Making a list of the top horror books on Goodreads is a tricky proposition. What makes a horror novel scary varies from reader to reader. For example, some people love psychological horror, but others don’t understand what’s so terrifying about it. But more than that, what defines a “top book” on Goodreads isn’t easily pinned down.
Keeping this in mind, I set out to compile a list of the highest rated horror novels by following Rioter Tasha’s example, I looked at average ratings and the number of ratings. A perfect 5.0 average rating doesn’t mean much if it’s from only five people. I made sure to look at different sub-genres and formats. I picked one book per author to prevent certain writers from overtaking this list. If the book is part of a series, I tried to include the first novel even if the second installment is the higher rated book. (A very common phenomenon in the horror genre, it turns out!) It’s not scientific. Even with the focus on numbers, it’s still pretty subjective.
So, without further ado, here are the top horror books according to Goodreads. All ratings are current as of May 2019.
The Top Horror Novel
The Green Mile by Stephen King
(4.44 avg rating; 219,773 ratings)
I’m not surprised a Stephen King book is the top horror book on Goodreads. I am surprised it’s The Green Mile. I was expecting The Shining or It. Stephen King is the main reason I instituted the “only one book per author” rule for this post. We could easily make a Top Horror Books By Stephen King on Goodreads list.
Classic & Gothic Horror
We don’t see as much gothic horror published today, but I wanted to include it because it plays such an important role in the horror tradition.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
(4.11 avg rating; 1,434,123 ratings)
What? This is a romance! you might be saying. My response to that is Rochester wanted to marry our heroine while he kept his mentally unstable first wife locked in the attic. If that’s not horrific, I don’t know what is.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
(4.22 avg rating; 385,837 ratings)
Another gothic novel in which a first wife causes havoc for our nameless heroine. The difference here is that the first wife, the titular Rebecca, is dead. But as the novel shows us, the memory of a first wife is enough to cause serious problems.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
(4.02 avg rating; 83,026 ratings)
Like the Stephen King selection, I expected another book by Shirley Jackson to be higher rated (The Haunting of Hill House). We Have Always Lived in the Castle focuses on two sisters and their uncle, who are ostracized by the nearby village after a tragedy befell their family six years before.
Horror Short Stories, Novellas & Collections
I would be remiss to ignore the shorter formats in the horror genre. A lot of the best horror fiction exists as short stories.
The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe
(4.38 avg rating; 194,659 ratings)
What list of top horror books would be complete without the works of Edgar Allan Poe? Judging by the average rating, Goodreads users agree.
The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
(4.11 avg rating; 71,733 ratings)
This work is usually included in short story collections of the author’s work, but I highlighted it here separately. It details the mental strain experienced by a woman when she is forced into bed rest after the birth of her child. Originally published during a time when women deemed “hysterical” were committed into institutions, I think today’s women will still recognize and understand a lot of the narrator’s frustrations.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
(3.91 avg rating; 21,671 ratings)
The stories in Machado’s collection run the gamut, playing with different genres and formats. Throughout them all, however, weaves a horror thread arising from the violence done onto bodies by society.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
(3.91 avg rating; 9,481 ratings)
H.P. Lovecraft, for better or worse, is often cited as a huge influence upon the horror genre. LaValle’s novella tackles the existential horror that pervades so much of Lovecraft’s works without shying away from its blatant racism.
Modern Top Horror books
There are plenty of good horror books in this category. Rather than trying to capture it all, I instead provide a sampling of what Goodreads users rate highly.
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
(4.03 avg rating; 237,314 ratings)
While most people are probably more familiar with The Silence of the Lambs, the memorable Hannibal Lector made his first appearance in this novel.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
(4.04 avg rating; 167,440 ratings)
Like post-apocalyptic novels? Like books about man-made vampires? Want a horror novel that combines the two? Here you go.
The Exorcist by William Blatty
(4.16 avg rating; 156,956 ratings)
Considered by many to be one of the best horror novels written, The Exorcist chronicles the now-classic battle to save a young girl when she is possessed by a demon.
