Ask a roomful of readers what they classify as horror, and you’ll get a roomful of different answers. They might involve murder, serial killers, vampires, or ghosts – sometimes, the lot, all at the same time.
The one common denominator is that it must scare you. This might be in the form of creeping dread, or explosive, evil violence; a newcomer who is led to believe that they are going mad, or something dreadful that has always been in the house. There might be famously scary objects, like clowns or dolls, or terrifying ways of thinking.
Given the rise of the “misery memoir” and true crime non-fiction in recent decades, we’ve decided that horror needed to have a supernatural element to it. That doesn’t mean that some fiction categorised as crime or thriller isn’t horrific – and if humanity-induced horror fiction is what you’re looking for, the late British crime novelist Mo Hayder should be your first port of call – just don’t say we didn’t warn you.
How we tested
When looking at possible contenders for the best horror fiction, we wanted stories that would instantly wrap you in their world, however terrifying. We were also looking for writing that could sustain eeriness but didn’t stick at one level of terrifying for 200 pages. Writing is always scarier when it has humour and lightness to emphasise the harsh darkness in the shadows.
The best horror books for 2021 are:
- Best ghost story – ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill, published by Vintage Publishing: £8.36, Bookshop.org
- Best dark fantasy – ‘The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes’ by Neil Gaiman and team, published by Vertigo: £14.99, Waterstones.com
- Best gothic horror – ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker, published by Penguin: £5.55, Hive.co.uk
- Best Stephen King horror – ‘IT’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton: £10.22, Bookshop.org
- Best occult horror – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin, published by Little, Brown Book Group: £8.36, Bookshop.org
- Best haunted house horror – ‘White is for Witching’ by Helen Oyeyemi, published by Picador: £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill, published by Vintage Publishing
Best: Ghost story
Thanks to Pixar’s Coco etc, ghosts in popular culture have become quite cutesy, and we’re now used to the word “classic” meaning something that’s gently inoffensive. Hill’s utterly terrifying slow-creep of a horror wipes the smile off your face from the minute a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps, is sent to the country to deal with a reclusive dead woman’s will, and is forced to stay in her house for the night by approaching tides. Ghost stories were out of fashion when Hill decided to see if people still wanted to be scared out of their wits, and her novel has single handedly influenced generations of writers since. While this book has been adapted into a long-running stage play (excellent) and a film with Daniel Radcliffe (campy fun), the original is a reminder that literature can do many things, and scaring the wits out of you is just one of them.
‘The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes’ by Neil Gaiman and team, published by Vertigo
Best: Dark Fantasy
Neil Gaiman’s stunning series has been a must-read since it started its monthly publication in 1989, combining mythology, humour, forgotten comic book characters – and an awful lot of horror. With Dream, the concept and the man, as its protagonist, there are a lot of very dark places for imagination to go, from the dreadful story of how Augustus became Julius Caesar’s heir, to a nightmare made flesh who terrorises an equally terrible serial killer convention. If you get hooked, the full set of 10 books collecting the series, with additional volumes of spin-off stories, is available to buy as a boxed set (£200, Waterstones.com). For a lower (and more portable) price point, Preludes and Nocturnes collects the first eight stories, and apart from being a useful place to start a series which takes you all over the place like a dodgem car, it contains one of its most grisly and ghastly stories – as well as, thank heavens, a resolution. You get everything and more besides in The Sandman (now also an Audible audio play, and soon to be a Netflix series) but you don’t always get one of those.
‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker, published by Penguin
Best: Gothic horror
It seems unthinkable now (sadly!) but in the Eighties, the children’s publisher Ladybird released a set of illustrated, abridged versions of classic horror stories, complete with audio cassette. This was many children’s first introduction to The Mummy, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and of course, Dracula, and each book was as terrifying as it’s possible to be when a tape makes a “ping!” telling you to turn the page. If you’ve never read Bram Stoker’s original, then it is worth going back to: the proliferation of TV and film adaptations cannot do justice to the incredible eeriness that Stoker manages to convey on each page. While the sexual conventions of the Victorian period are evident (Dracula only drinks from female victims; Dr Van Helsing massively fancies Mina Harker but is too repressed to name the feeling) there is also a glamour to Stoker’s deliberate descriptions. You’ll never look at a bedroom window in the same way again. Or a graveyard. It’s not looking great for ships or asylums either.
‘IT’ by Stephen King, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Best: Stephen King horror
Now, in our list of the best Stephen King books IT tied for first place with 11/22/63, but as the latter counts more as a historical thriller, Pennywise the demonic clown is free to take centre stage here. In his door stopper of a story, an ancient evil causes violent chaos in a little Maine town called Derry every 27 years or so, feasting on children, and going unnoticed by the town’s adult population. As a metaphor for the challenges of being a child surrounded by apparently uncaring grown-ups, it’s a good one. IT is not everybody’s cup of tea by any stretch as King’s story goes into some incredibly dark places – some notoriously so – but as an exploration of true horror perpetrated by both humans and demons, it takes some beating.
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin, published by Little, Brown Book Group
Best: Occult horror
Just as Susan Hill single handedly brought back the ghost story with The Woman in Black, Ira Levin’s 1968 novel brought about decades of books and films about satanic cults, from The Omen to The Exorcist. (He joked that he felt guilty: “Of course, I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”) Written with a playwright’s eye (Levin also wrote The Stepford Wives and the long running Broadway hit Deathtrap) Rosemary’s Baby is truly brilliant; a horror thriller about the impending arrival of the antichrist based around society manners and being nice to your neighbours. It also answers an actor’s time honoured question of how to get success in the acting world. The answer would apparently be to sell your soul, and possibly your family’s, to the Satanists next door.
‘White is for Witching’ by Helen Oyeyemi, published by Picador
Best: Haunted house horror
What if the thing that’s haunting you is the house itself? Following in the footsteps of Shirley Conran’s The Haunting of Hill House, Oyeyemi’s book is ostensibly the story of the Silver twins and their family, but really of the malevolence that dwells in every floorboard of their house at 29 Barton Road, Dover, and how it has claimed the lives of the maternal Silver line for itself. Oyeyemi tells a breathtakingly creepy tale with a level of restrained elegance that will have your stomach doing somersaults with dread. Suddenly, the old family home isn’t looking so desirable after all.
The verdict: Horror books
Dracula is a phenomenon, but for true, lasting horror that will cause your spine to tingle for days after you finish reading it, there’s no beating The Woman in Black. Try it. Who needs to sleep, anyway?
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