Horror novels have been a part of the literate culture for more than two centuries and so the genre has transformed into something humanity can’t live without. It’s impossible to imagine a world where horror novels don’t exist. The following list will look at books that have been entertaining horror fans for decades in addition to some later releases that can also be regarded as classics. The reason why these books have made such an impression is also included in these reviews. Some of them have interesting stories behind their birth so-to-speak, making them a little more special than the typical horror novel.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
What started as a competition between Shelly, her lover and future husband Percy, Lord Byron and John Polidori turned into a creation that truly stood the test of time. The competition was based on who could write the best horror novel and Shelly was 18 (1816) at the time. Occult rumors circulated quite frequently and Shelly drew as much from these as she could.
It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein and his increasing obsession with science and creating life. After witnessing an oak tree getting struck by lightning, Victor is inspired to harness that same power. It’s during his time at the University of Ingolstadt that Victor discovers a secret method for giving life to non-living matter. The death of his mother shortly before going to university only increases his lust for success. Made from decomposing body parts, Victor’s creation stands 8 feet tall. But instead of being proud of himself he is disgusted by the creature and runs away. In turn, his rejection emotionally hurts the monster. A series of murders occur and eventually the monster forces Victor to create a mate for him, although Victor doesn’t follow through on the project because their offspring might plague humanity.
The book was first published anonymously in 1818 and it was considered as one of the first science fiction pieces. However, it’s gothic and romantic nature made it a perfect fit for horror. The Frankenstein castle Shelly used for the story can be seen in Gernsheim, Germany.
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Irish author, Bram Stoker, is the man behind modern vampires. His tale of “Dracula” was inspired by a Romanian leader who was known for his vicious ways. Despite the fact that vampire entities were already well-known by the time the book was published, Stoker’s version gave them an artistic boost and established their presence in horror fiction.
The plot follows a young English solicitor called Jonathan Harker, on his way to Count Dracula. His job is to provide legal support for a real estate transaction arranged by his boss and the Count. Ultimately Harker becomes Dracula’s prisoner and is left to the vampires in the castle while Dracula goes on a quest to expand his power. However, a small group of people led by Van Helsing, a doctor who discovers Dracula’s trail, finally brings his reign of terror to an end.
The book was published in 1897 and strangely enough not many copies were sold. In fact, Stoker died poor. The significance of the book only reached its high status with modern readers.
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
[amzn_product_inline asin=’1499625103′]Henry James is responsible for one of the most controversial novels, especially among academic critics. Published in 1898, “The Turn of the Screw” has been the source of several debates regarding the source of the evil within the pages.
A young governess takes the job of looking after Miles and Flora, orphaned children who become the responsibility of a man who doesn’t care much to raise them. While he lives in London, the governess oversees the children at an estate in Essex. The governess is aided Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and after seeing manifestations of a man and a women Mrs. Grose tells the governess about two former employees who had a relationship. It was also speculated that the man molested Miles. As the manifestations increase the governess deduces that the children also see the ghosts and that they speak to them. The last manifestation leaves Miles dead in her arms.
The debate surrounding the book is mainly based on the ghosts and if they were in fact real. Some believe that the governess induced the death of Miles.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – H. P. Lovecraft
[amzn_product_inline asin=’1906838356′]Lovecraft was inspired to write this short novel after receiving an anecdote from his grandmother about a house in his home town, Providence. He referred to it as the “Halsey House” and it was believed that the house was haunted. The book was published in 1941 after Lovecraft died.
After the son of a prominent Rhode Island family vanishes from his cell in a mental institution the family doctor, Marinus Bicknell Willett, decides to investigate. However, he doesn’t just investigate how Ward went missing, but also why he went mad in the first place. Willett finds that Ward had been searching for the grave of his ancestor, Joseph Curwin, who was believed to be a mass murderer and necromancer. In reality Ward was never in the mental hospital, because he found Curwin’s ashes and resurrected him. This led to Curwin taking over Ward’s persona and getting rid of him. Luckily Willett is able to return Curwin to the ashes he came from.
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
[amzn_product_inline asin=’0143039989′]It is regarded as on the best horror house stories written in the 20th century and it has received critical acclaim from horror greats like Stephen King. It was published in 1959 and Jackson used a great deal of terror and emotion from her complicated characters to put together this book.
A mansion built by Hugh Crain becomes a point of interest for Dr. Montague, a paranormal investigator. After renting the 80 year old mansion for the summer and carefully selecting several guests with peculiar backgrounds to join him, he hopes to find scientific evidence of paranormal activity. Only two of his guests, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, accept the invitation. Their host is the heir of the Hill House, namely Luke Sanderson. The caretakers of the mansion, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, refuse to be around the house during the night and this alone invokes a sense of suspicion. As their stay in the house becomes more terrifying, Eleanor starts to believe that it’s her home. Fearing for her safety and sanity Dr. Montague forces her to leave, but before she could leave the courtyard of the house her car crashes and she dies.
