Crowdsourcing The Essentials: Horror Novels

Last week, we crowdsourced your favorite dystopian reads.

This week, let’s talk horror.

We’ll keep it broad this time around — no subgenres, just the entire blanket category of what you consider “horror fiction.” Poll the choir of brain cells and ask yourself: what are your top three horror reads? Books that are not only favorites but also what you could consider the essentials –?

Drop them in the comments, if you don’t mind.

On a quick administrative note, a few of you have asked when I’ll compile the results of these lists — I will be doing that, but I need that pesky thing called “time.” (If anyone out there in the crowd feels they have the time and inclination to crunch the data, I wouldn’t say no.) So, I’ll probably reserve the compiling time to do in batches. The response to these has been pretty interesting, revealing a very fascinating fluidity in what people understand about certain genres and subgenres. I suspect it’ll continue with this week regarding people’s definition of “horror.”


  • For me the ultimate in scary books was “Ghost Story” by Peter Straub. Not the movie – that was a steaming pile of shit. The book was well crafted and creepy. While not a huge King fan, I would put his “Salem’s Lot” up there as a favorite. It did an excellent job of conveying the growing isolation of the town. My last pick is the classic “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. It’s been years since I read it and I can still recall the early scene with the coach traveling through the woods with wolves howling. Stoker was a master at creating an atmosphere you could imagine will all senses.

  • If I had to pick three desert island horror books, they would probably be: IT by Stephen King, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and I am Legend by Richard Matheson. I could read those three in rotation for years. In general, I tend to like horror short stories more than novels, and if I can add those, I’d add every piece of short fiction Matheson and Lovecraft ever wrote.

  • The “Year’s Best Horror” anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow are always solid and cover a range of scary styles. 2012 was my favorite in the last 5 years or so.

    “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” scared the bejeebus out of me when I was a kid, and I still love it and John Bellair’s subsequent books int he series.

    “Perdido Street Station” by China Meiville is usually listed as fantasy, but I found it almost too horrific to finish.

  • Any collection (or novel) of Laird Barron would not be out place, I think. Perhaps because of his beautiful language, his cosmic horror feels very immediate.

  • When I’m reaching for horror I usually go extreme:

    Wrath James White : BOOK OF A THOUSAND SINS


    Edward Lee : THE BIGHEAD

    But WARNING for real, those are EXTREME horror. THE BIGHEAD is the most horrific book I ever read and was so bad I almost put it down. And I am not squeamish at all.

    Classic horror for me is Clive Barker’s : THE BOOKS OF BLOOD which are short stories collected but damn it’s good stuff.

    And I have to toss out a shout out for horror to Brian Keene who writes a damn fine horror book and is a helluva nice guy.

  • August 5, 2013 at 1:46 PM // Reply

    This is hard, you tyrant! Just three?! It’s an unorthodox list, but I’ll have to go with:

    “Locke and Key” by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

    “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski

    “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell

    (I love Stephen King, but can’t really pin it down to one book.)

    • I was excited to see that you added “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell in your list! If horror was meant to haunt and disturb, then that book certainly has done it’s job. I read it when I was very young, still have my copy and it is still disturbing. “Me-Tie-Doughty-Walker” and “Harold” still give me chills.

  • Kathe Koja unleashed some amazing short stories back in the late 80s/early 90s. It’s wonderfully atmospheric modern gothic stuff, like a more visceral and physical Lovecraft. But I don’t think it’s ever been collected, so unless you have stacks of Fantasy and Science Fiction back issues lying around, I’ll just suggest her novel The Cipher and move along. It’s not typical horror, but it’ll creep you right out, and her voice is wonderful.

  • Stephen King: IT, Salem’s Lot, The Shining

    Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House

    Bram Stoker: Dracula

    Mary Shelley: Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus

    John Bellairs: The House With a Clock in Its Walls (a YA read, but made me shiver as a kid, and I still re-read it every so often)

    H.P. Lovecraft: The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories

    Edgar Allen Poe: The Cask of Amontillado, The Pit and the Pendulum

    Ray Bradbury: The Veldt (I say it’s horror although some say sci-fi.)

  • Favorite reads, in no particular order:
    – Exorcist (Blatty)
    – I Am Legend (Matheson)
    – Salem’s Lot (King)
    – The Boats of the Glen Carig (Hodgson)
    – Falling Angel (Hjortsberg)
    – Perdido St. Station (Mieville)

    Dracula still reads like a horror/action-thriller which is impressive this far out. In a class by itself IMO.

