We’ve all seen the lists, and there are hundreds of them. We go searching for these line-ups like addicts in need of another fix. I’m talking about itemized catalogs of the scariest, most disturbing horror novels out there. Which have we read, and which one will twist us up next?
Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a quick read, so masterfully concise it leaves you feeling like the devil left you after a one-night stand. The Stepford Wives, also by Levin, encourages you to give Martha Stewart the side-eye. And Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire serves as a reminder that horror is, at times, romantic to a fault. And yes, I’ll admit, my teenage crush for Lestat is withstanding. Then there’s Robert Bloch’s Psycho, which we’re all familiar with thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and, now, the ever-popular series Bates Motel. Taxidermy’s never been so alluring. Leave it to Norman Bates to turn the dead into the almost living.
While it’s safe to say that Stephen King is the most famous horror author of our time, when I mention Full Dark, No Stars as my favorite of his works, I tend to get a lot of blank stares. Full Dark is one of his short-story anthologies, but it’s unlike any of his other work. It’s brutal and unapologetic for how deeply it delves into the darkness that makes us who we are. If you’re a fan of people as monsters, you’re going to love how twisted this ride gets. My mainstream favorite? The Shining. This is a solid and thoroughly spooky book. It’s difficult to tire of Jack Torrance, or the nightmarish concept of your most trusted ally wanting nothing more than to see you dead.
Speaking of dead, if you’re into vampires but find Anne Rice’s Interview too frou-frou, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In will cure you of those sparkly, lovey-dovey woes. Little Eli is the perfect character to help you reawaken your long-dormant love for the otherwise tired bloodsucker genre, even though this Swedish-to-English novel can, at times, get a little lost in translation. Read the book, then watch the Swedish version of the movie. Both are incredible and will have you handing out recommendations to like-minded friends.
Then there’s the classic tale of the haunted house, or, in this case, the haunted suit. Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is both edgy and gripping in its telling of Judas Coyne, a haggard and fallen rock god who has a “thing” for spooky antiques. Think: Keith Richards, groupies, and a seriously pissed-off spirit crashing the after-party and you’ve got yourself—in my opinion—one of Hill’s most entertaining reads.
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite is probably one of the least-known titles on this list, and fair warning, it’s not for the faint of heart. Brite shows us how four seemingly unrelated characters—a killer, a club kid, a pirate radio DJ, and a playboy—can converge in a chaotic fusion of love and homicide. Exquisite Corpse is a literary blood blister. You’ll either love how much it hurts, or hate yourself for ever touching it…and that, at least when we’re talking about horror, is a compliment of the highest order.
Then there are the books that have been gathering dust on our shelves for years, the classics that we overlook for how truly dark they are inside. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has been taught in classrooms for decades, as has F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. English teachers point out general themes, but rarely do they highlight how sinister these tomes truly are. King once said that “Monsters are real…they live inside us.” That truth is reflected in our high school reading—the stuff we were told to page through but, perhaps, only scanned the CliffsNotes on quiz day. If you want a good horror story, you don’t have to look far beyond Piggy and his band of brothers or Gatsby and his massive mansion. Because in the end, Piggy was always surrounded by killers. Gatsby haunted his own house. And for all we know, he was never there to begin with. Nothing but a ghost.