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5 of the scariest horror books ever written

Stephen King speaking at an event
Stephen King, author of some of the scariest ever horror books. Pic: Stephanie Lawton/CC BY 2.0

There is nothing better than curling up under a duvet on the couch with a terrifying book.

These five short novels are all heavy on horror, providing a thoroughly creepy read without requiring a huge time commitment.

Fast readers may get through some of these books in one sitting, and the short stories are perfect for whiling away an evening.

5 The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of The Hound of the Baskervilles

This short Sherlock Holmes novel is one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most recognised works, and also one of his most commonly adapted.

It is also an excellent introduction to Sherlock Holmes, for both young and old alike. Sherlock Holmes receives a young country doctor in his London rooms, first to report the mysterious death of a country squire and then to ask advice on how to handle the young, foolhardy heir.

Watson (and eventually Holmes) decamp to Dartmoor, a vast expanse of sparsely-populated moor in the West Country of England.

The main threat in the first half of the book is Sir Henry Baskerville’s unfound (and possibly nonexistent) murderer, or perhaps a family curse.

Yet this book also includes more skillfully-woven subplots than any of Conan Doyle’s other works, including an escaped convict and some incestuous family connections.

This is also one of the rare Sherlock Holmes stories to take the reader away from the murky fog of London, to somewhere much gloomier, seemingly much colder and older and mysterious. The brooding moor seems to hang over the shoulder of every sentence in this book.

Bonus: Watch one of this book’s many excellent movie adaptations, such as the 2002 BBC adaptation, or the excellent Basil Rathbone version.

4 The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

Henry James
The author Henry James

This moody, atmospheric novella was first published in 1898, but seems years ahead of its time.

The creeping, claustrophobic ambiguity of this novel leaves it open to a wide range of critical interpretations, yet it is also notable for its setting: a lonely country house, where a young governess is sent on a mysterious assignment — to look after two young children on the condition that she does not contact her employer again.

James’ intention was to produce a horror story that focussed on the sinister and unsettling in the everyday, and this book fulfils that brief admirably.

Although many other books have focussed on such common horror tropes as the isolated house in the country, children who know more than they should, and ambiguous first-person narratives, this book is a masterpiece of the genre.

Like the previous book, it is an excellent introduction to Henry James, especially for teenagers or young people.

Bonus: Although it has a slightly different narrative, the 2001 film The Others has a similar setting: swirling mists, an old country house, and children who seem just a little “off”.

3 The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen
Welsh author Arthur Machen

Pleasantly old-fashioned, this is a thoroughly unsettling novella about the unnatural and the fantastic.

It begins with a very unnerving depiction of a rudimentary brain surgery, and much of the book is taken up with the main character’s investigation into a mysterious, rich woman who is new to the London social arena, who of course turns out to be more sinister than she appears.

Although this book is fantastic as a stand-alone piece of nineteenth-century horror fiction, it also functions as a fantastic conversation-starter, particularly about how women and gender-relations are framed in fiction of the era.

Bonus: Investigate the bizarre and creepy legend of the Angels of Mons, a legend about angels which protected members of the British Army during World War One. Machen was instrumental in creating this myth.

2 Secret Window, Secret Garden, by Stephen King

Stephen King addressing an audience
Stephen King visiting a USO Warrior Center. Pic: The USO/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although it is debatable, many Stephen King fans have argued that his greatest and most accessible works are shorter fiction or novellas. This short novella, present in the excellent collection Four Past Midnight, is a dense, claustrophobic descent into paranoia and madness.

Mort Rainey, a writer living alone in Maine, is confronted by a man who insists that Mort has plagiarised one of his short stories. It so ensues that Mort may have committed an act of plagiarism when he was in college, although he insists that the man, John Shooter, is wrong.

Surely being wrongly accused of plagiarism is one of the writer’s greatest fears, and King does all the horror and self-doubt of the situation justice.

Bonus: Most of King’s other short fiction collections are fantastic, including his first, Night Shift, and 2010’s set of four horror novellas, Full Dark, No Stars.

1 The Short Stories of H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft

All of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories are available in complete collections, but for those readers who want a short introduction to his works, there are several collections which bring together stories with a certain theme.

These stories are also more likely to be of a uniform quality — although Lovecraft was an excellent, uniquely talented writer, some of his tales have aged different than others, especially those that he wrote with the intention of publishing in short fiction magazines (“pulps”).

Lovecraft’s works of horror fiction are significant in the annals of twentieth-century fiction, and unequalled in terms of their fantastic elements and sense of creeping horror.

His books also contain fantastic, ominous descriptions of New England, including Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft lived for most of his life.

Although Lovecraft is hard to pin down — partially because he was so prolific but also because he had some unorthodox beliefs and opinions — most of his work centers around a few themes: forbidden or esoteric knowledge and the existential horror associated with uncovering that knowledge; science and religion; and the inevitability of fate.

Bonus: those who enjoy reading Lovecraft will also enjoy the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, who was a direct influence on Lovecraft himself.

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