Horror stories are important to us, but it can sometimes be difficult to say why. The voyeuristic thrill of seeing others in danger and fearing for their lives or their sanity; the unique opportunity to get close to death and danger while remaining safe.
Horror is a genre like no other, and the best horror novels are the ones which frighten us in ways that others can’t, or fail to do. Horror is also a genre that can be as mindlessly grotesque, or as smartly political and allegorical, as the author chooses.
Many of the best horror novels of all time are ones that blend genres together, mixing horror with the gothic, thriller, and science fiction genres. Here, you’ll find all of that and so much more. We’ll cover the best horror novels from the far-reaches of the genre, right up to the present day. These are the best horror novels ever written, both classic and contemporary.
Must-Read Classic Horror Novels
Horror stories have existed for as long as there have been stories, with so many tales of folklore — from Europe to Japan — focussing on the monstrous and the supernatural. Here, we are focussing on the best horror novels published before the 21st Century, beginning with the early years of gothic horror.
If you wish to journey back through the history of horror literature and discover the scariest stories ever written, these are the best horror novels from the genre’s past.
Note: Some of the classic horror stories in this part of the article are short stories, rather than full novels. They have still been included because their authors were more known for short stories than for they were full novels, and they are equally important works within the horror genre.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is nothing short of a miracle. The origin point of science fiction, the pinnacle of gothic fiction, and a turning point for horror stories. Written by a teenage Mary Shelley, after she fell in love with renowned poet Percy Shelley and spent many nights by the fireside, sharing tales with him and Lord Byron.
This is a novel about death and abandonment. An arrogant young man cannot let go of the loss he feels when his mother passes, and so he studies science in order to conquer death itself. In secret, he searches graveyards and digs up parts of people, stitching them together into something new, into which he eventually sparks fresh life.
Upon seeing his monstrous creation, Victor Frankenstein flees, leaving the confused but intelligent creature to wander alone, frightened but eager to learn. As the creature observes people, is feared and chased away, it becomes bitter and vows revenge on its “father” for abandoning it.
Shelley’s wanton use of deliciously vibrant and gothic language leads to some truly thrilling moments of terror and fright, as the monster stalks and torments its creator. A masterpiece of the gothic, of science fiction, and one of the very best horror novels ever written; it remains perfect to this day.
The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Originally published in 1842, The Black Spider is the most celebrated work of Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf. A 100-page gothic horror novella with bleak, dark religious themes. Like many other gothic works of its time, The Black Spider begins with a framing device: a community in an idyllic Swiss valley are celebrating the baptism of a newborn babe.
During the celebrations, an elderly man — who has lived in the same house in the valley all his life — is caught staring ominously at a particularly old and blackened wooden post in his home. Encouraged by the revellers around him to tell the story of the house, he gives in and begins the story proper: a tale set in the valley’s medieval period. A tale of an evil lord, his knights, and the peasants who suffer under him.
The lord’s serfs have been forced to build the lord’s castle, while their own crops suffer. And just when they think they are free to till their own soil, he gives them one last task: plant a courtyard of trees. The peasants are then tempted by the aid of a mysterious hunter, dressed all in green, who offers to help them in exchange for the valley’s next newborn child — a child which must not have been baptised.
From here, The Black Spider goes to some wild, strange, and frightening places. It’s easy to see how this novella might have inspired many of the great horror writers that appear further down this list. The Black Spider, one of the best horror novels of its age, is a dark and twisted tale with a clear message from the author: be a good God-fearing Christian, or else.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is another iconic starting point for horror fiction. Vampires have been a staple of Halloween thrills for decades, and that trend started here, with Dracula. While Stoker’s gothic horror masterpiece wasn’t the original vampire story, or even the first vampire novel, it is certainly the most well-known and celebrated, to this day.
This is the novel that turned the vampire into a larger-than-life hunter of humans, drinker of blood, a monster to be fought and defeated. An epistolary horror novel soaked in dread and shrouded by fear and anxiety, Dracula is a novel all about fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and feeling vulnerable and frightened.
This is the novel that firmly established the rules of vampire lore in popular culture, even down to their aesthetics and behaviour. It’s rare that one incredible novel can have such a marked impact — not only on the genres of gothic, horror, and vampire tales, but also on modern fiction in general.
Beyond all of that, Dracula remains one of the best horror novels to this day. Dense, dynamic, fuelled by panic and claustrophobia. With Dracula, Stoker explored fear of the “other”, of the outsider, of the stranger, of those who are different from us, and how that fear manifests.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
While this is, in fact, a short story, rather than a full novel, there is no way to write a list of the best horror novels ever and not include the works of gothic legend Edgar Allan Poe. And Poe’s best works were his short stories (his poetry is far from top-notch, in this writer’s opinion — except for The Raven, of course).
Those stories include the iconic The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, and what many consider his finest horror story, The Tell-Tale Heart.
This 1843 short story can be read in its entirety over at The Poe Museum, and it tells the story of a nameless narrator who has killed the old man they live with. The spent nights plotting the murder, and then dismembered the body and hid its pieces under the floorboards.
But their nervousness and anxiety soon manifest as a heartbeat that they can hear beneath the boards, thumping louder and louder. Eventually this drives them to the brink of madness before they finally confess, tearing up the floorboards to reveal the body.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
To this day, cosmic horror is an ever-expanding realm that continues to be explored by imaginative creators within the mediums of prose, comics, TV, film, and video games. Without Lovecraft, we likely wouldn’t have the works of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, Batman comics as they currently exist, and so many of the best horror and sci-fi books and movies.
At the Mountains of Madness is a Lovecraft tale that is as beloved as it is epic in scope. This horror novella is set in Antarctica, and follows a geologist named Dyer as he and a team of researchers discover a lost ancient city under the continent.
Dyer’s first-person account is a warning to anyone who might be tempted to do as he did, that they should not go to Antarctica (which, incidentally, was always a fascinating place and topic for Lovecraft himself). The city they discover is millions of years old and built by the extraterrestrial Old Ones (a staple of Lovecraft’s stories), who also built strange artificial lifeforms.
This, like so many other Lovecraftian tales, evokes just as much awe, curiosity, and excitement in the reader as it does fear, dread, and confusion. It’s a special kind of horror that makes us feel dwarfed, insignificant, and invisible. And it’s for his visions of cosmic horror that Lovecraft remains one of the best horror writers of all time.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This gothic horror story is set primarily in a country house called Bly (the story served as the inspiration for Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor Netflix series).
Bly is the home of a rich man who has been charged with caring for his niece and nephew following the tragic deaths of their parents. The nephew, Miles, is sent to a boarding school which he is eventually expelled from, while the niece is left at Bly to be cared for by our governess protagonist.
After starting her job at Bly, the governess begins to see a pair of ghostly figures in the house, and learns that they may be the ghosts of two former employees.
