1. Hell House by Richard Matheson
“Isn’t it just another so-called haunted house?”
“I’m afraid it isn’t. It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.”
Published in in 1971, Hell House remains a horror classic that is guaranteed to frighten and compel the masses. Stephen King said it “may be scariest haunted house novel ever written.” Other blurbs on the cover of the book have included warnings such as, “those of a nervous disposition should not read this.”
The story sets stage in The Belasco House located in Maine and deemed by many as one of the most haunted houses in existence. The house served as home to unspeakable acts of depravity and bore witness to inconceivable horror under the power and influence of original owner Emeric Belasco who disappeared and was never seen or heard from again after a party in 1929 where all his guests ended up dead. Previous attempts to investigate the paranormal activity of the house have been fatal. Years later, four people return and enter the house that has ruined so many when Dr. Lionel Barrett is hired by a wealthy dying man to investigate and brings along his wife, Edith, and two mediums, Florence Tanner and Benjamin Fischer, the latter being the lone survivor of the last investigation attempt.
The book is much more explicit than predecessors and contemporaries of its genre and it is so in a very unapologetic way that even people today would find offensive. It is infused in sexual themes, some of which are uncomfortable and treated with crudeness and I wouldn’t recommend for the faint of heart or anyone who could feel triggered by such. While I feel a huge disapproval for some of the major grotesque elements of the book, it feels more like a mystery than it does anything else, it is, however, a psychologically terrifying read that will even make the disturbed feel uncomfortable.
2. The Ruins by Scott Smith
Don’t even think about the movie adaptation of this novel when thinking about this book. It doesn’t even come close to grazing the true essence of this piece of literature. In fact, disassociate it from the book.
This one is one that sticks with you days and even weeks after reading. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after putting it down. If you’re one to think you could only really be spooked in the dark or by human beings or supernatural forces, then think again, because this book will leave you chilled to the bones in plain daylight and feeling like mother nature herself is out and hell bent on killing you. It will also, in some sense, leave you questioning yourself.
Four American college students, Amy and boyfriend Jeff, best friend Stacy and boyfriend Eric are enjoying a Mexican vacation at the end of the summer before heading back to school. On an alcohol infused evening they befriend German tourist, Mathias, and a trio of Greek tourists, Pablo among them. While enjoying their last day on the beach, Mathias convinces the four friends and Pablo to accompany him into the Yucatan jungle to find an archaeological site his brother had wandered off to following a girl he’d met. While on their way the group of six ignores many signs, red flags, and even warnings from locals and indigenous people. Upon arriving at the site they find a hill overgrown with vines and beautiful red flowers. They soon find themselves trapped upon this hill of ruins with no escape. More mustn’t be said to not give up any spoilers.
This one is unlike other horror novels, in that you don’t expect what happens to happen and that there is no easy solution or easy answers as to what actions the characters should be taking to lead them to safety. In fact, there’s no easy way to discern what is the right way to act here. Over all, while reading this book you will feel terror, dread, and uncertainty.
This book will not scare you, but horrify you. It will have you questioning what is right and wrong when fighting for survival. Almost the whole book is a battle for survival for these characters, delving into not just their backstories, but psyches as they face psychological stress and physical threat.
3. The Ritual by Adam Nevill
After devouring this one you are sure to probably convince yourself to never go on a wilderness adventure again. This is one you won’t want to put down and will read from start to finish, probably inside, behind locked doors, in the comfort of the most well-lit place of your own home.
Another one with a trip gone awry, this one also revolves around four friends. Here, old university friends reunite in the forests of Scandinavia for a hiking trip in an attempt to reconnect while taking a break from their lives. Tensions rise amongst the group and with one thing leading to another, and one injury, they decide to take a shortcut right out of and straight into hell. They end up lost, hungry and afraid, and this is just the prelude into their nightmare. Upon coming across an abandoned house in the woods they discover old remains, bizarre ancient artifacts for what appear to have been used for pagan rituals and sacrifices (I promise you pagans are not all that creepy, ancient and fiction are the keywords here). They become prey to a presence that is still lurking in the ancient forest.
This book is guaranteed to suck you in, and you may finish reading in only a couple of sittings, although you may be afraid to turn each page in fear that what’s coming may be worse than what has come. Making it clear that death is no easy escape for these characters, and focusing more on the human mind, Nevill truly freaks the reader out. It may be a while until you get out of the city again.
4. Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
If you haven’t already watched the film adaptation on Netflix, which is a superb one, although some changes were made, then hold off until you have read the book. You will not regret doing so. If you have, this one is still very much worth the read. This stands out as one of the biggest mind fucks of time.
It is hard to describe the premise of the novel without giving too much away. It can be said that what starts out as fun and games for husband and wife turns into a psychologically and physiologically excruciating experience when Gerald dies of a heart attack and Jessie is left handcuffed to the bed inside their secluded cabin in Maine, unable to free herself. Jessie undergoes extreme psychological stress and must face not only the presence that lurks in the dark and in the shadows and at the edge of the bed, but the past and trauma she has buried so deep, all the while having arms spread wide and hands cuffed to the bed, slowly losing feeling and circulation…
5. The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror by Joyce Carol Oates
From the prolific and renowned gothic queen, Joyce Carol Oates, comes this collection of six chilling stories that will haunt you. No one does dark and explores those darker fascinating impulses of our nature like Oates. In this book she invites you to connect with these characters’ experiences, even empathize with them, sometimes before becoming repulsed.
i. In “The Doll-Master” a boy steals his cousin’s doll soon after her passing, and the older he gets, the more dolls he collects and the more he bonds with them rather than with friends and family. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with little boys playing with dolls, believe me when I tell you, there’s absolutely something wrong with this one, and you start to grasp the dolls’ underlying sinister significance.
“You can look into a doll’s eyes without fear of the doll seeing into your soul in a way hostile to you but you can’t be so careless looking at anyone else.”
ii. “Soldier” is a disturbing story that brings you inside the head of a man you would never would have wanted to be in.
iii. “Gun Accident: An Investigation” centers around a woman with a traumatic experience as teenager when she spent a night house-sitting for her favorite teacher and was soon preyed upon and assaulted by an intruder and then left for dead.
iv. “Equatorial”: paranoid wife or is her husband really out for her blood while on vacation in the Galapagos? Survival of the fittest?
v. “Big Momma” is compelling horror story about a lonely young girl new to a town and finding a friend in a classmate with a big secret. As there continue to be disappearances in town, she soon becomes embraced by her new friend’s family and almost seduced by their warmth and acceptance.
vi. “Mystery, Inc.” takes place in a rural bookstore and follows the conversations between two book lovers who both have a surprise for the one another. One gets a taste of his own medicine, it’s a real surprise.
6. Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
Into The Darkest Corner is different from the other books on this list in that it doesn’t really scare you with horror, or grotesque elements, or supernatural forces, or bestial presences. This one is terrifying in that it is all too real, too common, and in that it can happen to anyone.
Catherine meets Lee, girl meets boy, they fall in love, she can’t believe her good fortune to have found him because he is made of dreams until he isn’t, until he transforms into stuff of nightmares. Four years later Lee is behind bars and Catherine now goes by Cathy and has severe OCD among other residual trauma left behind by Lee. Her phone rings one day. Lee has been released from prison. Her fears and her anxiety skyrocket. Is it her paranoia, or is someone watching her? Has Lee found her after her exhausting efforts to restart her life and remain untraceable?
I was on the edge of my seat the whole time I read this dark psychological thriller. I literally found myself sometimes grasping on to said edge, feeling the same anxiety and fear the main character felt. It’s a real page turner offering alternating past and present narratives. The only word that comes to mind when seeing the girl Catherine was to the girl she became is unsettling, I would say it even made me feel deeply disturbed how much of who she was became stripped away and became almost non-existent. Her body may have recovered, but she never did, and she wakes up every day since his release wondering if he has found her, and honestly, as I was reading, so did I.
7. Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Don’t let the beginning fool you, it may seem amusing or comical at first, but things go dark real quick. Believe it when you hear that this book is one creepy, make-your-hair-stand-on-the-back-of-your-neck, kind of book.
Old Spring has been quarantined by the elders of the town and so far has survived a 300 year old curse without spreading it. It is haunted by a seventeenth century woman, The Black Rock Witch, who wanders around town, in the woods and into people’s homes, with her eyes and mouth sewn shut, at will. Once you’re a resident of this town, you can’t leave. Ever. Trouble comes when a group of teenagers test the boundaries of not just the town, but also the witch herself.
You may find yourself thinking of that witch when entering a dark room or turning a corner.