When thinking of literary fiction, the mind doesn’t immediately go to horror. Despite the fact that our most enduring horror icons – the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, for instance – have their roots firmly planted in the Gothic Fiction boom of the nineteenth century, horror is nonetheless often associated with zombie hordes and blood-soaked creatures. While that’s certainly the case today, there’s a long history of literary fiction writers that skillfully weaved together tales of terror and suspense.
In recent years, there’s been a rise in novels where the literary and the horrifying intermingle for some truly unsettling reading experiences. With Halloween lurking just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to take a look at a few of the best that literary horror has to offer – novels for those of us who appreciate a spine-tingling scare as much as a well-crafted sentence.
Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Introduction by Stephen King
There’s a reason these three stories have endured as literary classics. Each of these nineteenth century creations were vanguards of the Gothic Horror style. Generations of readers have been enthralled and terrified by these tales, whether it’s Victor Frankenstein’s game of cat and mouse with his tortured creation, a young adventurer’s encounter with a hellish Count, or a unsuspecting doctor’s descent into madness.
Shirley Jackson; Introduction by Laura Miller; Series Editor Guillermo del Toro
Haunted houses have essentially always been a fixture of the horror genre, but nothing has ever compared to this genre-defining classic by Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House packs as much as power to unnerve and terrify today as it did on its original publication in 1959. The account of a group led by an occult scholar investigating the paranormal phenomena surrounding the notorious Hill House is taut study in sustained dread.
Set against the shifting societal landscape of post WWII England, The Little Stranger is as haunting as it is suspenseful. The novel centers on Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has created a quiet life as country doctor. When he is called to see a patient at Hundreds Hall, the crumbling Georgian mansion of the Ayers family, Faraday is soon caught up in not only the family’s dark secrets, but also a potentially far more sinister, and possibly supernatural, presence lurking within the home.
This classic and influential tale from Henry James is a masterpiece with haunting atmosphere and escalating tension. It tells the story of a young, unnamed governess brought to a country to care for two young orphans. Increasingly unnerved by a sense of foreboding that has settled over the house, the governess soons begins to fear that the children are at the mercy of a malevolent and supernatural force.
The Remastered, Full-Color Edition
Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves is one of the most inventive and wholly disturbing horror novels in recent history. Its unconventional and often bizarre structure is both disorienting and enthralling. The story deals primarily with the Navidson family and their new home on Ash Tree Lane – a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. What follows is a challenging and complex novel that, when looked at as a whole, is one of the most unsettling and original works on this list.
Equal parts dark fairy tale, otherworldly horror, and a profound examination of grief, loss, and legacy, The Changeling is a mesmerizing and haunting read that lingers long after the final page. The story centers on Apollo Kagwa, whose life is irrevocably changed when his wife commits a horrific act and seemingly vanishes. This event sets Kagwa on a bleak odyssey that is modern myth-making at its best and most dark.
The Definitive Edition
H. P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror writers of the twentieth century – he more or less singlehandedly created an entire branch of weird horror fiction in Cosmicism. His works are unrelentingly bleak, but are fascinating exercises in atmospheric dread and pacing. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his best, and lays a foundation that underpins much of novellas and short stories. The story follows a geologist who discovers a bizarre prehistoric cyclopean city in Antarctica within an undiscovered mountain range.
Ghost Story is arguably Peter Straub’s greatest novel – a examination of small-town secrets, past mistakes, and the way ghosts of the past continue to haunt us. The novel follows a group of old men in sleepy Milburn, New York who gather periodically to reminisce and share ghost stories. When one of them suddenly dies, the others are inexorably pulled toward a horrifying event from their youth that each thought was long buried.
John Ajvide Lindqvist; Translated by Ebba Segerberg
Let the Right One In is one of the most engrossing and deeply disturbing vampire tales in recent memory. Vampire fiction is vital to the horror genre, and while Lindquvist didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, Let the Right One In nonetheless feels like a brutal reinvigoration of the genre. This story of a bullied young boy’s encounter with a vampire benefits greatly from the existential dread and bleak narrative style so often indicative of Scandinavian fiction.
When it comes to horror-tinged dark fantasy, it’s hard to top Ray Bradbury. As one of the most beloved and revered authors of the twentieth century, Bradbury’s influence can be seen stretching from the works of Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. With Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury uses his masterful prose style to tell a tale of two boys caught up in the draw of otherworldly traveling carnival in a sleepy, fictitious community of Green Town, Illinois.
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