The 40 Best Horror Books for Adults – Ultimate Guide

Sure, we’ve been through all the best introductions to the genre and the best places to start with literary horror, but that’s all kids’ stuff. The books here are something more, beyond what the young adult and mainstream horror consider frightful. These terrors lurk among the mature themes and gross splatter of these, the forty best horror books for adults to embrace that inner dark.

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The 40 Best Horror Books for Adults - Ultimate Guide

Don’t let that scare you away though, with each of these books bringing more to the table than just the adults-only content. These stories will find ways to scare you, but also make you pause and think about whatever theme is underlying in the shocking, blood-soaked ride.

The 40 Best Horror Books for Adults

The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

The Graveyard Apartment: A Novel

Mariko Koike is like the Japanese equivalent of Stephen King when it comes to output and sheer popularity. The Graveyard Apartment was one of the first international horror books I picked up as a teen, and set me up for a whole new world of supernatural, isolated terror.

A couple with a young daughter moves into a massive apartment complex that they think will be their cozy dream home. To be fair, it does start that way before everything starts getting strange, with the graveyard neighboring the apartments having a strange effect on other residents until they all move out one by one, leaving the family as the only living people in the building.

The way Mariko subtly builds the isolation instead of moving everyone out at once sells the story on its own, but the added presence of something evil in the basement throws in an extra element of terror when the apartment becomes a prison.

Buy it on Amazon

Dead Sea by Brian Keene

Dead Sea

Dead Sea was my intro to the splatterpunk genre, and holy hell does it splatter. Keene embraces a more traditional zombie than his The Rising series, trading demon-possessed corpses for classic infected biters, but with a slight twist- the virus has gone cross-species.

The start of the zombie plague is the stuff of nightmares, with millions of zombie rats swarming up from the New York City underground to feast on humans, spreading the virus. Things move pretty fast from there, following the perspective of Lamar, a survivor thrust into taking care of two young kids as he escapes the city with other survivors aboard a decommissioned navy ship.

Keeping with a lot of Keene’s fiction, it’s bloody and bleak but a hell of a ride. Tons of gore, inventive zombie kills, and survivors who have broken due to the new way of life are just some of the bullet points that go into this amazing story. Though the story is longer, it’s so well paced everything flies by.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I'm Thinking of Ending Things: A Novel

There’s going to be very little said about this book because the less you know going into it the better. Just know it’s a psychological thriller, slasher, and has an overall air of something just being off in the air. 

A woman and her boyfriend go to have dinner with her parents back in her hometown. It’s the first time he’ll be meeting her parents, but she’s been struggling with the decision to break up with him. Things go downhill from there with childhood flashbacks, a strange high school janitor, and just overall weirdness.

Buy it on Amazon.

We Need to Do Something by Max Booth III

We Need to Do Something

This book broke me. There is so much sheer terror and awfulness happening just outside of the main setting of a bathroom harboring a family of four during a tornado. It may not be a tornado at all though, instead possibly being an apocalyptic event brought on by the daughter, who we see everything through.

As the family shelters in the bathroom and the storm rages outside it becomes apparent how dysfunctional they are, with the older sister being talked down to by her alcoholic father, and the mother exasperated from keeping up with the younger brother. Things just break down further when they find themselves stuck in the bathroom by a fallen tree, and after enough time passes to realize that nobody may be coming to help them.

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Audition by Ryu Murakami

Audition

Audition is an ultimate bait-and-switch story, first appearing as the story of a budding romance between a widower and the woman he begins dating after holding auditions for a new girlfriend. Yeah, it’s weird and I don’t understand why that’s a thing either, but just roll with it.

Things go south real fast when the charming and cute woman of his dreams ends up torturing him in the most grotesque and bloody ways. It’s a disturbingly dark read, but one that’s been influential on modern horror and should be read by any fan of dark, weird fiction.

Bonus: The film by Takashi Miike is a fantastic adaptation and captures all the dark weirdness of the book.

Bonus Bonus: For all the emo/punk fans, parts of the book inspired the My Chemical Romance album I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, along with a music video homage for the song “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough For the Two of Us”.

