The 40 Best Horror Books of All Time – Ultimate Guide

The hardest part of making this list was narrowing it down to just forty books. The horror genre is so old and so abundantly popular we could make a top 500 and barely scratch the surface of the immense pile of quality horror that’s been written.

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The 40 Best Horror Books of All Time - Ultimate Guide

We did it though, with only some casualties due to an effort to limit entries to one author each. These are the forty best horror books ever written, with a focus on the creativity, scares, and lasting impact the work had or will have on the genre. 

There’s a wide array of judging, and there may be some controversial choices, but these forty are guaranteed to have some moments to make you gasp in horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

'Salem's Lot

Legitimately one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. This was only King’s second book yet his most terrifying by a landslide. The vampire tropes remain scary, with everything from undead kids to the head vampire bringing death wherever they’re allowed in.

Not many books will make you scared of seeing someone out of a second-story window, but Salem’s Lot practically starts there with the action ramping up as more and more of the town slowly decays into death.

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Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

Song of Kali

A literary editor travels to India to explore rumors of a resurfaced poet with new material. What he finds is instead a vast conspiracy linking the Hindu deity Kali with a terrifying cult that worships the reanimated dead.

Simmons is a master of horror with works like The Terror and Summer of Night, but Song of Kali was his first big mark on the genre and would establish his brutal stories and threats taken from history as a force of terror.

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The Elementals by Michael McDowell

The Elementals

One of the most terrifying novels ever written, McDowell combines the southern gothic haunted house story with cosmic horror on the shores of Alabama. Two families living next to a dilapidated beach home have to survive the terrifying presence there when it begins hunting them.

McDowell was so far ahead of his time with this story, giving smart characters mixed into a ghost story with cosmic horror elements that haven’t been touched by anyone else since.

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Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge

Dark Harvest

Every year the October Boy rises from the cornfields of a small village, and every year the local boys of the village have to take part in the ritual to capture it. Dark Harvest is a quick read but leaves you hollow, with the lead character determined to win the game and be able to leave the village finally.

What’s chilling about Dark Harvest is the ambiguity though. Nothing about the town or ritual is ever made clear regarding why it’s being done, or even what happens if the ritual isn’t done. Somehow that manages to make things more terrifying as the carnage of the night continues.

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World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks changed the zombie game with World War Z, showing a world jaded by fast zombies that the slow, shambling corpses of the undead were just as terrifying with their overwhelming numbers.

There’s a balance of humor, heart, and horror as each chapter is a different survivor’s story about the zombie outbreak and eventual victory by humanity. There’s harrowing suspense and blood everywhere, with a fascinating thread throughout about what humans can conquer when working together.

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Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird Box: A Novel

What do you do against an apocalypse where just seeing the creature is a death warrant? Bird Box shows the apocalypse in flashes between the present and past as creatures overtake the earth, driving anyone that sees them to suicide while humanity struggles to fight against an enemy it can’t look at.

The main story revolves around Mallory, a mother to two children, trying to lead them to a new shelter while protecting them from what waits beyond their blindfolds. 

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The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter)

Hannibal Lecter is a name known by almost everyone at this point, but this is his finest appearance as the charming cannibal manipulates all those around him to secure his own freedom while helping a new FBI prodigy.

Harris’s descriptions and character writing are visceral, with the dichotomy between Clarice and Hannibal being suspenseful and witty all at the same time as pure evil puts on a charming smile.

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Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film: A Novel

When a cult filmmaker’s daughter dies in a mysterious accident, one man takes it upon himself to find out the truth and discover what exactly is behind the director’s disturbing horror films that cause mysterious death wherever they’re shown. The book is a mind-twister, never letting up on the weird as we stumble through a celluloid nightmare along with the story.

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Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Zone One

Zombies were a hot commodity in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but nothing quite hit the balance of satire and horror like Zone One

Following a man hired to clean the New York City streets of straggling undead, the book goes in between the now and then of everything to show the journey that led to the fall and reclamation of the city.

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Fantasticland by Mike Bockoven

FantasticLand: A Novel

There’s no horror like human horror, and Bockoven nails the dark side of human nature with the story of teens and young adults trapped in an amusement park during a hurricane.

The hurricane itself lays waste to everything surrounding it, leaving the employees of the park (most of which are just kids) stranded for five weeks before rescue workers can find them. The story is told in flashbacks as everything slowly breaks down and tribalism takes over, giving a terrifying glimpse of humanity and survival.

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Hide by Kiersten White


Something about abandoned amusement parks makes them a center for terror. Maybe it’s the imagery of a place that’s supposed to be joyful and fun instead of decaying and crumbling, but whatever it is Hide plays it to the fullest.

