Lights on! Doors locked! It can be fun to fray your nerves when the source is fictional (or is it?!). We asked some booksellers and other bibliophiles to recommend their all-time favorite scary stories. Here are 20 of them.
The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
A recovering alcoholic and failed writer, Jack Torrance, his wife, Wendy, and their prescient young son, Danny, spend a blizzardy winter in the haunted Overlook Hotel where Jack gets cabin fever like nobody's business. You've seen the movie starring a crazed Jack Nicholson as Jack, but have you read the novel on which it was based? If not, do, say its many fans. “It's the ultimate ‘book was better than the movie’ conversation starter,” says Ron Block, branch manager of the Middleburg Heights Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio. He adds, “It's the first book I ever threw across the room from terror.”
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
A young woman is the governess for two disturbingly fearless and distinctly odd children, Miles and Flora, in a remote country home, Bly Manor, that seems bedeviled by mysterious doings and fiendish creatures. This timeless Gothic tale by the renowned Henry James (author of 1881's The Portrait of a Lady) first appeared as a serial in Collier's magazine in 1898, and is now a classic. “It still makes the hairs on my neck stand up,” Block says. “It hits all the notes, including ghostly apparitions, strangely behaved children, mysterious caretakers and a story that hits you hard.”
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
One of the most famous ghost stories in modern history by a master of the genre, Jackson's truly spooky tale spawned two feature films and a hit Netflix series in 2018. The premise: A group of four researchers stay in an old mansion to determine if there's any truth in rumors of its haunting — and then the tables terrifyingly turn when the house begins to want one of them as its own. It's touted by Rachel Conrad, a bookseller at Wellesley Books in Wellesley, Massachusetts, as “a classic ghost story and one that everyone should read at some point in their life.”
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)
Another haunted house, this one in a small English town, features a rocking chair, a child's scream cutting through the fog and, of course, the mysterious Woman in Black. Lawyer Arthur Kipps visits the home of the late widow Alice Drablow to handle her estate, and experiences the ghost of a woman whose presence signals the imminent death of a child. This dark ghost story, turned into a hit play in London and a 2012 movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, is recommended by Pamela Klinger-Horne of Excelsior Bay Booksellers in Excelsior, Minnesota, who calls it “a traditional Gothic tale that will make you keep all the lights on.”
Salem's Lot by Stephen King (1975)
This terrifying tale is only the second novel by King, but it's as frightening as any of his great works. We meet writer Ben Mears, who returns to the small Maine town where he grew up to study the history of a particularly disturbing house, now owned by a Kurt Barlow — a strange character who turns out to be an ancient vampire. A young boy becomes a vampire, too, followed by others, and the horror quickly escalates. The novel will “keep you up all night and looking over your shoulder in the day,” says Klinger-Horne. “It almost ended my babysitting career because I was too afraid to be alone in the house.”
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (2015)
If Stephen King says a book “scared the hell out of me,” as he did in a blurb about this story, you know it's a doozy. A teenage girl, Marjorie Barrett, appears to be losing her mind and is thought to be possessed by demons, then winds up on a reality show called The Possession, where even more horrifying devilment ensues. Years later, her sister Merry revisits the show to find out what really happened … and why. Conrad at Wellesley Books says, “It took me two tries to get through A Head Full of Ghosts. … It was so unsettling that I couldn't bring myself to finish it the first time around. The second time I tried reading it I could only do so in the morning, in full daylight.”
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (2017)
Short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, this chiller by an Argentine author begins with a woman dying in a clinic, confused about why she's there and interrogated by a young boy she doesn't know. She begins to recall a story: The boy's mother had taken her sick son to a healer, who tried to revive him by allowing half his soul to be taken over by a stranger's — a stranger who turns out to be a monster she somehow has to vanquish. “I think Fever Dream is one of the most terrifying books of all time,” says Hannah Robinson, a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The slow-burning suspense genuinely made me sweat while reading this creepy little novel.”
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn (2015)
A New York Times best seller and Edgar Award winner, this novella by the author of Gone Girl (famous for its twisty plot) was first featured in a short story collection as “What Do You Do?” It features a young woman working as a fake psychic who's hired by a wealthy woman to inspect her home because it may be haunted. The con artist soon begins to think that the apparitions she's seeing just might be real — especially when the woman's teenage son's behavior turns rather weird. Conrad says, “Flynn also does an expert job of making the reader wonder whether anything supernatural is happening at all or if it's all in the protagonist's head.”
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)
Years after they massacre a herd of elk on land they're not supposed to be hunting on, four friends find that they have become the hunted when the spirit of one of the elk comes back for them. Robinson's bookstore colleague Katherine Nazzara calls it “both a thrilling tale that will have you jumping at the slightest sound (I speak from experience), and a poignant look at cultural identity and what it's like to live in a world that's trying to kill you.” She adds, “I finished this book and immediately ordered two other novels by Stephen Graham Jones, because he is truly a master.”
More frighteningly good reads:
The Terror by Dan Simmons (2007)
In 1845, a group of explorers searching for the Northwest Passage, guided by a mysterious Inuit woman, find themselves stranded in the Arctic Circle while being stalked by an unnamed horror on the ice. It's a fictionalized version of a real-life expedition and winner of the International Horror Guild Award for best novel.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
An unconventional best-selling debut novel about a young family moving into a house that is anything but a home. Soon they discover that not only is their domicile bigger on the inside than the outside, but there is a savage, growling presence that's coming closer and closer.
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
A classic! A young woman suspects the baby she's carrying just might be the spawn of Satan, courtesy of her nosy, very creepy neighbors and her ambitious actor husband. And it was made into a fabulous cult film.
Ring by Koji Suzuki (1991)
This Japanese nail-biter was the inspiration for all those terrifying movies (including The Ring and The Ring Two). Beware a mysterious videotape, because when you watch it, you die seven days later.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
Highly recommended by Lisa Gozashti at Brookline Booksmith in Massachusetts, this is the story of the Pandemonium Shadow Show, a traveling carnival led by a malevolent force, that comes to a small town to wreak havoc.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)
Read the book that spawned a famous film, along with an untold number of nightmares. When a healthy young girl seems possessed by a demon, her mother calls upon a priest, who attempts a dramatic exorcism.
The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006)
A sun-soaked holiday in Mexico turns to horror when the vacationers enter the jungle and wander into some ancient ruins. It was made into an only slightly less terrifying film.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2018)
Katsu retells the haunting story of the Donner Party — shining a light on the darkest parts of human nature while incorporating a chilling supernatural element.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (2014)
There's a missing mother, a secret diary and a warning that “bad things happen in the woods” in this story set in an old farmhouse in small-town Vermont. Klinger-Horne says, “This is one book that will never allow you to leave a closet door cracked open again."
Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973)
This scary best seller is about a small family making the dreadful mistake of moving from New York to a nightmarish New England town (what is it about New England and horror?), only to find themselves part of a Harvest Ritual. It became a miniseries in 1978 to continue terrifying us in another medium.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
A modern classic about a girl, Coraline, who finds a portal to another world with a home and parents just like hers, but better — or so she thinks, until she begins to realize something is terrifyingly wrong. This Hugo Award-winner for best novella was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film.
20 of the Scariest Books You'll Ever Read
In the mood for chills and thrills? Pick up one of these seriously spooky novels