Humans are the storytelling animal, and we’ve spent centuries using our powers to scare each other senseless. How novel, then, that what we consider scary varies from person to person. Some people quiver in fear at the mere suggestion of a ghost. For others, it’s the hulking figure with a knife at the ready that makes them queasy. Ask readers what the scariest books of all time are, and I guarantee you’ll get a different answer from every single one.
Horror movies reflect the cultural anxieties of the time and place in which they’re produced, but books are a bit trickier. Because of how publishing timelines work, the brand-new horror novels of today were bought roughly two years before their pub date, and they may have been completed many years before they sold. That’s not to say that horror literature can’t act as a barometer for our fears, however.
It’s no secret that horror novels boomed in popularity over the last half of the 20th century, only to fall off readers’ radars in the late 1990s and ’00s. That dip in popularity lasted until the housing market collapsed in 2008. Shortly thereafter, zombies staggered their way to the top of the entertainment food chain, revivifying the horror genre.
Below, I’ve picked out 50 of the scariest books of all time. These books hail from places across the rich spectrum of terrifying literature produced in the last 150 years or so: sometimes a history book can be scarier than a slasher movie. There’s truly something here to scare the pants off of anyone and everyone. So if you don’t find a particular entry scary, well, thank all the Old Gods and move on to the next one.
50 Scariest Books Of All Time
The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen (1890)
The title novella of this collection follows one man, Clarke, who begins investigating cases of madness and debauchery — all of which seem to have supernatural causes — after he watches a doctor permanently disable a young woman in pursuit of religious fervor. Recording these strange encounters for posterity, Clarke soon finds himself facing a seductress of great power. At once sexy, grotesque, and grim, Arthur Machen’s horror stories remain some of the most influential — and horrifying — today.
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (1895)
An influential precursor to H.P. Lovecraft, The King in Yellow is a loose assemblage of stories centered around the titular, fictional play. Imbued with the power to drive the reader to the brink of madness, the play has been almost universally censored — a fact that makes it all the more enticing to those who seek it out.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
Obviously, no list of the scariest books of all time would be complete without the quintessential dystopian novel. George Orwell’s classic tale of fascist England — now known as Airstrip One — centers on Winston: a propagandist by day and thought-criminal by night. Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a cultural touchstone in the 70-plus years since its release. The fact that it remains relevant today, in our contemporary age of surveillance and militarism, earns it a place on this list.
Night by Elie Wiesel (1956)
Let me preface this by saying that, thanks to a cognate in history and comparative religion, I took whole courses on the Third Reich in college. My professors never shied away from the abject horrors of Nazism. Yet nothing prepared me for some of the scenes in this book. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel draws on his firsthand experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in this brief novel, the first in a trilogy of novels about the impact of the Holocaust.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
When it comes to haunted-house stories, it’s hard to beat this Shirley Jackson classic. The Haunting of Hill House follows a paranormal investigator and his two new assistants into the titular manor house. Accompanied by Hill House’s future owner, they begin a doomed expedition, exploring and documenting their ever-unsettling journey through the residence’s weird architecture. As the central characters confront strange phenomena, they’re left to wonder whether Hill House is truly haunted…or if it’s all in their heads.
Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco (1973)
Set in a magnificent, coastal vacation home in the middle of summer, this novel is the other side of The Shining’s wintry, landlocked coin. The story here centers on the Rolfes: a family of city-dwellers looking for a peaceful summer getaway. What they find, however, is anything but.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson (1976)
Grady Hendrix characterizes The Auctioneer as “if Cormac McCarthy had written Needful Things,” and he’s right on the money. John Moore ekes out a living on his family farm, located on the outskirts of Harlowe: a small New Hampshire town popular with leaf-peepers. The arrival of an out-of-town auctioneer spurs the local police chief to action. Everyone is happy to help out with the policemen’s charity auctions, including John and his wife. The requests for donations grow larger and larger, all to appease the incoming leaf-peepers who patronize the auctions, and Harlowe’s townsfolk are in over their heads before they know it.
