Isolating the 10 scariest novels of all time is essentially impossible. Rankings of this nature are subject. There is no scientific proof with which to bolster our claims. These forms of lists are comprised of books that leave a burning trail of fear in our hearts. Our personal hearts. The stories that haunt our sleep long after we’ve finished the final page.
We’ve all got different hearts, different thresholds, and different dream tendencies. Maybe these 10 tales don’t leave you particularly petrified. Good, you’re human, free-thinking mind and all. That said, I’ll bet there are a few pieces incorporated in this list that give you the willies… every damn time you read them.
It is fine to chime in with agreement, and it’s strongly encouraged to weigh in with your own votes or blatant differing opinions. Perhaps we can unearth some terrifying pieces of fiction that may have otherwise gone unknown to some of us. Perhaps we stand to learn something from this list.
Regardless, here’s the list of the novels that left me mortified, a tense shell frozen in bed, rigor mortis slowly setting in, tears streaming down my cheeks, a dull sheen decorating clammy flesh.
10. Stephen King – Pet Sematary
King’s tale of severe desperation still brings a bead of sweat to my forehead today. I’ve read the novel at least a half dozen times, but time and repetition fail to dull the book’s impact. The burial ground still crawls under my skin, Gage Creed’s fate still tears at my inside. Jud Crandall still strikes me as one of the most sympathetic figures ever created, and his death in the waning moments of the story still leave me deeply melancholy and completely petrified.
Pet Sematary is an A-class effort from Stephen King.
Synopsis: “The road in front of Dr. Louis Creed’s rural Maine home frequently claims the lives of neighborhood pets. Louis has recently moved from Chicago to Ludlow with his wife Rachel, their children and pet cat. Near their house, local children have created a cemetery for the dogs and cats killed by the steady stream of transports on the busy highway. Deeper in the woods lies another graveyard, an ancient Indian burial ground whose sinister properties Louis discovers when the family cat is killed.”
09. Richard Matheson – I Am Legend
This book is so unbelievably desolate and detached from all things comforting that an immediate unease sinks into the belly as the pages begin to turn. Robert Neville’s battles as the final man on an earth overrun by vampire/zombie creatures is intense on completely new levels. Neville may be a serious braniac, but there’s panic in his existence and an unwavering tension that courses through the novel: his mental struggles are terrifying, just as is the idea that he may be forced to spend his final days in hiding, awaiting an impending death… a violent one at that.
Synopsis: “Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman, and child on Earth has become a vampire, and they are all hungry for Neville’s blood.
By day, he is the hunter, stalking the sleeping undead through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn.
How long can one man survive in a world of vampires?”
08. Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
What I’ve always found so terrifying about this novel is the subtlety with which Jackson handles the content. She never throws unbelievably outlandish sequences in readers’ directions. Rather, she establishes a slow shift in her characters that take on a turn for the dark and dank. Ultimately this one could be called just as sad as it is frightening. That said, it’s one of the very few haunting books that left me genuinely frightened after reading it.
Fantastic characters, fantastic pacing and an almost palpable atmosphere aid in the longevity and unease manufactured by The Haunting of Hill House.
Synopsis: “First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.”
07. William Golding – Lord of the Flies
Look for no massive, disfigured creatures eager to consume the flesh of innocent children from Lord of the Flies. You won’t find that brand of horror in Golding’s paralyzing classic. No, in this tale, it’s the children to fear. It’s the craving for power, and the rapid loss of reason and humanity. It’s a sudden shift made in an attempt to survive a nightmarish scenario; the primal instincts of desperate youth.
Lord of the Flies is about as close to a perfect character study as you’ll find on the market today. Our characters are very real, and their descent into madness is also very, very real. This is a horrifying piece of literature that may leave you looking at children in a different light.
Synopsis: “William Golding’s compelling story about a group of very ordinary small boys marooned on a coral island has become a modern classic. At first it seems as though it is all going to be great fun; but the fun before long becomes furious and life on the island turns into a nightmare of panic and death. As ordinary standards of behaviour collapse, the whole world the boys know collapses with them—the world of cricket and homework and adventure stories—and another world is revealed beneath, primitive and terrible. Lord of the Flies remains as provocative today as when it was first published in 1954, igniting passionate debate with its startling, brutal portrait of human nature. Though critically acclaimed, it was largely ignored upon its initial publication. Yet soon it became a cult favorite among both students and literary critics who compared it to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in its influence on modern thought and literature.”
06. Peter Benchley – Jaws
I don’t think there’s a soul alive that isn’t familiar with this game changer. If you saw Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece, you’ve got a really good idea of what’s going on off the coast of Amity. The film is surprisingly faithful to the novel (sans, in specific the final act), however reading this one allows for more gestation period in the mind. Readers find themselves tangled up in sequences of intense horror, and where the film offers little time to dwell, the novel proffers plenty of lengthy, silent moments to soak up the tragedy that just unfolded.
I’ll forever recognize the genius in Spielberg’s picture, but Benchley’s novel is a completely different beast that leaves a far deeper mark on the psyche.
Synopsis: “Peter Benchley’s story of a man-eating shark, is famous all over the world. Its fame comes from the movie Jaws, made in 1975 and directed by Steven Spielberg. Jaws is one of the most exciting, frightening movies ever made. But the novel on which the movie was based is itself hugely exciting and frightening. Since it was written in 1974, it has sold over 5.5 million copies.
The novel Jaws tells the story of a monster fish, a Great White Shark, that starts attacking swimmers off the coast of America. The scene is the sleepy coastal island of Amity, near New York, where tourism is the main business.”
