Horror books just can’t seem to get respect. Lately, the literary-genre barrier has never been more porous. Big name literary writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie are writing genre books, while the National Book Foundation gives lifetime achievement awards to Elmore Leonard and Ursula K. Le Guin. And, yet, the genre crossovers that seem to get all of the accolades — as well as the acclaimed film and TV adaptations — are in fantasy and science fiction. Horror is still too often regarded as cheap, lurid, and inartistic.
But it wasn’t always this way. The muck of modern horror descends directly from the lofty heights and windy moors of gothic fiction. Horror was an essential component of such literary classics as Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Jane Eyre (to say nothing of Dracula and the works of Edgar Allan Poe), and, going back, an essential part of human storytelling, from Shakespeare to our earliest folk tales and myths.
As far as I’m concerned, horror is one of the basic elements of fiction — is anything more fundamental than fear? And many of my favorite books contain monsters both human and inhuman. I made sure to include many of both in my own book, Upright Beasts. Despite getting the short end of the critical stick, the horror genre continues to produce some of the most innovative, sharply crafted, and emotionally moving books out there. Even if you don’t read horror, you’ve probably heard of Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Allan Poe. But you may not have heard of the following spine-tingling tales of blood-curdling terror that will drive every reader to utter madness. Pick one up and read one with the doors locked and the lights on.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
While most readers won’t recognize Ligotti’s name, they might be familiar with his work indirectly. The wildly popular first season of True Detective borrowed heavily from this underground horror master, paraphrasing his works of nihilistic terror into the speeches of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. Drawing equally from philosophers like E. M. Cioran and horror icons like Lovecraft and Poe, Ligotti writes philosophical horror that eschews the spurts of gore for a torrent of existential dread. For decades, Ligotti has been a horror writer’s horror writer, but he may be finally getting his due. This October, Penguin Classics reissued his first two books in a new volume, making him one of only a handful of living authors with a Penguin Classics edition.
Twilight by William Gay
A far cry from sparkly vampires, Gay’s Twilight is a dark tale of grieving teenage siblings, grave robbing, and brutal killers in ’50s Tennessee. Gay writes in haunting, muscular Southern Gothic prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. Read it with a bottle of bourbon handy to steady your nerves.
White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi is one of contemporary fiction’s most exciting fabulists. Often using fairy tales as inspiration, Oyeyemi weaves modern novels rich in thematic meaning and resonance. Oyeyemi is at her best when she veers toward the dark, and her third novel, White Is for Witching, harkens back to the grimmest of Brothers Grimm. This is a haunted-house story filled with surprises and shocks, lulling readers in with beautiful sentences.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Another horror icon who is sadly underread by the general population, Shirley Jackson is simply one of America’s greatest writers. “The Lottery” — her one masterful short story that everyone reads — is only the starting point. Her novels like We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Sundial are dark gothic gems. But for pure horror, The Haunting of Hill House takes the ghostly cake. Considered by many to be the greatest haunted-house story ever told, the novel is a masterclass in suspense. If the plot seems superficially familiar — a scientist gathers a group of people in a haunted house hoping to find evidence of the paranormal, with deadly consequences — it is because Jackson’s terrifying tale has been so influential and copied. Few imitators can write with her creepy power, though.
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
LaValle’s writing epitomizes the phrase literary horror, combining sharp, gorgeous prose and rich characterization with careful plot construction and terrifying monsters. The Devil in Silver might be his best book, a story about a man who gets improperly placed in a mental institution that has a bison-headed devil stalking the halls. The book is terrifying, filled with smart commentary, and just plain compelling to read.
The October Country by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a great example of the difficulties horror often has in getting recognition. Bradbury is widely celebrated for his works of science fiction (Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles) and fantasy-tinged literary fiction (Dandelion Wine), but his equally brilliant works of macabre horror are often forgotten. For readers who want to see Bradbury turn his inventive mind toward the realm of death, disease, and grotesquery, The October Country is an ideal starting point. These 19 stories often have a Twilight Zone feel, creative set-ups and twists that will stick in your mind long after you finish reading.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
The South African novelist and screenwriter Beukes exploded into the American literary scene with her serial-killer novels The Shining Girls (2103) and Broken Monsters (2014). The latter got raves from both major genre writers like George R. R. Martin (“a major, major talent”) and Stephen King (“I couldn’t put it down”) as well as mainstream book reviews. Broken Monsters is set in the urban decay of Detroit where a detective is tracking down a killer who fuses victims’ bodies with animals. If you loved the occult-tinged first season of True Detective, you should pick this up.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
Kobo Abe is frequently called the Japanese Kafka, and the comparison is fair. Both authors twist reality just enough that it becomes an unstable, eerie place to navigate. In Abe’s masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes, an amateur etymologist named Jumpei misses his bus home from the seashore and ends up being trapped in a bizarre village composed of houses dug into sand pits. The villagers must spend their days shoveling the always-falling sand or else be buried alive. Seemingly unable to escape, Jumpei is forced into the Sisyphean task with a woman stranger assigned to be his partner. A claustrophobic, bizarre, and utterly compelling novel.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved is one of the most acclaimed novels of the last thirty years. It won the Pulitzer Prize, was ranked the best novel off 1981 to 2006 by the New York Times, and is the most celebrated work of Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. It’s also arguably a horror novel. Morrison’s novel about the horrors of slavery is entwined with a chilling ghost story. Essential reading for horror and literary fans alike.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy is best known for his post-apocalyptic novel The Road and his violent westerns (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and Blood Meridian). But his earliest novels are grotesque Southern Gothic novels written in his characteristically Biblical style. While most horror books let you follow the good guys who battle the monsters, Child of God’s protagonist, Lester Ballard, is a cave-dwelling necrophiliac who stalks the hills of Tennessee for prey and lovers. Child of God might not be horror in the classic sense, but it is a nightmarish and nightmare-inducing vision propelled by McCarthy’s characteristic prose.
Last Days by Brian Evenson
Brian Evenson is a master of modern horror, one whose work dips into science fiction, postmodernism, and fantasy, but always with a sense of dread and uncanny unease. Last Days is a hardboiled horror novel about a dismembered detective, Kline, who is recruited to solve a mystery in a bizarre religious cult. The cult believes that mutilation is holy, and creates a religious hierarchy based on the number of amputations members have. If that hasn’t convinced you yet, the novel also has an introduction by horror legend Peter Straub (whose Ghost Story is must-read classic.)
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
You’ve likely been influenced by Du Maurier, even if you’ve never read her. The horror film classics The Birds and Don’t Look Now were based on her short stories, and the Hitchcock films Rebecca and Jamaica Inn were adapted from her novels. The book Don’t Look Now collects nine of Du Maurier’s eerie gothic tales, including the titular story and “The Birds.”