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Gone to See the River Man by Kristopher Triana

Gone to See the River Man

There are supernatural elements to this novel, like the River Man being something between myth and reality but absolutely not of this world. That isn’t the terrifying part of Triana’s story though, which is the very real story of one devoted fan becoming closer to her idol- a sadistic serial killer.

The story itself is chilling, with our devoted fan and her sister trying to deliver something from the serial killer to an isolated cabin where the “River Man” lives. Unsettling, bleak, and a little too real for comfort characters come together and make a quick, dark read.

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Sleep Over: An Oral History of the Apocalypse by H.G. Bells

Sleep Over: An Oral History of the Apocalypse

Stories told from different points of view are my favorite, even better when it’s done in this style much like World War Z, with people recounting their own experiences of societal breakdown or struggles with the disease.

Speaking of the disease, it’s something you would never consider in your worst nightmares- a world without sleep. Something inexplicably causes people to remain awake, unable to sleep at all. Everything becomes chaos as sleep deprivation begins to take a toll, leading to waking nightmares and mad rushes to find a cure. 

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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes: A Suspenseful Psychological Thriller

I need to reread this book again but make a flowchart because so many things happen it becomes hard to keep track after a while. Not to say it’s that complicated, just that a whole lot of developments happen at once and it’s one hell of a ride from start to finish.

A paranoid love triangle where two out of three are already a married couple. A woman meets a man at a bar, has a nice night, and kisses him but doesn’t get any info to find him by. Then she meets her new boss on Monday and surprise, it’s the guy she smooched with. Oh, and he’s married to a woman our main character just so happens to befriend in town later. 

This thing is twistier than a licorice factory and I mean that in the best way possible. It keeps you guessing and is so well paced you can read it in one sitting.

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Ill Will: A Novel

This book has a dual narrative flashing between the main character, Dustin’s past and present. In the past, his adopted brother Rusty murdered Dustin’s parents along with his aunt and uncle. Dustin and his cousin were used as witnesses and plied with the satanic panic rhetoric since they had little evidence to go on. 

In the present Dustin is a psychiatrist, and Rusty is being released from prison after DNA exonerates him. Then Dustin starts remembering things he forgot, locked away from his childhood. There’s paranoia and doubt as Dustin is unreliable in at least one of the timeframes, leading to a wild conclusion.

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The Return by Rachel Harrison

The Return

When Julie suddenly reappears two years to the day when she went missing, Elise is ecstatic to see her best friend again, setting up a reunion at a small inn in the countryside. Except Julie isn’t Julie, and Elise can tell that something is incredibly wrong while their two friends seem suddenly disgusted by Julie.

It’s a slower burn on the horror front, but the pace of the story itself is quick and goes by fast, mostly taking time to explore the character relationships and breakdowns from before Julie disappeared. The last half brings things into full-on horror territory, with chilling realizations about Julie and Elise.

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Flicker by Theodore Roszak 

Flicker: A Novel (2) (Rediscovered Classics)

For those that love cinema as much as literature, this is the horror book for you. It’s like a fever dream odyssey through old Hollywood, following one man’s obsession with a classic horror director and the mysterious legacy they left behind. 

It’s so strange that any description just kind of sounds like a silent Hollywood-era Ready Player One, but it’s so surreal and inventively horrific with nods to silent films, the Three Stooges, and a cosmic deity that may or may not have sinister intentions.

Just read it. That’s the only thing I can say without ruining the experience.

Buy it on Amazon

Made In Abyss by Akihito Tsukushi

Made in Abyss Vol. 1

Warning for this one- despite the cutesy art and young protagonists of the series, there is a massive amount of terrifying body horror and blood. I consider The Troop one of my favorite books and the body horror there is a walk through Candy Land compared to Made in Abyss.

One day a massive hole erupts in the middle of the ocean, revealing a deep tunnel down into what they start to call The Abyss. Explorers quickly find that while The Abyss contains some incredibly useful cursed artifacts, it also enacts a heavy toll on both the explorers’ sanity and body the deeper they go.

The story follows one girl journeying into the abyss with a cyborg boy she meets and is saved by him. They go together to both find her mother and his creator, as well as achieve the goal so many have died going after- reach the bottom of the abyss. The dichotomy of Lovecraftian horror and fantastical adventure is so well balanced and the characters are lovable, with despicable villains.

