I’ve got an innate love for all things horror. The scarier, the better. I attribute this partially to just being a strange person (sorry about that, husband) but mostly to my discovery of my mother’s Stephen King collection at age 8. I had dabbled in the Goosebumps collection, generally because they were so popular in the 1990s, but I tore through them like a hungry dog through a rare steak. My reading level was several grades higher than average so they were simply too easy. Stephen King, though daunting in their length, provided more of a challenge.
From the first one, I was hooked.
I fondly remember spending my summers on the deck by our pool, reading about Derry and Christine and the Overlook Hotel. A lot of the material went over my head — rereading The Shining at age 27 VS age 9 was quite an experience — but the King of Horror had firmly planted the seed for me to wildly enjoy both reading and scary stuff.
That being said, here are 10 books from my favorite genre that you NEED to check out if you love horror fiction. (I mean, yeah, you could always read my stories too, but these right here are the greats.)
Night Shift by Stephen King
This was the first book I fished out of my mom’s bookcase. It’s my favorite of all time (and hers too!). Night Shift is Stephen King’s first short story collection and every single one of the 20 included are ON POINT.
The standouts, in my opinion, are The Mangler (about a demon-possessed laundry press), Sometimes They Come Back (about a young teacher haunted by both his past and dead former bullies), I Am The Doorway (about a guy who begins to grow eyes in his hands), and Children Of The Corn (about a couple who stumble upon a Nebraskan village full of murderous children). This collection is just fantastic, so chilling and so well-written, it’s what I hope to shoot for with my own first short story collection. Because why not aim for the moon and land among the stars or some other such bullshit?
Obviously King’s other works are also insanely good but I feel like Night Shift gets left out a lot so definitely grab this one and give it a chance. You won’t be sorry.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
This one is a very close second favorite. Palahniuk is, in my opinion, one of the 21st century greats and most people I talk to about him are so focused on Invisible Monsters or Fight Club that Haunted falls by the wayside. And it absolutely shouldn’t.
It’s not exactly a novel, not exactly a short story collection — more like a fantastic hybrid of the two. The overarching plot is of 17 people who have joined up on a “Writer’s Retreat” in order to A) write their masterpiece and B) get away from it all. Also, to get away from something in their own personal lives, each of which is revealed in a freeverse poem that precedes their story.
However, things go south fast as everyone begins to dream of the fame they could gain from “suffering” at this isolated retreat. What follows is a both hilarious and a nightmare; each of the characters share such interesting tales that weave into the main story.
BONUS: the first short story is shared by the bus driver. You may have heard of it — it’s called Guts and it’s caused over 30 people to faint during live readings. It is INCREDIBLY hard to get through (even for me) and quite honestly completely disgusting but like a car wreck you can’t look away. Once you make it past Guts it’s all downhill from there, but no less disturbing.
A Choir Of Ill Children by Tom Piccirilli
By the late Tom Piccirilli (who just passed away this month), A Choir Of Ill Children is… hard to describe. Twisted Southern gothic at its finest, it follows Thomas, the wealthiest member of a wasted society called Kingdom Come. He lives with his brothers, conjoined triplets who share a brain and whose descriptions are nightmarish to say the least.
There’s also witches, dog-kickers, suicide, one-legged murderers, and so much more. But to say anything else could potentially ruin this wonderfully weird tale, so I recommend just checking it out for yourself.
Horns by Joe Hill
I’m not going to lie, I was a little skeptical of Joe Hill’s popular second novel because I hadn’t read anything from him before, but let’s face it — his dad is Stephen King, the Master of Horror, and I was worried he might be riding off that success. But to his credit he went by a pen name so I gave it a shot.
So worth it. Horns is the story of Ig Parrish, a young man who wakes up one day after a drunken blackout to find horns growing out of his head. (Hey, who among us haven’t been there, amirite?) He quickly learns people are compulsively telling him their darkest, deepest secrets, and that even the people he loves have ugly thoughts about him.
While trying to figure out what’s happening, Ig also works towards solving the mystery of his murdered girlfriend — who everyone assumes was actually murdered by Ig himself.
Hill was clearly influenced by his father’s style but he brings his own voice to the genre and it’s a voice I greatly enjoy. The plot is solid and the characters are strong. Definitely add this to your list, and while you’re at it, try his debut novel too — Heart-Shaped Box.
The Collector Of Hearts: New Tales Of The Grotesque by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is a literary juggernaut. Her bibliography is huge, she spans multiple genres, and she’s got an incredible way with words. I was surprised to find she wrote horror (though I’m not sure why, of course she does) and this collection is downright scary.
