I’ve been steeped in the horror genre for most of my life. I read my dad’s mass-market paperbacks in middle school. I watched my first R-rated horror movie (Sleepwalkers) at the age of 13. I enjoyed watching B-horror movies with my friends in high school and, a decade later, as part of a courtship with the man who would eventually become my spouse. At the age of 43, my love of horror has only grown.
What I’m saying is that it takes a lot for a horror book to keep me up at night, anxiety simmering, hair on my arms standing at attention, every creak of the house and every shifting shadow at the edge of my vision setting off alarm bells in my head.
But sometimes it happens.
For me, at least, there’s a pattern for which books do this best. I’ve written in the past about how some of the best horror shows how easy it is to become the thing we hate. It shows that we, in fact, are the monsters.
In keeping with this, the horror titles that most make my skin crawl are those that shine a light on the darkest depths that exist within the spectrum of humanity. Selfishness runs rampant. The worst urges acted upon. Hate made manifest.
The list below spotlights the books that, for me, have done this most effectively. These books have lingered in my brain space long after I’ve finished reading them and have left me with an uneasy feeling deep in my gut.
Wytches by Scott Snyder, Jock, Matt Hollingsworth, and Clem Robins
Wytches is the first horror comic I ever came across (it arrived in my life via a Book Riot box), and, at first, I dismissed it because I didn’t read comics. Well, hell, that was a close call because this series — with its creepy AF artwork and storyline — is a stunner. In this six-issue limited series, collected into a single volume, a family moves to a small town in search of a fresh start, only to stumble upon a local practice where community members sacrifice people in their lives to strange beings in the woods in order to receive a boon. The twist near the end will feel like the deepest betrayal, an act of selfishness so terrible that it will come to haunt you.
Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, Jose Villarrubia, and Jeff Powell
Another limited comic series, Infidel is about an American Muslim woman haunted by evil entities that seem to feed off xenophobia. I mentioned hate made manifest in my intro above. This story is a perfect illustration of that, and the amazing artwork and coloring only add to the unnerving atmosphere. The first panel in which we see one of the entities crouched over the main protagonist as she tries to sleep? The most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. The horror only builds from there.
Bridge by Lauren Beukes
In this sci-fi/horror novel, the 24-year-old protagonist grapples with the death of her mother, a neuroscientist obsessed with the possibility of traveling to parallel worlds. When Bridge realizes her mother was onto something, she begins to suspect that the woman who died wasn’t her mother and that her actual mother might be trapped in another dimension. What she finds, however, is heartbreaking disappointment. Pick up this one to discover the lengths people will go to in order to attain a better life.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
I’ve mentioned this book previously in a list of dystopian tales that are way too real. A friend actually asked me to read it and report back because she was too scared to finish it herself. After finishing this doorstopper of a book, I don’t blame her. In Wendig’s book, a group of people begins sleepwalking, converging on their way to what seems to be a shared destination. Despite the attempts of those who love them, they can’t be awakened, and they can’t be stopped. The phenomenon is unexplainable, and the uncertainty it engenders in folks across the country soon breeds suspicion, fear, and violence in ways that have awful parallels to society today. But that’s not the worst of it. While the sleepwalkers do their thing, a virus also begins to spread, eventually becoming a full-blown epidemic. Society begins to collapse. And then, in the end, things reveal themselves to be even worse. My god, it’s like Wendig took all our modern-day fears, put them in a bottle, shook it all up, and splashed it across the page.
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and Dani
I’ll read anything Machado writes. Her writing voice is simply gorgeous, and she does creepy and twisted just how I like it. But I was still shocked by how dark and upsetting this limited comic series became. At the beginning of The Low, Low Woods, we’re introduced to two friends and their hometown of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania, a former mining town where strange and unexplainable occurrences go unexplored. But the creatures they sometimes stumble upon aren’t the scariest things in town. When El and Octavia wake up in their local movie theater with no memory of the past two hours, El wants to know more, while Octavia wants to forget it ever happened. This push and pull is at the heart of what’s wrong in their small Pennsylvania town, and the thought of the eventual reveal still sickens me. (Content warnings for sexual assault and gaslighting.)
The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
You’ll have to wait until the very end of October for this one, but I want to mention it here anyway. In this supernatural social horror, the young protagonist is sent to a segregated reform school after he kicks a white boy in the leg. Once there, he learns that while the rumors of ghosts are true, they’re not the scariest things on the school grounds. The author’s treatment of these corporeal horrors is unflinching. Due’s latest novel is inspired by the real-life tale of her great-uncle, who was sent to the same reform school fictionalized in Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, and who never came home. On her blog, Due writes that, “The Reformatory is a ghost story, but the monsters are human. History is the monster.”
My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir
Momplaisir’s debut novel is billed as a literary thriller but also has shades of fabulism, mystery, and full-on horror. At first glance, it’s about a Haitian immigrant and the home he’s built for himself and his family in America, as well as for the other immigrants in his community. But it’s also about the house that observes his every move, passing endless judgment until the protagonist’s darkest secrets are fully revealed. Spoiler alert: The monster in this story is not the sentient house. And the monstrous secrets the house has been keeping will stay with you, leaving you disgusted and disturbed. (Content warnings for sexual violence, child abuse, and predation.)
House Woman by Adorah Nworah
This book is billed as a psychological thriller, but it certainly reads as horror to me. The level of sustained disgust I felt while reading it still lives rent-free in my body. In this novel, Ikemefuna, a Nigerian woman, reluctantly agrees to an arranged marriage and flies to Texas to move in with her in-laws, who are controlling as hell. Her husband-to-be isn’t any better, and I was constantly sickened by his internal dialogue as he evaluated her fitness as his future bride. As Ikemefuna’s in-laws’ behavior becomes increasingly unbearable, their son gaslights our protagonist at every turn, in some cases treating her complaints with indifference. Unfortunately, there are no happy endings here. (Content warning: forced pregnancy.)
The books above bring all the ick. For other types of scares, check out some of our most recent horror posts, including this list of horror novels set in the woods and this quiz that will rec a book based on your deepest fears.