Fourteen kids play a game of hide and seek in an abandoned theme park with the prize being enough money to never want again. The game turns into something much more deadly and sinister though as people begin disappearing and something unnatural begins stalking them.

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Ring by Koji Suzuki

Ring (Ring Series, Book 1)

With the American movie adaptation of The Ring being one of my intros to horror, I wasn’t expecting Koji Suzuki’s original novel to get to me. The experience was jarring, to say the least as the book and movie only share what amounts to basic plot beats while everything else is wildly different.

The tragic story of Sadako and the curse that travels through videotape is just the beginning of the story as it evolves through sequels into something far beyond anything that could be imagined in just the first book. The first will satisfy that creepy analog horror craving, but the following will take you on a twisting roller coaster ride in and out of a world that may not exist.

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My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

My Heart Is a Chainsaw (Indian Lake Trilogy, The)

There’s a saying about writing what you know and knowing what you write, and Graham Jones holds close to it with My Heart is a Chainsaw’s wit, horror, and homages to classic slashers.

Following an indigenous teen seen as a troublemaker by everyone around her, she becomes an unwilling final girl when a slasher begins targeting her hometown. There are little pieces of everything from Friday the 13th to Evil Dead blended in for an exciting and bloody ride.

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The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop: A Novel

Fair warning up front: while this book is terrifying, it’s also utterly disgusting. Do not recommend reading while eating or if you have a fear of parasites. That said, The Troop will turn you inside out with fear.

A small boy-scout troop and their leader go to a small, supposedly deserted island for a survival weekend. Everything goes south when a strange man walks up to their campfire, bleeding profusely and infected with a new, deadly type of parasite that worms its way through the body in a matter of hours. Grotesque and horrifying, The Troop will leave you nauseous for a bit.

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House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

House of Leaves: The Remastered Full-Color Edition

House of Leaves is a product of grieving on Danielewski’s part, using the book to pour out his feelings over his father’s passing. It’s obvious that within the horror is a story of loss and belonging, as well as the emptiness inside those we may not know.

Terrifyingly told in three parallel stories of a documentary filmmaker investigating his house, an old man investigating the footage, and a bike mechanic who finds the old man’s notes. The formatting of the book alone will leave you questioning whether the house is haunted or a reflection of those that live there.

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The Enemy by Charlie Higson

The Enemy (An Enemy Novel, 1)

A deadly virus turns everyone over the age of sixteen into zombies, leaving children across the world to fend for themselves as everyone around them becomes a shambling corpse intent on eating them. 

The characters are quick-witted and smart, giving a survival tale where you can root for the heroes instead of criticizing decisions. There are seven books in the series as well, and most are separate stories within the same world. 

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The Hunger by Alma Katsu

The Hunger

A fictional account of the doomed Donner Party, Katsu takes the tale of the doomed travelers and sets it against the supernatural backdrop of the untamed wilderness of America. 

The book is cold and cruel, with the conditions harsh and evil looming over every step they take. The reveal of the evil picking them off is something unexpected and will leave you with a chill.

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

More horror straight from human hands instead of any supernatural threat, Blood Meridian is one of McCarthy’s many classics, but it isn’t an easy read. The story of one kid in the old west who falls into a gang of vigilantes that turns into killing for fun is dark, violent, and a meditation on the evil of man.

The book has some disturbing moments, so definitely be warned. Most of it is violent, but there are also some scenes involving the genocide of native peoples and others.

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The Ruins by Scott Smith

The Ruins

Body horror is something that can universally terrify us all, uniting everyone in the fear of having something in their body that isn’t supposed to be there. Like plants.

The Ruins follows a group of tourists that (stupidly) fall into an ancient temple and become victims of the strange wildlife growing there that begins to pick them off and turn them into plant life. Smith’s descriptions are gnarly, and the book will make you stay on the beaten path the next time you visit another country.

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Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Let the Right One In

A coming of age vampire story about a lonely child who just wants a friend and the immortal vampire girl next door who fills that role. The book has moments of sweet sincerity and brutal horror as the child and vampire become closer, eventually in a bond that will last a lifetime.

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Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

Harvest Home: A Novel

Why is it always corn harvests that the blood rituals get used for? Why not potatoes or carrots? Either way, Harvest Home takes the rural pagan horror of stories like Children of the Corn to new heights, blending a story of cult sacrifice and a creepy village with the massive paranoia that something just isn’t right when a new family moves into the isolated farming community.

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The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door

This is a rough read, and more terrifying because it’s based on a true story. Though the book is almost a cakewalk in comparison to what actually happened. 

