This story is updated monthly with our latest picks.
If you've ever wondered whether or not your love of horror movies and scary stories is creepy, this should give you some peace of mind: There's actually a science behind the thrill. In a study published in the Journal of Media Psychology, Glenn D. Walters, PhD, found that the genre tends to lure us in because it delivers a trifecta of tension, relevance, and unrealism. In other words, the mystery, suspense, and shock factors grip and excite us, while the themes tend to tap into our deepest fears, without actually making them a reality.
And as thrill-seeking bookworms, we'll be the first to admit that horror novels make for some of the best reads around, thanks to the entertaining plots and the promise of a heightened sensory experience.
There's also just something about the intimacy of reading a book—and the fact that they leave so much more up to the imagination—that make them freakier than the freakiest of movies (in a good way, of course.) If you agree, you'll want to add all of the best horror novels from our reading list to your library. From classic Stephen King must-reads, to under-the-radar discoveries, horrifying true crime reports, psychological thrillers, supernatural spooks, and everything in between, these are the best horror novels around.
Here are our picks for the best horror novels you have to read.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
There's a bit of horror, a bit of suspense, and a whole lot of psychological thrill in this novel about a woman's recount of her sister's perceived descent into madness, which becomes even further complicated when it stars as the focal point of a hit reality television show.
Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice
Author Anne Rice is known for her Gothic fantasies and perfect conjurings of bygone eras, and this vampire thriller is an easy favorite. Set in New Orleans in the 1700s, a vampire's first-person confessions are at once haunting, philosophically enlightening, and erotic.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
If you love Gothic horrors and period dramas, pick up The Fifth Child. Set in 1960s England, you'll witness a family transform when their fifth child is born, though he's much more demonic and zombie-like than he is a baby. This novel grapples with questions of paternal love.
Haunted by Chuck Palahnuik
Okay, so, horror novels are great and all, but we also love the way short scary stories can cut straight to the point. When you find yourself in that position, pick up this metafictional book, which is the perfect blend of the two forms. You can read it as a collection of scary short stories, or as a cohesive novel. It follows a group of storytellers on a writer's retreat, each section being a scary story narrated by one of the characters. Every story is marvelously twisted, as to be expected from anything by Chuck Palahniuk.
Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
Though classified more frequently as a mysterious sci-fi novel, the premise of Dance Dance Dance is horrifying enough to make this list. In it, the reader follows the nameless protagonist as he searches for his girlfriend after she abruptly disappears. Complete with spellbinding language, clever satire, and an experimental form, you won't soon forget this book and the string of tragic, fever-dreamlike encounters it presents.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
If you loved Girl on a Train, you'll be very excited about Paula Hawkins's second book. This time, she transports us to a sleepy town in the English countryside that revolves around a winding river where women have been drowning for centuries. The reader hears from a cast of characters, including a single mother who died in the river, her sister, and daughter, the detectives, a psychic, and women who have drowned there centuries ago when accused of witchcraft.
The Shining by Stephen King
Stephen King never lets us down. A haunted hotel in the middle of nowhere, a snowstorm, a family torn apart, "redrum" written on the mirror in blood… If you want to enjoy all the horror archetypes in one novel, you can count on this classic. And as is usually the case with film adaptations, we think the book is even better than the movie (if you've ever watched it, then you know that's saying a lot.) Sinister, sardonic, and bitingly clever, The Shining is one of the most legendary horror novels of all time.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
If you haven't already devoured the other thrillers by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, you'll be pleased to discover another page-turner. Dark Places is about a young woman who revisits the crime that earned her big brother a life sentence in prison for killing the rest of her family. After the tragedy, she sets out to discover what really happened.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Who is the man responsible for ten murders and 50 sexual assaults, and how do we help the survivors heal? While working on the book that would uncover the truth about the Golden State Killer, author Michelle McNamara passed away in her sleep. Her husband published it posthumously, and it proves that true crime can be far more gruesome than anything fiction makes up. Yet, the profound commitment to justice and truth shines through the violence of the subject. If any writer can take you inside these horrific and unsolved crimes without shattering your sense of safety, it's McNamara.
The Bad Seed by William March
Most kids are cute, but some are creepy—very creepy—and Rhoda Penmark is one of those bad seeds whose manipulative brilliance helps her literally get away with murder. But can maternal love triumph over a mother's fear of her own child? William March's chilling classic is so much more than just a horror novel. It's a blend of everything you love about Southern Gothics that paint a telling portrait of midcentury America.
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Though she looks like a 10-year-old girl, the protagonist is actually a genetically modified 53-year-old vampire with an insatiable, murderous appetite. It may sound far-fetched, but that's what makes this spooky sci-fi-meets-fantasy novel so difficult to put down. Beyond the genre-bending experiments, author Octavia Butler also crafts a narrative that's packed with lessons about how we define and control or inhibit the "other" in our own communities and lives.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
This horror novel will keep you on the edge of your seat the whole way through. Something terrifying is out there, and with just one glimpse, a person is driven to deadly violence. When a woman and her young children try to flee, the journey takes them into an unseen world and back into the past. The story combines past and present, and is harrowing, frightening, and horrific.
Carrie by Stephen King
It's hard to imagine that King almost gave up on this masterpiece before it was even completed. Thankfully, his wife, Tabitha, saw the potential in it and encouraged him to see it through. Not only was it his first published novel, but it was a runaway hit. The thing that makes this story unique is the fact that Carrie White is not the antagonist. We are. The story opens with a series of news clippings recalling a horrific high school massacre, which makes readers wonder, what kind of monster could do such a thing? Gradually, as the events unfold, we start to empathize with the killer and lament the treatment she faces.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
This psychological thriller about an agoraphobic woman who witnesses a crime in a neighboring home is so good that it's earned a glowing endorsement from Gillian Flynn, the author of the best-selling novel Gone Girl and the blockbuster hit of the same name, herself. It was an instant New York Times bestseller, and will soon be adapted into a movie.
The Stand, Stephen King
The Stand is one of the greatest horror fantasy novels of all time. Not only did it introduce the world to King's most nefarious recurring villain, Randall Flagg, but it presented a vivid portrait of an apocalypse that's terrifyingly believable. While most of King's horror novels center around nightmarish scenarios too fantastical to be taken seriously, this one uses the plausible notion of biological warfare to showcase the very real possibility of mankind's self-made destruction. This novel, written during the Cold War, presents possibilities that were actively on people's minds—and which still remain relevant today.
Up next: The best psychological thrillers will give you chills.