Scary movie marathons are all well and good when it comes to Halloween season, but they aren't the only way to get your full dose of scare satisfaction. Instead, why not try putting your Netflix on pause and curling up with a nice, utterly terrifying book? If you're really in the mood to be spooked, they are often the better option, as scary books can probe into your psyche far deeper than any movie can.
Check out one (or more) of these 13 horror-filled reads below, and prepare to sleep with your lights on. Don't say we didn't warn you.
"Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson
I actually kind of hated "Devil in the White City," a best-selling account of America's first known serial killer H.H. Holmes. Larson took some super solid research, the nature of which terrifying in its own right, and detracted from it by adding a bunch of unsupported character conjectures. But such is the reality of historical fiction, I guess. Others clearly feel differently from me, even calling its murderous protagonist H.H. Holmes "scarier than any horror movie villain." Grudgingly, then, it's been included on this list.
"The Lords of Salem" by Rob Zombie
Any fans of Zombie's horror films who haven't already read "The Lords of Salem" in book form should make plans to do so ASAP. Its chronology is kinda strange — Zombie adapted the novel from his 2013 movie's screenplay, then released it only a few weeks before the movie came out. It's generally agreed that the book is an improvement from the film, though whether either one is truly "scary" is up to the individual reader. Some may find the premise of an ancient coven of Satan-worshipping witches murdering their boyfriends and husbands more entertaining than they do terrifying.
"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote
Capote is a friggin' master of literary nonfiction, and his "In Cold Blood" puts most "based on a true story" scary movies to shame. Published in 1966, it details the real-life slaughter of the Herbert Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote read about the murders in the newspaper and was so fascinated by them that he moved to Holcomb to investigate, where he got to know the killers. The way he probes into their psyche will seriously haunt you, and the fact readers are forced to reconcile the killers' horrific acts with their humanity is maybe the most unsettling part of it all.
"The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James
James was possibly the first author to identify that children can be really, really creepy. This short novel is about a governess, who may or may not be going mad, and two ghosts, who may or may not be tormenting (and possibly sexual abusing?) her young charges who, again, are super creepy themselves. It's up to readers to determine whether this is a tale of paranormal or psychological horror, and the difficulty of that choice makes for a haunting read.
"Kiss the Girls" by James Patterson
Lovers of serial killer stories, listen up — "Kiss the Girls" might well hit your scary-sweet spot. A psychological thriller featuring not one, but two dudes who make a habit of killing pretty ladies for sport, these murderous protagonists go by the names "Casanova" and "The Gentleman Caller." In classic genre fashion, there's also a butt-kicking heroine, Dr. Kate McTiernan, who escapes from the role of hunted to huntress.
"Let the Right One In" by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Referred to by some as everything "Twilight" wanted to be, but wasn't, "Let the Right One In" was translated over to English from Swedish author Lindqvist, who (unlike some) doesn't waste readers' time overly explaining what vampires are or emphasizing his own twist on them. This isn't just another human/vampire love story, either, as it delves into a lot of real-life topics that are just as horrifying as its supernatural ones — pedophilia, alcoholism, bullying, and even child prostitution. And as well received as both the American and Swedish film adaptations were, the story is generally agreed to be even more twisted on page than it is on screen.
"The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson
Jackson is essential reading for lovers of haunted house movies, and this classic work is even considered a possible influence on "The Shining." It has a lot of the same ingredients — madness, mounting dread, an unreliable narrator, and a spooky house believed to be seeking its next victim — working in its favor. The fact that Jackson herself, an intense recluse who became too afraid to leave her own house, died an abnormal death adds another layer of intrigue. Ultimately, this book is less about hauntings and more about the fragility of sanity.
"Hell House" by Richard Matheson
A lot of people (Stephen King and Peter Straub included) believe this classic Gothic horror story is the pinnacle of haunted house reads. You'll have to decide whether that top accolade is warranted for yourself, but there's no question you'll be spooked by it. Thematically similar to Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," Matheson invites readers to join his four (not particularly likable) protagonists on a quest to determine if there's life after death, something they've been hired to ferret out by a dying millionaire. There are a lot of occult elements in this book, with Matheson himself being a longtime studier of ESP and the paranormal, and its a classic game of who can stay alive — and sane — the longest.
"Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris
You've heard of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal," of course, two Harris-penned books that were turned into insanely successful movies. But many people aren't as aware of "Red Dragon," the novel that first introduced readers to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 1981. Its deliciously high-momentum, suspenseful plot is virtually guaranteed to get your heart racing, and better than a film adaptation ever could, Harris' writing transports directly into the mind of the hotly pursued serial killer. You'll get the creeps, for sure.
"The Other" by Thomas Tryon
Even though "The Other" is right up there alongside "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" as one of the early 1970s books that revived America's horror genre, it somehow managed to fall comparatively into obscurity and is now out of print. Which is unfortunate, because even though Tryon's writing can be annoyingly pedantic at times, this is still a great, chilling book. Following in James' footsteps, Tryon taps into the creepy children trope with his depiction of an evil twin whose antics turns murderous. The story also contains a twist that, though not quite as jolting today as it likely was in 1971, still makes for a compelling read.
