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

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