I have tried to list only scary and spooky books, and not ones that are disturbing/creepy or disgusting without being scary, although on some levels the disturbing books are truly more horrifying than the merely scary ones. For example, I found The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks deeply disturbing, but it didn’t scare me one bit. This leads me to think I will have to list my top 10 most disturbing books at some later date.
Since I am already working on a list of short stories to recommend for Halloween reading, I decided not to feature short stories or story collections here, although it was tempting to put Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories on the list. You will, however, find three novellas on the list, all of which are sometimes featured in short story collections.
For the disgusting and visceral to be scary to me it also needs a psychological element, and while there are some pretty horrible scenes in some of the books below, I chose them for the psychological factors, the authors’ ability to awaken the creeping expectation that something horrible is about to happen and the ability to keep the readers on their toes, not only until the horror happens, but even beyond that.
In approximately the order I first read them:
- Psycho by Robert Bloch. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological – murder and madness. In retrospect it probably isn’t all that bad, but I was about 12 when I read it and suffering from very bad nyctophbia and nightmares, and this one caused me several sleepless nights, especially since I knew it to be based on a real murderer.
- The Omen by David Seltzer. Type of scary/spooky: Religious – the Anti-Christ.Wonderfully chilling and spooky atmosphere.
- The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Type of scary/spooky: Religious – demonic possession. This is the last book that ever gave me nightmares. I was 17 when I read it, and although I was rid of the nyctophobia by then, it still made me afraid to fall asleep.
- Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological – serial killers. I found it scary in a way that I didn’t feel about The Silence of the Lambs. The atmosphere it captures is so very tense and oppressive and the crimes truly horrific.
- The Shining by Stephen King. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological and/or ghosts. Cabin fever in an isolated, creepy, big building during the winter.
- The Wendigo by Algernon Blacwood. Type of scary/spooky: Folk tale monster. Suffused with a deep sense of menace.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Type of scary/spooky: Supernatural/monsters. It’s like a childhood nightmare come true – the one where something horrible is chasing you.
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Type of scary/spooky: Psychological and/or ghosts. Scary and disturbing, and you can never be sure whether it’s a matter of ghosts or madness (or both).
- The Willows by Algernon Blackwood. Type of scary/spooky: Threatening supernatural forces/malevolent natural forces. Truly, deeply scary. Nature has never seemed so threatening.
- The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill. Type of scary/spooky: Ghosts. About a malevolent and vengeful ghost.