There are 27 chilling stories in The Collector Of Hearts and they’re all solid but a few have stuck with me since I first read it about six years ago. In The Hand-puppet, a tale about a young girl who creates a hand-puppet that disturbs her mother, there’s a line of dialogue that I doubt will ever leave my head: “MISSUS I BEEN HERE BEFORE YA! AN’ I GONNA BE HERE WHENYA GONE!”
I’ll gladly nominate Elvis Is Dead, Why Are You Alive? for the best title ever, in which a middle-aged man has a recurring nightmare about a fanatical funeral for Elvis Presley.
But the short story that might possibly be the creepiest story I’ve ever read — and that’s saying something — can’t even have the title shown here. That’s because it’s a black bar, similarly to how you’d censor or black out text. A woman recounts a terrifying childhood experience that is repeatedly censored with said black bar, insinuating that she’s missing bits and pieces of her past. The best part about this story is that it’s so bizarre, so macabre, that if an 11-year-old girl tried to tell her parents what happened she wouldn’t be believed. AT ALL. So how much of it truly happened? What was created to help her cope? Or is it all true?
Fantastic. Seriously. Find this one on Amazon NOW.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Of course, everyone’s familiar with Flynn’s smash hit Gone Girl, but I doubt most people are aware of Dark Places and they should be. It focuses on Libby Day, the sole survivor of her family — except, of course, for her big brother, who is in prison for supposedly massacring the rest of them.
Libby is damaged (obviously) and sarcastic (a woman of my own heart). A true crime club offers her money to make an appearance at one of their gatherings; a member convinces her to look deeper into the murders of her family as he believes her brother may be innocent.
This one’s got it all: murder, mystery, and a good ol’ dose of Satanic Panic from the 1980s. It’s fast-paced and fun and — wait for it — very, very dark. (HA!)
Kissing The Witch by Emma Donoghue
This is one of my favorites that I read when I was 13 over Spring Break. (Yes, I party hard.) It’s not exactly straight-up horror but it’s extremely dark and a completely new spin on things.
The subtitle is “Old Tales In New Skins” and that’s exactly what they are — fairytales retold and reshaped until they’re something new entirely. Cinderella suffers from schizophrenia as there is no evil stepmother and falls, instead, for her fairy godmother rather than the prince. Rapunzel, blind and alone, is tricked by the witch into believing there’s an escape. Hans and Gretel are taken in not by an evil crone but a woman who cares for the abandoned children and we quickly learn that the fairy tale we’ve grown to know and love was really just Hans’ version of things.
All sorts of themes are explored and 13 was actually a great year to read this book — I learned about female empowerment, how to be true to yourself, and that adults/parents aren’t always right. Plus it was very cool to realize which story was what fairy tale as I went on. Try it for a little lighter reading with some deeper meanings.
The Grin Of The Dark by Ramsey Campbell
You know what’s creepy? Silent films. But that’s pretty hard to translate to text, right? Wrong! Campbell tells the story of Simon Lester, a film historian who’s hired to track down the mysterious past of former silent film star Tubby Thackary. Thackary’s films stopped being shown in the early 1900s and very few people even know who he is.
As Simon starts to unravel the mystery he himself begins to unravel as well. Surreal, spooky, and very unnerving, the story spirals out of control. By the end you start to suspect you, too, can hear the laughter echoing in Simon’s head.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
A fresh twist on zombies is always good even in a world that feels oversaturated with zombies. In The Girl With All The Gifts, we find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic land overrun by (of course) zombies. While these monsters have been created by a fungus — the new trend in zombie lore — the lead character is Melanie, a student at a school somewhere called Hotel Echo.
At first you think maybe this is the continuing education of Earth’s future population. Quickly, it’s revealed that Melanie and her fellow students are infected, to some degree, with the zombie fungal virus. However, Melanie is a special case and seems to have a genius-level IQ, as well as emotional thoughts and feelings.
Hotel Echo is attacked by a group of scavengers and junkers, forcing Melanie and several other members of the base out into the cruel world. Melanie, infatuated with her teacher, insists on coming along. The group searches for an elite mobile lab that set out to cure the disease in hopes of finding the scientists and, possibly, a cure.
This is a solid summer read. I read it on the beach, a dream I’ve always had, and it was fantastic. But that was probably compounded by the fact I was drinking margaritas at 7am.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
The Winter People is another zombie story — well, sort of. I don’t want to get too far into it because that would spoil the story for you but it’s split apart into three different narratives: Sarah Harrison Shea, a woman who loses her young daughter in 1908; present-day Ruthie, whose mother has gone missing under mysterious circumstances; and present-day Katherine, a widow still grieving from the loss of both her husband and her infant son.
The way their stories interweave and reconnect is fascinating. Behind everything runs a current of something grotesque, unsettling, and supernatural. This is another one I don’t want to spoil for you; just pick it up and tear through it in a day like I did. You won’t regret it.