05. Thomas Harris – The Silence of the Lambs
The thinking man’s horror novel that pushes the envelope on a constant basis, The Silence of the Lambs is a novel unlike any other… save for Harris’ connecting tales. This is a complex piece of fiction that frightens on an emotional level, which is a feat rarely accomplished. Mentally this tale of cannibalism and manipulation is disconcerting. In regards to physical havoc, we’ve got our fair share of that to chew on as well. But those aren’t the keys that make this one feel as though your hearts been swapped for a dying black handful of mush. It’s the emotional anguish brought to the surface of The Silence of the Lambs that still scares the crap out of me.
Synopsis: “There’s a killer on the loose who knows that beauty is only skin deep, and a trainee investigator who’s trying to save her own hide. The only man that can help is locked in an asylum. But he’s willing to put a brave face on – if it will help him escape.”
04. Scott Smith – The Ruins
Surprised to see The Ruins make the list? You shouldn’t be. This novel is insanely frightening. I’m talking lose loads of sleep and adopt a sudden measure of paranoia frightening. Smith’s visuals are stomach turning (no joke, this novel was the first to ever make me physically nauseous… it’s that descriptive) and the complete certainty that this misfortunate crossing of paths will lead to nothing other than the loss of copious amounts of blood and subsequent life is chilling. Right down to the bone. Speaking of bone, there are some transfixing moments in the book involving bone breaking, and the flesh-eating plants are about infinitely more intimidating than you might anticipate.
Synopsis: “Trapped in the Mexican jungle, a group of friends stumble upon a creeping horror unlike anything they could ever imagine. Two young couples are on a lazy Mexican vacation–sun-drenched days, drunken nights, making friends with fellow tourists. When the brother of one of those friends disappears, they decide to venture into the jungle to look for him. What started out as a fun day-trip slowly spirals into a nightmare when they find an ancient ruins site . . . and the terrifying presence that lurks there.”
03. William Peter Blatty – The Exorcist
Like Jaws, if you’re familiar with William Friedkin’s 1973 screen adaptation, you’ve got a fantastic knowledge of what to expect from The Exorcist. That said, again, like Jaws, there are some differences on paper. The largest difference however, is the pacing. While the movie tends to drag in the earlier goings, Blatty’s novel maintains a constant sense of discomfort. That attack helps to guide readers smoothly into a jaw dropping finale.
It’s been a few years since I picked this one up, but just discussing it has me eager to pillage the bookshelves.
Synopsis: “The phenomenal bestseller that inspired the classic motion picture–newly re-released in a version you’ve never seen before! When originally published in 1971, The Exorcist became not only a bestselling literary phenomenon, but one of the most frightening and controversial novels ever written. (When the author adapted his book to the screen two years later, it then became one of the most terrifying movies ever made.) Blatty fictionalized the true story of a child’s demonic possession in the 1940s. The deceptively simple story focuses on Regan, the 11-year-old daughter of a movie actress residing in Washington, D.C.; the child apparently is possessed by an ancient demon. It’s up to a small group of overwhelmed yet determined humans to somehow rescue Regan from this unspeakable fate. Purposefully raw and profane, this novel still has the extraordinary ability to literally shock us into forgetting that it is “just a story.” The Exorcist remains a truly unforgettable reading experience. Blatty published a sequel, Legion, in 1983.”
02. Ira Levin – Rosemary’s Baby
As an overprotective parent, I’ll openly make it known right now: Rosemary’s Baby damn near leaves me in a state of shock. Reading this novel, I could see myself completely shutting down, if it weren’t for the nagging disgust tugging at my brain fibers. That sensation seems to keep me in the ball game. There is nothing more sacred in this world than our children. This taboo tale takes that ideology and completely defecates on it, while incorporating a far grander text of terror. I can’t read Rosemary’s Baby at night near the bedside lamp. No lie.
Synopsis: “Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, an ordinary young couple, settle into a New York City apartment, unaware that the elderly neighbors and their bizarre group of friends have taken a disturbing interest in them. But by the time Rosemary discovers the horrifying truth, it may be far too late!”
01. Jack Ketchum – The Girl Next Door
So I mentioned the taboo nature of Ira Levin’s, Rosemary’s Baby. Perhaps I should have saved that shpeal for this choice, because if there’s anything Ketchum does in abundance during the span of The Girl Next Door, it’s dip his hands into the most taboo concoction conceivable. This tale takes torture in a very unorthodox direction: it is mind bogglingly disquieting, yet it somehow avoids treading into weightless sadism. I’m not certain hoe Ketchum makes it happen, but he does. Every emotion ever felt by man or woman is touched upon, poked and painfully prodded in this brilliant novel. Expect to shed a few tears, expect to be repulsed; to feel sympathy and helplessness. Also be prepared to find yourself mortified by how alarmingly realistic this entire tale feels.
This is what fear is all about ladies and gents.
Synopsis: “Suburbia in the 1950′s. A nice quiet simpler time to grow up -unless you count the McCarthy trials and red-scares and the shadow of the Bomb and the Cold War, unless you could see the dark side emerging. And on a quiet tree-lined dead-end street, in the dark damp basement of the Chandler house, it’s emerging big-time for teenage Meg and her crippled sister Susan -whose parents are dead now, who are left captive to the savage whims and rages of a distant Aunt who is rapidly descending into madness. It is a madness that infects all three of her sons -and finally an entire neighborhood. Only one troubled boy stands hesitantly between Meg and Susan and their cruel, torturous deaths. A boy with a very adult decision to make. Between love and compassion, and lust and evil.”