The Turn of the Screw is a wonderfully enigmatic and alluring gothic ghost story for the ages; one of the most captivating and best horror novels of all time. This is also the horror story that cemented the governess as an iconic trope of gothic horror.
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
While we can trace vampire mythology back centuries, and its origins are fascinating and captivating, Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic horror novel Carmilla remains one of the earliest works of vampire fiction in literature. In fact, while many think of Dracula (above) as the progenitor of vampire literature — and who could blame them? — Carmilla was actually published two decades prior to Stoker’s masterpiece, and likely even inspired it.
The vampire is an inherently queer-coded thing, as are so many other aspects of gothic fiction, but Carmilla is far more confidently explicit in this regard, and that makes it stand out as a unique piece of classic horror fiction. This is an early horror novel that established, long before anyone was willing to discuss it, the fact that horror and queerness are inherently linked.
Sheridan Le Fanu also originated the concept of the “occult detective” (footsteps followed by the likes of DC Comics’ John Constantine) in the character of Dr. Hesselius. Any fan of vampire lore and mythology and classic horror fiction owes it to themself to read Carmilla — the original vampire novel.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson remains an inspiring icon of the gothic and horror genres. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic masterpiece. As is its 2018 film adaptation starring Taissa Farmiga. And with The Haunting of Hill House, which itself has been adapted to both film and TV, Jackson proved herself as much of a horror queen as she was a gothic one.
In this iconic horror novel, we follow two men (one of whom is the heir to Hill House) and two women as they spend days and nights together in this haunted place. One of the men is a paranormal investigator, eager to prove the existence of ghosts, and as the novel goes on, secrets get revealed, history is unveiled, and things go bump in the night.
This is a haunted house novel through and through, one of the most important books of the genre; a novel that has inspired countless writers and will continue to do so.
Nobody writes like Jackson did. This and We Have Always Lived in the Castle secured her legacy for the rest of time. The Haunting of Hill House really is one of the best horror novels ever written.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
It was with the publication of this 1954 novel that the concept of the vampire began to shift and change in exciting and terrifying ways. I Am Legend also defined the presentation of plague and apocalypse in modern fiction, with a disease that has wiped out untold numbers and turned the rest of us into vampires.
One man survives, boarded up in his Los Angeles home. And over the course of the novel, he, the last human in a society of vampires, becomes the titular legend.
This is a clever inversion of vampire mythology. In a world where every surviving person is now a vampire, the one human is, himself, the vampire; the legend; the hunter, the beast.
Not only is I Am Legend an inversion of the vampire mythology and a defining moment in pandemic fiction, it’s also a claustrophobic horror story about vulnerability and survival. One man must continue to survive, but to what end? What is he waiting and hoping for? That existential dread adds so much weight to this already phenomenal horror novel.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is best-known for his dark, dystopian 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, a poignant and timely book about the burning of knowledge and literature.
But he also wrote some incredible stories within the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres, including The Martian Chronicles and the iconic Something Wicked This Way Comes.
This is a kind of urban fantasy novel centred around two teenage boys and their experience with a travelling carnival that visits their small town in the American Midwest. The carnival’s leader, Mr Dark, is an enigmatic creature who allows the secret desires of the townspeople to come true, but is secretly leeching off their lifeforce.
This is one of those horror novels that can only be described by a very specific word, and the word here is sinister. The tone, motivations, and events of Something Wicked This Way Comes are all incredibly sinister, and it remains one of the best horror novels ever written.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Woman in Black follows a young lawyer named Kipps, who has been tasked with settling the estate of a reclusive old woman who died alone in her isolated home. That home, Eel Marsh House, sits at the edge of the rural coastal town of Crythin Gifford, and Kipps must journey there to attend the woman’s funeral and then spend time at her home as he sorts through her things.
However, the house stands at the end of a causeway, and the rising tide periodically cuts it off from access to the mainland, stranding Kipps there overnight.
Locals are reluctant to talk about the house, given the superstitious belief that it is haunted by a ghostly woman in black, and any sighting of her precedes the death of a child.
While there, Kipps encounters the ghost, as well as other strange supernatural occurrences that reveal the history of the house and the identity of the woman in black. One of the most masterfully written horror novels of all time, The Woman in Black is the perfect haunted house story.
The Rats by James Herbert
James Herbert was a legend of British horror fiction, beloved by other authors of the genre, including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Herbert wrote in an almost pulp style, his books packing an aggressive punch and getting straight to the action. Intensity and fear were what drove his fiction.
That intensity can be seen most clearly in his debut novel, The Rats, which many still consider his finest work. Herbert’s horror in its rawest form. The premise, as the title suggests, is simple: London is being overrun by rats — small black ones and impossibly giant ones — that are attacking, and even killing people.
First, the rats attack and kill unassuming drunks and homeless people, then small children and pets. Soon, they are swarming tube stations and schools; injuring, killing, and spreading disease. This book is pure nightmare fuel for anyone with a phobia of rats, but remains almost as chilling and skin-crawling for people like myself who, ordinarily, don’t give rats much thought.
Horror plays on our fears, but also our vulnerabilities, and that’s what The Rats does so hauntingly well: it makes us feel vulnerable. And that’s where true terror lies, which is why The Rats remains one of the best horror novels of all time.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
It is impossible to talk about the best horror novels ever and not pay particular attention to the works of Stephen King. While he has written fantasy novels and thrillers, he is best known and loved for his horror novels, and one of his best is Pet Sematary, a novel that has seen two film adaptations.
A family moves to a remote town with a terrible secret. The woods behind their home hides a burial ground which can bring the dead back to life. But those dead things do not come back the same. They are changed. They are wrong.
If you know the novel, you know the line, “Sometimes dead is better”. It sums up the novels tone and themes simply and eloquently. This is, without a doubt, one of the scariest novels King ever wrote, making it one of the best horror novels ever by that token.
That said, it’s also a potential tear-jerker. The idea that we can raise our loved ones when they die is something many people wish for. However, this masterpiece of a horror novel shows us why sometimes dead is better. A fantastic horror novel and the ultimate take on the monkey’s paw mythology.
IT by Stephen King
IT is a colossal novel; the longest on this list and a true epic. Not only is IT a monumental horror novel; it is also a coming-of-age novel and a real piece of americanna.
We begin with a group of young misfit kids — the Losers Club — who are being terrorised by a demonic clown who calls himself Pennywise. Pennywise hibernates for twenty-seven years, and when he rises he feeds on human fear. We also simultaneously experience the Losers Club as adults, forced to return to the town after another twenty-seven years to confront Pennywise again.
This is a novel that really wears its themes on its sleeve. There is no subtext here. This is a book about childhood fears, growing up, puberty, and sex.
Despite its controversial ending, which King has repeatedly defended, IT remains a real horror epic that spans years and presents us with fear in almost all its forms. An homage to fear itself, IT is creative and exhilerating; one of the best horror novels you’ll ever read.
