Best Horror Novels: Top 5 Terrifying Tales Most Recommended By Experts

The best horror novels transport readers into a realm of chilling suspense and psychological terror. These gripping tales often delve into the darkest corners of the human psyche, exploring themes of fear, the supernatural, and the unknown. With skillful storytelling and a mastery of tension-building, the best horror novels leave an indelible mark on readers, haunting their thoughts long after the final page is turned.

What makes for a good villain? Of course, no great scare is complete without a great villain. Americans voted Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as the best baddie of Halloween night. Michael Myers of “Halloween” just edged out Norman Bates from “Psycho” for second place. Sometimes, even just a famous movie line or a theme song is enough to send a cold chill down a person’s back. Respondents tell the OnePoll survey that “I see dead people” from the modern thriller “The Sixth Sense” is the most iconic scary movie quote ever. “Heeeere’s Johnny!” from “The Shining” and “They’re here” in “Poltergeist” also made the list of famous scary quotes.

From zombies to chainsaw-wielding maniacs, many people love to be scared senseless, but why? A study finds fear has a “sweet spot” that can actually cause pleasure for humans. Researchers from Aarhus University say it’s a fine line however, with too much frightful stimuli turning fun into an unpleasant time very easily. “By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximized,” explains lead author Marc Malmdorf Andersen in a media release. “Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence on the relationship between fear, enjoyment, and physical arousal in recreational forms of fear.”

Recreational fear can be a great outlet for stress, and one of the most compelling ways to experience it is with a good book. The landscape of the mind is filled with horrors far worse than anything ever committed to film or screen. Our sources helped us rank the scariest stories to run away with our imaginations and fill us with dread. Did we miss your favorite horror novel? Let us know in the comments below!

full moon
Full moon (Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash)

The List: Best Horror Novels, According to Experts


1. “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

Originally published as “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus,” this science fiction horror tale by Mary Shelley is iconic and groundbreaking for many reasons. This book explores the fear of science without a moral compass. Reader’s Digest raves, “There’s a reason ‘Frankenstein’ has stood the test of time: The tale of a mad doctor and his creation will grip you differently each time you read it. Ultimately, the plot begs the question: What could go wrong when a human plays God? A Gothic horror, romantic tragedy and philosophical musing all in one, this classic by Mary Shelley definitely deserves a read, or reread.”

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

Paste praises, “Hanging with her pals in Switzerland’s Villa Diodati, a teenaged Mary Shelley conceived a fatally ambitious scientist committed to creating new life. Victor Frankenstein accomplishes his goal, synthesizing a lumbering, grotesque humanoid. This book brings the word monster under the strictest of scrutiny: the protagonist abandons his unconventional child, leaving it to stumble blindly through the world searching for its surrogate ‘father.'”

Books and Bao exclaims of the torrid circumstances of Mary Shelley’s life: “Written by a teenage Mary Shelley, after she fell in love with renowned poet Percy Shelley and spent many nights by the fireside, sharing tales with him and Lord Byron. The story behind ‘Frankenstein’ is a dark affair. Shelley herself gave birth to a child who died shortly after, while the dreadful Percy was tied up in a love affair with his own stepsister. Shelley’s abandonment of his wife and child is what inspired the themes of ‘Frankenstein’: the abandonment of our children; the responsibility to raise and care for them.”

2. “Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King (1975)

“Salem’s Lot” is an early career Stephen King novel. King’s tone and narrative voice had not yet been honed to what it is today, but this compelling story is still a popular read. Reader’s Digest Says, “If you’re looking for a book you won’t be able to put down, reach for ‘Salem’s Lot,’ one of the earliest books written by Stephen King. This story of a small town overrun by vampires is deliciously chilling. As residents experience a growing list of strange encounters and start putting the pieces together, you’ll feel yourself tensing up in anticipation of the final reveal and confrontation. Sometimes slow burns make the best horror books!”

“Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King (1975)
“Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King (1975)

Paste Describes, “‘Carrie’ was an explosive start, but Stephen King’s second published novel best forecasted what to expect from the horror genre’s most outstanding author. Praised upon release as ‘Peyton Place’ meets ‘Dracula’ a reference that only half-makes sense to most modern readers, ‘Salem’s Lot’ brought the vampire myth into the backyards of semi-rural Americans and found King at his most ruthless; characters you come to love will meet grisly ends.”