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
(4.02 avg rating; 125,029 ratings)
Remember a time when the urban fantasy sub-genre as we know it today confounded bookstores? I do. When the Anita Blake series first came out, I recall seeing them shelved in the horror section. Like it or not, the Anita Blake novels led to the urban fantasy boom of the 2000s and one thing we shouldn’t forget is that urban fantasy incorporates lots of horror elements.
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
(4.12 avg ratings; 105,656 ratings)
This book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m not going to lie. I loved the way it played with layout, formatting, and typography. It’s difficult to summarize what this book is about in words, but it begins simply. A family moves into a house and discovers something strange: it’s bigger on the inside than it is the outside.
The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
(4.11 avg rating; 95,527 ratings)
Who expected that Anne Rice’s witch books would be better rated than her vampire books? (I’m aware the separation isn’t as clear cut as that since the two crossover eventually.) This novel, the first in a series, introduces us to the dynastic Mayfair family of witches.
The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson
(4.06 avg rating; 92,292 ratings)
The line between horror and thriller can be blurry. In The Butterfly Garden, a terrible man kidnaps women and keeps them in his secret “garden.” That’s not where the story begins though. It starts when the garden is discovered, and a pair of FBI agents try to unravel what happened.
Young Adult Horror
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
(3.95 avg rating; 87,102 ratings)
Tell me if you’ve heard this story before. A boy follows in the family business of dealing with the supernatural. His particular vocation is killing ghosts. So what makes this book different? The latest ghost he’s trying to dispatch is a very vengeful girl named Anna, and her presence makes this book very memorable.
Bad Girls Don’t Die by Katie Alender
(4.05 avg rating; 24,659 ratings)
Protagonist Alexis begins to suspect something is wrong in her house. Her sister begins acting strangely. Doors open by themselves. Water boils on an unlit stove. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a good old-fashioned ghost story to me!
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
(4.16 avg rating; 11,840 ratings)
Like historical fiction? Wish it were more action-packed? Are zombies your favorite zombie monster? Then, you’ll want to read this book in which teen girls are trained to be zombie hunters during the Reconstruction era.
Want to read more YA horror books? Check out this list.
Top Horror Books in Translation
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
(4.07 avg ratings; 77,785 ratings)
Readers have likely heard of this novel via the film adaptation. In a nutshell, it’s about a young boy who befriends the girl who just moved in next door. Except the girl has a very big secret. Word of warning: If you’ve only watched the film, be aware it prettified some aspects of the book.
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
(4.25 avg rating; 46,998 ratings)
Battle Royale shocked the Japanese public when it was first published. Unlike today’s post–Hunger Games world, readers were not prepared for the unflinching depiction of middle school students killing each other. And before you ask, yes, Battle Royale was published almost ten years before The Hunger Games.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
(3.93 avg rating; 19,914 ratings)
This novel asks the question: what happens when society pushes women to their limits? And what kind of bonds do they form with each other to survive? If you’ve read this book and want to check out more Japanese horror, here’s a list.
Top Horror Manga
Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida
(4.42 avg rating; 68,029 ratings)
I did not expect Tokyo Ghoul to be the highest rated horror manga on Goodreads, but maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. It features so many horror sub-genres: psychological horror, body horror, and action horror. The story kicks off when, after a date goes horribly awry, a young man wakes up to find himself transformed in a half-ghoul.
Hellsing by Kohta Hirano
(4.26 avg rating; 26,173 ratings)
Hellsing features the kind of premise that can only exist in manga. A secret organization defends England from supernatural attack, and one of their greatest assets is an ancient and powerful vampire named Alucard. And on a side note that may be of interest: they fight Nazis. Because they’re behind the supernatural attacks.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
(4.31 avg rating; 11,987 ratings)
Junji Ito is a horror manga master, and Uzumaki captures his strengths as an artist and a storyteller. It takes place in a town cursed by spirals. You may not think spirals are disturbing, but this manga may change your mind.
Looking for more horror manga? We have a list for that.
Top Horror Nonfiction
The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy by Ann Rule
(4.14 avg rating; 55,089 ratings)
I confess I don’t fully understand the fascination with Ted Bundy, and I say this as someone who listens to a lot of true crime podcasts. And I mean a lot. But this book presents an interesting angle. The author, Ann Rule, was tracking a story about a serial killer. The twist? She didn’t realize one of her closest friends was the murderer himself.