The Shining by Stephen King
An unemployed recovering alcoholic finds employment as a caretaker at the remote and imposing Overlook Hotel over the deserted winter period.
The iconic protagonist Jack Torrance drags his wife and son along for company, but they aren’t the only guests at the hotel. There are guests here who don’t want the family to ever leave.
A legendary horror story about isolation and psychosis, The Shining perfectly balances is creeping dread with an upsetting combination of psychology and pure, supernatural terror.
It’s likely you’ve seen Kubrick’s beloved movie adaptation of The Shining, but the novel is a different beast. And in fact, King famously disliked Kubrick’s film. This titlating fact should be enough to entice horror fans to read the novel, even if you’ve already seen the movie. It remains one of his finest horror novels to date.
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Stephen King wrote so many of the best horror novels ever. This is undeniable. But choosing the very best of the best is a tall order. ‘Salem’s Lot, however, is certainly up there at the top.
A writer returns to his hometown to finish writing his newest book in peace and quiet. That’s how this begins. However, a mysterious stranger named Kurt Barlow has recently moved into town and people are quick to notice that he is never seen when the sun is up.
‘Salem’s Lot was one of King’s earliest novels and it shows, for better and for worse. The book is languorously written, echoing the stalking menace of Barlow as he steadily corrupts the townspeople.
A very fun twist on the vampire mythology, ‘Salem’s Lot reminds modern readers of the haunting and fearsome power of the vampire, a deadly stalker of the night. And, in case you are interested, King has also written several short stories which connect to ‘Salem’s Lot and all of them are excellent reads, arguably even surpassing the original novel.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Overshadowed by Roman Polanski’s film adaptation, starring Mia Farrow, Ira Levin’s original novel Rosemary’s Baby remains a haunting and terrifying piece of horror fiction. In fact, this was the best-selling horror novel of the 1960s, and many consider it heavily responsible for the explosion in popularity of horror fiction in the decades that followed.
The titular Rosemary is married to a struggling actor, and the two have just moved into a New York City apartment in a building with a nasty history. Their neighbours, an odd elderly couple, welcome them to the building and Rosemary’s husband Guy takes a particular liking to them.
When Guy’s career starts looking up, he tells Rosemary — who has wanted to start a family for a while — that he finally feels ready. Rosemary suffers a nightmare in which she is sexually attacked by a monster, and she wakes up with claw marks on her skin and soon learns that she is pregnant. But the pregnancy causes her to become sick and weak.
Rosemary’s Baby is folk horror for the 20th century; a novel about bodily autonomy and individual freedoms; about oppression and control. Chilling and frightening on many levels, Rosemary’s Baby remains one of the most iconic and best horror novels of its time.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
Horror fans will immediately be familiar with the iconic 1987 horror film Hellraiser, written and directed by English filmmaker Clive Barker. But Barker started out by writing novels and short stories, and his own Hellraiser film is based on a horror novella he wrote titled The Hellbound Heart.
Before The Hellbound Heart, Barker had written one full-length novel, and his novel writing career continued as he also wrote and directed various movies. The Hellbound Heart is a must-read horror story for fans of ‘80s horror, especially the iconic Hellraiser, for obvious reasons.
The novella begins with Frank, a criminal who has devoted his life to pursuing every kind of personal pleasure, no matter the cost to others. Frank chases a rumour that eventually leads him to a puzzle box which, once solved, opens a rift to a realm of sadomasochistic pleasure; home to a people called Cenobites.
The Cenobites are aesthetically disturbing things that have been warped by their own desires and behaviours. The Hellbound Heart is an iconic piece of pulp horror that is a must-read for horror fans who enjoy the more absurd roads that horror often goes down.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Nobody, since Bram Stoker himself, has written vampires the way Anne Rice did. She single-handedly did so much for the vampire as part of modern mythology and fiction. Interview with the Vampire was Rice’s debut novel, and remains the most iconic and beloved thing she ever wrote. A piece of American gothic horror through and through.
Beginning on a Louisiana plantation in the late 18th century, before moving to New Orleans, Interview with the Vampire traces the life of a vampire who struggles with his own existence. Louis, a plantation owner, was turned by his sire, Lestat, but the two have very different approaches to their condition and their roles as vampires in the human world.
The book’s fame reached new heights with the release of its film adaptation in 1994, directed by Neil Jordan and featuring a star-studded cast that includes Tom Cruise and Brad Pit as protagonists Lestat and Louis. Anne Rice remains a shining example of how to write vampires and make them complex, sexy, and still terrifying creatures.
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Bram Stoker Award-winner Peter Straub was a legend of American horror. Although he collaborated with Stephen King, he was often overshadowed by his contemporaries. Straub’s most fondly-remembered and well-loved novel was the simply and eloquently named Ghost Story.
This was the novel that saw Straub enter the mainstream, and like many great horror novels of its time, it was given the big screen adaptation treatment.
Ghost Story follows a group of four elderly men who have been good friends for fifty years, and have had a tradition of gathering together and telling stories. However, until recently, their group had had five members, but the fifth member was found dead in a bedroom during a party, looking as though he had been frightened to death.
From this moment, the other four men are plagued by nightmares and their investigations lead them to darkness and more death. An iconic and much-beloved book, Ghost Story remains one of the best horror novels of the 20th century.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Thomas Harris’ second Hannibal Lecter book (a sequel to Red Dragon) has become an iconic household names amongst thriller and horror novels. This is largely thanks to the phenomenal success of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning film adaptation of the same name, starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.
That film remains one of the finest book-to-screen adaptations in history, as well as one of the best crime/thriller/horror movies ever made. But Harris’ original novel shines thanks to the author’s writing, and the inspiration he took from real-life cases of monstrous American serial killers from the ’60s to the ’80s.
This is the novel that made both the iconic heroine, Special Agent Clarice Starling, and the iconic villain Hannibal Lecter household names, and Starling actually has far more wit and courage in the novel to boot.
Fans of the film owe it to themselves to read Harris’ novel, and readers who have never seen it but are desperate for a blend of crime, thriller, and horror are in for a real treat.
The Taking by Dean Koontz
Speaking personally, despite not having read any Dean Koontz for many years, the author played an integral part in getting me hooked on fiction as a teenager. And Koontz’s novel The Taking remains my most enjoyable reading experience of all of his books. An eerie and discomfiting novel overflowing with dread atmosphere.
The Taking is an alien invasion novel of biblical proportions, which begins with a freak storm and rain that smells like semen. Our protagonists are a couple who are desperate to survive the creeping fog, extraterrestrial visitors, and abductions.
This novel is full of chilling moments, like witnesses abductees either screaming and crying or smiling and laughing as they are lifted into the sky. The book’s end revelation is one that will stay with you, and makes The Taking one of the most underrated but best horror novels you’ll ever read.
Watchers by Dean Koontz
Perhaps Dean Koontz’s most beloved and well-regarded novel, especially amongst fans, Watchers is a horror novel that has stood the test of time. This is a novel about shady government facilities, secretive scientific testing, and mysteries that the novels characters and its are desperate to uncover.
