What Scares You? 30 Terrifying Horror Stories Straight Out Of Your Worst Nightmares
Fear is subjective and personal. The things that haunt your nightmares and the things that cause my breath to quicken—they are probably not the same. Some people are hit hardest by subtle seeping dread and things unseen. Others, by in-your-face gore and guts. Still others, by the darkness of the human psyche.
That's why making a definitive list of the most terrifying books of all time (which I originally set out to do) is a futile endeavor. Instead, I invite you to stroll down phobia lane until we find the horror that pushes your buttons, poking around until we discover a soft spot that makes you cringe. Because that's what Halloween is all about.
It by Stephen King
It’s only appropriate that we start this list with a book about a mind-reading, shape-shifting, telekinetic, teleporting, regenerating monster that takes the form of its victims’ greatest phobia in order to feed off their fear while they die.
Whether you’re afraid of leeches, clowns, vampires, abusive parents, birds, dogs, or sharks, IT has your number. But if you suffer from one of the most common human phobias, the fear of spiders, be prepared to endure some sleepless nights.
Horrifying quote: “…It raced down the gossamer curtain of Its webbing, a nightmare Spider from beyond time and space, a Spider from beyond the fevered imaginings of whatever inmates may live in the deepest depths of hell.”
Spiders and its sequel, The Web, both by Richard Lewis: In this schlocky pulpy animals-gone-wild-style terror, an army of man-eating spiders march across England, devouring everything and everyone in their path. Wait, what just brushed against the back of your neck?
A Feast Of Snakes by Harry Crews
No matter how opposed you are to the fanged beasties that slither in your house’s crawlspace, you probably won’t find the snakes to be the most disturbing thing in this dark Southern tale. Harry Crews’s twisted 1976 novel sets tragedy, depression, racism, alcoholism, sexism, abuse, dog fighting, redneck rage, insanity, and violence against the background of an annual rattlesnake roundup in rural Georgia. Snakes are burned, eaten, and released into the woods to be hunted, but the ugliest horrors are human.
Horrifying quote: “…the stick in her hand was a snake. When she tried to turn it loose she saw that she could not because the snake was part of her. Her arm was a snake. And then the other arm was a snake. And her two arms that were snakes crawled about her neck, cold as ice and slick with snake slime.”
The Snake by John Godey: The black mamba—known for being ill-tempered, ridiculously fast, and highly venomous—is loose in New York’s Central Park. Shenanigans and gruesome deaths ensue. It’s not high literature, but it’ll certainly unnerve the Ophidiophobes among us.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
Vampires, mummies, werewolves…all scary enough, but one could argue that humans are the most terrifying monsters in literature. If you question that, you probably haven’t read LitReactor instructor Jack Ketchum’s gruesome novel inspired by the real-life 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens. This grim book features graphic violence and torture scenes… but even harder to stomach is the unsettling knowledge that you know (or you are) someone just like the characters, that even seemingly “decent” people are capable of atrocities beyond our imaginations if put into the right situation, that the human mind is capable of descending into madness with remarkable quickness.
Horrifying quote: “I mean that sometimes what you see is pain. Pain in its cruelest, purest form. Without drugs or sleep or even shock or coma to dull it for you. You see it and you take it in. And then it's you.”
Child Of God by Cormac McCarthy: This ugly tale of a necrophiliac, murderous outcast living in the woods of Appalachia is devastating and brutal, but thanks to McCarthy’s sparse and lyrical prose, its darkness is also oddly mesmeric.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: Don’t let the sociopathic protagonist’s love of Phil Collins fool you into thinking this won't be a hellish read (and don’t think that seeing the movie is the same thing as reading the book); Ellis’s descriptions of detached violence are so disquieting that the book is sold in shrink wrap in some parts of the world. Things can’t be unread. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Wall Street Journal says the book is “widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written.” It is both an atmospheric and understated classic ghost story (knocking on walls, spirit writing, mysterious footsteps) and a journey into the damaged human psyche.
Horrifying quote: “God! Whose hand was I holding?”
Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe: This classic ghost story of a man struggling with the grief of losing his daughter has a reputation for being able to creep out the un-creep-out-able. It can be tough to find but is worth the effort despite the disappointing change of direction about three-quarters of the way in.
Ghost Story by Peter Straub: Oft-cited as one of the great masterpieces of horror, Ghost Story serves up dread that creeps up behind you rather than shouting in your face. This unique take on the traditional ghost story is a must-read for any horror connoisseur.
Tick Tock by Dean Koontz
A demonic rag doll relentlessly hunts a writer and leaves menacing messages on his computer screen. The story is as ridiculous as it sounds. Koontz takes an uncharacteristic detour into absurdist comedy, but if dolls upset you, you won’t find the antics very amusing.
Horrifying quote: “It wasn’t the shiny glass eye of a doll, not merely a painted plastic disc, either, but as real as Tommy’s own eyes (although infinitely stranger), full of soft eerie light, hateful and watchful…”
Satan’s Toybox: Demonic Dolls edited by Stacey Turner: If you’re pediophobic, this collection of eighteen menacing doll stories will have you avoiding Toys R Us like the plague. Who wants to play?
The Rising by Brian Keene
Sure, the walking (un)dead are disturbing, but isn’t there some part of you that knows you could outwit and/or outrun them if shit hit the fan? After all, most zombie fiction presents them as limping, easily distracted creatures incapable of rational thought. But not Keene’s zombies. The cunning undead in this book move with speed, use weapons and vehicles, cooperate to execute sinister plans, and even set traps for unwitting humans, making them far more terrifying than their mindless counterparts. To make matters worse, humans aren’t the only dead things wandering around—zombie birds, fish, bats, monkeys, lions, and other wildlife are also coming for your braaaaains.
