As a horror convert myself, it is my duty to share that horror is not all gore and monsters and things that go bump in the night. It can be, of course, if that’s the kind of horror you find that you like, but horror is also obsession and dread and some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read. Elements of horror can be found in so many genres — fantasy, literary fiction, mystery-thriller, just to name a few. I don’t think it’s fair to limit what horror can be to monster/slasher stories.
Horror has always been an avenue for social commentary and critique, providing a glaring example of the overt horrors of the real world. Monster horror has its roots in Romanticism, with Gothic horror following closely behind. In contemporary horror, the “monster” or villain is frequently a social problem, revealed like a bad guy on Scooby-Doo. The most important aspect of any horror novel is the atmosphere of emotion: the dread, obsession, ice cold terror must be felt by the reader.
This list is comprised of a mix of horror styles, some of which are more violent and disturbing than others. Finding a horror style that works for your comfort level can take some time, so it’s okay if you have to skip some books in the meantime.
Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz
This YA horror novel is a twist on the Frankenstein motif. Lady Hazel Sinnet is desperate to be a surgeon but is rejected from anatomy courses due to her sex. With the help of her new friend, Jack, a black-market corpse dealer, Hazel is determined to pass her medical exams. Hazel and Jack soon discover that something far worse than anatomy classes is happening inside the lecture hall. This book has just enough gruesome details to keep you on your toes, paired with adventure and romance.
A House At The Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman
First-date jitters turn to dread when James and Amelia find an entire home at the bottom of a secret lake. What else are they supposed to do but go exploring? This novella is a great stepping stone into horror, with unsettling eeriness and unanswered questions.
Revenge by Yōko Ogawa
These macabre tales of retribution are light on the scares, heavy on the jealousy and uncanniness. The first story features a writer that moves into an empty apartment, only to discover that her new landlady murdered her husband. When the landlady’s stepson begins to share weird stories from his stepmother, the writer is further unsettled. In another story, a surgeon meets a woman with her heart outside of her body and vows to repair it, but is detained by a man with unusual desires. These 11 stories connect and drift apart, leaving spidery trails behind them.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
If you love imaginative settings and graphic design, you’ll love this unsettling book. There’s something happening at the Orsk furniture store in Ohio: things going missing, furniture smashed to bits, and no security footage to figure it out. Three employees volunteer to work the night shift, but the truth is much worse than they could have imagined. Part parody, part social commentary, this book is a fresh take on the haunted house story.
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass
High school was already a game of survival for Jake, but his ability to see the dead makes getting to class more difficult. When Jake meets Sawyer, an angry ghost with dangerous unfinished business, Jake becomes a moving target. This paranormal YA novel addresses serious topics, paired with a few good frights.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
If true crime is more your thing, then this fictionalized version of the legendary Lizzie Borden case might be more appealing to you. Schmidt brings readers into the intimate, violent Borden household with lurid details and gruesome, sweltering prose.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
The first in an alternative history duology, this book’s scariest parts have nothing to do with the zombies plaguing the nation. Trained to fight the zombies from childhood, Jane is desperate to return home. Jane’s plans are derailed when she and her classmate Kate are taken to a remote, dangerous community. Their fight is only beginning.
I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
This novel is made of two converging narratives that will draw you in and fill you with creeping dread. When three friends begin their renovation project in the remote Icelandic forest, they soon begin to feel uneasy. As things get stranger, they realize there is no easy escape from whatever is bothering them. In town, a doctor is investigating the death of a woman when he makes an unnerving discovery. Switching back and forth between storylines, this book is tense and fast-paced.
The Good House by Tananarive Due
After a personal tragedy, Angela returns to her beloved Grandmother’s Good House, hoping for answers. As Angela digs into her own past, she uncovers shocking events from the town’s past — could they be connected to the house? To heal herself and her family, Angela has to find the truth about the Good House, before it’s too late.
Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour
This book is perfect for anyone who wants to try just a taste of horror. After Mila ages out of the foster system, she takes a job at a secluded farm on the California Coast. In the fog, ghosts dance and play, as the farm’s young residents grieve and heal together.
Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow
As the only two Black girls in their community, Cherish and Farrah were drawn to each other from the beginning. When Farrah’s family is faced with hard times, she takes refuge with Cherish’s much wealthier family. Something is bubbling under the pristine surface, though, and Farrah’s losing control.
The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous
For feelings of unease without any monsters or gore, this dual timeline novel feels like a Jane Eyre retelling meets a Christie whodunit. In 1988, Beth is sent to live at Raven Hall and becomes fast friends with Nina. Beth feels welcome and happy, until the family asks her to do the unthinkable. Thirty years later, actress Sadie Langton is hired to play a party guest for an unusual game at Raven Hall. When the game takes a dark turn, Sadie decides to uncover the truth about her host.
Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang
The nameless protagonist of this dark contemporary novel abandons a promising future as a pianist in favor of working in a high-end spa. She becomes increasingly preoccupied with the spa’s sinister aesthetics, vowing anything for the next treatment, the next beautifier. This book grapples with obsession, assimilation, and manipulation.
The Long Walk by Stephen King
This is the novel I recommend to people who want to try King’s horror, but don’t want monsters or jump scares. It’s simple: keep walking, stay alive. One hundred boys compete annually for the prize of a lifetime. This year, Ray is going to win. Peppered with humor and moments of hope, this book is an exercise (ha) of growing anxiety and despair.
The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro
After a cross-country move and the birth of her third child, Alejandra is struggling with major depressive episodes. When she begins to see visions of the Mexican folk demon, La Llorona, Alejandra worries that she will succumb to the same fate of drowning her children. To save herself and her children, Alejandra digs into her family history, looking for clues on how to end the curse. Folkloric and powerful, this book focuses on Alejandra’s personal journey in strength.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
This German classic is certainly gory, but it’s also a lush, sensorial fairy tale. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in the slums of 18th century Paris with an extraordinary sense of smell. He begins his journey as an apprentice perfumer to distill unusual smells: brass, wood, rotting food. Grenouille’s truest obsession is the smell of one young woman. To perfect her scent, he will stop at nothing.
Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias
Somewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, ghosts, gods, and spirits seek vengeance and justice. This mosaic novel is several stories as one, with plots crossing one another in the middle. Iglesias uses elements of horror, noir, and crime fiction to create one stunning novel.
Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey
Vera’s family is complicated: her estranged mother is dying and her father was a serial killer. When Vera returns home to visit, she finds the home is being taken apart by a strange artist living in the guest house. Disturbing notes begin to appear all over the house, but the artist claims he isn’t writing them. Unsettling and claustrophobic, you’ll want to discover the truth with Vera.
House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
This YA fairy tale retelling is all vibes, but lower stakes. Annaleigh and her sisters live in Highmoor Manor, locked away to keep them safe after their four eldest sisters tragically passed away. Each night, as Annaleigh receives ominous visions, her sisters escape to attend ghostly, glittering dances. Determined to keep herself and her sisters safe, Annaleigh will do anything to break the curse plaguing her family.
Need more guidance to start with your horror reading? Keep the lights on with daylight horror, try out nonfiction horror to learn about the history and context of horror, or check out the best horror 2023 has to offer.