The 15 scariest books of all time to terrify you this Halloween

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Sarah Shaffi
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Like a good scare? Look no further than these 15 books for your next thrill.

TV and film might seem like the obvious places to go if you want to be scared, but there’s something delicious about reading a horror novel that has no equal.

While on-screen stories can shock you with bloody gore and creepy shadows, when you’re reading it’s your interpretation of the words that determine how scared you get - and this can be even more powerful.

The best horror novels feature more than just horrifying situations or characters; they also say something scary about the world we live in, or the type of people we fear being.

Whether you like reading horror with all the lights turned on and surrounded by people, or in a more gothic setting on your own, these 15 novels will have shivers running down your spine.

Happy Halloween!

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 

Written when Shelley was just 19 years old, this tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, who is so obsessed with creating life that he plunders graveyards for body parts which he puts together and shocks into being using electricity. The resulting creature is rejected by Frankenstein, so seeks to destroy his maker and all he holds dear. The ultimate classic Gothic novel, Frankenstein’s exploration of how far humans will go to hold on to life adds another layer of horror.

£5.99, Waterstones

Carrie by Stephen King

Let’s be honest, almost every novel King has written could have made this list, but it’s his debut that’s sneaked in. Teenage outcast Carrie White has the gift of telekinesis. Being invited to prom by Tommy Ross is a dream come true and her first step towards social acceptance, but when events take a macabre turn she is forced to use her terrible gift on a town and classmates that loathe her. There are few things scarier in life than teenage girls, apart from maybe a teenage girl bent on revenge.

£8.99, Foyles

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

Ok, this isn’t a horror story or a ghostly tale, but Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future is downright terrifying, especially if you’re a woman. Handmaiden Offred lives in the Republic of Gilead, where her only function is as a handmaid - a woman who bears children for wealthy couples. If she refuses, she will be hanged or sent to die slowly of radiation sickness. It might be science fiction, but The Handmaid’s Tale’s treatment of women sometimes hits so close to home that it’s scarier than anything in your nightmares.

£6.99, Waterstones     

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell 

Pregnant and newly widowed, Elsie is sent to her late husband’s crumbling country estate, where the servants are resentful and the villagers are hostile. Seeking answers, Elsie finds a locked room in which she discovers Silent Companions - life-size painted, wooden figures. As Elsie is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the house, the Silent Companions become more and more sinister. This creepy tale will make you wonder why people ever thought they were a good idea.

£7.99, Foyles

Dracula by Bram Stoker 

Vampires are so commonplace in pop culture that they barely evoke a shudder nowadays, especially after a certain family of glittery vamps shot to fame. But Stoker’s Dracula can still instil fear. Dracula is an ancient vampire, and this story begins when Jonathan Harker visits him in Transylvania to help him purchase a London house. This battle of good versus evil asks questions about identity, sanity, sexuality and desire, and features some of the most chilling scenes in horror fiction. Move aside, Edward. 

£4.99, Waterstones

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 

In this feminist short story a nameless woman, diagnosed by her doctor husband with “hysterical tendency”, is locked in a room after giving birth. With only the patterned yellow wallpaper to distract her, she is slowly driven to the brink of insanity. This tale of a toxic patriarchy will chill you with how relevant it feels today.

£6.99, Foyles

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson 

It’s now been turned into a major Netflix series, but it’s worth reading Jackson’s original novel, as she’s a master at slow-burning psychological horror (if you have time, also check out We Have Always Lived in the Castle). In this novel, four people arrive at Hill House; an occult scholar looking for evidence of psychic phenomena; his assistant; the man due to inherit the estate; and a fragile young woman with a dark past. But of course, the house is not just an ordinary, or even slightly creepy, house, and it is preparing to make one of them its own. 

£6.99, Waterstones

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James 

A governess starts work at a country house looking after two young children, Miles and Flora. Unsettled by the house, she soon comes to believe that there is something dark stalking the children in her care. Could it be a ghost? Or something else? The whole book is unsettling, but it’s the ambiguous ending that is the most terrifying thing about this novella.

£5.99, Foyles

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill 

Junior solicitor Arthur Kipps is summoned to attend the funeral of Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House. Initially he is unaware of the secrets that the house holds, until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral. A sense of unease begins to take hold, which only deepens when he discovers the reluctance of locals to talk to the woman in black, and her terrible purpose. This classic ghost story unwinds slowly, and the dread builds more with each new revelation until its shocking conclusion.

£6.99, Waterstones

Coraline by Neil Gaiman 

Coraline begins to suspect there’s something strange about her new home. It’s not the house she’s in that scares her, but the other house, the one accessed through an old door in the drawing. There, another mother and father with button eyes and paper skin are waiting for Coraline, and want her to stay with them forever. Anyone who says children’s books aren’t scary will change their minds after reading Coraline.

£6.99, Foyles

Ring by Koji Suzuki, translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley

Asakawa is a workaholic journalist who doesn’t take much notice when his 17-year-old niece dies suddenly, until a chance conversation reveals that another healthy teenager died at exactly the same time, in chillingly similar circumstances. Asakawa begins to investigate and soon discovers more deaths, linking them to a log cabin at a leisure resort. There he finds a videotape with a message that reads: “Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now.” The hunt for the cause of death puts Asakawa on the trail of an apocalytpic power that will force him to choose between saving his family and saving civilisation. Japanese and American film adaptations exist, but now it’s time to read the book.

£6.99, Waterstones

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes 

Detective Gabi Versado is no stranger to hunting down killers. Failed artist Clayton Broom has found new dreams, dreams made of flesh and bone. Set in Detroit and switching between various characters, this serial killer thriller shows that horror can be literary without compromising on scariness.

£7.99, Foyles

Zone One by Colson Whitehead 

A pandemic has devastated the planet, sorting humanity into the living and the living dead. Armed Forces have reclaimed the island of Manhattan south of Canal Street - Zone One - where civilian volunteers clear out the remaining infected. Over three days Mark Spitz, one of those volunteers, undertakes the mundane mission of malfunctioning zombie removal while undergoing the rigours of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder and attempting to come to terms with a fallen world. But that’s when things really start going wrong. Whitehead, well known for the historical novel The Underground Railroad, will surprise you with this zombie tale.

£8.99, Waterstones

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware 

Ware’s debut novel is the story of a hen do gone wrong. Nora hasn’t seen Clare for 10 years, so it’s odd when she’s invited to her former friend’s hen do at a remote cottage in the woods. Initially a chance to get their friendship back on track, the weekend soon takes a very wrong turn. No matter how horrifying the hen dos you’re subjected to in real life are, at least you can say it wasn’t as bad as the one in this novel.

£7.99, Foyles

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado 

In this short story collection, Machado focuses in on women’s lives and the violence visited on women’s bodies. Although not all the stories within are strictly horror, they all feature elements and scenarios - from a husband asking if his wife can have an “extra stitch” as she is sewn up after labour to the unwanted house-guest a woman gets after surgery-induced weight loss - that are unsettling and scary.

£12.99, Waterstones

Images: Courtesy of publishers


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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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