It’s the perfect time of year to pick up a scary book that unsettles you in all the right ways. However, every reader has their specific brand of “scary” they prefer, whether it’s a supernatural novel, a gothic story, or even a high-stakes thriller. So don’t be hesitant to peek around each page to find out what type of scary story is best for you. To guide you on your journey, we’ve compiled some of the best books that ramp up from subtly spooky to downright horrifying.
Fear Level: 1
Sabrina says: While it doesn't feature the blood, gore, or thrills of a traditional horror novel, Iain Reid's WE SPREAD offers the reader a different type of relatable terror. It’s a tale of growing old and slowly losing one's grasp on reality, told from a first-person perspective. Penny is content to live her days in monotony as long as she is able to maintain her independence. However, when the day arrives that it's not safe for Penny to live alone anymore, she is introduced to a seemingly ideal living situation in an assisted living community. Until she begins to notice details about her roommates that don't seem quite right, and her naturally inquisitive mind leads her to a sinister truth. Or is it the truth? Penny isn't sure, and as she begins to lose track of hours and days, she questions whether Six Cedars Residence really have the well-being of its tenants at its core? The psychological terror this novel evokes earns it a spot on the fright-level scale.
The author of the “evocative, spine-tingling, and razor-sharp” (Bustle) I’m Thinking of Ending Things that inspired the Netflix original movie and the “short, shocking psychological three-hander” (The Guardian) Foe returns with a new work of philosophical suspense.
Penny, an artist, has lived in the same apartment for decades, surrounded by the artifacts and keepsakes of her long life. She is resigned to the mundane rituals of old age, until things start to slip. Before her longtime partner passed away years earlier, provisions were made, unbeknownst to her, for a room in a unique long-term care residence, where Penny finds herself after one too many “incidents.”
Initially, surrounded by peers, conversing, eating, sleeping, looking out at the beautiful woods that surround the house, all is well. She even begins to paint again. But as the days start to blur together, Penny—with a growing sense of unrest and distrust—starts to lose her grip on the passage of time and on her place in the world. Is she succumbing to the subtly destructive effects of aging, or is she an unknowing participant in something more unsettling?
At once compassionate and uncanny, told in spare, hypnotic prose, Iain Reid’s genre-defying third novel explores questions of conformity, art, productivity, relationships, and what, ultimately, it means to grow old.
Fear Level: 2 - 3
Emily says: Do you ever come across a book that seems to pop up everywhere? I’d see DOLL BONES by Holly Black on booklists and hear about it on podcasts so often that, of course, I had to grab it. And I’m happy to say that this story is the perfect option for someone like me who can’t handle too much fright. Three friends—Poppy, Zach, and Alice—have always played make-believe with their toys and action figures, but when they discover that an old bone-china doll belonging to Poppy’s mom seems actually composed of the bones of a dead girl, they leave the confines of their house to bury the doll that haunts them. While this ghost story is technically for middle graders, it’s a perfectly scary story for any age. I rank this a level 2 or 3 on the fear level.
Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever and have been playing a game of make-believe that centers around a bone-china doll named The Queen for just as long. But as they enter middle school and feel pressured to give up make-believe, the trio goes on one last adventure to solve a mystery surrounding The Queen together. This Newbery Honor–winning book is an adventure, a ghost story, and a touching meditation on growing up.
Fear Level: 4
Sharon says: Mysterious and atmospheric, Krystal Sutherland’s HOUSE OF HOLLOW is a perfect read if you like a book to leave you unsettled, but not completely frightened. This dark, modern fairy tale follows the Hollow sisters—Grey, Vivi, and Iris—who were mysteriously abducted as children and returned, a month later, unscathed, save for their identical half-moon-shaped scars, white hair, and black eyes. Now, ten years later, when Grey goes missing, Vivi and Iris team up to decipher the clues, unraveling the narrative the teen sisters have spun about their past in the process.
