13 Spooky, Scary Must-Read Books for Aspiring Horror Writers
Creative muses come in all shapes and forms. For horror writers, naturally, it’s the things that go bump in the night. But when it comes to specific role models, there are so many to choose from: King, Jackson, Poe, and more. What’s a bewildered horror novice to do?
To further your education in the genre, we’ve compiled a list of 13 absolute must-read books for horror writers, based on recommendations from our editors and writers. This reading list will not only leave you in a cold sweat, but will also inspire you to start writing horror of your own!
Read on to get to know these terrifying tales a little better, as well as the secret ingredients that have given them lasting power.
1. The Shining by Stephen King
We’ll start with a classic — who hasn’t heard of The Shining? But for those who may be too scared to actually read it, here’s the scoop: Jack Torrance moves into the Overlook Hotel, family in tow, to serve as its off-season caretaker. Jack’s an aspiring writer (just like you!) hoping that the quiet isolation will bring him peace and productivity. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect.
“One of the things that makes Stephen King so successful is that he rarely loses sight of the connection between character and concept,” says Harrison Demchick, author of the horror novel The Listeners. Indeed, King’s treatment of his characters here is anything but disconnected; the Torrance family aren’t just pawns in his story, they’re the essence of it. It’s their realistically tense family dynamic that gives this story its bloody, beating heart.
2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
From there, the candles are lit and the mood is set, leaving the reader simultaneously enchanted and horrified. Jackson’s gorgeously creepy voice compels you to devour this novel to the very last page, and is a lesson in atmospheric construction for any fledgling horror writer.
3. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Though Danielewski’s experimental debut remains largely uncategorizable, it definitely contains strands of horror DNA. This mammoth 700-page novel follows "The Navidson Record" — a documentary about an apparently haunted house, if by "haunted" one actually means "alive." The Navidson house seems to mutate, changing size and sprouting corridors that lead to dizzying labyrinths, all while emitting an ominous growl.
But what makes House of Leaves truly frightening is Danielewski’s intertwining of plot and structure, the latter’s chaotic layout mirroring the former. According to editor James Osborne, House of Leaves is a must-read horror book for this very reason: “The book uses unique formal quirks to create an immersive experience,” he says.
In other words, it’s innovative because it shatters the traditional model — producing a new and deeply unnerving mode of horror.
4. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a novel that will stick with you forever. It’s a horrific tale on a number of levels: its landscape is a slavery-entrenched America, its main character, Sethe, is an escaped slave living with her family in Ohio. But before she got away, Sethe was forced to slit the throat of her first daughter, an unchristened child whose only remembrance would be the single word on her tombstone: Beloved.
Eighteen years later, the child’s form may be gone, but her spirit is not. The novel opens with these chilling lines, in description of Sethe’s home: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Throughout the book, Morrison’s writing continues to be magnificently intense, historically pointed, and profoundly haunting, all at once. It’s the only book on this list to have won a Pulitzer Prize, and even that is an understatement of its mastery.
5. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Dark Matter boasts a setting even more isolated than King’s Overlook Hotel: an Arctic camp surrounded by a soon-to-be frozen sea. The area, Gruhuken, is intended to host an expedition of several men and huskies for one year. Jack Miller, a young man in search of adventure, is thrilled to become a part of the expedition; but his outlook soon changes when they reach the frozen Arctic wasteland.
Gruhuken’s desolate polar winter — four months in a row of complete darkness — is the perfect atmosphere for eerie terror. “I love the way the environment feels like an organic menace in its own right,” editor Andrew Lowe says of Dark Matter. Coupled with the men's inability to leave this barren, frozen terrain, this setting truly embodies that old saying: Jack can’t run and he can’t hide from whatever may lurk there in the darkness.
6. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy — consisting of City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room — is another body of work that defies classification. “It’s not horror,” says Harrison Demchick, “but the three novellas it contains are uniquely disorienting.”
Each of these novellas involves a mystery or unexplained phenomena of some kind, surrounded by murky, quirky elements that make the enigmatic even more so. In one story, a P.I. tracks his subject to a train station, only to find his face replicated on another man. In another tale, an unsuccessful writer impersonates a creative friend, and ends up marrying that friend’s wife.
Auster’s use of doubles is just one way of unsettling his audience. He has many techniques, all of which stem from his control of pacing and detail — a vital part of writing horror, according to Demchick.
“When everything is controlled, a reader can be thrown well off balance by a particular detail or situation that feels strange or out of place,” he says. “Auster is exceptional at this.”
7. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Contrary to its title, the horror of The Wasp Factory does not lie in the violence of insects, but in that of its young protagonist: sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame. Frank is, for all intents and purposes, a sociopath — he kills small animals and keeps parts of them in his attic, and the titular “wasp factory” is a torture machine that Frank has designed. It’s made out of an old clock face, and each of the numbers signifies a different way for a wasp to die.
“Disturbing” is the only word to describe The Wasp Factory. “Banks builds dread over the anticipation of violence, devotion to ritual, and the headspace of premeditated murder,” notes Peter Cameron, a writer for the upcoming Amazon series Carnival Row.