  • August 5, 2013 at 6:29 PM // Reply

    It – Stephen King;
    The Exorcist – William Blatty;
    and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ – Edgar Allan Poe

  • Books that scared the ever-loving crap out of me, and which I will never read again since I actually like sleeping at night:

    Desperation by Stephen King (I like King a lot, but this is, to me, the most true-horror of his books)
    Heaven’s Needle by Liane Merciel (Horror-fantasy, hard on the horror. Well-written, and completely terrifying)

  • SEED by Ania Ahlborn, FEED by Mira Grant, NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, The Enemy series by Charlie Higson is superb in the YA category, SOUTHERN GODS by John Hornor Jacobs, CANNIBAL REIGN by Thomas Koloniar, The Joe Ledger series by Jonathan Maberry, BREED by Chase Novak, WHITE HORSE by Alex Adams are a few of my recent faves, and add to that nearly everything by Peter Straub and of course an assortment of King titles.

  • I’m thinking:
    Horns by Joe Hill (his short, “Best New Horror” is good too.)
    The Stand by Stephen King (I like many of his short stories, like “Ladyfingers” and “Night Shift”)
    Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker

    My tastes in horror run a bit different.

  • Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
    Clive Barker – Cabal
    Stephen King – The Dark Half, Misery, Carrie, Christine, Nightmares & Dreamscapes
    Anne Rice – The Vampire Lestat (prequel to Interview with the Vampire, and better)
    Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived In The Castle

  • Formative (and gave me nightmares):
    Joan Lindsay: Picnic at Hanging Rock
    Gary Crew: Strange Objects
    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Hound of the Baskervilles

    MR James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
    King: Salem’s Lot
    Lovecraft: Dreams in the Witch House

  • Dan Simmons Summer of Night for making me feel like I was one of those kids riding around town on my bike and having to fight incredibly scary monsters.

    The Shining by Stephen King because I felt like the boss at that age for finishing it.

    Fiend by Peter Stenson, a new release, because of the seamlessly impressive story telling and twist on zombies (not entirely unique, but still) that chuckle at the scariest times and use of meth to avoid them.

  • Straight-up horror, as opposed to urban fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal romance, etc.:

    You’ve gotta go with King, although for me it would be a toss-up between The Shining and It. Not sure I could pick between the two. So much better than their respective filmed adaptations.

    House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. The first time I’d been genuinely *disturbed* by a book in a very long time.

    The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. One of the best lines in all horror fiction: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

    The Great And Secret Show by Clive Barker (His short fiction, collected in the Books of Blood, is also phenomenal, but you asked for novels. If you expand the definition to include novellas, I’d put Cabal here.)

    Shadowland by Peter Straub (I always preferred this to Ghost Story).

  • Laird Barron is, in my mind, the pre-eminent horror writer working today. His short story collections are amazing, multi-layered, deep, chilling. A true master of the short form but he’s also an amazing novelist. Seriously. Laird is your dude, Chuck.

    Molly Tanzer is not solely horror, but her debut collection, A Pretty Mouth, is stunning. She’s got hellacious chops and is going to be well-known one day very soon. And her stories can be terrifying.

    I think anthologists get missed quite often. Folks tend to go for the big game and miss the people working behind the scenes. Anything helmed by Ross Lockhart, Ellen Datlow, and John Joseph Adams – you can’t go wrong there.

  • Fevre Dream–GRR Martin

    The Dark Descent–a collection of horror/dark fantasy tales edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. “The Autopsy” by Michael Shea is a personal fave. “There’s a Long, Long Trail A Winding” by Russell Kirk. “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner.

    “The Companion,” by Ramsey Campbell

  • It by Stephen King because it was my first real horror novel aside from the short stories I managed to find in the library. Exquisite. I love his short stories too but It set the bar for me really early on. And it still works when I re-read it, iffy ending aside. I could so easily have picked The Stand too but there are so many apocalypses these days, albeit few with Randall Flagg.

    The Masque Of The Red Death because I was obsessed with the movie as a kid and you should have seen my delight when I found out it was based on an actual story. And then I discovered Poe.

    And then Stoker’s Dracula. Freaking ageless. And Stoker’s an interesting guy himself.

    Honourable mentions: Rats in the Walls by Lovecraft, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (read while I was on codeine so came complete with a hallucination of Jack the Ripper), and House of Leaves by Danielewski (mindblowing).

