The 20 Scariest Books of All Time
Do yourself a favor: Don't read these scary books right before bed.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
If you really want to not be able to put a book down, go back to the earliest books written by King. This was his first vampire novel, which he wrote before vampires became a thing. Deliciously chilling. King’s novel may be fiction, but these scary vampire legends might just be true.
Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman
In 1935, a professor fleeing scandal and his wife move back to a family home in Georgia; it’s located near the ruins of a plantation that was owned by his ancestors. Every month in a strange, sacrificial ritual, the townspeople garland two pigs with flowers and send them across the river; inevitably, the animals never return. What exactly is consuming them? And what will happen when the residents stop sending pigs? A supernatural-inflected Southern gothic that illustrates the price we pay for the sins of the past.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
The reason this was made into one of the scariest movies of all time is because it was one of the scariest novels of all time. It was fresh and new when it was written, and nobody’s devil has ever topped it. If you really want to be spooked, these horror films were inspired by true stories.
The Ruins by Scott Smith
A group of young, happy-go-lucky travelers in the Mexican jungle stumbles upon the site of ancient ruins—and ancient evil. Think Jaws, but with plants. And if you think that the botanical kingdom can’t be turned into a source of fear, well, you haven’t read this book.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
This book contains perhaps the scariest idea of all time: Your other mother. And this novel shows you what happens when the brilliant Neil Gaiman sets out to write a children’s book. I suggest that you do not give it to your own children if you ever want them to sleep through the night again—or, at least, wait until they’re grown up enough to handle it. For some less spooky kids’ choices, check out the best Halloween books for young readers.
It by Stephen King
Yes, it’s another Stephen King book—no surprise that he makes the list of scariest books more than once. This one taps into a phobia that’s both very old and very current: Clowns. Pennywise the killer clown dwells in the sewers of Derry, Maine, and he preys upon the young residents of the town. A group of residents returns to vanquish him. But how are they going to take on such an ancient, formidable foe? You’ll have to read and find out. We’d, of course, be remiss not to mention another frightening King book, The Shining, which was made into such a nail-biting film.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
The premise of this book—a traveling carnival where two young boys meet the malevolent wish-granting Mr. Dark—is pure Bradbury. Not perhaps his best-known book, but maybe his best.
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
This book is nonfiction, about an Ebola virus almost destroying America. Would be entertaining if it were fiction, but it’s scary as hell when it’s real and came THISCLOSE to happening. For lovers of scary nonfiction, these are the true crime books that will keep you up at night.
Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
The villains here represent an intriguing twist on a familiar antagonist: They’re “mind vampires,” who, instead of feasting on humans, can inhabit their minds and manipulate them into doing the unspeakable. Oh, and Stephen King called this book “one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century.” If that’s not enough, the distorted face on the cover of the new paperback will be enough to haunt your dreams.
Doing Harm by Kelly Parsons
People die in hospitals all the time, so could there be a better place for a psychopathic killer to set up shop? Especially if the psychopath also happens to be a doctor? If you ever thought that going to the hospital was a little bit scary, you were wrong. It’s a lot scary!
Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories selected by Roald Dahl
Dahl, who was the spinner of so many off-center tales for young readers, claimed that he pored through 749 short stories at the British Museum Library before he selected the 14 featured in this anthology. His main criterion for inclusion was that the story “should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.” Prepare to be spooked by these true ghost stories from the world’s most haunted places.
The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Alien invasion? Hey, no big deal; we can just fight them with every weapon at our disposal. But what if the aliens were our own children? The golden-eyed hyper-intelligent kids who communicate by telepathy rank with the greatest—and spookiest—villains of all time. A 1960 film—The Village of the Damned—was made from this book, and it had the great tagline: “Beware the stare that will paralyze the will of the world.” Seems like good advice in any situation.
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
This book is a prime example of how the setting can really enhance the suspense and fear. An isolated mansion by the sea, an evil housekeeper, an absentee-ish new husband? What a fantastic setup.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This novel is terrifying for any parent, anyone who is considering becoming a parent, or anyone who knows a teen. It shows how a child can grow into a stranger capable of perpetrating terrifying wrongs, even when a mother does everything right. Here are some more great psychological thrillers you won’t be able to put down.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Perhaps you read this book in high school and hated every minute of it. But here’s why: You were simply too young to get it. Read it now that you’re an adult and you’ll understand why it earned a spot on the list of scariest books. If you are not frozen by the subtle horror of the ending—Wharton loved a good scary story—you are one cold cookie (snowy setting aside). Or maybe you’re younger than you think.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
There’s a reason this *monster* hit has stood the test of time. Even if you think you already know the story (or if you were assigned the text in school), the tale of the mad doctor and his creation gone wrong deserves a thorough, grown-up read as one of the scariest books of all time.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
In this favorite of English teachers everywhere, a plane crash leaves a group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island. At first, they celebrate their newfound freedom, but eventually, they find themselves embroiled in a terrifying and violent war of their own making. It’s one of the scariest books ever because of its suggestion that, no matter how “civilized” we might think ourselves, it wouldn’t take much to bring out our inner savagery.
Dawn by Octavia Butler
Sci-fi pioneer Octavia Butler kicks off her haunting Xenogenesis trilogy with Dawn, written in 1987. In a post-apocalyptic world, aliens have kidnapped the last remaining humans. They don’t want to hurt the humans; they want to study them and help them repopulate the wasteland Earth. But is that even worse?
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Modern-day horror master Hendrix provides a contemporary twist on the familiar “haunted-house” motif—instead of a creepy old mansion, the hauntings take place in an IKEA-like furniture store! To get to the bottom of the unexplained destruction that’s been greeting shoppers every morning, three employees volunteer to take overnight shifts. Horror ensues, and you might find yourself reluctant to re-enter your local IKEA. For more heart-pounding page turners, check out our list of the best thriller books of all time.
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