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From Below by Darcy Coates

From Below

What’s scarier than ghosts? Ghosts at the bottom of the ocean, that’s what. A supposedly unsinkable ship (because historically that hasn’t turned out bad at all) goes missing and shows up years later, sunk far off the coast. One explorer gets the chance to bring her dive crew down to the wreckage to find out just what happened.

Naturally, things go very wrong. It’s fun to see the haunted house tropes played out in an undersea setting, which comes with its own host of terrors to overcome in addition to the supernatural. It’s claustrophobic throughout, and the scares come fast.

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The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

Last One

Probably one of the most likable protagonists I’ve read in a long time, Zoo in The Last One is so damn tenacious you can’t help but root for her, even as she’s completely unaware of what’s unfolding around her.

Zoo is taking part in a survival reality show, featuring contestants being let loose to test their survival skills and filmed through it all for everyone to see. Except midway through filming apocalyptic disaster hits and everyone knows but her. Believing it’s just staged events for reality tv, Zoo soldiers on through almost literal hell to finish the game and make it back to her family.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven (Television Tie-in)

This is The Stand but with a more positive outlook on humanity, following a theater group throughout the survivor settlements of America after a deadly pandemic wipes out most of the population.

The situation of the story is bleak, with a violent, charismatic prophet encouraging destruction and the theater group trying to put an end before any semblance of remaining humanity is lost. The horror is in the background of the apocalypse while the characters shine a small light on humanity in the dark.

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Seed by Ania Ahlborn

Seed

Southern Gothic leanings meet a terrifying story of possession and a possible creature when a man realizes the evil he fled from in his Georgia town long ago followed him decades later.

The setting shifts between rural Georgia and the swamps of Louisiana, giving that humid southern gothic feel that still brings a chill.

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Suffer the Children by Craig Delouie

Suffer the Children

Reading this book while my wife was pregnant with our first child was not the best idea I’ve ever had. It terrified me in ways I never knew, and there were points where I thought that characters were acting irrationally… then my child was born midway through the read and it took on a whole new perspective.

Revolving around a parasitic pandemic that kills billions of children in the world within an hour, just for them to resurrect days later, but only being able to function and live when the parasite is satiated with blood. It’s so terrifying seeing the lengths people will go to to bring back their loved ones, and is all the more terrifying seeing how quickly things crumble.

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The Vessel by Adam Nevill

The Vessel

Jess takes a job caring for an elderly woman slowly succumbing to her illnesses. While it’s not ideal, Jess is trying to escape an abusive ex and get her daughter a better life, so a place to stay and pay can’t be passed up.

Unfortunately, she’s caring for a woman who is the literal embodiment of evil. Think the most terrifying portrayal of a scary old lady you’ve read, then double it and you’ll have The Vessel.

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You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlman

You Should Have Left: A Novel

A trip and a half, this book follows the typical trope of a writer taking his family to a remote location to focus on his newest story. Except for this time, everything just doesn’t quite work right, with things in the house not adding up, strange history on the land, and the discovery of secrets his wife has been hiding.

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Mother Thing by Ainslie Hogarth

Motherthing

Everyone loves a good Mother in law from hell story, and this takes it in the literal sense. One woman returns from the dead intent on keeping her son and his new wife miserable. There’s a lot of comedy mixed with horror as Abby, the polite daughter-in-law who’s had enough, goes on the offensive.

Buy it on Amazon

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Haunted: A Novel of Stories

This book is vile, and I couldn’t put it down. Be warned that there’s a ton of graphic adult content, and Palahniuk makes a game of seeing how many foul things he can play with.

That said, it’s a wild ride of short stories tied together under the banner of writers locked in a theater, breaking down as they become isolated from the world and tell their disturbing tales.

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A God in the Shed by J-F Dubeau

A God in the Shed (A God in the Shed, 1)

 When a serial killer who’s terrorized a small town for over two decades is arrested, everyone expects the killings and disappearances to finally end. When they don’t though, things become much more strange, with the realization that something inhuman is hiding in the isolated town.

