during the night there was a loud popping noise that came somewhere from the vicinity of my daughter’s bedroom. After I let go of the ceiling I went to check on her, she was fine. But I have never forgotten that noise or how scared I was.

  • I like monsters and supernatural horror as much as the next guy, but what really scares me are stories like Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.
    Want to get the heebie-jeebies? Read Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”. Absolute perfection.

  • Everything Charlee Jacob has ever written. I read a lot of horror and there are many excellent writers in the field, but Jacob is truly outstanding. A genuine original who writes some of the most extreme horror imaginable, the gruesome nature of which is made even more horrifying by her incredibly lush and sensual prose.

    Her short story collections in particular are sheer brilliance of the kind rivalled only by a tiny handful of others I’ve ever read, Clive Barker’s Books Of Blood, Richard Christian Matheson’s Dystopia and Michael Marshall Smith’s What You Make It and More Tomorrow & Other Stories.

    That she remains so obscure is a tragedy.

    A word of warning though for aspiring horror writers, Jacob is the kind of writer that can make you want to throw your laptop against the wall and weep in the knowledge that you will never be half as good.

    Anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating has never read such stories as ‘Behold’ and ‘The Border In Zen’ from her debut collection Dread In The Beast. ‘Frigid’ from Geek Poems, ‘Up Out Of Cities That Blow Hot And Cold’ from the collection of the same name, or ‘The Blood Of The Sun’ from Indigo People.

    Bottom line: Charlee Jacob is a genius. Read her books.

    Go on, I dare you.

  • The problem with a lot of great horror novels is that they fall out of print quickly. Therefore, several of my recommendations might be a bit tricky to find. That being said, here are a few of my suggestions:

    THE TERROR by Dan Simmons is a great novel. It’s a fictional retelling of the doomed Franklin expedition in the 1840s. Set largely in the frozen wastes of the Arctic, the story would be gripping enough if it were simply a tale of survival, but once Simmons introduces a mysterious creature that stalks the crew in the night it becomes downright chilling (pun intended).

    THE NIGHTRUNNERS by Joe R. Lansdale is another classic. What’s great about this one is how Lansdale leaves all its supernatural elements open to interpretation: Are these characters hallucinating or are the grisly workings of the horrifying God of the Razor actually real? This one is out-of-print, but was reprinted in an anthology by Subterranean Press called GOD OF THE RAZOR which is well worth seeking out.

    DARK GODS by T.E.D. Klein is a favorite of mine. Klein doesn’t write much, but everything he has produced is smart, well-constructed and most of all horrifying. DARK GODS is an anthology of four novellas, the standout in my mind being “Black Man With A Horn,” in which the narrator unsuspectingly stumbles on an ancient cult and their Lovecraftian diety. (And if your kids show any interest in horror, you can show them Klein’s short story “One Size Eats All,” about a killer sleeping bag. That’s in another volume, also published by Subterranean, called REASSURING TALES.)

    I could go on and on, but I’ll stop for now with NIGHT SHIFT, Stephen King’s first short story anthology. Almost all the stories in here are classics: “The Mangler,” “Children of the Corn,” “Sometimes They Come Back,” “Trucks” and “The Lawnmower Man” have all seen theatrical adaptations. My favorites, though, are lesser-known: “Quitters, Inc.” chronicles one man’s harrowing attempts to quit smoking and “Grey Matter” sees a recluse suffering a horrible transformation. But best of all is “I Am The Doorway,” in which an astronaut begins to experience terrifying changes after being exposed to an alien mutagen.

    Currently on my to-read list is HORNS by Joe Hill, CARRION COMFORT by Simmons and SWAN SONG by Robert McCammon. Perhaps I’ll have more recommendations soon…

  • Today, no amount of written or drawn gore will freak me out, and no amount of psychological terror will mix true horror in with the fascination and intrigue. I read Lovecraft only for my love of peculiarity, and King for his incredible skill at the psychological department

  • June 30, 2014 at 11:15 PM // Reply

    I loved all 3 of the following Contemporary horror novels for various reasons;

    Laird Baron’s “The Chroning”
    Joe Hill’s “Heart Shaped Box”
    Jonathan Maberry’s Pine Deep Trilogy

    The first (Chroning) because it may be the most terrifying piece of fiction (horror or not) I have ever read and It stuck with me for a bit longer then most others, a bit to long if I can be honest, really hit the nerve. The second (Heart Shaped Box) due to the fact that I thought I would hate it and ended up reading it in two settings and the ghost in it is hardcore as fuck. The third because it was just so damn fun and a HUGE homage to lots of things horror and the holiday of Halloween: Haunted attractions, A horror convention with quite a few “real” celebrities (Tom Savini and screen queens Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon amongst others), plagues, zombies, vampires, scary old houses, bizzare woods.. it really has it all and while not anything amazing it was an extremely fun read.

    Laird Baron’s The Chroning was some of the most terrifying horror I have read in ages. He is one of the many authors who run with the “Lovecraftian” vibe but with a more contemporary setting and situations. You end up worrying and caring about a couple characters who could be me or you in another reality who are ultimately helpless in an extremely horrific situation … I do not want to spoil to much but its some a+ material ..This is from someone who has read tons of horror for 20 or so years and usually sticks to shorts because most novel length horror just gets bland and boring with filler… it even tells you in the first chapter what the legend of Rumpelstiltskin is REALLY about and then comes back to it full circle in the end, you will never look at it the same again … this one kept me up at night the more I let it sink in , its truly a masterfully told terrifying read. I was reading it out in the woods and had to stop because I had an overwhelming sense of dread, it really played on some absolute fears that all humans share when you get down to it.. good shit for sure.

    so now with with the same breath I am going to recommended not one but TWO guilty pleasures in the horror world that are not quite as amazing as Laird Baron’s work but I enjoyed them nearly as much in a junk food and 80’s horror movie night sort of way. Laird Baron’s sorta beats the shit out of you and leaves behind some scars for a couple weeks while these two remind you how good horror can be fun (even funny at times) and and still be freaky and keep you wanting more .