Two girls are placed in the care of their aunt after their parents die, going to live with her and her three sons. The aunt is incredibly unstable though and begins escalating abuses toward the two girls before encouraging her sons to partake. The book is a hard read, and full of the horror of human beings.

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Brother by Ania Ahlborn


Take Texas Chainsaw Massacre and set it in the hills of Appalachia where people go missing all the time and nobody bats an eye. The book is made more interesting because it takes the point of view of one of the cannibalistic family, instead of an outsider.

The oldest son of a family of cannibals finally decides he’s had enough, leading to a desperate fight to stop his family from killing a girl he’s fallen in love with.

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Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love: A Novel

Fasten your seatbelt. Geek Love follows a traveling carnival that begins to fade out, so in a last-ditch effort to bring back business the husband and wife duo that runs the carnival uses any means necessary to breed their own freak show.

The book jumps between the past and present following one of the couple’s daughters as she deals with the carnival becoming a cult of disfigurement and eventually protecting her daughter from evil. There’s a lot that goes on, and some that you won’t believe until you read it.

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Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

Those Across the River

The Depression and fallout from WWI bring a man back to his Georgia home in the 1930s, looking to write a book about the old family plantation crumbling across the river. The town has some hidden secrets though, especially involving the plantation and the hogs sent over as appeasements.

The book creates a lurking sense of dread as we find out just what lies across the river in the ruins of the old plantation, and the terrible, bloody past that causes it to stay there.

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Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Tender Is the Flesh

This book messed with me so much that I stopped reading for about two weeks. It’s human horror with an allegory on factory farms, leading to a horrifying reality of cannibalism, love, and what it means to lose your humanity.

A near future where a virus has rendered any meat unsafe for human consumption leads to using humans being bred as “special meat” for others to live off of. The “Transition” as it’s called is just a terrifying account of humanity going to the darkest lengths to survive.

That’s just the setting while the story itself revolves around one man working in a processing plant who ends up befriending what is supposed to be one of his products. What follows is heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and nausea-inducing.

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Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt


Something about the supernatural being normalized in a confined area makes for great stories. Maybe it’s the contrast of natural and weird, but Hex hits the perfect balance between a small-town slice-of-life story and dreadful world-ending destruction.

A mountain town where nobody really comes or goes, and for good reason: a centuries-old witch roams the town, her eyes and mouth sewn shut so she doesn’t unleash evil once more. Naturally, the book follows everything going wrong for the town as strange happenings seem to bring the old witch closer to freedom.

The climax of this book left me reeling, with everything after being a massive rush of terror and madness.

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The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

Last Days of Jack Sparks

This is a nice comedown after some of the others on here. Last Days of Jack Sparks made me laugh and gasp in terror at the same time, giving a protagonist that goes from absolute asshole to a sad, lost man that only ever wanted to feel belonging.

Jack is a hotshot entertainment journalist that makes his name debunking popular supernatural occurrences. Until after he pisses off a demon mid-exorcism and a clip of his own death is uploaded to his Twitter for all to see. What follows is a mystery of how he gets there and what goes down during his search for the truth.

Buy it on Amazon

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Lovecraft Country [movie tie-in]: A Novel

Lovecraft might always be remembered for his cosmic horror contributions, but unfortunately, he’s also remembered as a massive racist as well. That’s what makes Lovecraft Country shine, taking Lovecraft’s tropes and stories while setting them with BIPOC characters during the Jim Crow era.

While the book has an overarching narrative, it’s more like a series of vignettes around the different characters that take inspiration from stories like Dreams in the Witch House and Pickman’s Model, leading to fantastic twists on the Lovecraft mythos. Now if HBO would just pick up another season…

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Ghost Eaters by Clay Chapman

Ghost Eaters: A Novel

The later 2010s and early 2020s have been booming with experimental horror. Mixing genres and taking ideas from basic, everyday fears while fusing them with the supernatural just beyond our boundaries. Ghost Eaters takes a modern story of loss and love set against an allegory for the opioid epidemic.

After her boyfriend dies of an overdose, Erin finds out about a drug that allows users to see the spirits around them at a terrible cost. Erin’s search for closure leads to opening  Pandora’s box of ghosts, addiction, and grief that left me haunted after reading.

Cool Project, Same Author: Chapman also wrote Marvel’s Edge of Venom-verse event, a really fun take on the classic character akin to the Spiderverse crossovers.

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Negative Space by BR Yeager

Negative Space

Make sure you have some time set aside immediately after finishing Negative Space because it takes some processing. This book is weird in the best ways, bleak in surrealism that mirrors our world, and a strange ride into small-town hell. Specific warnings for the story focusing around multiple suicides.

