If You Think Horror Movies Are Scary, Wait Until You Read These Novels

Updated 06/14/18
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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, where monsters and demons are quick to rear their ugly heads—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. Get a sense of each below.

A Head Full of Ghosts

Paul Tremblay A Head Full of Ghosts $12

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.

Thrill Teaser: "I am the dead dreamer, older than sin, older than humanity. I am the shadow below everything. I am the beautiful thing that awaits us all."

Similar Horror Novels: The Grip of It, The Haunting of Hill House, and Carrie

Interview With the Vampire

Anne Rice Interview With the Vampire $8

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.

Thrill Teaser: "Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult."

Similar Gothic Novels: Dracula, Fever Dream, and Frankenstein

The Fifth Child

Doris Lessing The Fifth Child $12

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.

Thrill Teaser: A child seemed at first glance normal, but then Harriet saw there was no back to its head; it was all face, which seemed to scream at her.

Similar Horror Novels: Ben, In the World, The Girl With All the Gifts, and Rosemary's Baby


Chuck Palahnuik Haunted $12

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. Each story is marvelously twisted, as to be expected from anything by Chuck Palahniuk.

Thrill Teaser: "People need a monster they can believe in. A true and horrible enemy. A demon to define themselves against. Otherwise, it's just us versus us."

Similar Sardonic Stories: The Grownup, Her Body and Other Parties, and Lullaby

Dance Dance Dance

Haruki Murakami Dance Dance Dance $12

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.

Thrill Teaser: "The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting."

Similar Freaky Sci-Fi: Never Let Me Go, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Into the Water

Paula Hawkins Into the Water $12

If you loved Girl on a Train, you'll be very excited to hear that Paula Hawkins's second book is officially here. This time, she transports us to a sleepy town in the English countryside that revolves around a winding river where women have been drowning in 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.

Thrill Teaser: "No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day."

Similar Thrillers: The Couple Next Door, The Good Girl, and All the Missing Girls

The Shining

Stephen King The Shining $9

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.

Thrill Teaser: "Innocence to experience. Human nature, baby. Grab it and growl."

Similar Horror Novels: It, Misery, and The Sentinel

Dark Places

Gillian Flynn Dark Places $10

The Book: 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.

Thrill Teaser: "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it."

Similar Mysteries: Sharp Objects, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Amityville Horror

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle McNamara I'll Be Gone in the Dark $15

Who is the man responsible for 10 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.

Tone Teaser: "If you commit murder and then vanish, what you leave behind isn't just pain but absence, a supreme blankness that triumphs over everything else. The unidentified murderer is always twisting a doorknob behind a door that never opens. But his power evaporates the moment we know him. We learn his banal secrets. We watch as he's led, shackled and sweaty, into a brightly lit courtroom."

Similar True Crime Books: People Who Eat Darkness, The Stranger Beside Me, and Helter Skelter

The Bad Seed

William March The Bad Seed $10

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.

Thrill Teaser: "The living room had that depressing look of expensive bad taste."

Similar Chilling Classics: American Psycho, In Cold Blood, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?


Octavia E. Butler Fledgling $11

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.

Thrill Teaser: "When your rage is choking you, it is best to say nothing."

Similar Supernatural Spooks: Bird Box, Let the Right One In, and House of Leaves

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