Our protagonist is a man named Travis, who is one day wandering a canyon near to his home. There, he meets an intelligent dog whom he names Einstein.
Einstein has escaped from a government lab which was running strange tests on him, and Travis helps the dog avoid death at the hands of another escapee: a dangerous creature dubbed the Outsider.
Travis, Einstein, and a woman named Nora whom they soon meet must evade and survive both the Outsider and government agents as they uncover the truth of what is going on. One of Koontz’s classic horror novels, Watchers is a fantastic time for horror fans.
Essential Contemporary Horror Novels
Horror is arguably more popular than ever before, with horror cinema having gone through several exciting trends and shifts over recent years. As for horror literature, authors from all walks of life are bringing their own cultural and social influences to the genre, meaning that horror novels are seeing such wonderful diversity.
There’s never been a better time to get into horror fiction than right now, with not only all the classics at your fingertips, but with so many incredible fresh horror authors changing the genre in new and thrilling ways. Here are the best horror novels written this century so far, from authors who are experimenting with horror and changing it forever.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
American writer Chuck Palahniuk is perhaps best known for writing Fight Club, a novel often dwarfed by David Fincher’s excellent film adaptation. But Palahniuk also wrote one of the most unique horror novels you’ll ever come across; something with an overall plot that also works as a collection of terrifying tales.
Haunted follows a group of writers who are lured to a retreat, and are then locked inside an abandoned theatre and challenged to write a masterpiece. The short stories that follow, separated by chapters that focus on the main narrative, are often intensely harrowing.
The first of these stories, in fact, has become infamous amongst horror fans for being one of the most unsettling and disturbing tales of modern horror. Hopefully, this is enough to pique your curiosity and take a dip into the strange narrative that is Haunted, one of the most underappreciated but best horror novels of our time.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Joe Hill might be the son of horror legend Stephen King, but he has also proven himself to be a fearsome force of horror in his own right. His novels Horns and NOS4A2, as well as his award-winning comic book Locke & Key, have all been adapted for film and TV.
However, his debut full-length novel Heart-Shaped Box remains his most spooky and chilling story to date. Our protagonist is the retired rock star Judas Coyne, a man who has built an eclectic collection of morbid fascinations.
But he is taken by surprise when a woman reaches out to him offering to sell him an actual ghost; a temptation which Coyne cannot pass up. The ghost, the seller claims, is that of her father, and it possesses a suit which she sends to Coyne in a heart-shaped box.
After receiving the box, Coyne is soon haunted by the ghost, which proves to be angry and hostile. There must be a reason for this hostility, and for why Coyne was sent this ghost. And he needs to find out quickly, before it’s too late. Heart-Shaped Box is a thrilling horror story by one of the best authors in the business. An unmissable American horror novel.
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
This is a vampire novel like no other, lifting its name from the iconic 1922 film Nosferatu. We begin in Massachusetts, 1986, with protagonist Victoria as a young girl. Vic soon discovers that riding her bike across a covered bridge transports her to a lost thing, whatever that thing might be.
One of her journeys takes her to a library where she meets a woman with the power to predict future events using Scrabble tiles. She warns Victoria about the book’s villain: a vampiric kidnapper of children called Charlie Manx, who drives a Rolls Royce and takes stolen children to a place called Christmasland.
Eventually we will arrive in the present day, with Vic as an adult who will eventually need to face the predatory and evil Manx head-on. NOS4A2 is a fantastic novel that places its author on even footing with his father. Joe Hill is a force to be reckoned with and this is one of the best horror novels of a generation.
The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
An extraordinary work of fiction that reportedly took Due a decade to write, The Reformatory is set in Jim Crow Florida, 1950. Our protagonists are brother and sister Robert and Gloria Stephens. Robert is twelve, his mother is dead and his father chased out of country — and state — leaving his older sister to take care of him, and of herself.
When Robert defends his sister and kicks a white boy, he is sent without trial to spend six months at The Gracetown School for Boys, a hellish place where Black boys work the fields like slaves, are whipped and punished, and are often haunted by the ghosts of boys who have died there. And there are a lot of ghosts at the Reformatory.
We spend Gloria’s chapters watching her do everything in her power to get her brother out, as well as learning more about their family, their town, and the world of Jim Crow Florida. Robert’s chapters take us through the trials and tortures of life at the Reformatory, lorded over by an inhumanly cruel warden who treats the boys as his property and holds many dark secrets of his own. This is a true horror masterpiece that is about so much more than horror.
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses
With Tender is the Flesh, Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica presents us with a haunting vision of the future, inspired by the hidden aspects of our monstrous present.
Protagonist Tejo works at a slaughterhouse which deals exclusively in human meat. A disease supposedly tainted, and mostly wiped out, most non-human animals, and so came a period known as the Transition. This heralded a future time in which human meat production has become an accepted and necessary norm across the entire planet.
The humans that are bred for slaughter are not considered people, and are simply if awkwardly referred to as ‘heads’. The novels allegory becomes clear when we see the conditions in which these humans are kept; conditions which perfectly mirror those in which cattle are kept today.
Tender is the Flesh asks readers to consider how modern-day battery farming, and meat and dairy production, treats non-human animals. The conditions in which they are kept; the ways in which they are raised, tortured, abused, and ultimately killed.
The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
With The Twiseted Ones, Kingfisher has created a piece of folk horror that adds to the always enticing sub-genre of haunted house horror novels. In The Twisted Ones, the house is not haunted from within, but rather vulnerable to something that exists just a little ways outside.
Our protagonist Melissa — Mouse to her friends — has been asked by her eighty-year-old father to clean out and tidy up the home of her recently deceased grandmother. Mouse’s grandmother, who lived to be 101 years old, was a cruel woman who delighted in nastiness for the sake of it. She was also an intense hoarder.
While sorting, Mouse stumbles upon a journal kept by her step-grandfather. This sweet old Welshman died years before his bitter wife did, and his journal reveals just how twisted and cruel she was. But it also reveals that the man was unhinged; he rambles on about twisted creatures and sleeping in the woods nearby.
Mouse’s step-grandfather stayed married to this hateful woman because she somehow kept the monsters at bay, scaring away the things that go bump in the night. Those things are real, they are twisted, and they might be coming for Mouse next.
The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson
Set in the bayou of Arkansas, The Boatman’s Daughter follows Miranda, a young woman who ferries drugs and contraband up and down the river for a monstrous priest and the corrupt local sheriff.
Ten years ago, Miranda watched her father disappear on a frightful stormy night. He had been tasked with bringing to local witch to the priest and act as midwife as his wife went through labour. The priest’s wife died, and the child was deformed, born with webbed hands and scaly skin. The priest believes he killed the newborn boy, but he has secretly lived with Miranda and the witch ever since.
