7 Terrifying Horror Novels That'll Keep You Up All Night
Horror films are an easy way to access the spine-tingling sensation we crave every Halloween. But if you're looking for sustained terror -- a story to return to night after night; something that builds and builds and then shrieks all at once -- there's nothing so satisfying as a good scary book. Words have their own way of worming into the psyche and festering there. It's hard to shake a good literary scare.
With Halloween just around the corner, we selected seven horror novels guaranteed to give you the spooks. Each offers a very different type of terror, from psychological ghost stories to genre-bending tales of the undead to bizarre families you won't soon forget.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Opening lines: "I still get nightmares. In fact I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I'm not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares."
Brief synopsis: A tattoo artist named Johnny Truant discovers the manuscript for an academic study on a documentary film called The Navidson Record, about a Virginia farmhouse with a curious anomaly: the internal measurements of the home are larger than the external ones. While reading and annotating the manuscript, Johnny descends into a madness of unclear origins.
What makes it scary: House of Leaves is famous for having a bizarre layout, some pages containing only a few words and others with zig-zagging, maze-like paragraphs. Reading the book is like solving a puzzle, and the ergodic structure may frustrate readers looking for a straightforward horror story. But if you're able to get past all that, you're in for a treat. The descriptions of the Navidson home -- with doors appearing out of nowhere, and a mysterious hallway that leads to a dark labyrinth inhabited by an unseen monster -- are surreal and eerie, like a cross between The Blair Witch Project and a Greek myth. Johnny's narration is equally unsettling, his insanity spiral mirroring the book's elaborate design. It's a hard book to describe coherently; you have to experience it to really know it. Also, a fun word of advice: Listen to Poe's album Haunted while you read along. The singer is Danielewski's sister and wrote the record as a companion piece to the book.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Opening line: "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."
Brief synopsis: Two young boys become fascinated with a mysterious traveling carnival that comes to their Midwestern hometown one October. Lead by the sinister Mr. Dark, the carnival tests the boys' fears and has an odd effect on the locals.
What makes it scary: Bradbury is better-known for science-fiction novels like Fahrenheit 451, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of his best and most complete works, a deeply personal story about small towns, childhood friendships, aging, and the complicated relationships between fathers and sons.
Bradbury's lush prose gives the novel a dreamy quality, which easily transitions to the nightmarish. By orienting the story in the pubescent headspace of the boys, Bradbury preys on specific youthful fears -- like witches and skeletons, and disbelieving adults -- and skews the world that we know a few degrees past comprehension. That betrayal of reality is far scarier than any ghost or monster, and Something Wicked This Way Comes mines that sensation to great effect, specifically with Mr. Dark, whose mere existence feels illogical. Though the book is technically a coming-of-age story, the horror is almost more palpable for adults who can see the carnival as a metaphor for the trauma of growing up.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Opening lines: "The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man's brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his back like chill wet leaves."
Brief synopsis: After a young girl named Regan MacNeil is possessed by an ancient demon, two priests -- one a young local struggling with his faith, the other a veteran with personal ties to the evil -- are summoned by the girl's mother to perform an exorcism.
What makes it scary: The 1973 movie adaptation is considered one of the scariest films ever made, so as you can imagine, the book is not for the faint of heart. Blatty adapted the novel for the screen and the story is largely the same, but the book feels more like an infestation of the mind.
The visceral scares of the film are more graphic in their textual form; Regan's invasive body horror is relayed to the reader in unflinching detail -- if you thought the crucifix stabbing scene was ghastly on screen, wait until you read Blatty's description. The psychological turmoil the event has on Regan's mother, Chris, is all the more effective when you're in her head, as the novel allows. And the build-up to the possession is also better developed; the demon's presence at first manifests as a poltergeist-like disturbance, giving the book a haunted house vibe, before it transitions into something more sinister. It's not an easy read, but it will absolutely scare the wits out of you.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Opening line: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream."
Brief synopsis: A paranormal investigator, hoping to gather evidence of the supernatural, invites a small group of psychically inclined strangers to a haunted mansion in the New England countryside. The house has a strong effect on one of the participants, a woman named Eleanor Vance, who is targeted by the spirits that dwell there.
