The scariest writing for me is not the bloodspattery, gore-filled prose. It is not even the kind that keeps me up at night, wondering if a killer is lurking in the shadows. The scariest writing, to me, is the kind that incepts those intrusive thoughts, the macabre punchlines that dawn when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store and see something that reminds me of the narrative–the kind that shocks me mentally. Bottomline: I like psychological horror books.
There’s a fine line between psychological thriller and psychological horror books, though. Psychological horror books are not mysteries; they’re not whodunnits. They inspire fear through suggestion, paranoia, and implication, rather than through violence, pursuit, or even gore itself. Below are the 25 most terrifying psychological horror books that I could find.
1. Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
This book is a collection of short stories, but it’s tied together by an over-arching narrative. Writers are accepted into a retreat where their ties to the world are completely severed. Once there, each of them tries to curate a survival experience, unaware that all the others are, too. Haunted is one of the most terrifying psychological books because–due to the nature of the narrative–each character brings a new, fresh hellscape.
2. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal al-Sadawi
This short novel reads like an interview, but it details the account of a woman who waits on death row in Cairo. The scariest part is not that she is a murderer, but all of the terrible, misogynist, violent things that she withstood before she became a killer, and the hope that she has lost, or never had.
3. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Ira Levin said that Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby was exactly how he pictured it in his mind, so if you sometimes think, when you see tabloids about celebrity births in the checkout line, “He has his father’s eyes,” you might want to check out this terrifying psychological horror novel.
4. Let Me In by JOHN AJVIDE LINDQUIST
Some may argue that because Let Me In is a vampire novel, it doesn’t count among psychological horror novels, but I disagree. The vampirism in this book is its least horrifying aspect. Instead, think of Oskar, the child who fantasizes about murdering his bullies. The fact that Eli is a child vampire. The concept that the person she has enlisted to hunt for her is a pedophile, dramatically in love with her. And horrors abound even from there–this is seriously just the top of the list.
5. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
If Silence of the Lambs is not on your list of scariest psychological horror books, I really don’t know what to tell you. Not only is Hannibal Lecter a licensed psychiatrist who manipulates his patients into becoming his literal dinner, but Clarice Starling has to mastermind him in order to get his help catching yet another serial murderer. What’s more is that this novel is based on true events about Ed Gein and his victims, and one of the leading criminal profiling FBI investigators, Robert Ressler, was consulted on its writing.
6. Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler
The title of this book comes from the Friedrich Nietschze quote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” So, it’s fitting that this nonfiction novel–yes, that’s right–is about one of the leading criminal profiling investigators in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It might seem like this is Another True Crime Book, but it’s truly set apart by the theme of its title: the abyss does stare back into Ressler, and by extension, it stares back into you.
7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Although billed mostly as a science fiction book, Never Let Me Go cultivates such an air of paranoia and impending doom that it has to be listed as one of the scariest psychological horror books. Imagine being a clone, being told that you’re a replica, that your organs are meant to be harvested for those who actually have souls. And then imagine trying to get yourself out of that involuntary donating. Yeah. I think it counts.
8. Dracula by Bram Stoker
You might think this epistolary book doesn’t evoke the psychological fear, but keep in mind, this novel is Victorian. They couldn’t just come out and SAY anything! All of the sexual violence is implied, and if you aren’t reading closely, you could even miss it. What’s more, the format of its writing allows that paranoia to develop because we can only see facets of the narrative at a time.
9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Again, you might think this classic doesn’t hold up on the psychological horror books list, but it does. Yes, there is violence. But more than that, there is the guilt of blasphemy, in Dr. Frankenstein himself, and how he cannot reconcile it despite his inevitable damnation. And more than that, there is the Creature–who has not asked to exist, but does, and whom everyone hates based on his appearance.
10. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
The cast of characters in Geek Love is a freakshow family. More specifically, a couple schemes to have a family of freaks, and then they begin a freakshow. The psychological manipulation of characters–as well as their physical manipulation of one another–will leave you staring into space, figuring out how it all even happened.
11. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
Our protagonist in Perfume has an extra-sensitive sense of smell, and he has no body odor. His ultimate goal in life is reproduce the body odor of a beautiful girl he accidentally killed, and he spends much of his life not only learning how to curate smell, but killing different women in order to replicate the essence of the original. The craftsmanship of this novel is impeccable, but the scariest part of its writing is how phenomenally successful this book is, because what is its moral? That men should create their art at the expense of everyone else? Gross. And, apparently, everyone is, like, fine with that concept.