"House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski
Beginning with the simple premise of a family discovering that their house's interior is larger than the exterior, this work of psychological horror isn't an easy read, and I mean that in the most literal sense. There are scores of footnotes on basically every page, and some of the footnotes even have footnotes. But making it through "House of Leaves" is absolutely worth the effort, as its cult following attests to. Structurally, the convoluted layout mirrors what's happening in the plot itself, and readers find themselves struggling right alongside the characters to navigate the book's maze. The end effect? A hebejebes-inducing read that's more immersive than most films.
"The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft
Readers will find something far more ominous than ghosts lurking within the pages of this classic Lovecraft tale. The 20th century's de facto horror guru, Lovecraft depicts a chaotic, malignant universe on the edge of an apocalypse, and a horrible, ancient beast determined to push it to there. Actually, an argument could be made that he was predicting America's 2016 election when he wrote this, and that analogy alone is all sorts of scary. Extra terror points to Lovecraft for topical relevancy.
"The Woman in Black" by Susan Hill
Set in the early 1900s, the book's narrator has been sent into the British bogs to to settle the estate of a recently deceased client, an elderly widower who, it turns out, may have been shielding a sinister secret. Though beautifully filmed, the Daniel Radcliffe-led 2012 movie dims in comparison to Hill's novel. If you've already seen the movie, you might think the book's ability to startle has been ruined for you, but that's not necessarily so — the ending is a bit different, and arguably better. And if you haven't seen the movie, then get your lucky ass to the bookstore immediately, because you're in for a damn terrifying treat.
"Haunted: A Novel" by Chuck Palahniuk
Fans of splatter/gore films, especially, will get a kick out of Palahniuk's super visceral writing. Others with queasier stomachs (like this writer) may find themselves needing to put it down — though that's not to say it isn't worth picking back up. "Haunted" is an anthology of 23 tales, alternately horrifying and hilarious. The common glue is that their narrators all answered an ad for an "Artist's Retreat" — and ended up trapped somewhere far more sinister instead. And because it's Palahniuk (author of "Fight Club"), of course all the horror and gore is used to make a broader commentary on modern culture.
Basically, read "Haunting," but don't blame me if it causes you to lose your dinner.
"Ghost Story" by Peter Straub
No scary book list would be complete without Straub, whose "Ghost Story" is often credited with ushering in the horror of the '80s and cementing its author's name as synonymous with the genre. This isn't just any old ghost story, though, like the title might insinuate; it's also about the past catching up with you, and one's inability to escape it. The sense of impending doom in this novel is wonderfully palpable, and a credit to Straub's writing. All the crisscrossing between characters can get a bit confusing at times, but have faith that it will all come to make deliciously chilling sense.
"The Shining" by Stephen King
As magnificent as "The Shining" in cinematic form is, the book is actually markedly scarier. That's because unlike the movie, where Jack Nicholson makes his character's descent into madness so very apparent, King's writing keeps us guessing 'til much closer to the end. Even after having seen the movie (like, a billion times), the book's prolonged suspense is still a spooky treat. Oh, and for what it's worth, King himself definitely thinks the book is better, too.
The "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series by Alvin Schwartz
If you, like me, were ever accused of having an "overactive imagination" as a child, Schwartz's three-volume series was likely what persuaded you to start checking the backseat of your mom's car for axe murderers. As the first introduction to horror for many of us '90s kids, these repackaged urban legends and ghost stories (plus, those creepy illustrations) still manage to feel deeply disturbing, and that's in no small part due to their close association with our childhood nightmares. Schwartz's stories are ingrained in us, and his ability to tap into our subliminal fears makes "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" an equally terrifying read as adults.
"It" by Stephen King
When King published "It" in 1986, the idea that he could top his previous horror-filled classics — "Carrie," "Salem's Lot," "The Stand," "Pet Sematary," and of course "The Shining" — seemed pretty damn impossible. But, as many would argue, that's exactly what he did. The bulk of "It" in book form often focuses more on childhood and nostalgia than it does on horror — so when the scary moments (inevitably) surface, they do so with a more powerful punch. It's also worth nothing this book is more or less singlehandedly responsible for the public's now normalized fear of clowns, a significant feat. And the way the story unfolds, spread out over three decades, makes for a pretty epic read.
(P.s. To be sure, the other King-penned books mentioned above are all frightening as fuck in their own right, and absolutely worth a read. But this list can't be all King, so.)
"Girl Next Door" by Jack Ketchum
Straight up, this book is terrifying. Closely based on the true story of the prolonged torture and murder of an Indianan teen at the hands of her caregiver and some neighborhood kids (!), "Girl Next Door" is both a tale of suburban horror and a journey into the depths of human cruelty. And man, do those depths run disturbingly deep. Be warned, though — this is definitely *not* a read for the fainthearted or weak stomached. This book, and especially its basis in all too real events, may even haunt you more than you'd wish.