When Fiction is Scarier than a Horror Movie

The thing about Horror Fiction is that there is no special effects, make-up, or musical score to build the suspense. There’s only you, the prose, and your imagination. Of course, inspired by the right author your imagination can conjure up far more frightening realities than even the biggest special effects budget.

If scared is what you’re after, the following ten novels should do the trick. Be warned, do not open them lightly, and if you do, make sure you leave the light on.

1. The Shining by Stephen King

I’ll start with one from the master of horror himself. While the film version catapulted this story to pop culture status, the book is much scarier! Chock full of supernatural occurrences and human violence, this story of an alcoholic father and his family, in an isolated mountain resort, will find you grasping for your sanity.

2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four people decide to spend their summer in the haunted Hill house. As they begin to experience creepy and unexplained events around them, you’ll begin to feel as vulnerable as they do. So highly acclaimed for her ability to create suspenseful tension, Jackson had an award named after her.

3. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Technically crime fiction, this horrifying glimpse into a psychopathic sadist’s mind is disturbing and upsetting, but an extraordinary read. As you “watch” the story unfold like a fly on the wall, this 1952 novel will have you questioning whether or not to carry on reading.

4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

A young governess is hired to mind two orphaned children at a secluded house in Bly. She starts seeing apparitions around the grounds, and learns of scandalous rumours surrounding former (now dead) servants. First published in 1898, scholars are still arguing over what is real and what madness. You’ll need to allow the language to glide over you, but if you do, it’ll add to the eeriness.

5. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

This story of a girl possessed by an ancient demon and the Jesuit priest who tries to exorcise it, is really a story of faith, and trying to understand why evil exists. Tame by today’s standards, for its time, it was exceptionally shocking. The book that the 1973 film adaptation is based on is, still today, a must-read for horror fans everywhere.

6. The Terror by Dan Simmons

This novel is a fictionalised account of the famous disaster, the 1845 Franklin Expedition. 126 men, on two ships, went in search of the Arctic Circle’s Northwest Passage. They never returned. The Terror accounts for what happened to these men (madness, murder, disease and a giant, unknown beast). Be prepared, though, this adrenaline fuelled survival story is almost 1000 pages.

7. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Oh, go on! I’ll throw in another one. Renowned for scaring the willies out of readers, it was nearly not published because King, himself, thought it was too scary. Shortly after the Creed family move to Ludlow, Maine, their cat is killed and buried in the Pet Sematary, where children bury their dead animals. The next day, the cat returns home, alive, but not quite right. This is pure and simple horror at its best.

8. The Rats by James Herbert

Herbert’s debut novel sold out within weeks of its release and began his climb to UK horror writing royalty. The apocalyptic story begins with a single death from a rat bite. Then more attacks start happening, and more people start dying, and our hero, Harris, sets out to stop the plague. This wholly satisfying modern-day classic weaves together a good story and lots of blood.

9. Let’s Go Play at the Adams by Mendal Johnson

Twenty-year old Barbara is hired to babysit the Adams children. She wakes to find herself gagged and bound to her bed in the children’s “game” of hostage. This 1974 cult horror, based on a true story, is a dark, harrowing exploration of children pushing the boundaries. Shortly after publishing this, his first novel, Johnson died.

10. The Ritual by Adam Nevill

Four University friends reunite for a walking holiday in Sweden, a holiday that soon turns into a nightmare. The Ritual thrusts the reader into the thick of it from the first page, and expertly carries you along. Your nerves will be jumping and your spine tingling – just the way you like it!



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Emma is an ardent writer, reviewer and editor. She currently lives in Orange, NSW, where she shares her time between writing, undergraduate studies in Linguistics and French (oui, c’est vrai!), and her “day job” as a yoga teacher. Emma especially enjoys reading women’s fiction, contemporary fiction and the classics.

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