Fear Level: 5
Nicole says: I used to stay far away from anything horror-related, be it books, movies, or television. But in the last decade or so, I’ve begun embracing the various shapes that the horror genre can take. Sometimes the horror can be quiet, and that’s the experience I had reading PLAIN BAD HEROINES. A friend of mine spearheaded a “buddy read” of this sapphic gothic horror novel, so I knew this was my chance. The book is told from multiple perspectives, spans several decades, and is anchored by an all-knowing narrator, who leads us through the story within a story within a story. It begins in 1902 at the Brookhants School for Girls, where Clara and Flo, entwined together, are discovered dead; a copy of author Mary MacLane’s licentious bestselling memoir is at their side, and a swarm of yellowjackets gives away their cause of death. In present-day Hollywood, prodigy author Merritt Emmons has sold the rights to her first book about Brookhants to a film studio adapting it as a horror movie, with a former child star as one of the leads, and a celesbian of the moment as its producer. As filming begins and the three present-day heroines make their way to the site of the now closed Brookhants, they find themselves entangled in its supposed curse. As far as fear factor goes, this definitely wasn’t the scariest book I’ve ever read, but I will say, I haven’t been able to think of anything else when I see a yellowjacket.
Fear Level: 6 - 7
Kerry says: The long-awaited sequel to Stephen King’s masterful classic THE SHINING, thirty years later, proved that we’re still fascinated by the Torrance family and the Overlook Hotel. As scary as the story is, DOCTOR SLEEP is ultimately, as well, a poignant exploration of alcoholism, recovery, facing the traumas of our youth, and breaking its hurtful cycle. Atmospheric, chilling, moving, and ultimately hopeful, this riveting novel, which I rate a 6–7 on the fear scale, will stay with you long after you’ve read it.
Fear Level: 8
Sabrina says: Before you start THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones (and don't get me wrong, you definitely should start it because it's amazing), check your gore threshold and make sure you're up to the challenge. The novel delivers old-fashioned horror, blood, and guts like none other, and the best part is you won't see it coming. This tale of four friends, bonded in childhood, now struggling through the adversity of adulthood, offers piercing social commentary along with unsettling psychological complexity as a shape-shifting entity from the friends' youth returns to exact her revenge in the most unimaginable ways. THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS nears the top of my fright level scale as it covers all bases when it comes to driving reader discomfort. If you're a diehard horror buff who thinks you’re immune to blood and gore, think again—the psychological thrills in this story will send you reeling. Stephen Graham Jones is a master of horror literature, and THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS will transport you into truly terrifying paranormal dimensions.
A USA TODAY BESTSELLER
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
In this latest novel from Stephen Graham Jones comes a “heartbreakingly beautiful story” (Library Journal, starred review) of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition.
Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians is “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, warm, and heartbreaking in the best way” (Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts). This novel follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in violent, vengeful ways. Labeled “one of 2020’s buzziest horror novels” (Entertainment Weekly), this is a remarkable horror story “will give you nightmares—the good kind of course” (BuzzFeed).
Fear Level: 10
Sara says: Listen, I read a lot of horror—some would say an unhealthy amount—so when I tell you this book made my blood run cold, you can trust that this is no ordinary read. Don't be fooled by the cute cover; EARTHLINGS is as dark a book as they come. I picked it up thinking it would be like Sayaka Murata's earlier hit satire, CONVENIENCE STORE WOMEN, and the first few pages of her newest book even tricked me into thinking this was going to be a nice story about a lonely girl finding her place in the world. Then came the incest, child sexual abuse, cold-blooded murder, and cannibalism, each incident ghastlier than the last. Murata's writing style is clear and deceptively plain, so no horrible act gets any sugar-coating to soften it, with the social commentary only making the events more disturbing. What’s more, because the story is told from a first-person point of view, you hear the logic behind the main character's atrocities, and the surrealism gets downright unhinged. If you're looking for something to truly unsettle you this fall, look no further than EARTHLINGS (and be sure to read on an empty stomach).
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