Now, Miranda is ready to leave the bayou behind and take the boy with her, but she is wrangled into one last job in order to collect the money she’ll need to start a new life.
The Boatman’s Daughter is a dark, strange, claustrophobic novel full of corrupt powerful men who have been morphed into monsters. The southern gothic tone and setting blend beautifully with the poetic prose, making this a horror novel dripping with tension and strangeness.
Whisper by Chang Yu-ko
Translated from the Mandarin by Roddy Flagg
Whisper is a Taiwanese folk horror novel set in the modern day, inspired by the darker side of Japanese and Chinese mythology. The inspiration doesn’t end with mythology, however; Whisper is also a political novel that explores the rough historical relationship between the nations of Taiwan and Japan.
Whisper’s protagonist is a drunken waste of space; a taxi driver who has all but given up on, well, everything. He and his wife are being haunted by a ghost, and that ghost succeeds in killing his wife in the very first chapter (in a visceral and very discomfiting way).
The ghost itself first manifests as the muttering voice of a Japanese girl, coming through the radio of an abandoned taxi, and its presence repeatedly leads to disaster. Whisper takes us on a journey across both space and time, to many different locations as our protagonist continues to be chased by this haunting presence.
This is one of the best horror novels ever because it gives the reader everything that a horror novel should. There’s creeping dread, body horror, twisted imagery, vivid dreams, and paranoid hauntings, as well as dense and intriguing political and historical themes to consider.
How to Sell A Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
How to Sell A Haunted House smartly blends comedy, terror, and family drama together, creating something relatable and engaging on several levels. Our protagonist is a single mother named Louise, who is touching forty and living in San Francisco.
She learns from her brother, who lives in their South Carolina home town, that their parents have tragically and suddenly died in a car accident. Leaving her daughter in the hands of her ex, Louise returns home to organise the funeral, the wills, and to sell the home she grew up in, but the house has other plans.
At its heart, this is a tale of grief and familial bonds, as well as the inescapable traumas that families generously provide us with, to one degree or another. Smart, witty, and a brilliant reflection of sibling rivalries — both as children and as adults — this novel feels like the next step in American horror.
Fans of ghosts, demons, and hauntings will not be left disappointed, but neither will readers who love getting hooked on addictive family drama. Grady Hendrix has quickly become a big name in Amnerican horror, and for very good reason. How to Sell A Haunted House is not only his best work, but one of the best horror novels of the modern day.
Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Written by legendary Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez, Our Share of Night is a political, cosmic horror masterpiece. This 700-page epic horror novel blends eldritch horror with americanna and dark academia to create something savvy, intensely political, and satisfyingly allegorical.
We begin in early 1980s Argentina, during a period of military dictatorship. Juan is a medium for a powerful global cult known as the Order. Now that his son, Gaspar, is showing signs of the same power his father poseeses, Juan is on the road trying to find a way to keep Gaspar away from the Order, and to give his son a better life than he was able to have.
The Order offers sacrifices to a cosmic entity known as the Darkness, and in exchange is able to maintain power and wealth, as well as eventually reach immortality.
This is a horror novel about the abuse of power, about the rich manipulating the poor and the vulnerable, about the evils of colonialism and corruption. This is a true horror masterpiece that wears its influences on its sleeve while also being so much greater than the sum of its parts. One of the best horror novels you’ll ever read.
Everything the Darkness Eats by Eric LaRocca
Everything the Darkness Eats is a modern horror novel like no other, and one which stretches LaRocca’s themes, tone, and style to their limits. Set in a small Connecticut town, we are thrown from character to character as people start to go missing — most of them elderly and disconnected.
Our main protagonists are Ghost, a man who lost his pregnant wife after a car accident, and who is haunted and tormented by a strange spirit that has attached itself to him. And Malik, a gay cop whose home and safety are being threatened when he and his husband are on the receiving end of a series of homophobic attacks.
These two narrative strands, occurring within the same place and time, are seemingly unrelated, until they eventually meet and overlap. And at the centre of it all is an enigmatic but charming old man named Heart Crowley, whose reclusive and strange behaviour threatens the entire town.
Everything the Darkness Eats is an eldritch horror story that seamlessly blends themes both topical and universal; mixing the very real threats and tragedies of homophobia and loss with the timeless fear of the unknown and the impossible.
The Whistling by Rebecca Netley
Set on an isolated island off the rugged coast of Scotland in the 19th century, The Whistling stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the other chilling gothic ghost stories of its genre. Rebecca Netley’s novel follows Elspeth, a nanny hired to care for a mute nine-year-old girl who has already seen so much tragedy.
Mary’s mother has died, her last nanny left for the US, and her twin brother William perished in a harrowing accident. Now she can no longer speak, but Elspeth is keen to bond with her and stave off Mary’s sorrow and loneliness.
Unfortunately, the large house on the isolated rock hides sinister secrets, and ghostly sounds are keeping Elspeth up at night. The Whistling is a classic gothic ghost story with a layered story that delivers twist after turn in constant and quick succession.
Every short chapter is an atmospheric rise that leads to a sudden jolt of spine-chilling fear or a twisted revelation that leaves the reader stunned. A fantastic ghost story that sits comfortably amongst the best horror novels of recent years.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
The ideal horror novel for fans of possession narratives, A Head Full of Ghosts begins with a young woman returning to her childhood home. She is accompanied by an author who wishes to hear, and then write, Merry’s infamous family’s story.
Merry recounts to the author, and to us, the story of how her older sister began to change when they were younger. Her sister started showing signs of schizophrenia, before the family eventually became the subject of a cult reality TV show called The Possession.
Multiple perspectives and narrative keep this creeping horror novel moving at a breakneck pace, and the events of this story are spine-tingling.
This is a modern American horror story through and through, even down to its iconic rural New England setting. One of the best horror novels of our time, and one that cemented Paul Tremblay as a master of modern dread.
Come Closer by Sara Gran
At 165 pages, Come Closer packs a lot of strain and pain into a relatively short horror novel, and this means that every word matters; every page is tense and taut, clinging and cloying and claustrophobic. An easy sell for fans of Rosemary’s Baby (above) and Ari Aster’s horror masterpiece Hereditary, this is a modern American novel about demonic possession.
Our protagonist, Amanda, starts to show signs of possession out of the blue. The first one is funny: a report she leaves on her boss’ desk isn’t a report at all; instead, it’s a graphic insult which she doesn’t remember writing. Next, a strange sound starts tormenting her: a tapping within the walls of her apartment which her husband insists only occurs when she is home.
The signs get stranger and more unnerving as the story progresses, and Amanda starts to do her own research and seek answers. But whatever’s happening to her is starting to negatively affect her marriage. Amanda is changing, blacking out, losing control of herself, and she wonders what happens during those blackouts. She is having nightmares, and fears what she’s doing without even knowing it. She’s becoming dangerous.
Come Closer is a fantastic modern horror novel that echoes many of the classic horror stories of the 20th century. A perfect short horror novel, and a must-read for fans of claustrophobic terror and tales of possession.
