Horror movies can be an exhausting experience. You're constantly squirming in your seat, looking away from the screen, or shutting your eyes altogether, waiting for the next jump scare that inevitably comes every five minutes. Watching your average every scary movie can take about as much out of you as a triathlon. However, as horror is about as synonymous with Halloween as turkey with Thanksgiving, there's just no getting around scary stuff.
Best Horror Books to Read this Halloween Season
For those afraid of watching horror movies, however, there is an alternative, sometimes less exhausting experience to put yourself through in the form of horror books. While horror books can still be an intense experience, it can be a refreshing change of pace from the numerous jump scares present in so many horror movies.
Whether it's a horror novel about killer clowns or a nonfiction book about some of America's most notorious serial killers, there's just something about reading something scary rather than watching it, making it a distinctly thrilling experience to go through. This Halloween, we recommend these must-read books that are just as scary as some of the most infamously terrifying movies out there — if not more so.
“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman
You honestly could add any one of Neil Gaiman‘s many fantastic books on this list as a recommendation for a Halloween read. However, we decided to go with his shorter young adult novel, The Graveyard Book, a fantastic story about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are murdered by an amoral killer for hire. A gothic retelling of The Jungle Book, The Graveyard Book remains one of the more impressive Gaiman books in an otherwise outstanding bibliography so far. There aren't many great YA books out there, and even fewer YA books that adults can read and still get some enjoyment out of, but The Graveyard Book is a fantastic exception.
It may not be as scary as Coraline — another of Gaiman's YA books that is as much creepy as it is suspenseful — but it still remains one of Gaiman's most popular and critically successful books of his career, perfect for younger and adult readers alike. Shortly after its release, the novel was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal, the Newbery Medal, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel, with Time even listing the novel as one of the best children's books of all time.
“It” by Stephen King
Like Neil Gaiman, we could've put any number of Stephen King's numerous horror novels on this list, from his multi-spanning horror/dark fantasy series The Dark Tower to his short fiction in Night Shift or Skeleton Crew. However, we decided to choose his thousand-page epic, It, one of the King of Horror's best books, as the author’s contribution to this list.
One of the most detailed and longest books written by King, It follows a group of young children in a small Maine town who are menaced by an otherworldly creature able to take the form of their worst fears (although its go-to disguise is a clown by the name of Pennywise, which is in itself arguably the scariest form a shapeshifting alien could take). After the kids ban together to seemingly defeat the creature in the 1950s', it eventually reemerges in the 1980s', targeting a new generation of children. It's up to the now-adult main characters, all of whom swore an oath as kids, to return to their hometown and defeat the creature once and for all.
Spanning the course of thirty years, It is one of King's most ambitious works, and also one of his genuinely most terrifying. In addition to its likable, relatable main characters and haunting atmosphere, it also boasts one of the scariest villains in all of fiction with the character of Pennywise.
“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson
Not only is The Haunting of Hill House one of the best ghost stories in recent memory, but Shirley Jackson's most popular and well-remembered novel is often cited as one of the best ghost stories ever written period. In her breakthrough novel, Jackson bridged horror and Literature with a capital L, creating a ghost story leaning more towards psychological suspense and the impact horror has on the psyche.
The main story involves a group of people spending the night in a remote, supposedly haunted mansion where they hope to scientifically prove the existence of the supernatural. It's a classic ghost story scenario now, but the way Jackson illustrates the effect terror and fear have on the individual was a brilliant innovation — depending heavily on their own thought processes, past experiences, and personal beliefs.
Since its release in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House has proven itself to be one of the most influential horror novels of all time, with notable writers including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Matheson all praising the novel for its psychological approach to the haunted house story. The book has also been adapted into two movies, a play, and a loosely based Netflix series, although the original novel still remains hard to beat if you're looking for a good scare.
“I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson
You know a book is good when it influences not one but two separate subgenres of horror (vampire and zombie survival stories). Richard Matheson's now-classic post-apocalyptic I Am Legend is more often than not most remembered as the basis for its pretty decent 2007 adaptation of the same name starring Will Smith, as well earlier adaptations like The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971), but none of the movies really come close to Matheson’s original vision for the novel.
I Am Legend follows a man, Robert Neville, who is the sole survivor of a massive pandemic that wipes out a majority of the human population, turning those infected into vampiric-like creatures. As Neville explores the post-apocalyptic suburbs of his hometown, trying to combat the infected, endless monotony, alcoholism, and crippling loneliness and depression, he also searches for a cure, soon discovering he may not be the only survivor of the pandemic after all.
