So I came across a post of Buzzfeed today listing 23 underrated horror novels and I thought that while there were some excellent titles in there that I will add to my ever-growing “to read” pile, they all had something in common: they were mostly ghost stories of one kind or another. So I decided to redress that balance by discussing nine of my all-time top horror stories that you absolutely must read. As always, I’m limiting myself to one story per author (because if I didn’t this list would be a grudge match between Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft).
9. O’ Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, by M.R. James
Let’s get the ghost stories out of the way right at the start. O’ Whistle is commonly referred to as the greatest ghost story ever told and it is certainly a masterpiece in many ways. The ghost is never explained; the ghost is hardly seen; the suspense comes mostly from the sheer unnaturalness of the ghost, rather than from attempting to build tension; although James does that rather well in several passages.
You can’t go into too much detail on this one without spoiling it so I’m just going to say this: go and track this one down, and read it (or just listen to me read it, since I did just that on my Reading The Weird show a while back). It’s brilliant.
8. The Rats in the Walls, by H.P. Lovecraft
I first read this story late at night, alone in a house I was unfamiliar with and if I’m honest, this is probably the absolute perfect atmosphere for a horror story. As a result, even Lovecraft’s propensity for purple prose (and his racism, which unfortunately clouds this story a little) could not mar this truly horrific story. Lovecraft is a master of storytelling and he was in full swing when he wrote this one. It’s atmospheric, it’s gripping, his characters are moderately compelling (Lovecraft always fell down somewhat on characterisation but here he’s doing well). It’s brilliant.
7. The Wicker Man, by Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer
Some people might be surprised to see a novelisation on this list of the best horror stories but for those who have picked up a copy of The Wicker Man, you’ll understand why. The fact that it’s still in print decades after the film it is based on has disappeared from the cinemas (which is almost unknown as far as tie-in merchandise is concerned) should attest to just how good this book is. It stands on its own merits.
The film is more than a little slow and weird by modern standards but the book adds extra body to the story. It fleshes out characters and concepts, all of which serves only to make the whole thing far more unnerving and its gruesome finale all the more horrifying. This takes the disturbing fish-out-of-water story-come-conspiracy tale from the original film and turns it up to eleven. It’s horrible (in exactly the way horror fans want it to be).
6. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Not all horror stories have to be about monsters, as Gilman’s 6000-word masterpiece demonstrates. Sometimes all you need is a woman going insane in a small room. This story is disturbing in ways that make your skin crawl just thinking about it (and those who have read it will no doubt agree with me here). The protagonist’s slow descent into outright insanity due to under-stimulation (there’s nothing in the room with her, just the yellow wallpaper to stare at) is horrible.
5. 1999, by “Elliot”
This is a creepypasta, an Internet urban legend designed to terrify – and it works. There are many examples of creepypasta around but 1999 (the link goes directly to a copy on the Creepypasta Wiki) regularly tops the lists of the absolute best. It’s a story about a mysterious local TV channel full of disturbing kid’s shows that ran in Canada until it was abruptly stopped; the author’s recollections of it when he watched in 1999; and his horrifying investigation now he’s older into just what was going on with it.
Creepypastas run the gamut of terrible to truly terrifying. 1999, with its matter-of-fact discussion of a truly disturbing series of events, is the cream of the crop. Plus, Mr. Bear is the kind of creepy that sticks with you (he sticks just behind you).
4. IT, by Stephen King
Stephen King is the literary descendant of H.P. Lovecraft and with this book it feels like he is stamping his own seal onto the weird fiction genre that Lovecraft created. It feels like a modern retelling of The Call of Cthulhu in many ways, with its subterranean lurking horror, but it’s by no means a simple remake. This is distilled unease and although the book is long and rather meandering at times, there is always the lurking unnaturalness in the background that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you read it. It’s horrible, but in a good way. Just don’t watch the made-for-TV version because it left out all the good bits.
3. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Dracula is the king of the horror story and it marks a high point in horror against which everything before and since has been measured. As I mentioned in my discussion of fantasy stories, you can measure everything in fantasy as “before Stoker” and “after Stoker” (at least until Tolkien comes along and claims that crown for himself anyway).
Not only did Dracula set the look and feel of the vampire as we know it today (even the modern reworkings of vampires are defining themselves by being Very Definitely Not Dracula) but the novel also marks the point at which urban fantasy becomes an identifiable subgenre; with its modern heroes battling a super-powerful foe who is woefully out of his depth in this new, technological world.
What’s more is that Dracula oozes atmosphere and the characters are nicely rounded. This isn’t a typical Victorian novel with an antiquated feel, this is a novel that still stands up against its modern counterparts. It’s brilliant, it’s atmospheric and it also still manages to be horrifying even a century after publication.
2. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
Matheson was writing at a time when you couldn’t get horror published for love nor money, so he had to couch his stories in science-fiction trappings. Don’t let that detract you from this story however, as he’s woven a truly horrifying tale of a man trapped alone in a world of monsters. The atmosphere created here is amazing and the ending will stay with you for a long time afterward.
If you’ve seen the films (especially the abysmal Will Smith version), prepare to be pleasantly surprised because none of the film versions have ever come close to capturing the spirit of this story. You’ll be glad you gave this one a chance.
1. The Season of Passage, by Christopher Pike
Christopher Pike first came to my attention when he was writing Point Horror novels in the late eighties and early nineties. Point Horror was a genre unto itself as far as my friends and I were concerned, and we didn’t so much read these novels as devour them. While you can read and enjoy those novels now, there’s still something missing from a lot of them, because he had to keep himself toned down a little due to the Young Adult market he was writing for at the time.
The Season of Passage was Pike’s first novel aimed at adults. This is Pike fully unleashed, and he is terrifying. When I bought this book to go on a long train journey, I couldn’t put it down. I had the whole thing read in a couple of days and it’s stuck with me ever since. In fact, so many members of my family have read and loved this book that my original copy fell apart from over-reading it. That’s how good this book is.
Find a copy. Read it. Thank me later.