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977)
Part true-crime story, part horror novel, and widely believed to be a hoax, The Amityville Horror is unlike any other book on this list. Author Jay Anson and others — including Ed and Lorraine Warren of The Conjuring fame — purported Amityville to be a true account of an American haunting. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this story of one couple’s hellish month inside the site of a grisly sextuple homicide is a horror must-read.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (1979)
Corrine Dollanganger, a mother of four, has just lost her husband in an automobile accident. Now, she’s at risk of losing her home. Left with few options, Corrine turns to her estranged parents — millionaire Malcolm Foxworth and his unnamed wife — for help. But the Foxworth-Dollanganger reunion comes with a list of bizarre stipulations, not the least of which is that Malcolm cannot know that Corrine’s children are living in his home.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980)
What would you do if you found out your close friend was a serial killer? That’s exactly what happened to Ann Rule, who worked at a crisis hotline alongside infamous murderer Ted Bundy in the 1970s. Rule went on to become one of publishing’s most famous true-crime authors, but it’s her first book, which focuses on just how “normal” Bundy seemed, that is the most terrifying.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
It was difficult to pick just one Stephen King book for this list. There’s not even any real consensus among Constant Readers as to what King’s scariest book is. There’s a compelling argument to be made for Pet Sematary on the grounds of its relatability, however. Who among us hasn’t lost a beloved pet or family member and longed to bring them back to life — no matter the cost? Not only do Louis Creed’s commendable attempts at making his family whole again have serious consequences, but the ending of his story is chilling…and almost visceral.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
16-year-old Frank Cauldhame killed three other children when he was very young. Don’t worry, though; it was only a phase. Nowadays, superstitious Frank contents himself with rituals that — he believes — protect the island he lives on with his father. Frank’s rituals often involve killing and mutilating animals, including the wasps of the novel’s title. But when his disturbed older brother, Eric, escapes from a psychiatric hospital and begins to make his way home, Frank knows that the magic he works upon the land won’t be able to keep Eric out.
Tomie by Junji Ito (1987)
Pretty much anyone who meets Tomie Kawakami will tell you she’s the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen. Too bad for them, because Tomie leverages her sex appeal to bring out the worst in others. Men kill to be with her. Some of them ruin their lives by killing Tomie herself. But while they rot in prison, Tomie comes back, again and again — a cursed force of nature, nearly impossible to get rid of for good.
The Cipher by Kathe Koja (1991)
The French call it “l’appel du vide”: the call of the void. It’s what draws us to the edge of the cliff and tells us to throw ourselves in. It’s what told Nicholas’ girlfriend, Nakota, to check out the Funhole in their apartment building’s storage room. After that, Nakota wanted to be near it, stare into it, even sacrifice things to it. And then Nicholas put his hand down the Funhole…and everything changed.
Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena (1994)
The basis for the video game franchise of the same name, Hideaki Sena’s Parasite Eve is part medical thriller, part sci-fi horror. The novel imagines that all human mitochondria form a sentient hivemind. This collective, known as Eve, can telepathically push individuals into doing its bidding, all with one singular goal in mind: to usher in the next stage of human evolution.
The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston (1994)
Among the handful of nonfiction books on this list, Richard Preston’s 1994 microhistory of viral hemorrhagic fevers — many of which spread quickly, are overwhelmingly fatal, and are nigh incurable — may be the most infamous. The Hot Zone resurged in popularity during the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, and again as COVID-19 kicked into high-gear in 2020.
Deadrush by Yvonne Navarro (1995)
Nominated for the Stoker Award, Deadrush centers on Jason, a teenage boy who dies after he’s bitten by venomous snakes in a charismatic church service. When he comes back to life with the ability to raise others from the dead, he’s hailed as a miracle-worker. But as Jason flexes his new abilities around Chicago’s back alleys, he leaves behind a string of newly resurrected people who must reckon with a new, insatiable hunger.
Exquisite Corpse by Billy Martin, writing as Poppy Z. Brite (1996)
Andrew and Jay had every intention of killing one another when they met. Instead, these two cannibalistic serial killers fell into a perverse Bonnie-and-Clyde relationship of murder and mayhem. As they prey upon victims in New Orleans’ seedy underbelly, Andrew and Jay set their sights on Tran: a teenager Jay wants to love and Andrew wants to kill. Little do these two murderers know that another man is looking for their new target…a man with nothing left to lose.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)
For nearly 40 years, the tragedy of Chernobyl has kept onlookers scrabbling for answers. How did so much go so wrong, so quickly? How did anyone manage to survive? And when will people be able to safely return to the exclusion zone that now surrounds the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant? Although we may never know the full extent of the disaster, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich offers readers the chance to learn about it — and all its myriad horrors — directly from those whom it affected most, in Voices from Chernobyl.