Two feature films have been made based on this story and both were released under the title “The Haunting”. However, the 1999 version is dramatically different from the book and critics didn’t receive it very well. The 1963 version on the other hand stayed true to most of the book and is regarded as a great movie.
Psycho – Robert Bloch
[amzn_product_inline asin=’1590203356′]Bloch based his “Psycho” character on a serial killer called Edward Gein. Gein could only be connected to two murders, but he confessed to killing more. In his barn police found his last victim hanging from the roof and a suit made of human skin. He also said his victims were women who reminded him of his mother.
Norman Bates, a middle aged bachelor, runs a motel with his mother in the town of Fairvale. Their first victim is a woman, Mary, who stole $40 000 from her employer to pay off her boyfriend’s debt. Initially Bates wants to turn his mother into the police, because he wasn’t part of the murder, but decides against it. Their relationship is as twisted as it is evil and she controlled every aspect of his life. Mary’s sister and boyfriend, Lila and Sam team up with private investigator, Milton Arbogast, to find her. When Bates refuses to let Arbogast talk to his mother, Arbogast becomes suspicious. Their investigation reveals that Bates murdered his mother when she took on a new lover out of jealousy and as a result of guilt he took on her persona when the illusion of her presence started to fade. He was locked up after being caught wearing his mother’s clothes and trying to kill Lila.
The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty
[amzn_product_inline asin=’0061007226′]Inspired by a case of possession that Blatty read about during his time as a student, “The Exorcist” has always been somewhat of a phenomenon in literature and on screen. The novel was published in 1971, more than 20 years after the events of the possession occurred.
A young girl, Regan MacNeil, who lives with her mother Chris MacNeil starts to go through strange personality changes. Chris, also a famous actress, blames the strange events on Regan’s difficulty to cope with the divorce of her parents and puts her through various psychological sessions. Rumors that the house they are renting is haunted is shrugged off, but when Regan’s conditions changes for the worst Chris decides to get the help of Father Damien Karras. His request to perform an exorcism is met with doubt and Father Lankester Merrin is asked to take the lead. Unfortunately Father Merrin’s ill health makes him too vulnerable and he dies during the exorcism. Karras then takes it upon himself to finish the job, but sacrifices himself in the process.
The true story which the novel is based on didn’t include a girl. It was a boy who lived in Maryland and he did undergo a real exorcism.
It – Stephen King
[amzn_product_inline asin=’0451169514′]Even though there is no special story behind “It” or even debates surrounding the plot, the book can be perceived as the pinnacle of horror. In the long line of great novels written by King, “It” is probably the most haunting.
The plot plays out in two time frames and the terror is focused on 7 children. For the most part It is portrayed as a clown, but he manifests in various forms throughout. His home is in the sewers and these tunnels serve as his method of travelling. The children manage to contain It in its true form, but not without a series of killings beforehand. They also promise to return if It ever surfaces again. More than 20 years later they are forced to return. Apparently It comes out every 27 years and feeds for a couple of months, then goes back into slumber.
The book was published in 1986 and took the top spot on the best seller list in America that year. For those who didn’t have a phobia for clowns before reading the book, many of them probably developed it. This is how scary the book is.
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
[amzn_product_inline asin=’0375703764′]“House of Leaves” became very popular very quickly, and this is mainly due to the arrangement of the story. There are several narrators, footnotes, references to other books and films, and some pages that only contain a small section of text. Each narrator is given a different font.
The first narrator is Johnny Truant and he is in search of a new apartment. His friend tells him about a place that he can get where a blind elderly man used to live. After moving in, Truant finds an academic manuscript the old man, Zampano, was working on. It surrounded a documentary called “The Navidson Record”. However, Truant is unable to find this documentary or evidence that it ever existed. The rest of the story sees the other narrators coming into play.
It’s the first published book by Danielewski and many readers consider it a love story rather than a horror novel. It was published in 2000.
The Rising – Brian Keene
[amzn_product_inline asin=’1621050920′]The book forms part of a zombie series and was published in 2003. Keene received the “Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel” and the ending of the story raises more questions than answers. What helps the novel to stand out is the way the zombies operate.
A construction worker from West Virginia, Jim Thurmond, is hiding in a bomb shelter that was initially built for a Y2K disaster. He fends of neighbors and even his wife while contemplating whether he should just end his life. Before he can commit suicide he receives a phone call from his son who is living with his ex-wife in New Jersey. In turn he sets out to go and save his son. While Jim is on his journey the story follows a scientist, Baker, who worked on the particle accelerator experiment that seems to have caused the infestation. He managed to trap the leader of the zombies, which is also his best friend, in a room. They are controlled by a dark force and they are able to use logic. Jim meets several characters along the way and they find themselves in plenty of life threatening situations. The last chapter is pretty much a blood bath and readers will find it more complex without explanation, rather than just a happy ending.