“The book is languorously written, echoing the stalking menace of [the vampire] Barlow as he steadily corrupts the townspeople. A very fun twist on the vampire mythology, ‘Salem’s Lot’ reminds modern readers of the haunting and fearsome power of the vampire, a deadly stalker of the night. And, in case you are interested, King has also written several short stories which connect to ‘Salem’s Lot’ and all of them are excellent reads,” writes Books and Bao.

3. “Dracula” by Bram Stoker (1897)

This iconic gothic classic spins the tale of Johnathan Harker as he frantically works against the machinations of the titular “Dracula,” an ancient and powerful vampire lord. Joining Harker are a memorable cast including Dr. Abraham VanHelsing, the quintessential gentleman scholar and vampire slayer. Penguin Random House comments, “It’s been well over a century since its publication, but this novel has lost none of its bite. ‘Dracula’ is the definitive vampire tale, but it’s so much more than that, too. It’s a story of modern technology versus ancient superstition, Victorian mores versus barely sublimated sexuality, and the list goes on… If you’ve never read ‘Dracula,’ then it’s probably time you should.”

“Dracula” by Bram Stoker (1897)
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker (1897)

“Meet the most famous vampire of all time. ‘Dracula’ was born out of Bram Stoker’s imagination over a century ago — yet he still lives on today in our collective consciousness… More than a simple tale about vampirism, ‘Dracula’ is an era-defining masterwork about sexuality, technology, superstition, and an ancient horror that’s too terrible for words,” adds discovery.

The Portalist says, “This iconic Gothic novel introduced characters that have become horror archetypes, and forever immortalized vampires in our collective consciousness. An epistolary story inspired by Transylvanian folklore, ‘Dracula’ follows a mysterious count who—after a visit from a British solicitor—moves to a small seaside town in Britain and terrorizes the locals.”

4. “Pet Sematary” by Stephen King (1983)

Another early work from macabre master Stephen King, this title shows King’s growth as an author. From its horrifying premise to the grizzly execution, this story has kept many readers up all night waiting for dawn. Barnes and Nobel explains, “‘Pet Sematary’ manages to be [King’s] most terrifying novel by dint of its simple, devastating concept: a magical cemetery where buried things come back to a sort-of life—but aren’t quite what they once were. From that simple idea King ramps up to a climax that gets under your skin in a fundamental way most horror stories fail to.”

“Pet Sematary” by Stephen King (1983)
“Pet Sematary” by Stephen King (1983)

“Stephen King himself has declared this his most frightening work, and who are we to argue? Death, insanity and bizarre burial rituals are just a few of the gory themes that pervade this majestic work of horror writing. Those of a fragile bent are advised to steer well clear,” writes Short List.

Paste states, “By the time ‘Pet Sematary’ was published in 1983, a mythology had grown around it. Rumors among King’s fans suggested that the book was too frightening to publish, the sort of death-saturated manuscript you had to read wearing rubber gloves… When a cat belonging to his daughter was killed on the busy truck route in front of his house, King wondered: what would happen if he buried the cat, and three days later it came back, somewhat altered? And what if a child were killed, too, then came back changed (and not for the better)?”

5. “Tender is the Flesh” by Agustina Bazterrica (2017), Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses

The title sets the tone for this Spanish-language book about the horrific implications of consumerism-driven cannibalism. This inventive narrative combines tropes from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and the 1973 dystopian thriller “Soylent Green.” Elle claims, “What’s more horrific than cannibalism? When it’s first reported that a virus has made all animal meat poisonous, the government begins transitioning to human flesh, making cannibalism completely legal.”

“Tender is the Flesh” by Agustina Bazterrica (2017), Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses
“Tender is the Flesh” by Agustina Bazterrica (2017), Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses

“In this skin-crawling book… Marcos works at a plant processing ‘special meat,’ and tries to keep his mind on the work and not what it means, until he’s gifted a live ‘specimen.’ As he starts to treat her more like a person than a meal, he’s got to stare his reality in the face,” says Good Housekeeping.

Books and Bao reviews, “While ‘Tender is the Flesh’ treads dangerously close to being gratuitous and unnecessarily violent at times… the questions and warnings it raises are ones genuinely worth pondering. Our planet continues to diminish in a frightening multitude of ways, and stories like this one hold a heavy mirror to that reality. Bloody, gruesome, and uncomfortable, ‘Tender is the Flesh’ is a bleak horror novel with a heavy-handed but necessary metaphor.”

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