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang (1997)
In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China and known as Nanking. Modern-day scholars estimate that hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians — including women, children, and the elderly — died over a period of six weeks, and that tens of thousands were raped during the same period. Published 60 years after the massacre and offering an unflinching account of the atrocities, The Rape of Nanking remains a definitive history of this horrific episode in World War II.
* Note: It’s worth mentioning here that Iris Chang’s research into this deeply disturbing subject matter is rumored to have contributed to her tragic death by suicide in 2004. I don’t often put warning labels of this kind on the books I recommend, but please proceed with caution, especially if you are not in a good headspace.
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255.
Audition by Ryū Murakami (1997)
The basis for the 1999 Takashi Miike film of the same name, Ryū Murakami’s Audition follows Aoyama, a widowed filmmaker who holds a series of fake auditions to find his next wife. There, he meets Yamasaki, a ballerina half his age. Aoyama’s infatuated, and Yamasaki seems like the perfect woman to make his life complete again. But the widower’s new girlfriend has a dark side, and she’s never quite outrun the ghosts of her past…
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
This is one of the most polarizing horror novels I’ve ever come across. Readers either love or hate its experimental structure, which leaves the reader several degrees removed from the central story: that of a strange documentary about one family’s creepy experience mapping out the boundaries of their new home’s impossible architecture. For those who enjoy it, however, House of Leaves proves to be a book that never quite stops hovering, shadowy, in your periphery.
Yalo by Elias Khoury (2002)
A disturbing story set in late-20th-century Lebanon, Elias Khoury’s Yalo follows its eponymous protagonist as his violent escapades around war-torn Beirut catch up with him. Yalo cannot remember committing the crimes he’s accused of. The police will draw a confession from him by any means necessary, but will it be the truth? And, perhaps more importantly, can Yalo ever hope to separate fact from fiction in the story of his traumatic life?
Come Closer by Sara Gran (2003)
Amanda is losing control of her life — bit by bit, day by day. Her personal and professional relationships are beginning to sour. A sharp-toothed woman invades all her dreams. And she’s losing time. So, so much time. A folk-medicine practitioner warned Amanda about demonic possession, but people don’t really become possessed…do they?
Confessions by Kanae Minato (2008)
Losing her four-year-old daughter ended Yuko’s career. How could anyone possibly expect her to go on teaching after what happened to Manami? On her last day of work, Yuko gathers her middle-school students together for one final, searing lecture. You see, Yuko knows exactly who killed Manami, and she’s out to make them pay, come Hell or high water.
The Resurrectionist by Wrath James White (2009)
Dale could have worked miracles with his ability to raise the dead. Instead, he uses his powers to rape and murder unsuspecting women before resurrecting them. They never remember what happened to them, so Dale has managed to brutalize whomever he wants with no consequences. Until he met Sarah, that is. She’s his next-door neighbor, and she remembers exactly what Dale did to her and her husband. But how do you accuse someone of an unthinkable crime when he leaves no evidence behind?
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck (2012)
Vanja has lived her whole life in the big city of Essre, and she knows exactly how to keep herself safe. Like every other person in her community, Vanja grew up naming the things around her — telling them what to be, for fear of them losing their shape. But when she’s sent to a remote commune on the outskirts of civilization, Vanja realizes that her thoroughly modern education in Essre may not have prepared her for the horrors that lurk around every corner in the wilderness.
You by Caroline Kepnes (2014)
When Beck’s chance run-in with the cute guy who works at the bookstore turns into the picture-perfect relationship, she thinks it’s all just a happy accident. People have found one another in stranger ways, after all. But Beck’s relationship with Joe is no coincidence. He’s moved every piece into place to get her right where he wants her…and he’s never letting go.
