The scary parts of horror can come from a lot of different places in the narrative. There’s the classic monster lurking in the woods or in the attic or under the surface of the water — think King’s classic It, or Seanan McGuire’s Into the Drowning Deep, or Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. These are the ones with the fangs and the claws and the appetites for murder.
Then, there’s the setting-based horror. The “oh no, we’ve been isolated in a remote cabin/wintering hotel/insert other remote location here.” Think King’s The Shining or the movie The Thing. Sure, there are other factors at play here, but the isolation is where a lot of the tension and scares come from. This is also where the haunted houses come into play! Hill House, Hell House, and the House Next Door all fit.
There’s the body horror, paranormal horror, gothic horror, the psychological horror, too: horror that plays on identity or the boundaries of a body or a change of perspective that reveals we’ve been living a cruel lie our whole lives.
And then there’s my favorite, the unreliable narrators of horror that play on the trust of the reader to send chills down their spine. An unreliable narrator book, whether it be witting or unwitting, usually has a moment where it becomes clear they’ve been lying to the reader. That they aren’t actually a victim after all, or the horror isn’t coming from outside at all. The world doesn’t operate the way they say it does and, in the space between their narrative and the doubt, the scariness rushes in.
If you like this sort of mental puzzle scare, pick up these eight horror novels with unreliable narrators.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance live in their family’s home with their Uncle Julian. The rest of their family died during after eating a poisoned dinner, turning the rest of the town against the girls for suspected murder. When cousin Charles shows up, poking around for the family estate, Merricat’s refuge in her big, beautiful house is threatened and she’ll do anything to keep things how they are.
My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura, Translated by J. Sam Bett
A man sits in an isolated mountain lodge where he finds a manuscript on the table and a white suitcase in the corner. The manuscript warns against reading, but he persists, in exploration of what identity means. What emerges is a revenge plot full of violence and layers on layers of confusion.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Roderick Macrae was a 17-year-old Scottish kid in 1869 who murdered his neighbor and two others. Almost 200 years later, a historian unearths a memoir in Macrae’s own hand. But when psychologists and legal experts dig into the why of his gruesome acts, his account of what happened might not be so trustworthy after all.
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
After Dee’s sister goes missing as a young girl, she dedicates her life to finding out what happened. Her investigation brings her to Ted. Ted lives in a run-down house with his cat, Olivia, and his daughter, Lauren. He spends his days shut in, only leaving to see his psychiatrist or to drink at the local bar. Dee and Ted’s lives crash into each other when she moves into the house next door to find some evidence he was involved in her sister’s disappearance all those years ago.
Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones
To show the snooty manager at the local theater, Sawyer and his friends stage a mannequin as a movie-watcher in what they think is a hilarious prank. The mannequin, though, doesn’t seem to stay inanimate, and Sawyer is the only one strong enough to save his friends and their families.
The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn
The town of Deer Valley has an eerie past with missing animals and a boy found dead. Stevie Clark, an outcast at school and under the watch of an abusive stepfather, has only one bright spot: Jude. But then Jude goes missing and as the days pass, Stevie becomes more and more desperate to find him. But what he finds might not be the boy he once knew.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
Jake is taking his girlfriend home to meet his parents for the first time, the couple road tripping to the rural farm where he grew up. But the girlfriend is thinking of ending things. Philosophical discussions, an impending snowstorm, and an odd parental dynamic all bring tensions to a rise as the couple head back, but stops for ice cream and at Jake’s childhood school interrupt their route home.
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
After Pepper gets into trouble with three undercover policemen, he finds himself in New Hyde Hospital’s psychiatric ward for a 72-hour hold. As he gets his bearings in his temporary home, a creature comes to visit him in the night. Convinced it’s the devil, Pepper rallies the other patients to end the monster that’s after their lives.
Are you in the mood for more unreliable narrators? Check out this list of 50-must read books with unreliable narrators or this discussion of what exactly makes a narrator reliable after all.