  • If the point of horror as a genre is to invoke terror in the reader, these three stories still make me shudder years after my first reading:

    The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson — though a short story and not a novel per se, it was the first piece of horror I read as a kid that set my future expectations of the genre. The banality of evil and society’s role in its propagation was brought home with a chilling brevity.

    Beloved, by Toni Morrison — the terror of being a slave forced to choose enslavement of one’s children or their deaths is traumatic enough; to be haunted by such a child chills me to the core. This book is generally not treated as genre fiction, but it should be considered as horror.

    The Handmaid’s Tale — again, generally not treated as horror fiction, but it may well qualify as a work of feminist horror. The implications of life for women in a society that sees them only as vessels fills me with dread, though the concept rings with familiarity today.

  • -The ghost stories of M.R. James. My dad read those aloud to me and the younger siblings when I was about seventh grade, and to this day I can vividly remember everything in “Lost Hearts” and “The Mezzotint.”
    -“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Mr. Poe. It might be only a short story, but it’s a classic that never gets old for me.
    -“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” by Arthur Conan Doyle. And if you can get them, the Paget illustrations for that are stunning. Honestly, they’re probably a big reason why that story made such an impression on me.

    I should mention that though I hate the ending of IT with a thousand fiery passions, the atmospheric buildup in that work is a masterpiece. And for epic scope of horror, The Stand takes the cake.

    • Oh, I had forgotten how much the Hound scared me! I started a collection where that was the first story and the illustration and story scared me so much, I put it down after the opening pages and didn’t pick it up again for several years! I must disagree with you on the excellent ending of IT, but agree whole-heartedly with The Stand as epic horror.

  • “Mister B.Gone” by Clive Barker (the book is a character that speaks to you, and goddamn it, it actually works. I don’t know a lot of authors that could have pulled this off, and to such chilling effect.)

    “Lost Souls” by Poppy Z. Brite (it gives you a deeply unsettled, surrealistic feeling that stays with you for days)

    “The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft (not all Lovecraft is good Lovecraft, and here he manages to construct a compellingly weird story without becoming self-indulgent and long-winded.)

  • for pure sense of forboding and the marvelous forshadowing…
    Stephen King’s It
    Joe Hill’s NOS4A2

    Pump Six (and other stories) Paulo Bacigalupi

  • The classics: Frankenstein, Dracula, Lovecraft (and Poe). The most memorable: The Hoard (Alan Ryker), Charnel House (Graham Masterton), Heart-Shaped Box (Joe Hill) and The Legend of Hell House (Richard Matheson). Short fiction honorable mentions in the classics: “The Lottery” (Shirley Jackson) and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (“for the love of God, Montresor!”)

    Of particular note as works which shaped my reading habits are Charnel House and The Legend of Hell House. The latter’s movie adaptation is on equal footing with the book/film duo of The Haunting of Hill House (original film).The former was a reading requirement for a college-level intro class on SF/F/H; I started reading it around 8 pm and *could not* stop reading it until 3 am the next day because I was so scared that I had to know how it ended before I went to sleep. Still makes me shudder.

    My initial experience with “The Lottery” as a short film was in a high-school English course, along with the short film “Bartleby the Scrivener” (Herman Melville, of all people!). They each left deep impressions on me and my reading habits.

    The Hoard is a recent novel which uses original ideas for the villain and the scary thing. I’d never read anything like it. Highly recommended.

  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn deserves a mention. Not traditionally scary, but it is the most disturbing novel I’ve ever read. And I think it won the Stoker.

  • Stephen King’s The Shining, The Stand, Salem’s Lot,

    John Farris’ Son of the Endless Night & William Blatty’s The Exorcist

    Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart

    Phil Rickman’s December & Richard Matheson’s Hell House

    Sorry, it’s more than three. I couldn’t help myself. It was like I was possessed or something.

  • You always remember your first, right? And the first time I can remember actually being scared by words on a page was Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT. (It happened after that a number of times, Shining, Stand, IT, cujo, etc)

    Next is DEAD IN THE WEST by Joe R Lansdale. Just a ripping good yarn with everything you could ever want from a western with zombies. Short and wonderfully grotesque.

    Then for number 3, I think I’ll have to go with I AM LEGEND by Matheson. Classic tale from one of the greats.

    I’m certain once I hit “POST COMMENT” a few more will suddenly come to mind, but I think those are three solids, that cover a broad range.

  • – Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Not his best, maybe, but you get to “At the Mountains of Madness” and he isn’t really writing horror any more.)
    – Michelle Paver, “Dark Matter”
    – SF, really, but no piece of fiction has ever scared the crap out of me like “Urn Burial” by Robert Westall. One writer who must surely be due a renaissance soon.

  • Already been mentioned but 20th Century Ghosts & NOS4A2 by Joe Hill are two incredible books.

    Let the Right One In is beautiful and horrific in equal measure.

    And IT by Stephen King is just an awesome slice of awesome. To me, this book is just the ceiling that all horror writers should be aiming for.

    And Rosemary’s Baby…just for the amazing build of tension that explodes right at the end.

    There are maybe another 100 I could name, most of them King…but yeah, these are the ones I’d pack if I had to be one of the characters on LOST.

  • The Exorcist, by William Blatty
    Locke & Key – Joe Hill
    Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
    Remember Me series – Christopher Pike

    And a couple short story collections:
    The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson
    Poe’s Children: The New Horror: An Anthology, edited by Peter Straub

  • IT – Stephen King – You always remember your first, and this counts as my first since I was terrified of the book cover. My mom left this one in the bathroom (on the floor between me and the toilet,) and the claws coming out of the grate on the cover convinced my six year old self I didn’t ever need use the bathroom again. 🙂 My mother also made the mistake of letting me watch the first part of the TV movie when it originally aired…

    Pet Sematary – King again. Read this for the first time as my free reading choice in third grade. Yeah, my parents got a call from the teacher for that one.

    The Funhouse – Dean Koontz – This used to keep me up at night. What’s not to love about that?!

    That was tough to narrow down. I love horror. I tend to lean toward monsters and ghosts, but all horror = happiness.

  • I would add two novels by Dan Simmons:

    Summer of Night- Five young friends in a small town find a ancient evil there and try to stop it.

    Carrion Comfort- Psyche vampires possess your mind and make you do awful things to feed on your extreme emotions. Imagine someone taking control of your mind and forcing you kill someone you love. You are aware but cannot do anything to stop yourself and they feed on your emotional terror.

  • I can’t read much horror anymore – the older I get the more intense my imagination gets. I scare too easily now (although zombies seem okay!). Back when I was a cold-blooded youth, I loved these 3 the best: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and The Stand, all by Stephen King.

  • Hell House by Richard Matheson wad definitely up high on my list of essentials but anything by him is really very good. He did write for The Twilight Zone, after all.

    Carrie by Stephen King was actually one of my very first horror books so that has to get a mention.

    Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft or whatever collection of his works happens to hold it.

    I would also suggest creepy pasta in general, especially Fear Mythos stuff. Some of these blogs are really great.


  • Edgar Allen Poe’s collection of short works is my all-time favorite.
    Clive Barker comes in a close second with his Books of Blood.
    I am Legend by Richard Matheson, along with all his other books, is one I will read repeatedly.

  • August 7, 2013 at 12:12 PM // Reply

    Some of the best horror I can recall reading would be the Books of Blood by Clive Barker.

    Side note: I’m not wholly clear on what the compiling data is about, but if you’re looking at doing a horror book, you could do a lot worse than reading Danse Macabre by Stephen King. Just getting into it myself, actually. He breaks down what the elements of horror are and how they work. Really good stuff.

  • The Shining by King (I actually like The Stand a hair better, but I think it’s really science fiction or fantasy or something).
    Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite—physically uncomfortable to read.
    Books of Blood by Clive Barker (yeah, i know they’re short stories).
    Special shout out to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Maybe not traditional horror, but disturbing and horrific.

  • Douglas Clegg’s “The Machinery of Night” was one of the most disturbing anthologies I’ve ever read. It goes beyond the shock factor or the predictable twists of many short stories by putting the reader in melancholy situations that haunt readers. Unfortunately the book was discontinued but used copies are still floating around Amazon.

  • Christine by Stephen King (not the film which is just shockingly lacking in detail)
    The Dead by Mark E. Rogers
    I am Legend by Richard Matheson

  • I’ve thought about this all week, because 1) I’ve read a ton of horror books, and 2) they don’t scare me. But the ones that hung in my mind are: Ghost Story by Peter Straub, The Shining by Stephen King and– even though it’s not horror per se, Ghosts by Ed McBain. Yeah, I know, it’s a police procedural, but there’s a ghost scene at the end that scared the shit out of me.

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