12. The Ones that Got Away by Stephen Graham Jones
This terrifying psychological horror novel contains thirteen stories of the uncanny: “these stories carve down into the body of the mind, into our most base fears and certainties, and there’s no anesthetic. Turn the light on if you want, but that just makes for more shadows.”
13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
It’s supposed to be, “The True Account of Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.” We’re supposed to think the “multiple murder” talks about the victims, their innocence. Capote, by the end, actually convinces you that one of the murderers is innocent. That’s the real horror. (I mean, the family’s annihilation is, of course, horrific, but even scarier is the psychological manipulation which a writer as ineffable as Capote can render.)
14. Beloved by Toni Morrison
This book is about slavery. And the psychological terror involved in it. “And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.” If you haven’t read this book yet, you need to do it.
15. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Most people are most familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not only because it won a Pulitzer and is in Oprah’s book club, but because it’s a harrowing psychological horror novel about civilization after the world ends. It is awesome. And so is Outer Dark. It’s set in Appalachia, on a sister who is having her brother’s baby. He leaves it in the woods to die. She tries to find it. They say the Big Three horror topics are death, incest, and cannibalism. Cormac McCarthy hits them all.
16. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
This novel is easily numbers among the scariest psychological horror novels I’ve ever read, despite its being published three hundred years ago. Not only does it discuss the terrors of corrupt religion, but it also deals with a man’s existential crisis, whether he is predestined for heaven, and whether his new friend with the Bible written in red ink has anything to do with his salvation. (Here’s a hint: HE DOES.)
17. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
This book is Southern Gothic at its finest. The Bundren family’s matriarch listens to her coffin being constructed and thinks about her love affair with the devil. When she dies, the father insists on taking her corpse back to Jackson, where she can be buried with her people. Oh, also, one of her sons is telepathic. As I Lay Dying will haunt you for days.
18. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
This collection of stories goes a lot of spooky places–it begins with an adult retelling of The Girl with the Green Ribbon and ends in a totally surreal psychological writers’ retreat. While reading this one, I stopped between stories just to give my mind time to unwind the uncanny feeling that each one developed in a new, uncomfortable way.
19. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
This terrifying psychological horror novel addresses the issue of whether humankind is innately good or evil. It does so with a group of shipwrecked choirboys who try to establish a hierarchy among themselves while surviving on the deserted island. It’s incredible, and even now I have to make jokes about it in order to talk about it.
20. The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror by Joyce Carol Oates
“The Doll-Master and Other Tales is a collection of six psychologically daring stories from Joyce Carol Oates. In the title story, a boy becomes obsessed with his cousin’s doll after she tragically passes away, and as he grows older, he begins to collect “found dolls” from surrounding neighborhoods. But just what kind of dolls are they?”
21. Carrie by Stephen King
This was Stephen King’s first novel, and although it definitely does play on acts of violence, the more psychologically upsetting aspects of the book deal with bullying, oppressive religion, and girls’ coming of age.
22. The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
The copy says, “Padgett’s short stories explore the mystery of human suffering, the agony of personal existence, and the ghastly means by which someone might achieve salvation from both. A bullied child seeks vengeance within a bed’s hollow box spring. A lucid dreamer is haunted by an impossible house. A dummy reveals its own anatomy in 20 simple steps. A stuttering librarian holds the key to a mill town’s unspeakable secrets. A commuter’s worldview is shattered by two words printed on a cardboard sign. An aspiring ventriloquist spends a little too much time looking at himself in a mirror. And a presence speaks through them all.” Yikes.
23. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
You probably know Margaret Atwood most recently from The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place after an infertility plague, and in a dystopian, misogynist state run by religious fundamentalists. Alias Grace is a different kind of psychological horror book. Grace is an Irish immigrant who was convicted of a double murder during the age of Spiritualism. This is her story as told by her. Although this book is a work of fiction, Grace Marks was a real person, and her story–the truthiness of it–will haunt you.
24. The Exorcist by William Blatty
This terrifying psychological horror book is your basic demonic occult narrative, and as terrifying as they come. What most people miss, though, is the inconclusive cliffhanger plot ending. The narrative seems to wrap itself up, to end with conviction. And then you start thinking about it on the laundry detergent aisle.
25. Psycho by Robert Bloch
What list of scary psychological horror novels could be so bold as to not include Robert Bloch’s book Psycho? Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation basically started the Slasher genre! And like many of the books that are the most terrifying on this list, Psycho is also based on true events. It makes you wonder days after reading… what kind of monster?
So what do you think? What psychological horror books didn’t make my list? What psychological horror novels have you standing in the produce aisle unraveling their implications? Let me know in the comments!