Yes, undead lions. Holy shit.
Horrifying quote: “The glistening ends of its intestines hung from their empty cavity, saying as the zombie raised its arms. ‘Howdy neighbor,’ it rasped. Its voice sounded like somebody gargling glass. ‘I see you found the rest of me.’”
The Masque Of The Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe: It’s a short story, but this classic is worth listing for necrophobes because it serves as a bleak reminder that death comes when you least expect it and no one escapes.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This 1890 classic is a 6,000-word claustrophobic spiral into insanity. The story’s journal entries are written by a woman who has been locked away in a barred room by her husband in order to cure her “temporary nervous depression.” With nothing but ornate yellow wallpaper to fill her days of seclusion, she begins seeing figures moving around behind the patterns. Things only go downhill from there.
Horrifying quote: “It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.”
The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé: This disconcerting Dutch tale of obsession is part murder mystery, part love story, and part ghastly claustrophobic nightmare fodder. It’ll make you want to go stand in an open field for a while.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
The novel is set on land, but Haunted gets a spot on this list because it contains “Guts,” and if there is a more fucked up story about water and running out of oxygen then, frankly, I don’t want to know about it. And if you’re aquaphobic, you don’t either. If you don’t faint during the story itself (as many have), you’ll cringe wondering how far you’d go for a breath of air.
Horrifying quote: “This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer.”
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft: The definitive master of weird fantasy and cosmic horror created the ultimate sea monster before fools at comic conventions made it into cutesy-wootsy plush dolls. Read this to remind yourself that there is nothing cutesy-wootsy about Cthulhu.
The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber
Much like Keene’s zombies above, Strieber’s werewolves are alarming because they are not your typical brainless dog people. They are a society of savage and intelligent wolf dudes who stealthily live among mankind without our knowledge. They are not above crafty tricks like mimicking the sound of a human baby in distress to draw you near.
Horrifying quote: “They had cracked open the head and plunged their claws into the brains, plunged and torn to utterly and completely destroy the filthy knowledge.”
Cujo by Stephen King: The number one brand in horrifying dog stories. Guaranteed to exacerbate your existing cynophobia by at least 200 percent.
Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon: The story of a werewolf super-spy battling Nazis. No, that is not a joke.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Listen, this is important: Will Smith is not involved here. The Hollywood blockbuster doesn’t touch the bleakness and loneliness of this apocalyptic novel. By day, the last remaining human hunts vampires. When night falls, he barricades himself in his home and pines for dawn as the blood suckers struggle to get inside. The tragic and jarring story is less about vampires and more about the human mind…and darkness, always the darkness.
Horrifying quote: “No use, you couldn't beat them at night. No use trying; it was their special time.”
Let the Right One In (aka Let Me In in the U.S. version) by John Ajvide Lindqvist: So many sinister things happen in the dark during this 2004 Swedish horror novel that the vampire next door almost seems like the least of your concerns. Bullying, pedophilia, deceit, disfigurement with acid, alcoholism—the original novel makes the U.S. film version look like a Care Bears flick.
Summer Of Night by Dan Simmons: This small-town coming-of-age story is rife with ghosts, spooky basements, and crawling darkness that slithers underneath the bed. Sleep with the light on.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
Surprised I didn’t list Barker’s Books Of Blood, aren’t you? They are the obvious choice from a title perspective, but it is hard not to take note of a book that indicates that simply cutting your hand in the wrong room of your house has the potential to tear open a portal to a dimension of sadistic demons and hellish torture beyond your worst nightmare. Enjoy chopping those veggies for the salad tonight, ey?
Horrific quote: “Blood was coming in abundance. It welled up between his fingers and dribbled down his arm, dropping from his elbow, adding stain to stain on the bare boards.”
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: Suspenseful psychological horror, familial secrets, and a murder mystery add layers and elements of eeriness to this compelling novel, but haemophobic readers will react most strongly to the main character’s tendency to carve words into her flesh and the graphic depictions of the cutting.
The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott
A man is stalked by deranged clowns after nearly hitting one with his car. From there, things get overwhelmingly bizarre, sometimes comedic, and downright twisted. He is forced into the Pilo Family Circus and becomes JJ the Clown. It’s tough to say much about the plot without spoilers, but for coulrophobic scares, The Pilo Family Circus is where it’s at. Australian author Will Elliott, a diagnosed schizophrenic, wrote the novel’s first draft in three months, using cabin fever, sleep deprivation, and withdrawal from anti-psychotic medications as inspiration.
Horrifying quote: “Now the clowns were coming. It made no sense at all, but somehow he knew it: they were on their way. Which, as it turned out, wasn’t entirely true. They were already there.”
Dead White by Alan Ryan: Psycho killer clowns ride the train into a town isolated by a blizzard. Horror ensues.
Mayday by Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block
The air disaster in this book, written by an actual pilot, is terrifyingly realistic and gory even for those without a case of aerophobia. After an airliner over the Pacific is inadvertently torn to hell by a stray missile, the remaining passengers have to deal with some pretty intense scenarios (I’m avoiding spoilers) and figure out how to land the damaged plane. Don’t read this on vacation.
Horrifying quote: “A baby was sucked out of its uncomprehending mother’s arms and hurled along over the heads of the passengers and out the starboard hole and into the nothingness of space. Someone screamed.”
Pandora’s Clock by John J. Nance: What goes up must come down. But where? A plane full of people are denied permission to land and stuck in the air after it is discovered that one passenger is carrying a virus that poses a serious threat to world health.
Happy Halloween! Is your favorite horror novel on this list? If not, what is it and why does it creep you out? Add it in the comments!
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