What makes it scary: Jackson is an absolute horror master and one of the great underrated American authors. Though she is most famous for her short story "The Lottery," it's Hill House that made her as a genre staple. Stephen King called the book "one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century" and, in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, praised its famous opening paragraph ("Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."), saying, "There are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this." The book's blunt descriptions of the odd goings on at Hill House cut like a knife. Strange writing on the wall, foul odors, loud banging; it's typical haunted house stuff, but Jackson's biting -- and sharply humorous -- prose makes for an unforgettable psychological experience.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Opening line: "'When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,' Papa would say, 'she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing."
Brief synopsis: The Binewski family run a traveling carnival populated by their children, who have all been genetically modified to have birth defects so they can freak show acts. Narrated by the youngest Binewski daughter, Oly -- an albino humpback dwarf -- the novel recounts the rise and fall of the family business, and their bizarre and morally deprived daily life.
What makes it scary: Geek Love isn't technically a horror novel. There are no paranormal elements, no manufactured scares. But it's a gruesome, sick book, more depraved than you can even imagine, and all the more delightful because of it. Dunn -- who recently passed away -- achieved cult status after the release of the book, which was notably beloved by Kurt Cobain, and prompted director Terry Gilliam to declare, after reading it, "It made me ashamed to be so utterly normal."
Geek Love is a sprawling story about the grimy underbelly of Americana, where the horror elements are so normalized that they don't always register. A cult springs up around one of the Binewski siblings, Arty, who convinces his followers to amputate their limbs to achieve "purity." There are deprave sex acts, moments of incest, and murders. The scariest imagery comes from a man with a mutilated face who joins the carnival after an act of violence. But Geek Love is also surprisingly tender at times; you hate the deranged Binewskis, but admire their solidarity, and their utter rejection of normalcy. It's horrific for how it conditions the reader against that normalcy. It's hard to look at the world the same way after reading this book.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Opening line: "Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened..."
Brief synopsis: The Creed family moves to a large house in Maine that, unbeknownst to them, was built near an ancient Native American burial ground that has the ability to resurrect the dead. After the tragic death of his young son, Louis Creed buries him in the cursed cemetery -- a decision that comes with dark and dangerous repercussions.
What makes it scary: King considers Pet Sematary his most frightening book, claiming that, upon finishing it, he was worried he had gone too far. "Put simply, I was horrified by what I'd written," he would later confess.
While the book doesn't exactly cross the line of good taste, it does probe the boundaries of morality. The death and resurrection of a toddler is the horrific centerpiece, but Pet Sematary is loaded with gruesome imagery, from the gory ghost of one of Louis's patients, to his wife Rachel's memories of her meningitis-afflicted sister. The story eschews any harmonious takes on death and goes right for the most heinous, carnal elements of loss. The dark ending only solidifies the book's inherent nihilism, but, oddly, it's not a slog -- like all good horror, it questions the very nature of existence, leaving the reader with plenty of gnarly questions to chew on.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Opening line: "Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back."
Brief synopsis: Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has turned most of the world's population into vampire-like beings. By day, Neville kills the sleeping infected and desperately searches for a cure. By night, he hides in his barricaded house while the undead gather outside and call his name.
What makes it scary: Though the general public may associate Matheson's masterpiece with the unfortunate Will Smith film adaptation, that's doing a disservice to one of the scariest and most influential pieces of horror literature to ever exist. I Am Legend re-defined the entire zombie genre, inspiring filmmaker George Romero to create his seminal film, Night of the Living Dead. Before I Am Legend, "zombie" meant a person hypnotized by voodoo magic, but after, thanks to the book and Romero's film, it was more commonly associated with global pandemics and resurrected corpses. The book has been adapted for the screen several times -- the best and most faithful of which is 1964's The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price -- but the films all lack the special alchemy of isolation and desperation that make the book so frighteningly real. They also lack the book's most haunting moments, like Neville being stalked by his undead former neighbors, who call out to him, rap at his doors and windows, reminding him of the terrible status of the world he's desperate but hopeless to save.