The Top 10 Scariest Books According to A Horror Lover

Reading has been a major part of my life ever since I learned how to do it. As a timid, unadventurous, introvert, immersing myself in fictional worlds satisfies my need to try new things. It’s also an important escape mechanism when life gets overwhelming.

My sister and I were talking on the phone the other day and she was telling me how these last twenty months or so, she has sought comfort in watching romantic comedies and lighthearted books. I told her for me it has been the opposite, horror stories have served an even greater role as my distraction of choice.

I told her that anything more bleak and terrible than my American pandemic life has been a comfort. On days when I couldn’t think of anything worse than our reality, I could turn to the fictional lives of characters going through something much, much worse. In March of 2020, I read whole horror books in one day as an alternative to “doom scrolling” on social media or watching endless news reports.

Horror fiction has always been an important part of my life but is especially meaningful to me now. It’s an incredible honor to share this list of horror books that have truly scared me and made a lasting impact on my horror-loving heart.

A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Demon possession is a horrifying concept. The idea is that a purely evil entity takes control of one’s body and mind. In the case of A Head Full of Ghosts, a young woman appears to be possessed based on her behavior, but is she? This book had me up too late at night and checking on my teenage daughter at the time to make sure she wasn’t scaling the walls or levitating off her bed.

The blurb

The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.

To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.

See our review for Head Full of Ghosts Here

Read A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

A visually graphic, disturbing tale about grief, revenge, regret, and belonging. There are scenes in this book that are forever burning in my mind like neon signs with no off switch. I distinctly remember closing the book to go to bed but I was haunted by the word Stephen Graham Jones planted in my head. I will never, ever forget the way this book made me feel.

The Blurb

From New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones comes a novel that is equal parts psychological horror and cutting social commentary on identity politics and the American Indian experience. Fans of Jordan Peele and Tommy Orange will love this story as it follows the lives of four American Indian men and their families, all haunted by a disturbing, deadly event that took place in their youth. Years later, they find themselves tracked by an entity bent on revenge, totally helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

See our review for The Only Good Indians Here

Read Only the Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

BROTHER by Ania Ahlborn

brother by Ania Ahlborn

A family in rural Appalachia is responsible for countless girls that go missing every year. The whole family is deeply involved in their traditions except Michael. He doesn’t enjoy what he has been asked to do by his relatives. I read this book straight through, my heart pounding in my chest and my eyes racing over Ahlborn’s words. Truly terrifying and heartbreaking.

The blurb

Deep in the heart of Appalachia stands a crooked farmhouse miles from any road. The Morrows keep to themselves, and it’s served them well so far. When girls go missing off the side of the highway, the cops don’t knock on their door. Which is a good thing, seeing as to what’s buried in the Morrows’ backyard.

But nineteen-year-old Michael Morrow isn’t like the rest of his family. He doesn’t take pleasure in the screams that echo through the trees. Michael pines for normalcy, and he’s sure that someday he’ll see the world beyond West Virginia. When he meets Alice, a pretty girl working at a record shop in the small nearby town of Dahlia, he’s immediately smitten. For a moment, he nearly forgets about the monster he’s become. But his brother, Rebel, is all too eager to remind Michael of his place…

Read Brother by Ania Ahlborn

BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Perhaps not traditionally marketed as horror but this is horror all the same. A teenage runaway joins a gang of “Indian hunters” during the 1800s. The book details their depravity. I’ve never read a more depraved, utterly unhinged novel in my life. Pitch black dark and bleak from beginning to end. Judge Holden is the stuff of nightmares. A human monster.

The blurb

An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the “wild west.”

Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennesseean who stumbles into the nigh

Read our review here.

Read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

BELOVED by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This book shook me to my core. Even though they are simplistic, I have a visceral reaction to seeing the cover or the title. This book scarred me. A woman named Sethe is haunted by the ghost of her oldest daughter who goes by the name, Beloved. Sethe is consumed by her and the presence of the ghost costs Sethe her earthly relationships and ultimately her sanity. A truly haunting story about the psychological horrors of slavery. An unrelenting, emotional, gut-wrenching horror story.

The blurb

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her love. Told with heart-stopping clarity, melding horror and beauty, Beloved is Toni Morrison’s enduring masterpiece.

Read Beloved by Toni Morrison

IT by Stephen King

IT by Stephen King

I was tempted to go with THE SHINING or PET SEMETARY for my King choice because they are shorter and tighter stories but they didn’t scare me the way IT did. This book hits the reader in the guts from every angle. Human monsters that prey on children, an ancient demon taking the form of a variety of nightmares that preys on children, and children that prey on other children who are different. King goes straight for his readers’ emotions so that he can exploit that concern when he throws his characters down the gauntlet. It’s the best.

The blurb

Welcome to Derry, Maine. It’s a small city, a place as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown. Only in Derry the haunting is real.

They were seven teenagers when they first stumbled upon the horror. Now they are grown-up men and women who have gone out into the big world to gain success and happiness. But the promise they made twenty-eight years ago calls them reunite in the same place where, as teenagers, they battled an evil creature that preyed on the city’s children. Now, children are being murdered again and their repressed memories of that terrifying summer return as they prepare to once again battle the monster lurking in Derry’s sewers.