Needless to say, it’s not for the weak of heart or stomach. But for an exemplary model of depraved, upsetting horror, one need look no further than this book.
8. Last Days by Brian Evenson
So far we’ve covered spiraling protags, vindictive ghosts, and animal torture… what next? How about a former detective with an amputated hand, whose dismemberment makes him the perfect fit for a cult investigation — a cult in which mutilation is a sacred rite?
Despite these Dan Brown-esque levels of bizarre intricacy, Evenson’s writing style is anything but purple: James Osborne calls Last Days “a lesson on economy of words.” And for horror writers, this can be an especially potent technique. Where most would lean into a particularly grisly scene, Evenson’s detached narration has an even stronger effect.
Without giving too much away, we’ll leave you with this excerpt detailing Detective Kline’s second amputation:
The second time was worse than the first, both because he already knew how it would feel and because of how much thicker an elbow is than a wrist. Still, he managed it… First, he carefully tied a tourniquet around the upper arm, and then brought the cleaver down hard, chopping all the way through on the first try, and then he thrust the stump against the burner. The stump sizzled and smoked, his vision starting to go. After that, it became more complicated.
9. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box is much more creative than your standard horror fare, and one would expect no less from the debut of Stephen King’s son. If the title sounds familiar, it might be because he’s taken it from a famous Nirvana song — an apt choice for a story about a retired rock star, Judas Coyne, with a penchant for the macabre.
After receiving word about an old funeral suit with the dead man’s spirit still attached, Judas buys it online. The suit arrives in a cutesy heart-shaped box; however, Judas quickly realizes that what’s inside is no sentimental folklore, but a murderous poltergeist with a particular grudge against him.
“Evil incarnate becomes evil discarnate,” Sleepy Hollow writer Jose Molina says of this book — and if immortal evil isn’t one of the most frightening concepts in horror, we don’t know what is.
10. The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Aliya Whiteley’s 2014 novella is The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Giver by way of The Brothers Grimm. In a world where all women have died from an invasive fungal disease, men crave mythic tales about them from storytellers like our narrator, Nate. The longer the women are gone, the more the men obsess over them — and the greater Nate’s responsibilities become.
But all that shifts when a new species of strange, spongy creatures — grown from the bodies of the fallen women, and known collectively as The Beauty — join Nate’s tribe. The men begin to project their desires onto these new entities, and their interactions produce shocking results. This story may technically be dystopian, as well as only 100 pages long, but it’s still powerful (and powerfully creepy) enough to hold its own in the horror genre.
11. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
This dark fantasy novel takes its title from the witches’ chant in Macbeth, and its plot is suitably witchy and nightmarish. Two boys, Will and Jim, are thrilled to attend an October carnival called “Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show.” But during their visit, something odd happens: they witness the adult Cooger ride backwards on the carousel, turning him into a boy of twelve.
As Will and Jim tail the Benjamin Button-ized Cooger, searching for answers, they find that the mysteries of the carnival are even darker than they anticipated. The cast of characters in this one is particularly spellbinding: carnival workers such as the “Electrico Man,” the boys’ seventh grade teacher who morphs into a blind child… not to mention Bradbury’s homage to Macbeth’s Weird Sisters in the form of the “Dust Witch,” who plagues the boys’ dreams.
12. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe
You knew we couldn’t get through this list without a little Poe. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is, in the words of Tim Major, “a mixture of Moby Dick-esque maritime detail [it later inspired Herman Melville] and H.P. Lovecraft-style cosmic horror, with the obvious attraction of Poe’s wonderful prose.”
It’s true, this book has a little something for everyone, but especially for horror writers. The titular Pym stows away on the Grampus, a whaling ship headed for southern waters. But after mutiny breaks out on the upper deck, Pym is left stranded by one of his friends, only to face a series of gruesome situations once he’s retrieved. Poe’s eerie voice pervades the text, even during calm moments — so we know that for Pym, disaster is always around the corner.
13. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James
We started with a classic, and we’ll end on one too. This collection is an omnibus of famous horror tales; James essentially originated the “antiquarian ghost story.” Indeed, James’ writing was revolutionary for its time, discarding old Gothic clichés and using more realistic settings — which as we know by now, only makes a scary story scarier.
The collection includes a whopping 30 stories, most of which involve a mild-mannered academic stumbling upon an artifact that calls forth some malevolent, otherworldly presence. Yes, the ghosts are fascinating; but what’s really admirable here is James’ signature subtlety of style.
“He does so much with so little,” says Andrew Lowe. “He’s a master of atmosphere and unsettling detail — he really shows how the unsaid and unseen can be the best way to get under the reader’s skin.”
Of course, only you can decide what works best for your horror story. But with the absolutely monstrous range of subjects and styles on this list, you should end up feeling much more inspired — if not to start writin’, then at least to frighten. 👻
Happy reading, writing, and Halloween from Reedsy! Leave your favorite horror titles in the comments — hopefully they won’t give us nightmares!