Maggie’s Grave by David Sodergren
Imagine what you might get if you threw the movies Paranorman and Hot Fuzz into a blender with an unhealthy heaping of blood and guts, then whizzed it all up without the lid on, splattering every inch of the walls with entrails. That’s David Sodergren’s Maggie’s Grave. But it’s even more than that. It’s also a book about forgotten people in empty places, and about the cruelty of men towards women.
Inspired by the existence of a real grave that marks the death of a witch named Maggie Wall, Sodergren’s grotesque horror novel is set in an all-but-abandoned town in the Scottish Highlands. At the top of a hill outside this town are the broken remains of an isolated cottage and the grave of the innocent and pregnant woman who was murdered there by men who accused her of witchcraft and ripped the baby from her.
Today, the town has a population of forty, and four of them are teenagers who have nothing better to do than drink, fool around, and go bowling. One of these kids has just had a baby, which unwittingly kicks off the events of the novel. Maggie will soon escape her grave and wreak havoc on the town. All she wants is her baby, and she will spill so much blood to get what she wants.
The Terror by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons is known for writing experimental and genre-pushing novels within the realms of science fiction, horror, and thrillers, including the phenomenal Hyperion, one of this writer’s favourite sci-fi novels. His hefty 2007 The Terror, which has also seen a successful TV adaptation, is a piece of historical horror fiction set during an arctic expedition.
Here, Simmons utilises the legendary ship HMS Erebus, as well as the HMS Terror, for which the novel is named. The search for the Northwest Passage, and the crew being hunted across the arctic by an unknown monster, are both obvious references to Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But while he enjoys incorporating the works of other writers, and aspects of real history, into his novels, Simmons is unmatched when it comes to his imagination.
Toeing that difficult line between horror and thriller, The Terror is an exhausting and hair-raising epic about dangers that are human, natural, and something else entirely.
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt
Tell Me I’m Worthless is a British horror novel by an incredible transgender author, published by a small indie press, and it jas single-handedly shaken up the world of literature, both within and outside of the horror genre. This is a boldly aggressive political horror novel that holds a mirror up to the twisted and politically corrupt state of present-day Britain.
Our protagonists are a pair of young women who were friends at university, but now are very different people. The schism between them was created the night they and a third friend visited at a haunted house known as Albion (get it?). Something terrible happened at that house, our protagonists blame each other for it. They each claim the other sexually assaulted them in this haunted house.
Now, one of them is a young trans woman haunted by ghosts that represent the twisted state of modern-day Britain. The other is a transphobe who campaigns against the human rights of trans people. The house itself, is also a character in its own right, and we learn a lot about its dark and twisted history as the novel progresses.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is an angry and punk horror novel about transgender rights on a horribly transphobic island. It’s also an imaginative and bold piece of horror fiction. One of the best horror novels of the twenty-first century.
Brainwyrms by Alison Rumfitt
Brainwyrms follows Frankie, a twenty-eight-year-old trans woman living in the UK. In the novel’s first chapter, Frankie is at a kink party, and there we learn about her kink obsession with being impregnated. At the party, Frankie meets the young non-binary Vanya, who has a dark and twisted kink of their own.
In the second chapter, we learn that Frankie survived a terror attack: a middle-aged woman bombed the gender identity clinic in which Frankie worked, and the blast killed one of her colleagues. As the novel progresses, the titular brainworms come into the light, as we meet unsubtle stand-ins for certain transphobic public figures and journalists, and we learn that they have all been infected with some kind of parasite.
The horror of this novel comes in two forms: exploring the darkest possible endgame of transphobia in UK social politics, and the more blunt and visceral body horror of parasitic infection. This is a raw and disgusting novel that requires every trigger warning you can think of. Brace yourself for multiple forms of assault and abuse, as well as vivid depictions of disease and infection.
Brutally, unapologetically upsetting and unsettling, this is another incredible piece of queer horror from Alison Rumfitt, one of the modern queens of the genre; an author writing some of the best horror novels of our time.
Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi
Speaking plainly, Boys in the Valley is the most twisted, terrifying, no-holds-barred, unhinged horror novel that I have ever read. And that, of course, is a good thing.
In Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century, Peter lives at an orphanage, after watching his father kill his mother, and then himself. Most of the priests are cruel, twisted men, but their sadistic behaviour is the lesser of the evils this book offers up to us.
Unbeknownst to the orphanage’s residents, a local cult has been torturing, sacrificing, and drinking the blood of their victims. One night, the local sheriff knocks on the door of the orphanage and explains to the head priest that he has killed every member of this cult, except for one. That cult member dies inside the orphanage that night, and his death unleashes all manner of hell in the form of possession, torment, torture, and murder.
The events of this incredible horror novel are gruesome, bloody, upsetting, and wild. From cover to cover, this is a gnarly and riotous book full of blood and death. Boys in the Valley is one of the best horror novels of this century, without question.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
With My Heart is a Chainsaw, Stephen Graham Jones has created a smart and subversive homage to the slasher sub-genre of horror movies. With Jones being a Blackfoot Native American, this horror novel is also something that shines a bright spotlight on the legacy of American brutality against his people.
Our protagonist, Jade, is a young Idaho native, struggling to graduate from high school; her father is abusive, she has zero friends, and she has an obsessive knowledge of slasher films. Jade is a walking caricature of angsty teenage life; she quotes horror films, wears heaps of eyeliner, and has accepted her position as her school’s — and even her community’s — odd outcast girl.
If you like your modern horror books to be smart, literary affairs with dense topical themes; books that play on the horror genre; books that move at a swift click, then this is exactly what you’re looking for. With My Heart is a Chainsaw, Stephen Graham Jones has penned one of the best horror novels of our time; an homage to slashers and so much more.
Sister, Maiden, Monster by Lucy A. Snyder
With Sister, Maiden, Monster, Bram Stoker Award-winning American author Lucy A. Snyder has crafted an upsetting, stomach-churning body horror novel about mutation, transformation, and disease. Framed in three interconnected parts, Sister, Maiden, Monster is a pandemic novel set in the near future. An aggressive virus has suddenly started spreading across several major global cities all at once.
Those who catch but survive the virus are then designated Type One, Two, or Three depending on the long-term damage done to their bodies. Our first protagonist, Erin, is an office worker with a long-term boyfriend. After getting sick on the night of their engagement, and eventually recovering, she is designated Type Three.
As the virus spreads, the novels eldritch elements begins to appear. It becomes clear that this virus has been spread by design, that this is an apocalypse novel, and that the eldritch gods are real. Erin soon falls into a lesbian relationship with a Type Two, and the pair enjoy eating the parts of each other they need. And when her story is done, we move to the other protagonists and watch the world steadily fall apart.