Readers of Stephen King know that Derry, Maine, is a place with a deep, dark hold on the author. It reappears in many of his books, including Bag of BonesHearts in Atlantis, and 11/22/63. But it all starts with It.

Read IT by Stephen King

THE TROOP by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

I had to have a body horror/creature-feature book on this list as well as celebrate one of my personal favorite horror writers, Nick Cutter. This book is disgusting. If you haven’t read it, fear the potential for throwing up your lunch if you decide to give it a spin. This isn’t to say the graphic nature of this book is just shock value, it’s not. Cutter intricately and expertly plans this terror from page one. Just a group of kids and their scout leader on an isolated island with nothing to do but save themselves from parasites and each other. It’s brutal.

The blurb

Once every year, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs leads a troop of boys into the Canadian wilderness for a weekend camping trip—a tradition as comforting and reliable as a good ghost story around a roaring bonfire. But when an unexpected intruder stumbles upon their campsite—shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry—Tim and the boys are exposed to something far more frightening than any tale of terror. The human carrier of a bioengineered nightmare. A horror that spreads faster than fear. A harrowing struggle for survival with no escape from the elements, the infected…or one another.

Part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later—and all-consuming—this tightly written, edge-of-your-seat thriller takes you deep into the heart of darkness, where fear feeds on sanity…and terror hungers for more.

Read The Troop by Nick Cutter

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The movie terrified me so much as a pre-teen, I decided I would never read the book. As an adult and a seasoned horror reader, I finally decided it was time to face my fear and pick it up. My hunch was correct: This book is fucking scary. As a mother, it hits hard. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to watch your child get ravaged by a demon with literally no hope of doing anything about it except invite a couple of priests to perform an exorcism. I was surprised by the spiritual battle aspects of this story that is not as prevalent in the film. It made this so much more than just a horror book.

The blurb

Originally published in 1971, The Exorcist is now a major television series on FOX. It remains one of the most controversial novels ever written and went on to become a literary phenomenon: It spent fifty-seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, seventeen consecutively at number one. Inspired by a true story of a child’s demonic possession in the 1940s, William Peter Blatty created an iconic novel that focuses on Regan, the eleven-year-old daughter of a movie actress residing in Washington, D.C. A small group of overwhelmed yet determined individuals must rescue Regan from her unspeakable fate, and the drama that ensues is gripping and unfailingly terrifying.

Two years after its publication, The Exorcist was, of course, turned into a wildly popular motion picture, garnering ten Academy Award nominations. On opening day of the film, lines of the novel’s fans stretched around city blocks. In Chicago, frustrated moviegoers used a battering ram to gain entry through the double side doors of a theater. In Kansas City, police used tear gas to disperse an impatient crowd who tried to force their way into a cinema. The three major television networks carried footage of these events; CBS’s Walter Cronkite devoted almost ten minutes to the story. The Exorcist was, and is, more than just a novel and a film: it is a true landmark.

Purposefully raw and profane, The Exorcist still has the extraordinary ability to disturb readers and cause them to forget that it is “just a story.” Published here in this beautiful fortieth anniversary edition, it remains an unforgettable reading experience and will continue to shock and frighten a new generation of readers.

Read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

N0S4A2 by Joe Hill

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

A kick-ass female protagonist, “Vic” has supernatural abilities and is trying to protect her son from a demonic child killer who resides in Christmasland. The child-killer employs garbage, human monster, Bing Partridge to supply his need for orphans. I love the way this horror story jumps back and forth in time and narratives. It’s complex, intricately plotted, and compelling. One of my favorite books of all time.

The blurb

Victoria McQueen has an uncanny knack for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. When she rides her bicycle over the rickety old covered bridge in the woods near her house, she always emerges in the places she needs to be.

Charles Talent Manx has a gift of his own. He likes to take children for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the vanity plate NOS4A2. In the Wraith, he and his innocent guests can slip out of the everyday world and onto hidden roads that lead to an astonishing playground of amusements he calls Christmasland. The journey across the highway of Charlie’s twisted imagination transforms his precious passengers, leaving them as terrifying and unstoppable as their benefactor.

Then comes the day when Vic goes looking for trouble…and finds her way to Charlie. That was a lifetime ago. Now, the only kid ever to escape Charlie’s evil is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx hasn’t stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. On the road again, he won’t slow down until he’s taken his revenge. He’s after something very special—something Vic can never replace.

As a life-and-death battle of wills builds, Vic McQueen prepares to destroy Charlie once and for all—or die trying.

The NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

TENDER IS THE FLESH by Agustina Bazterrica

This is the story of a dystopian universe where animals have become toxic to humans. All animals. Zoos are shut down. We can’t have our pets. They are no longer safe for consumption. Somewhere along the way, we breed ourselves for meat. We eat “special meat”–humans raised in captivity for our consumption. Bazterrica centers the story around one man navigating this horrific landscape and there’s no way to anticipate what ultimately happens. Shocking and disturbing because it feels prophetic.

The blurb

His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.

Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.

Read Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

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Sadie Hartmann

Sadie Hartmann aka Mother Horror reviews horror for Cemetery Dance and SCREAM Magazine. She is the co-owner of the horror fiction subscription company, Night Worms. She lives in Tacoma, WA with her husband of 20+ years where they enjoy perfect weather, street tacos and hanging out with their 3 kids. They have a Frenchie named Owen.