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Sphere by Michael Crichton

Sphere: A Novel

Crichton still had so many stories to tell before his unfortunate passing. Sphere was one of his greats, with a fantastic combination of sci-fi, deep sea, and psychological horror tying together the story of a mysterious spacecraft found at the bottom of the ocean and the scientists who venture down to research it.

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Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the Interior

A tale of coming to terms with grief masquerading as a haunted house story, Jones brings a boy seeing the ghost of a father he never knew into a story of finding who you are through tracing where you came from.

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Woom by Duncan Ralston

Woom

Not for the faint, Woom will leave you disturbed and grossed out by the end. Presented as short stories in the format of one extremely disturbed man reciting increasingly disturbing stories to a prostitute in the hotel room where his mother died. Sounds pretty messed up, and it is. Go in expecting to be disgusted, but it ties together in a fantastically horrifying ending.

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Dead Sea by Tim Curran

Dead Sea

One derelict freighter full of people wanders into a calm stretch of sea habituated by Lovecraftian nightmares. Curan weaves together paradoxical time rifts and cosmically terrifying monstrosities with nowhere to run except the murky depths for survivors aboard the doomed vessel.

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Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

Survivor Song: A Novel

Tremblay usually takes a quieter approach to his horror, but Survivor Song broke from that trend with the journey of a pregnant woman and her pediatrician friend making their way through a quarantined Massachusetts after the outbreak of a mutated strain of rabies.

Natalie, heavily pregnant, is bitten by a neighbor while trying to save her husband. Now, Natalie and her friend have to traverse a quickly crumbling countryside to get to a rabies virus before she turns, killing her and her unborn child.

Buy it on Amazon

Lakewood by Megan Gidding

Lakewood: A Novel

Lakewood does the essential thing that horror is best at: calling out society’s issues for the abhorrent terrors they are by mixing them with the fantastical to catch attention. In this case, the underlying theme is that of weaponizing poverty and what we as people will volunteer for if it means we can provide for our families that week, no matter how much it may destroy us.

One young woman volunteers for strange medical experiments she’s told will revolutionize medicine to pay for her suddenly poverty-stricken family. The experiments are so much more than what she’s being told though, with strange effects that escalate in terrifying ways.

Buy it on Amazon

It Rides A Pale Horse by Andy Marino

It Rides a Pale Horse

Another recommendation of straight-up weird horror, Marino’s novel follows a successful artist who shows up at a mansion for a sale only to discover his sister is being held hostage. Now, he has to follow instructions from a stranger to free her and things get out of hand very quickly.

Buy it on Amazon

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out: A Thriller

Out is more of a thriller with very dark comedy than a straight-up horror, but has some disturbing insight into the horrifying violence humans can inflict. After an overworked woman strangles her abusive husband in self-defense, she asks her coworkers to help hide his body. Everything spirals out of control as something clicks and violence takes over.

Buy it on Amazon

This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

This Thing Between Us: A Novel

Dual narratives give a story about one man before and after the loss of his wife, and the strange events in their small condo that lead to her supernatural death. There’s a lot of grief explored and it gets really heavy in the second half, but the story interwoven into the haunted house setting is beautifully heartbreaking.

Buy it on Amazon

Off Season by Jack Ketchum

Off Season

Nothing like a family of backwoods cannibals to liven up the party. Ketchum’s story about a woman facing down a family who wants to have her for dinner in the isolated hills of New York has had a massive influence on the genre in page and film.

Buy it on Amazon

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Safe to say World War Z fits in the classics section at this point, with the oral retelling of a zombie apocalypse being made into a not-so-faithful movie and being a benchmark in zombie horror. Brooks brings so many different characters to life with different experiences throughout the apocalypse in a chilling vision with a hopeful light at the end.

Buy it on Amazon

Below by Laurel Hightower

Below

A snowstorm in the West Virginia mountains leads to a wreck as a recently divorced woman and a trucker try to make their way to safety uphill. Unfortunately, they’re being stalked by something strangely similar to West Virginia’s favorite cryptid, Mothman! A short but fun creature feature.

