Putting together a list of horror books for beginners is quite a daunting task. The horror label collides with many others: thrillers, mysteries, speculative fiction, the list goes on. Anything can skew horror. It’s not exactly a contained genre. But, that’s what makes it so exciting!
I was a scaredy cat as a kid. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland had me convinced I was going to die and the scene in The Goonies when they put Chunk’s hand in the blender still has me scarred to this day. I thought horror, then, wasn’t for me and, as such, I avoided that descriptor like the plague.
Over the years, my friends dragged me to a few horror movies that I wasn’t a fan of (Paranormal Activity, Dead Silence, and The Skeleton Key) so I was firmly convinced I was right. I did not like horror.
But, then, I watched It Follows and Coherence and Hush and I liked them. A lot. I started exploring the horror genre more, finding the subsets that worked for me. I wasn’t into the slashers or the paranormal-y ones, but I liked the murder-y/house invasions, the science fiction-y off-kilter scares, the weird I-don’t-know-what’s-going-on ones. That’s the thing about horror: you have to find what works for you.
So, I’ve compiled a few horror books for beginners in different sub-genres for you to try out. If you try one and it doesn’t vibe with you, try something different. Just because you don’t like one type of horror doesn’t mean you won’t like another. There are scares out there for everyone if you stick with it long enough. None of these should be freezer-books scary (try these if that’s what you’re after), so you can dip your toe into the genre and see if it leaves you wanting more.
I bet your Sophomore English teacher didn’t tell you the horror genre was alive and well back in the day. If you like reading the Jane Austens and the Mary Shelleys, try these to get you started!
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is a staple in the horror genre, so you really can’t go wrong with any of her books and short stories (some of you might have read “The Lottery” in English class). Her novel The Haunting of Hill House is another great starter, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle wins out in my mind because it’s strange and unsettling and absolutely beautifully written. It’s got small-town creepiness, poisonings, arson, oh my! (If you want more ghosty scares, do try The Haunting of Hill House too!)
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I’m sure you already know what this is about, which is exactly why it’s great for a beginner wanting to get into horror. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is cited as the birth place for the archetype of not only vampires, but also vampire hunters too. This epistolary novel is an essential to understanding how modern-day horror was born and a great place to start if you want to see how it has developed since then. Through letters and newspaper articles, the story of Dracula unfurls, “excessively frightening” for 1900s readers and those today.
Thrillers are still a large sub-category, but if you’re looking for serial-killer, house-invasion, murder-without-too-much-gore, try one of these!
Misery by Stephen King
Okay, I know, you can’t google horror without being plagued with Stephen King’s name. This is an obvious choice, but for good reason! It’s good! It’s scary! It’s trapped-in-one-room-with-a-homicidal-fan frightening. It’s one of King’s best (and isn’t dauntingly long like some of his more recent titles) making it a great place to begin. Annie Wilkes is a name you’re sure to remember.
The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup
This procedural is Sveistrup’s debut novel (you might be familiar with his work if you’ve seen The Killing), but it’s excellent for making your heart race because of the actions of one man! The Chestnut Man, dubbed so because he leaves a chestnut and two sticks at each crime scene of his victims — all mothers — as a calling card, is horrifying and so very human. This isn’t the work of some superhuman, paranormal, other-worldly being. Nope, it’s just a person. Your neighbor or butcher or doctor, perhaps. How terrifying!
In the vein of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, the literary horror genre is rife with slashers. You want gore and blood? You got it!
Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare
This young adult horror novel is a revival of the ’80s slasher movies in book form. A new-to-town teen, Quinn, and a group of new friends must fight for survival when the town’s mascot, a clown called Frendo, turns murderous. Small town tensions come to a head when dozens of Frendos start throwing stabs. And shooting arrows. And using chainsaws. It’s fun! It’s scary! And it’s so, so bloody!
The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
Another ode to teen slasher films, this Halloween-esque exploration of the final girl trope is a delight, full of horror film references, homecoming queens, and killers wearing masks. The novel is written with scene jumps to mirror that of a film which makes it all the more fun. Full of ’80s slasher tropes with a sprinkle of satire layered on top, The Last Final Girl is a must for those with a taste for blood.
This is, in my opinion, where horror shines. The weird, off-kilter, and unexplainable. The I-have-no-idea-what-just-happened-but-I-loved-it. The atmospheric and odd, often with no satisfying ending so the story festers and festers in your head.
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi
Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is an excellent introduction to her weird and haunting style and her comic, The Low, Low Woods is no different. Set in Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania, a town rife with a strange illness consuming people’s memories, the comic follows El and Vee as they investigate what, exactly, is happening to their people. DaNi’s illustrations are rich and horrifying as the pair delve into the strangeness of their world.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
Once you get into the horror genre, Reid’s name is one that is thrown around a lot. His debut, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a great place to start if you want to leave a book equally wowed and confused. Jake and his unnamed girlfriend (the narrator) embark on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. Full of long philosophical conversations, glitching parents, an odd Dairy Queen encounter, and a late-night high school stop, this novel will leave you with more questions than you started with. But, you’ll be thinking of the story for years after.
Werewolves, vampires, and ghosts! Here are a few paranormal horror books for beginners if that’s your taste.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
You want a fun, different vampire story set in Mexico City? You got it! This is violent, rough, and body-filled as Domingo, a street kid, crosses paths with Atl, a blood drinker. The vampires in this are unique and terrifying and the story is rich with crime bosses, vampire gangs, and action. The setting is rich, the characters corrupt, and the story is riveting.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Yes, this is another Stephen Graham Jones book, but he’s just so good! Mongrels is a werewolf novel like you’ve never read before. This coming-of-age novel follows a young man growing up in a family of werewolves on the outskirts of modern day society. It’s bloody and grisly, yes, but what really won me over is how full of heart it is. And the details! The details are so clever and grounding, making it believable that this pack would exist in reality.
I Remember You: A Ghost Story by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Translated by Philip Roughton
Of course, I had to throw in a ghost story here too. I Remember You: A Ghost Story is a story told in two parallels. The first: a group of friends renovating a house in a remote area. The second: a doctor whose son vanished investigating the death of a woman. As the two paths intersect, one thing becomes clear. The house is not as abandoned as the friends previously thought.
I hope at least one of these horror books for beginners gave you the goosebumps you’re craving! Did one of these leave you wanting more? Try these 2020 releases, these folk horror novels, or these small town terrors.