Sister, Maiden, Monster is a disgusting, sickening, hard-to-read horror novel that embraces queerness and shifts from disease, cannibalism, and death to Lovecraftian cult horror. Easily one of the most revolting but best horror novels of recent years.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
The Book of Accidents focusses on a three-person family who have moved from Philadelphia into the family father’s childhood home, following the death of his own father. This home is out in the sticks of rural Pennsylvania, and Nate has had reservations about moving into a home that, for him, only means trauma and bad memories.
However, he chokes all that down and does this for the good of his family, specifically his tender son, Oliver. Nate’s late father was abusive and callous, and Nate — a former cop — takes joy in seeing his father die.
Oliver is a sweet, and empathetic teenager. We watch him make friends with the local nerds at his school, and eventually meet a far rougher punk kid who tempts Oliver down a dark road. It doesn’t take long before strange things start happening in and around the house: images and noises that all point to a typical haunting; this story, however, is far from typical.
The Book of Accidents is a modern horror novel that tests family ties, that explores inherited trauma and cycles of abuse, and also blends the genres of horror and science fiction together in exciting, strange, and unexpected ways.
The Hole by by Pyun Hye-young
Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Not only is The Hole one of the most underrated horror novels you’ll ever read, it is also perhaps this writer’s favourite Korean novel. The Hole is a masterpiece of unsettling, nail-biting terror. A celebration of the fear found in stillness, quietude, and uncertainty.
The Hole opens with a car crash. Our protagonist is fully paralysed, and his wife is dead. His wife’s mother is the only person available to take him in and care for him, but she also blames him for the death of her daughter. We must read on helplessly as our protagonist is trapped in his own mind, unable to move or fend for himself. All the while his mother-in-law digs an enormous hole in the garden.
She is cruel to him, passive-aggressive in her language and behaviour, and when he is left alone he watches as she continues to dig the hole. Terror has never been done so well, not by Stephen King or any other horror author. This is tension like you’ve never felt it.
Reminiscent of Misery in its claustrophobia and minimalism, and carrying the same kind of tension as Austrian horror movie Goodnight, Mommy. If you’re looking for the very best of Korean horror, you owe it to yourself to read Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole. A horror masterpiece.
All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes
Reminiscent of Dan Simmons’ The Terror (above) and sections of Frankenstein (also above), All the White Spaces is a chilling and immersive tale of exploration and survival in the white wastes of Antarctica. This is also an historical novel, set so close to the end of the Great War, the poppies had barely begun to bloom.
Our protagonist is Jonathan, a young trans man who never saw the front lines, but did lose two brothers to the war. All three had grown up reading about the exploits of arctic explorers, and coming to terms with the fact that his brothers would never get to set sail, Jonathan sneaks aboard a British vessel headed for Antarctica. Things go dreadfully wrong, almost from the outset, and eventually the crew find themselves stranded.
On the journey to Antarctica, Jonathan begins to see ghostly visions of his dead brothers, and when they find themselves isolated in the barren spaces of Antarctica, those visions only get worse. Something evil is tempting him, luring him out, and its not only affecting Jonathan. All the White Spaces is a fantastic work of historical horror fiction set in the most lonely, desolate, and deadly part of the world.
All Hallows by Christopher Golden
Christopher Golden is one of the great authors of American horror, as well as of comics and dark fantasy fiction, and All Hallows is him showing great deference to the Halloween season, while also tugging on our nostalgia strings. Set across a single Halloween night in suburban Massachusetts during the 1980s, All Hallows paints a picture of Americana upended and distorted.
We follow a cast of characters who all live on a single street, and are all busy this All Hallows Eve. The Barbosa family are constructing their traditional Haunted Woods attraction (their last ever) while the Sweeney family is being upended by lies and deceit on the part of an unfaithful husband and father. Amidst all of this, we have house parties and trick-or-treaters going door-to-door.
But some of those kids are strangers; anonymous children in creepy outfits whom nobody else recognises. Some of them are scared and confused, and they whisper about a Cunning Man coming to claim them. Death is on their heels — is ready to swoop into this suburban world and upend everything. People will die tonight, and it will be bloody.
Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison
Black Sheep is a horror novel for all us creepy kids with daddy issues. The story is told by its protagonist, Vesper, a twenty-three-year-old woman living in New York City and working as a waitress. Hours before her eighteenth birthday, Vesper left her family home and the religious cult she was raised in. Now, six years later, after getting fired from her awful job, she receives a wedding invitation that lures her back home.
The happy couple are Vesper’s cousin and her own former teenage sweetheart. When she arrives, she is surprised by the shock on everyone’s faces. If nobody expected her, who invited her? It certainly wasn’t her mother, Constance—a famous scream queen who has been killing and dying in the best and worst horror movies for decades.
Something sinister is going on in the Hell’s Gate community; something even more sinister than the usual devil-worship and lamb slaughter. And Vesper knows that she is at the centre of it, whatever it is. But what will she learn as she is drawn back into this strange, dark, and terrifying world?
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
The Silent Companions is easily one of the best horror novels of this century so far; a haunted house novel of unique and exciting proportions. Exceptionally gothic, very reminiscent of Susan Hill and Shirley Jackson, and yet wholly its own beast, The Silent Companions is gothic fiction, historical fiction, and horror all smooshed nicely together.
Our protagonist, Elsie, is pregnant, but her husband is already dead. And so she moves into his family’s country estate, where she feels isolated and lonely, with only her late husband’s cousin to call friend. The thing that haunts this novel is what makes it unique; something we’ve never seen before in the haunted house subgenre of horror fiction.
This is the novel that broke Laura Purcell into the world of horror with a deafening scream, and it remains one of the most adored and best horror novel of recent years.
HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier
HEX is a work of modern horror genius; a contemporary Dutch horror novel set in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley (where I lived for a while). The novel’s intriguing premise is this: the isolated town of Black Spring has a secret that it has managed to keep hidden from outsiders for centuries: the ghost of a witch roams their streets.
The witch was once Katherine van Wyler, killed in the town in the 17th century. Since then, with eyes and mouth sewn shut, her ghost has openly wandered the town and haunted its residents, even within their own homes. The residents are used to her, although tragedy has befallen them a few times in the past when she has gotten too close to someone, convincing them to take their own lives.
But now, in an. age of YouTube and social media, a teenager named Tyler has banded together a group of friends to perform a few experiments on the witch’s ghost and film them. These experiments, along with the dark behaviour of another long-term resident, are going to change things for the worse in Black Spring, unleashing something horrible and deadly.
Written and translated brilliantly, this is a fantastic modern horror novel about persecution and responsibility, taking horror in strange new directions. A must-read.
Strega by Johanne Lykke Holm
Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel
Strega is a Swedish feminist novel that blends horror with the gothic. Beautifully translated, it begins with haunting language and ramps up to haunting events: real, imagined, or both. Our protagonist, Rafa, is at the intersection between girlhood and adulthood, and she is spending a season working at a remote hotel in the mountains, beside a lake and small town: the titular Strega.