While many novels explore the mythos of vampires or zombies, Matheson's I Am Legend set the standard for both genres as we know them (the book served as a major inspiration for Night of the Living Dead, for those wondering how it relates to zombies). It's an often depressing book, but one that captures your imagination and keeps you tuned in and paying attention. Plus, at just over 150 pages, it's a bit on the shorter side, making it a perfect book you can read practically in just a few days.
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Turning to the classics, it’s hard to find a scarier book than any of the marvelous tales of horror that practically sculpted the genre as we know it today. Where would the vampire story be, for example, without Dracula? The ghost story without The Turn of the Screw? And of course, the science-experiment-gone-wrong story without Mary Shelley's Frankenstein? In a plot as well known as Romeo and Juliet, the brilliant but immensely arrogant Dr. Victor Frankenstein pours himself into researching the possibility of imparting life into inanimate matter.
After months of constructing a human body from the various remains of corpses, he launches an experiment to grant his creation life. Once he succeeds, however, he realizes the danger of playing God, and results to run away from his creation … only to have the creature try to track him down and try to destroy his life as revenge for Victor abandoning him.
In a story about science, technology, religion, revenge, and existentialism, Frankenstein remains one of the most shocking and well-written books in all of horror, exploring numerous themes about life and the danger of creating it. There’s a reason the book has continued to rank as one of the greatest horror novels of the past 200 years, making it a book that is definitely worth your time.
“The Shadow over Innsmouth” by HP Lovecraft
HP Lovecraft might be one of the few American writers whose ideas are usually better than his prose, which tends to be a little too weighted on description and first-person observation than stories with actual dialogue. While his prose might not be for everyone and has quite a few notable weaknesses (Stephen King himself, who has named Lovecraft as a huge inspiration in the past, has noted how terrible Lovecraft’s dialogue usually is), you can't deny the writer certainly had great ideas.
Thanks to him, the name of his squid-like creation, “Cthulhu” remains a pretty well-known name in American fiction. But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Lovecraft's various alien god-like races at the heart of this Cthulhu Mythos. Just look at the creatures at the heart of his popular story, The Shadow over Innsmouth.
Set in the early 1930s’, the story revolves around an inquisitive narrator arriving at the secluded fishing village of Innsmouth in a remote part of New England. While there, he begins noticing the strange physical features of the town's residents, which seem oddly more fish-like than human. As his stay in the village goes on, he begins to uncover an otherworldly, disturbing secret tied to a race of humanoid sea creatures known as the “Deep Ones.”
Like many of Lovecraft's stories, The Shadow over Innsmouth contributes to his Cthulhu Mythos, a shared fictional universe created by Lovecraft that is about as intricate and well-thought-out as the world of The Lord of the Rings. Dark, strange, and twisted, The Shadow over Innsmouth is a suspenseful story that builds up the wonderful mystery of what exactly is going on in the strange village of Innsmouth.
“A Night in the Lonesome October” by Roger Zelazny
A fantasy novel more than it is a horror novel, A Night In the Lonesome October was one of writer Roger Zelazny's final books before his death in 1995. As you may have judged from the title alone, A Night in the Lonesome October takes place during the month of October, with each chapter taking place over the course of a single night of the month, acting almost as a calendar counting down the days till Halloween.
Combining classic tales of horror from writers like Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the novel takes place in London, and follows a group of thinly veiled occult figures referred to by contextual monikers rather than by their full names (for example, a character who may be Sherlock Holmes is ever only referred to as “The Great Detective”). On Halloween night, the doors of reality separating the human world from that of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones are at its weakest, relying on a group of occultists to keep the doors closed and the human world safe.
However, there are also those who wish to open the doors, freeing the Great Old Ones into our world and letting them wreak havoc. As the month progresses, and Halloween draws near, the characters must learn who among them is a Closer or an Opener in a classic whodunit style, with the mystery coming to an incredible climax on Halloween night.
Nowadays, Roger Zelazny is a sadly less popular name in horror than he once was (Neil Gaiman once named him as the primary inspiration of his career) but he still remains an extremely original fun writer to read, masterfully balancing horror with humor. Oh, yeah — and the central action of the novel is also narrated by an observant dog named Snuff, whose owner may or may not be Jack the Ripper. If that’s not an enticing description, we don’t know what is.
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury
In his 70-year-long career, Ray Bradbury managed to master the big three genres: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It's a hat trick few writers are successfully able to pull off, but if there's one word that you could use to describe Ray Bradbury, it's successful.