Perfect Days by Raphael Montes (2014)
Teo knows everything there is to know about Clarice. She’s everything he’s ever wanted in a lifemate, and he wants nothing more than to make her dreams come true. So when Clarice spurns him, Teo has no choice but to show her exactly what she’s missing out on — by kidnapping her and taking her on a cross-country road trip.
Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier (2015)
This 2015 novel from the author of Little Secrets and Things We Do in the Dark follows Seaside, Washington’s newly minted deputy police chief as she investigates two seemingly unconnected crimes at the town’s popular amusement park. Wonderland has been an economic boon to Seaside, but one man’s death and a young boy’s disappearance could end the town’s prosperity forever. Vanessa will have to tread carefully if she wants to unearth Wonderland’s secrets without riling the locals.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2017)
Years after most of Earth’s animal populations were wiped out in an attempt to save humanity from a fatal zoonotic disease, people around the world have turned to a new source of protein — other humans. Bred for slaughter, these “head” — as in cattle — can be bought and sold, tortured and eaten. Marcos, a middleman in the meat industry, has just received a young female head from his employer, and he’s about to cross the biggest line in his cannibalistic society: forming an emotional attachment to his livestock.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007)
Vegetarianism isn’t common in South Korea. So when Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat to combat the graphic, bloody visions that haunt her, her family isn’t exactly receptive to the idea. It quickly becomes clear, however, that giving up meat won’t be enough to stop her suffering. As Yeong-hye pursues ever more extreme measures to end the disturbances, her close family push back — with devastating consequences.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (2014)
Amanda is dying. Her only visitor in the hospital is a strange boy named David. He’s unrelated to Amanda, but that doesn’t stop him from remaining at her side, constantly questioning her. David wants to know exactly when and how she got sick. For her part, Amanda knows a secret about David’s past, about what horror he survived…and why he’s never been the same since. Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel is a taut and psychologically terrifying experience.
The Fisherman by John Langan (2016)
John Langan’s Stoker Award-winning novel follows two men, Abe and Dan, who form a hesitant friendship in the wake of their wives’ deaths. They plan a fishing trip to Upstate New York, where a mysterious fishing hole is rumored to give mourners the opportunity to reconnect with those they’ve lost. But something far more sinister lurks at Dutchman’s Creek, and Abe and Dan may not be ready — or willing — to give it what it requires.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (2017)
Elsie’s marriage to Rupert was supposed to bring an end to her anguish and make up for her traumatic childhood. She didn’t expect to be widowed before she crossed the threshold of her husband’s ancestral home, however. Now, pregnant and alone, Elsie is forced to contend with the legacy of The Bridge — a manor house the locals refuse to step foot in — and its “silent companions:” wooden figures that eerily resemble people she knows.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2018)
Everyone has heard the story of the Donner Party, how an ill-fated wagon train left Independence for California, only to spend the winter trapped in an unforgiving mountain range…where they were forced to eat some of their own. In The Hunger, Alma Katsu offers a supernatural explanation for what led to the deaths of 39 people in the Sierra Nevadas.
The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste (2018)
Another Stoker Award winner, Gwendolyn Kiste’s debut novel spins the tale of a Cleveland neighborhood’s brush with an unsettling disease in the summer of 1980. The girls of Denton Street are changing into something inhuman. No one can escape the news of their transformations. As outsiders flock to see the “Rust Maidens,” the purpose of her former friends’ metamorphosis slowly dawns on a young woman who’s desperate to save her cousin from a grisly fate.
The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup (2018)
Copenhagen police have just discovered a connection between two recent murders — each of which bears a strange hallmark — and a high-profile kidnapping. A doll made from chestnuts and matches awaits them at each gruesome crime scene. One bears the fingerprints of another victim — a girl who has been dead for a year. With a mysterious killer preying closer and closer to their homes, two detectives enter a deadly game of cat and mouse, in The Chestnut Man.
Little Eve by Catriona Ward (2018)
Catriona Ward’s Shirley Jackson Award-winning sophomore novel gets its first U.S. release in 2022. Little Eve follows its eponymous heroine as she prepares for a ritual that will usher in the apocalypse. The Adder will only spare the faithful, and Eve intends to receive the god’s powerful blessing. Meanwhile, an investigator journeys to a remote island off the coast of Scotland…only to find the settlement drenched in blood.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)
Queer victims of abuse often find themselves passed over in discussions about domestic violence, despite its pervasiveness across the country. Carmen Maria Machado’s experimental memoir, In the Dream House, leans on horror tropes as it recounts the devastating abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-partner.