    The first book is by Steven King’s son Joe Hill. His freshman novel Heart Shaped Box is one hell of a ride. A roadtrip of sorts involving a burnt out rock star who buys a ghost on ebay and this pretty much ends up being (I would imagine after whizzing through this one) the most shit choice he has ever made.. its even pretty freaky at times and when I started reading it I was sure I could care less about ANY of the characters and by the end I had a soft soft for two, a very soft spot. A good horror writer (or any genera writer for that part) knows the trick of making the reader think he despises a character (which builds attachment) and then shows another side of the character that the reader can relate to and feel honest emotion for them. Who can relate to a burnt out rockstar who spends a fortune purchasing oddities off ebay ? You’d be surprised… and FINALLY a ghost that can really fuck with humans, most ghosts are so pathetic in horror world but THIS ghost is fucking hardcore, FINALLY!.

    The last recommendation is Ghost Road Blues trilogy. I pretty much summed it up above, its a 21 gun salute to the horror culture and Halloween in general. This trilogy is so much fun that I flew through the ebooks in breakneck time. I assumed they were pretty short but I then saw the trade paperbacks in the bookstore that I work at and was like “Holy shit, It did not seem nearly that long”.. There is quite a few quirky characters to love in this book but the Ghost who sings the blues and finds power through song and guitar strumming is a personal favorite. This is the series I would probably expect most people to not like out of the 3 as it really caters to a certain crowd (love Halloween, horror culture and some gory good times) but seriously, if your not into these themes then how the fuck are you a horror fan? Beats me but this is the FUBU or horror novels so have some fun with it.

    Have fun, hope you like some of these!!

  • I’m surprised no one has mentioned Thomas Ligotti (unless I missed it). Technically he only writes short fiction, but his stories are dark, nihilistic and utterly sublime (in the traditional sense of that word). I read The Frolic in a fully lit room, with 6 or 7 people chatting in it, and it scared the hell out of me. Almost everything he writes gets under my skin.

  • Almost no one has read “Let’s Go Play at the Adams” by Mendal Johnson. It will nail you dead. Some reviewers have called it ‘evil.’ Really rough going. I also recommend “the Monk” written by Matthew Lewis in 1796– two hundred nineteen years later and it still holds the power to shock and frighten. Another goodie from long ago is “Melmoth the Wanderer” by Charles Maturin. For more recent horror, read “Survivor” by JF Gonzalez, “John the Balladeer” by Manly Wade Wellman, and any collection of short fiction by Ramsey Campbell (take your pick) or Thomas Ligotti (again, any one of his books will do).

  • “Duma Key” by Stephen King
    Why? In my opinion it is one of King’s best novels.It has that quiet creeping horror behind it that by the end has spun out of control.I don’t scare easily and find mainstream horror completely ridiculous nowadays but this novel got under my skin(probably because it didn’t follow the usual cliches of horror).

  • Let’s start with Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.

    It’s the kind of creepy horror that gets in under your skin and begins to molder and funkify (which were the two original names for the X-Files characters). It gets under your skin because you know these kind of people. You’ve lived next door to them and you have seen them leaning in the doorway and hunkering down on a front porch in your neighborhood on something that MIGHT be Kentucky Fried Chicken, original recipe.

    I said it might.

    Roll on into Jack Ketchum’s OFF SEASON for a book that scared the hell out of Stephen King. Now mind you, Stephen King plugs an awful lot of novels. He’s a nice and guy and all – but sometimes he tries a little too hard in that whole plugging department – but OFF SEASON is dead on target. It is the kind of book that will put you into the mood to watch WRONG TURN or PEOPLE OF THE HILLS or even TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I’m talk B-movie schlock, written with style. I’d definitely recommend that one.

    Ronald Malfi’s SNOW is another favorite of mine. It was Malfi’s first book – and he is a great guy and a rock solid editor besides being a kickass awesome horror writer. You read SNOW and the next time you find yourself looking out at a December morning, singing Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and there’s old Bing Crosby crawling out of his tomb, dragging along Bob Hope’s reanimated carcass and all of you sudden that whole foolish notion of isn’t-snow-beautiful gets blown away in a nuclear screaming bazooka blast of wake-up-asshole-and-smell-the-fucking-coffee!

    Ray Garton’s LIVE GIRLS will put you right into redneck greasy vampire country. Nasty, gritty, B-movie, noir-tasting back lot horror. One of his best books.

    Tim Waggoner’s PANDORA DRIVE will leave you wondering what the hell was in that powdered glass that you just snorted.

    Brian Keene’s GHOUL and his novel DARK HOLLOW are right up there for me as well. GHOUL if you are into old school rock references and the taste of Coca-Cola long before any advertising asshole thought about tacking CLASSIC to it’s label. DARK HOLLOW if you are into the old school style horror like SALEM’S LOT.

    And of course – even though everybody and his goddamn dog has probably read it – I have to mention SALEM’S LOT. That was the first Stephen King novel I ever read – and I only read it because I came across a MARVEL TEAM-UP comic book with Ben Grimm (the Thing) reading a copy on the first page or so of the comic book. I read that novel when I had still had teen pimples and after reading SALEM’S LOT I knew right then and there that I wanted to grow up and become a goddamn dyed-in-the-wool horror author.

    I’m still working on that growing part of things…

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