Buy it on Amazon

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

ALICE ISN'T DEAD

Keisha is a truck driver following any clues she can to find Alice, the wife who she had assumed dead long ago. What follows is a bizarre journey through a just slightly off-kilter America, with strange towns and immortal beings dotting the landscape. It holds horror and absurdity hand in hand with a story of loss.

Buy it on Amazon

The Phenomenon by RK Katic

The Phenomenon

I read this series ongoing as it was originally posted to Reddit by the author, completely based on a post in the writing prompt subreddit. When Katic announced he was putting together an expanded and revised compilation up for sale I can’t tell you how fast I ran to get it.

Following multiple survivors through the apocalypse where only a single warning is given at first “Do not look at the sky, do not go outside” before everything quickly goes to hell. Nobody is safe as time passes and humanity is found to be in the grips of a war between cosmic deities.

Buy it on Amazon

Dirty Heads by Aaron Dries

Dirty Heads: A novella of cosmic coming-of-age horror

A cosmic coming-of-age story where a boy finds himself becoming more of a monster than a man as he ages. Eventually going on the run, he has to either come to terms with what he’s become or set out to do something about it.

Buy it on Amazon

The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai

The Promised Neverland, Vol. 1 (1)

Emma, Norman, and Ray are three kids living in the Grace Field orphanage, raised by the loving caretaker they call Mom. Life is perfect until Emma and Norman notice their newly adopted sister left her favorite toy behind, so they sneak down to the gates at the edge of the land to give it back. 

Then begins the terror as they find out they’re not orphans waiting for adoption, but cattle being raised for slaughter by terrifying demons. The three have to use their wits to try and save not just themselves,  but all the other children before they can be sold and devoured by the highest bidder.

The characters are endearing and smart, with a ton of world-building to hold the series up. Demons are suitably terrifying and the art is just beautiful throughout.

Buy it on Amazon

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into The Drowning Deep

So, mermaids are the stuff of nightmares after reading this. Grant’s mermaids are far from the cutesy Disney versions who fall in love, instead being a vicious race from the Marianas Trench that slaughter most humans they come across. The book follows one scientist desperate to research the mermaids and find out why her sister was taken by them.

Buy it on Amazon

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona

Ward

The Last House on Needless Street

Told mostly from the POV of a housecat, Last House on Needless Street explores the strange dynamic between the cat, a teenage girl confined to the house, and her alcoholic father who won’t let her out. The book is weird, strange, and twisty even before it gets going with a new neighbor moving into the mix.

Buy it on Amazon

Might need a nice string of cat videos after reading all the books featured here, and that’s completely understandable. When looking into the eyes of madness, it helps not to stare too long.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is the scariest adult horror writer?

That’s a close call between quite a few writers, anywhere from Stephen King to Koji Suzuki, or more modern authors like B.R. Yeager and Stephen Graham Jones. There are plenty of scares to go around from plenty of different authors.

What is the most disturbing book ever written?

That’s also a major toss-up with different things that bother different people. I’ll say for me it was Survivor by JF Gonzalez, about a woman desperately trying to survive a home invasion. Tender is the Flesh is also a more recent one that affected quite a few others I know who read it.

What is the most popular horror book ever written?

Frankenstien would be the winner if you go by the number of sales, but we’re quickly approaching a point where even that could be surpassed anytime. Offhand, The Shining by Stephen King is also very widely sold and popular.

These seem intimidating, where should I start?

Well, if you’re not quite ready for the more mature themes we’ve put together numerous other lists with less intimidating subject matter. With the above books, I would start with World War Z as the easiest entry point.

Some horror gets really messed up, how do people write this stuff?

Isn’t that the job of horror writers? Speaking as one, we often take things that scare us and mold them into a story, whether it be to share and entertain others or for our own personal exercise to work on fears and anxieties. Sure, some of it can be pretty messed up, but a lot of horror is about tearing back all the guts and tissue to get to the bone of something.

Why is it so hard to find most of these in bookstores?

A lot of authors, especially in the horror genre, thrive off of either indie or self-publishing. While it makes it easier to get our stories out to as many readers as possible and share with millions, it does have drawbacks when it comes to traditional bookstores. That said, talk to your local bookstore and they’ll usually be happy to order it for you or look into carrying more titles like these!

My Top 10 Horror Books of All Time
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