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole (2020)
A Brooklynite angered by the sprawl of gentrification teams up with one of her neighborhood’s newest arrivals to create a walking tour that will preserve the community’s rich history. As Sydney and Theo launch their endeavor, however, they soon learn that rising housing costs may not be the only reason Sydney’s old neighbors left Brooklyn for the ‘burbs.
Lakewood by Megan Giddings (2020)
Circumstances beyond her control forced Lena to drop out of college. To pay off her family’s massive debt, Lena goes to work for a pharmaceutical company in Lakewood, Michigan. She doesn’t have to worry about paying for housing or health insurance, and her salary easily supports her family. The company’s medical experiments could be total game-changers. As Lena spends more time in town, however, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems in Lakewood.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)
A vengeful spirit is out to get Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cass. Years ago, the four Blackfeet men chased elk onto their elders’ game reserve in the midst of a hunting trip. There, they committed a transgression for which they have never atoned. Now, something is hunting the hunters and their families, and it won’t rest until it has its revenge.
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (2020)
Taking inspiration from Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places tracks one woman’s excursions into a parallel reality. Kara works for her uncle at his roadside attraction: the Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy. When her uncle is hospitalized, however, Kara becomes the museum’s caretaker and uncovers its weirdest secret: a portal into another world, where the trees talk…and know more than they should.
The Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro (2021)
Sixty years after Milagros’ unsolved murder, locals say she still haunts the south Texas town where she died. All you have to do to summon her is call for La Reina de Las Chicharras — the Queen of the Cicadas. After he purchases the plantation where Milagros died, Hector, a lapsed curandero, begins teasing out the mystery of her murder. Something big is brewing beyond the mortal realm, however, and soon, everyone will know Milagros’ story.
Butcherbird by Cassie Hart (2021)
Twenty years ago, Jena’s parents and siblings died in a fire. Her grandmother sent her away in the aftermath. Now, Grandmother Rose is on her deathbed, giving Jena the perfect opportunity to find out what happened to her family. Aided by Rose’s caregiver, Jena dives into the dark history of her family’s property — only to come face-to-face with a murderous entity that wants them all dead.
This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno (2021)
Thiago never dreamed that his wife would die so soon. He certainly didn’t expect the media to politicize her death. Unable to bear life in their old home any longer, Thiago escapes to a remote cabin, looking for a little peace and quiet. But whatever spirits haunted his Chicago apartment have followed Thiago to Colorado, and now he has nowhere left to run.
The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas (2022)
A chilling horror novel in the vein of Rebecca and Mexican Gothic, The Hacienda follows a blushing bride as she travels to her new husband’s palatial home, Hacienda San Isidro, for the first time. For Beatriz, who was recently orphaned, marrying Don Rodolfo Solórzano provides a measure of security that’s difficult to find. Sure, questions linger about the death of her husband’s first wife. It’s even a little odd that her new sister-in-law refuses to stay the night at Hacienda San Isidro. But surely Beatriz is safe in her new home. Surely.
Number One Fan by Meg Elison (2022)
Eli had no reason to suspect that someone had tampered with her drink. Now, she’s trapped in a basement, and she knows no one will ever think to look for her until it’s too late. Eli’s captor wants something from her, something to do with her bestselling novels. But what is he really after…and what are the chances she knows him in real life?
The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias (2022)
Mario committed unspeakable crimes to afford his daughter’s medical bills. Not even blood money could save her. Left alone in the world following the dissolution of his marriage, Mario has nothing left to lose. So why not steal from one of the world’s biggest organized crime rings? This job is anything but straightforward, however. As Mario finds himself dragged deeper and deeper into the cartel’s underworld, he finds himself caught up in a cosmic game of chess — one he may have no hope of winning.
Want more scary books to scare you into sleeping with the light on? Check out these bone-chilling horror thrillers. Too frightened to dive into one of the scariest books of all time? Here’s a scaredy-cat’s guide to horror.