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As Booklist’s resident Horror Guy (it’s not on the masthead but should be), there is one question I get more than any other: What’s your favorite horror book? Inevitably, the question throws me into a fugue of half-remembered monsters, slobbering villains, and carefully dismembered corpses. It was for the public good, then, that I finally sat down and made out the following alphabetical list. Two things to remember:
1. I’m calling this list “Horror Books” because it’s not limited to fiction.
2. These are my favorite horror books, not necessarily the best. That’s another list entirely—wait until next year.
The Big Book of Urban Legends, by Robert Fleming and Robert F. Boyd Jr.
No doubt the weirdest title on this list. This collection of 200 infamous urban legends, each told in a black-and-white graphic-novel style by a different illustrator, chills me to the freaking bone. I’ve always been a sucker for these stories, like the college girl who hears scuffling in her room at night only to awake the next morning to see her roommate’s butchered corpse and “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Wake Up?” written on the wall in blood. Are you kidding me?!
Danse Macabre, by Stephen King
If this list had a number one, this would be it. With all the information we need, or think we need, right there on our smartphones, I have to remind myself of the titanic impact this book has had, and continues to have, on my life. I grew up in an Iowa town that had a small library and a smaller video store. So it took King’s nonfiction overview of the horror genre (which I initially read out of obligation to the author) to fully crack open my cranium. His juicy descriptions of books, films, and TV shows I’d never heard off sent me off on wild goose chases that, to this day, are ongoing. This is my bible.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
I feel like a chump putting this on the list. A classic kids are forced to read in college is pretty much a waste of a top 10 entry. But leaving it out would be disingenuous. Generally, you can divide horror readers into the Dracula camp (fools!) and the Frankenstein camp. Count me in the latter: I’ll never forget finishing it for the first time while riding in an overheated backseat during a family vacation. The climax—so grim! so gory!—still has me slack-jawed. Shelley got away with that in 1818?
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Like many, I was led to Straub via the King/Straub collaboration The Talisman, and this go-for-broke masterpiece quickly usurped most of King’s own works. Straub gave his book a swaggering, iconic title that dared to try to own the phrase “ghost story”—and I’ll be hog-tied if he didn’t do it. A climactic scene taking place during a screening of Night of the Living Dead remains one of the greatest horror set pieces I’ve ever read. Just look at the state of my copy—that says it all.
Harvest Home, by Thomas Tryon
The memory is vivid: my mom, holding up a copy of this novel, and telling me, in a deadly serious tone, “If anyone ever asks you to be Harvest King . . . don’t do it.” Suitably terrified, I avoided this sucker for a good decade before running across a used paperback and falling in love. A provincial town, a harvest festival, pagan rites, and rows and rows of corn . . . it reminds me of where I grew up. Which isn’t good.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Booklist wrote that this was “destined for fast-track cult status,” and, boy, were we right. It was a best-seller and a National Book Award nominee, which makes me cringe a bit—I like to think much of the really horrific stuff is happening outside the mainstream. But it’s hard to argue with this claustrophobic, upside-down, inside-out mirror maze of a puzzle, where you quickly get lost both literally and metaphorically. And being lost is scary, no?
October Country, by Ray Bradbury
There aren’t a lot of Ray Bradbury books I can comfortably classify as “horror,” but this early collection of stories is almost nothing but. I mean, the contents are a bullet-pointed list of genre staples that make me sick with anxiety just writing them down. “The Skeleton”? “The Crowd”?? “The Small Assassin”??? “The Jar”?!?! C’mon, people, this is undeniable stuff.
The Ruins, by Scott Smith
Smith isn’t the most eloquent of authors, and this isn’t much more than a cheap horror-flick premise. A gaggle of nubile college kids kicking back in Cancun end up on an archaeology-dig hilltop, surrounded by Mayan villagers who won’t let them down. The vines, see, there’s something wrong with the vines . . . Ludicrous, disgusting, and scrumptiously grim, this has no business being on this list. But there it is!
Thinner, by Richard Bachmann (aka Stephen King)
There is a towering stack of King classics out there to choose from, and yet it’s this minor-key pseudonymous exercise in despair that has troubled me most all these years. Everyone’s favorite plot-starter, a gypsy curse, sends an obese man’s weight plummeting. But for me, the barely glimpsed fates of his friends—one literally exploding with pimples, another developing scales—are even harder to shake. One of King’s bleakest works; thus, one of my favorite.
Weaveworld, by Clive Barker
You could make a fair argument that this is dark fantasy: there’s a secret world woven into a rug and populated with mystical beings. But anything Barker touches ends up being taken to such fanatical extremes that it comes out pretty darn horrifying by the end. (We all remember that dude who played with a toy puzzle box and ended up being pulled apart by chains, right?) Weaveworld’s unnerving human villain, Shadwell, still makes me pause before re-reading.
The Doll Who Ate His Mother, by Ramsey Campbell
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
Gerald’s Game, by Stephen King
My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier
The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis
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