One of the most influential writers of all time (Stephen King and Neil Gaiman both credit him as a huge influence), Bradbury's genre work is simply amazing — he draws you in completely with his sci-fi dystopias (Fahrenheit 451), fills you with a sense of wonder and mystery with his fantasy stories (From the Dust Returned), and provides legitimate scares with his horror stories, as seen with one of his most famous novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The novel revolves around two young teenagers who begin investigating a carnival that has arrived in their small-town and won over many of the town's residents with promises of restoring their youth and fulfilling their dreams. As the boys continue to find out more about the carnival, however, as well as the carnival's ominous leader, Mr. Dark, they soon learn that promises granted come at a very serious cost. It's a simple, tight little story, perfect for young adult readers and adults alike — full of suspense, horror, and an exploration of the good and evil that every person has within them.
“The Terror” by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons is a comparatively somewhat smaller name in horror (compared to the giants like King, Gaiman, Matheson, and Bradbury), but remains a highly successful entertaining writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. He's had a few very impressive, well-received books in his bibliography, many of which could have earned a spot on this list (especially Drood, a fictionalized gothic account of the last few years of Charles Dickens’ life).
However, for our money, it's Simmons' 2007 novel, The Terror, that is arguably the most horrifying book the author has ever released. Presented as a fictionalized account of British explorer Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition to the Arctic in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, Franklin and his crew must face numerous obstacles on their journey, including starvation, illness, mutinous plots, cannibalism, and a monster that is stalking them across the frozen seas.
A lengthier novel (it's a little over 700 pages), The Terror is a very entertaining read that will keep you ceaselessly turning the pages throughout. Simmons does a great job mixing historical fact with horror fiction, presenting the doomed expedition's final few years and the horrifying creature they come into contact with.
“From Hell” by Alan Moore
We were unsure about whether or not to include comic books on this list — but given the sheer size of Alan Moore's mammoth horror comic, From Hell, at a whopping 572 pages, we decided to include it anyway. Moore's extensively well-researched comic focuses on the Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 in London, blending real-life persons with gothic horror fiction. The story begins with the revelation that Prince Albert Victor, son of Edward VII, grandson of Queen Victoria, and second in the line of succession to the British Crown, has secretly had an illegitimate son with a non-royal shop girl.
When Victoria learns of this, she orders the shop girl to be locked away in an asylum and has the baby raised under an assumed name. Her plot is disrupted, however, by five Whitechapel prostitutes who attempt to blackmail a friend of Albert's, unknowingly threatening to reveal the Prince's secret son. To prevent that from happening, the Queen enlists her royal physician, Sir William Gull, to kill the prostitutes and ensure the plot remains a secret.
Large enough to use as a home defense weapon against burglars, From Hell may be a daunting book to read through October, but it nonetheless remains a fascinating read based largely on theorized explanations behind Jack the Ripper's identity (Gull remains one of the most frequently named suspects as the man behind the Jack the Ripper mantle to this day).
“Mindhunter” by John Douglas
Yes, yes, we know — true crime isn't horror fiction. However, to cover a wider net for readers who are fans of all genres, we decided to include this absolutely chilling nonfiction book by former FBI agent John Douglas, one of the pioneers of criminal profiling and one of the foremost criminal psychologists. The basis for the popular David Fincher Netflix series of the same name, Mindhunter acts as a beginners' guide of sorts to criminal profiling and how Douglas managed to use that technique to capture infamous murderers like Robert Hansen and Larry Gene Bell.
Also included are Douglas's numerous interviews with some of America's most despicable serial killers, including Ed Kemper, “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz, and Charles Manson, which helped Douglas devise his criminal profiling method in an attempt to study serial killers, learn their behavior, and hypothesize (more often than not, correctly so) what they are going to do next.
Mindhunter may be nonfiction, but it's just as haunting as any of the other books on this list — if not more so due to the fact that all of the events Douglas describes really happened. It's certainly an unsettling, often upsetting book to read, but for fans of true crime, this is a must-read.
There are so many great horror books out there in the world, it can be daunting knowing where to start. Whether it's beginning with the classic horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, or reading the prototypical modern vampire story, Dracula, or even checking out the most recent Stephen King novel, there are so many fantastic books worthy of your time within the horror genre.
However, we feel this list best represents a wide range of horror books that will captivate you, hold your attention, and scare just as much as any Conjuring sequel or spin-off currently streaming will.
For those looking for additional reading material to get you in the right spirit for Halloween, we also recommend Washington Irving's classic story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” HG Wells' sci-fi horror tale of human-animal hybrids, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Mark Z. Danielewski's postmodern horror novel, House of Leaves.