As it’s almost Christmas, here is a list of my own favourite horror books. These are books that either inspired, terrified me, or made my jaw drop at the sheer beauty of the writing. These are all personal choices, so feel free to disagree. But without further ado, here is the list, in no particular order…
The Rats James Herbert
British writer James Herbert was strangely underrated during his lifetime, which is a shame, as he is one of the most frightening horror writers of the 20th century. “The Rats” burst on to the scene in the 1970s, and it still packs a punch today. The huge list of characters, the violence, and the incredible imagery make this a must-read!
Cabal Clive Barker
In the 1980s Clive Barker appeared as a breath of fresh air with his promise to show what other writers only hinted at. Not satisfying with having the monster carry off the maiden, Barker wanted to reveal what happened afterwards. Cabal is his most solid novel, a tale of a man who believes he is a psychopath and takes refuge in a hidden underground city of monsters. The result is a Grand Guignol of the surreal and unnerving. Filmed as the uneven but imaginative “Nightbreed” with David Cronenberg as the bad(der) guy!
The Stand Stephen King
My first Stephen King entry is the author’s dark take on the apocalypse. It begins with a whimper and ends with a bang. Filmed twice with varying success, this is some of King’s finest writing. So depressingly realistic that at first I had to give up on it and came back when I was in a lighter mood!
IT Stephen King
The second Stephen King entry on my list is, I think, undeservedly ignored, thanks to a forgettable TV movie. But make no mistake, the novel is King at the peak of his powers. The characters are rich but archetypal, the town of Derry both nostalgic and terrible. And the monster, ah, the monster..!
The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Ramsey Campbell
A peculiarly British atmosphere pervades this book, set in the poor end of Liverpool. There is a particularly nasty antagonist, but what makes it so memorable is Campbell’s description of urban neglect. Wherever the characters go you feel the empty eyes of forgotten tenements glaring at them. A unique little tale.
The October County Ray Bradbury
Few can deny that Ray Bradbury is the American master of the short story. But did you know that this anthology contains an early possible prototype of the Addams Family? These American Gothic fables contain such memorable tales as “The Jar” and “The Emissary”. Packed with gorgeous prose, this is both horror and literary… and funny to boot!
Domain James Herbert
The last entry in the “Rats” series sees survivors of a nuclear holocaust eking out an existence in London’s rubble. Until they find an army of mutated rats waiting for them! Superlative suspense fiction. Every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. Surely a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to be made!
The Vampire Tapestry Suzy McKee Charnas
A unique take on the vampire genre sees Suzy Charnas’s ancient and wily vampire take on the challenges of the modern world. Never has a vampire been presented in such a detailed psychological light.
The Books of Blood Clive Barker
Yes, all of them! It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary Barker’s fiction was when it first surfaced. These short stories run the gamut from the epic (In the Hills, The Cities) to the eerie (Skins of the Fathers), the surreal (The Body Politic), the funny (The Yatttring and Jack) and the downright weird (Son of Celluloid). Some have become movie fodder, such as the unforgettably bizarre video nasty “Rawhead Rex”. Others are allegedly in the pipeline. But nothing can prepare you for Barker’s very personal vision of a contemporary world that’s as dark and corrupted as Dante’s inferno!
Interview with The Vampire Anne Rice
The book that launched a publishing legend. I still remember getting lost in the luxuriant Gothic prose. Anne Rice creates a vivid fantasy fever dream that is both like and unlike the movie version. A true masterpiece of fiction.
Day of the Triffids John Wyndham
British writer John Wyndham’s most well-known book is an example of the “cosy catastrophe”. But that’s why I like it! It’s interesting to see stiff upper lips drop as British society falls apart under attack from some walking plants with the aid of a meteor shower!
Kiss Kiss Roald Dahl
Not just the writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s short stories were laced with an acerbic wit and grisly imagination. A bit like fairy tales for adults, with added poisoning, brain surgery and insect/baby hybrids!
Ghost Story Peter Straub
Possibly THE great American ghost story. Peter Straub writes far too little horror these days. But this fantastic novel – described by Stephen King as “a tiger tank of a book” – contains virtually every twist on the ghost tale that you can imagine. Oozes atmosphere and quiet menace!
I Am Legend Richard Matheson
With episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and numerous TV movies such as the unforgettable “Duel” and “The Night Stalker”, Richard Matheson inspired a generation of writers. This is his probably his most famous work – filmed as the languid Vincent Price chiller “The Last Man On Earth”, the action-packed and very Seventies “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston, and lately as the CGI-heavy Will Smith popcorn flick, this tale of a man alone in a world of vampires has still never been done right. Which is a shame. It’s a fine novel.
The Haunting Shirley Jackson
One of the great ghost stories ever written, it’s amazing how the writer delivers so many effective scares without ever resorting to gore or shocks. Shirley Jackson’s story is a snowball rolling downhill, gathering chills as it goes. Also one very good and one very bad movie.
Teatro Grottesco Thomas Ligotti
Ligotti is one of the writers of the “new weird” – modern authors in the cosmic horror tradition of HP Lovecraft. This collection showcases his unique prose style – a style of flatness and repetition – that lends his words a peculiarly terrifying banality. “The Red Tower” was a particularly fine story. Have fun unpacking the symbolism!
Hour of the Oxrun Dead Charles L Grant
Overlooked by many, Charlie Grant’s Oxrun Station stories all take place in the same sleepy Connecticut town – that just happens to attract all manner of evil! Perhaps it was because these are classic supernatural stories that came out just as writers like King were modernizing old horror tropes. But these are creepy tales, laced with luscious prose. The old TOR versions had the best covers – each one a gorgeous Halloween-themed scene. Ideal for a creepy night in!
Last Call of Mourning Charles L Grant
My favourite Charlie Grant story keeps you guessing all the way through. The plot sounds simple enough – the heroine returns to Oxrun Station to find her family ‘changed’. They don’t bleed, keep out of the sunlight, and have strange nocturnal habits. But the truth is something you’ll never guess. A masterful book that drips atmosphere and charm.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All Laird Barron
Barron has erupted onto the horror scene in recent years. This volume represents many of his Lovecraft-meets-Raymond-Chandler style of stories. But that is to do him an injustice. True, “Hand of Glory” is an effective pulp/horror mashup. But other stories show a genuine ability to expose our innermost fears. His eye-catching imagery cannot be easily forgotten.
The Vampire Lestat Anne Rice
Anne Rice second entry in my list is, I think, the most rich of her vampire stories. While I loved the epic scale and sheer ambition of “The Witching Hour”, “The Vampire Lestat” beats it because of the wonderful ironies the author employs. Here we learn who Lestat is, where he came from, his complicated (to say the least) relationship with his mother and his first meeting with Armand. We also learn more about Rice’s vampire mythology. This is both epic and deeply personal. Lestat feels like a living, breathing person. In all of horror, I can’t recall a more well-rounded, charismatic character!
What’s missing from this list? Plenty. This is not my “Top 20”. Nor is it meant to be any kind of definitive list. These are just books I’ve loved. Pure examples of the horror genre that are original stories. I’ve not included anything by any “classic” author such as HP Lovecraft, Mary Shelley or Edgar Allen Poe, because everybody knows all about them anyway. Hopefully you feel the same or similar about some of these titles, or if not, I hope you seek them out and find them to your liking!