For the novel’s first half, Rafa befriends the other eight girls, particularly one girl named Alba. The nine of them learn their roles, bond, learn the hotel and its staff, and wait for the guests to arrive. Weeks go by and there are still no guests. The town and hotel take on personalities of their own, and paranoia starts to grow. At the novel’s midpoint, however, a large number of guests arrive and the hotel becomes a party.
It is during this short and festive period that one of our girls goes missing, presumed dead, and her death brings with it the haunting and sobering realisation of what the world offers women: fear. While Strega‘s first half offers a surreal kind of paranoia — dizzying and off-kilter — this halfway gear-shift brings the terror to the surface.
Specific moments and passages in the novel’s second half will turn your blood cold and have you looking over your shoulder. It has an incredible power to instil the reader with an intense sense of nervousness. Strega is a powerful gothic horror novel that reminds us of the power of men, of capitalism, of isolation, of rules and regulations, to instil fear and paranoia into women.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea is a visceral gothic horror novel. This is a dual-narrative story which follows a lesbian couple, one of whom is sent on an expedition in a submarine to the bottom of the sea. While the expedition should last a few weeks, she and the crew are stranded there for six months.
Her narrative is a claustrophobic and tense one, with a Lovecraftian fear of the unknown knocking at the walls of the submarine with every page turn. When she finally returns, however, she is no longer herself, and her wife must make peace with the fact that the woman she loved is gone, replaced by something else.
Our Wives Under the Sea is a gothic horror novel about how we grieve, and the fact that we can grieve altogether wrong. It’s also an exercise in body horror, luxuriating in the twisted, unnatural, and impossible ways that our bodies can change and betray us.
This is a claustrophobic story, set in a cramped submarine and an equally cramped apartment, with the unknown and the terrifying always within arm’s reach. A real showcase of how horror can be made unusual again, and how the gothic can be brought to the present day. A masterpiece of a horror novel.
Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin
Manhunt is a curious piece of horror fiction. It is gross, gory, uncomfortable, visceral, shocking, and punk as all hell. This is a viscerally disgusting novel, full of gratuitously over-the-top blood, body horror, abuse, and torture. Manhunt is also a plainly angry book. It is a post-apocalyptic narrative that follows a pair of trans women who have survived a plague that specifically targets testosterone.
This disease turns anyone with high levels of testosterone into horny, mindless zombie-like beasts, which means most cis women, and some trans women and men, were saved. Our protagonists must fight and hunt and scavenge to survive, while also facing down another threat: TERFs.
There is a cult of dangerous transphobes who hunt and lynch any trans women they come across, choosing to hate trans people more than they value their own lives. Manhunt is a horror novel about the mindless, sexual, and physical aggression of men towards women (cis or trans), and about the potential violent endgame of transphobia.
The visceral nature of Manhunt cannot be overstated. This is a book of such violent and bloody imagery that many readers may not be able to stomach it. Horror fans should have no problem with it, and what they’ll find is one of the most daring and thrilling horror novels ever written.
The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
If you love your classic sci-fi horror — movies of isolation and claustrophobia like Alien and Event Horizon — you’ll eat this novel up. The Luminous Dead is set on a future world being mined for precious ore by large corporations. To survey the caves and tunnels beneath the surface, cavers are sent down in teams or in isolation. Gyre is a lone caver who is being paid well to explore a deep cave all alone for several weeks.
The entire novel is spent in this cave network, as Gyre’s only point of contact is the disembodies voice on the other end of the radio. Em is a controlling, cold, and secretive woman who can manipulate Gyre’s suit like a puppet. As the story moves forward and the terror rises, Gyre must break down Em’s walls and form a bond in order to stay safe and feel in control. Em knows a lot more than she’s letting on.
This is a true tale of claustrophobia and terror. Danger surrounds Gyre on all sides, and there is much to learn and grapple with. Those dangers may be real or imagined, and telling those apart will become increasingly difficult. This is not a horror novel for the claustrophobic.
The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw
Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella The Salt Grows Heavy is a dismal, dark, twisted, nightmarish piece of fiction. The story opens with our protagonist — a mermaid whose husband cut out her tongue and fed it to her — watching her newborn children eat the dead body of their father.
She is the beckoned away by a plague doctor, and the two journey away from their homeland and through a strange forest where new evils await them. There, they meet a band of boys who hunt and kill one another. They are then resurrected by their creators and masters: three saints whom our protagonists swear to destroy.
The Salt Grows Heavy offers an oppressive environment that is brought to live viscerally and with great discomfort by an author of intense, vivid imagination. This is a gruesome, squeamish, frightful horror story unlike anything you’ve ever read before.
The Night House by Jo Nesbø
Jo Nesbø is a Norwegian author known for his critically acclaimed Harry Hole series of crime novels, as well as a modernised reimagining of Shakespeare‘s Macbeth, but The Night House is Nesbø taking on the horror genre. And it is a fascinating novel. Divided into three parts, with Part One taking up the first two thirds of the novel, The Night House presents itself as a very mid and uninspired YA horror novel, until everything changes.
The Night House begins with Richard, a fourteen-year-old boy whose parents tragically died, and so he moved out of the big city and now lives with his kindly aunt and uncle in a rural Twin Peaks-esque town. There, he finds himself to be a social outcast; a punk kid who is bullied at school, and that treatment embitters him to those around him. He treats his handful of friends horribly.
And in the book’s first chapter, Richard watches his friend Tom get eaten alive by a telephone in an old-fashioned phone booth. This gory incident is connected to the abandoned house at the heart of the nearby forest, and the infamous local figure who once lived there and supposedly ended up at the local asylum.
What transpires is a paint-by-numbers horror novel that is entirely upended at the two-thirds mark, when everything goes insane and the terror amps up impressively. So, when you read this, expect mundanity for a while until the world turns upside down and one of the best horror novels of recent years properly reveals itself.
Horseman by Christina Henry
Horseman is Henry’s take on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the classic American story of a small Dutch settlement in New England which is haunted and threatened by a ghostly headless horseman. As soon as you begin reading Horseman, it becomes obvious that this is more of a sequel than a reimagining, with key characters from Irving’s short story now decades older.
Our protagonist is the grandchild of Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Van Brunt. His name is Ben, and though he was born a girl and his grandmother repeatedly tells him to act more like one, Ben is a boy. The novels first chapter throws us into a bloody and bleak discovery: the body of a child in the woods, its head and hands missing. Has the headless horseman returned? Brom insists that’s impossible.
But more deaths are coming, and this situation seems far more complex than the return of the horseman. There’s more at play here. Horseman is a wonderful horror mystery that plays with folk conventions and traditions, and reignites a classic tale for a new audience.
The inclusion of a trans-masculine protagonist is also icing on the cake, making the fourteen-year-old Ben a more dynamic, exciting, fiery, and interesting character in his own right. Christina Henry has written some of the best horror novels of the 21st century, and Horseman is among them.