Horror stories are a tradition of writing which goes back centuries, even before what we might call their classic era, the gothic period, in which creepiness became a desired feature in most literature and which stemmed from romantic fiction, as many of the writers in this period combined the two genres to give a sensationalism to their work.
Now there is a plethora of work to choose from, encompassing older works but also new texts in which writers use great skill in suspense, language and melodrama to give a heightened sense of uneasiness to their works. The variety of emotions these novels evoke in their readers is what entices many horror fans back, often repeatedly, to their favourite novels or authors.
You may find themes repeated within this list, may notice repeated trends within the plots of the novels listed: the nature of a thematic genre such as this one, incurs such repetitions often. The enduring popularity of this genre, then, lies not in the production of constantly new and innovative ideas, but in the variety of emotions these repeated themes can instil in ourselves.
These novels have been selected as some of the best, but this is not a definitive list. If you fancy finding yourself something new, or are searching for your favourite, then here, listed in no particular order, are ten of the ultimate scary stories.
10. Mary Shelly, Frankenstein: A true classic of the genre, Shelly’s novel tells the story of an eccentric scientist who creates a monster from deceased human remains, which becomes articulate and embittered by the poor treatment it receives from humans, who are repulsed by its image. The novel is a testimony to the strangeness and contradictory aspects of human nature, and also a violent and frightening portrayal of what would happen if science ever went wrong. Reading, or re-reading this text will prove to you why this novel is constantly revisited by other authors and film makers.
9. Bram Stoker, Dracula: This novel has become a classic on which the stylistic troupes of the genre have built upon, with good reason. Set in a border town in Eastern Europe, the novel depicts a terrifying showdown between a party of European men and Count Dracula, possibly the world’s most famous vampire. By playing on cultural fears of invasion by foreign forces, and by using various writing formats such as letters and the ship’s log book, Stoker puts across his plot slowly, but with superb attention to detail so that the reader, as they navigate their way to the action, is kept in rapture throughout.
8. Daphne du Maurier, The Doll: A short story which focuses on the writings in a notebook found washed ashore, in which the narrator depicts two linked obsessions: his own with a woman and that same woman’s obsession with a doll. du Maurier instils an intense creepiness by slowly mounting the reader’s knowledge: as with all brilliant horror narratives, it is the assent to full understanding that is enjoyable, not the actual full understanding. For every piece of information told to the reader through the story, another vital element is held back, mounting the excitement and propelling this remarkably short story forward.
7. Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale: Set between the present and the childhood of the protagonist, this novel tells several combined stories of murder, fear and ghosts, both literal and metaphorical. This novel is highly unsettling, not least because Setterfield produces no actual ghosts, nor any evidence of supernaturalism at all. It is the strange properties of her characters and their awful treatment of one another which provides the material to make this novel truly terrifying.
6. Edgar Allen Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum: A prisoner finds himself tied down in a dungeon, a huge pendulum swinging above his head and the terrifying ordeal of being sliced in half awaiting him if he does not concoct a plan swiftly. Poe uses his singular ability with language to ratchet up the tension and turn the simple premise of extreme execution into an emotional nightmare for both the reader and the protagonist.
5. Susan Hill, The Woman in Black: The story of a lawyer who, as a junior was sent to a small town to sort out the estate of an elderly lady, whose affairs soon turned out to be more complicated than expected. The repeated occurring and utterly inexplicable nature of the woman in black lend the novel make the novel frightening enough but Hill’s creation of atmosphere using her setting and characterisation lend the novel a chilling tone.
4. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho: Not strictly a traditional horror story but nonetheless a creepy glimpse into society’s elite, American Psycho shows the worst of American high society, portraying a wealthy banker and his clandestine murder sprees. The narrator is classically unreliable and his mental health is called into question throughout the novel, but it is the novel’s own ease with reporting repeated and violent murders which is perhaps the scariest aspect.
3. Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: This novel is possibly a perfect example of an original gothic horror story, telling the tale of a scientist whose experiments on himself lead to the horrific creation of his alter ego in human form, who proceeds to embody everything Utterson, a friend to Dr Jekyll, views as evil. Stevenson uses language and a talent for the dramatic and theatrical to make this novella timelessly frightening.
2. Stephen King, Pet Sematary: Perhaps not the most famous of King’s novels, although it certainly deserves to be, Pet Sematary depicts a family’s discovery of the gruesome powers which live in an abandoned pet cemetery behind their new home, and how these slowly destroy their lives and those of their friends. King expertly uses techniques such as flashbacks, which are often overused, and repetition of troupes to build the novel to its climactic finish, which has to be one of the scariest ending to a novel of all time.
1. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw: A novella in which a new governess finds a couple traipsing around the grounds of the country mansion in which she is now working. Closer investigation reveals that this couple are in fact other worldly, possibly the reincarnations of the former governess and her lover, who proceed to torment the present occupants of the house. James manipulates the technique of using a third person narrator to give his story an underlying tension and the novella heightens in tension as the reality slides away from it.