Following three teenagers in a strange, surreal small town where seemingly nothing makes sense and a rash of teen suicides has taken place. There’s a weird slice of life essence at the base of things but the life being sliced is so bleak it’s almost horrifying before adding in the parallel dimensions and strange threads everywhere.

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Take the Long Way Home by Brian Keene

Take the Long Way Home

Maybe this is my evangelical upbringing giving some bias, but this book is one of the best examples of religious apocalyptic horror I’ve ever read. It’s a quick novella and throws you directly into the action after the first trumpet sounds and people suddenly vanish from existence.

It’s like the anti-Left Behind, with one man desperately trying to get to his wife across the city as it quickly devolves into chaos. The Biblical apocalypse is terrifying in and of itself but Keene’s take on it is a bloody, nonstop chase through a city where hell has been let loose.

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The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning

Barron’s Old Leach mythos are going to be regarded as this century’s Cthulhu mythos long after the author is gone. There’s such extensively and intricately threaded lore throughout all of his works involving Old Leach and his children that he’s gotten a tribute anthology from other authors.

The Croning is Barron’s opus in the mythos though, following an elderly man who’s just on the brink between reality and cosmic terror trying to unravel the mystery behind his life. The conspiracy at the heart of the novel runs deep, and the cosmic horror implications are dreadful terrors beyond reality.

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The Fisherman by John Langan

The Fisherman

The Fisherman landed in my hands not long after experiencing what I would say is the first major loss in my life. There was a lot of grief, and I did have to put the book down on occasion just to breathe and cry a little, but the journey is one of the best portrayals of the dichotomy between characters asking the question “If you had the power to bring them back, would you do it no matter the cost?”.

That’s the very heart of The Fisherman, about two friends who bond over fishing while each grieving the loss of their families to cancer and a car accident, respectively. The narrative does take a detour to give some essential plot background, and it is a little jarring, but the end result of the novel was a strange closure for my grief that I probably wouldn’t have found anywhere else.

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We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

We Sold Our Souls: A Novel

Grady Hendrix and horror homages, name a more iconic duo. There’s this fantastic merging of the Faustian bargain and the rock and roll scene that blends so well and works on two levels with some satanic panic overtones.

This book is just a really fun read and a great break from more serious entries like the last one. Grady is a master at tiptoeing that line between comical and horrifying and this is one of his finest examples.

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The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

The Cabin at the End of the World [Movie Tie-in]: A Novel

As great as Head Full of Ghosts is, Cabin at the End of the World has really grown on me after re-reading. The ambiguity of it creates some amazing tension, and the ending is just as sudden as it is surprising, driving home Tremblay’s point.

A couple and their daughter go to an isolated cabin for some time away, but end up taken hostage by a group who give them an ultimatum- voluntarily kill one of themselves, or let the apocalypse happen. Not really an easy decision, and the ambiguity of the book just keeps it going as we never really know if they’re serious or playing some elaborate hoax.

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Kill Creek by Scott Thomas

Kill Creek

Kill Creek takes the haunted house dare and inserts four writers going for a publicity stunt. Problem is that the house is more than just haunted, there’s something else living there. 

Thomas balances the cast well and there’s some dark humor peppered in between, but the pace is breakneck and makes for a quick read. 

Buy it on Amazon

Tomie by Junji Ito

Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition (Junji Ito)

Tomie is one of Junji Ito’s long-standing characters, and it makes sense considering she can’t die. The almost vampire-like Tomie possesses some supernatural aura that makes everyone fall in love with her, often ending in violent jealousy. She’s almost a feminist icon in a way for how she soars past the innocent girl stereotype and becomes a plague of her own.

Ito’s first publication was a quick example of what he could accomplish with his brand of weird body horror. Tomie was boundary-pushing for the time, and the character is still being adapted and revisited in short stories and television (RIP Quibi).

Buy it on Amazon

The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezz

The Drifting Classroom: Perfect Edition, Vol. 1 (1)

The Drifting Classroom is a classic horror manga that changed the genre upon release. The story of a school full of children who are suddenly hurled from their place and time and into some other universe full of terrifying creatures and an apocalyptic wasteland. The story is terrifying, with the creature designs being one of the many shining points.

The characters are amazing and make you root for them throughout the horror. The climax is unexpected, and you’ll see all the influence it’s had on later manga and horror in general after reading.

Buy it on Amazon

From Hell by Alan Moore

From Hell

Moore has hit after hit with comics like Watchmen and Swamp Thing, but From Hell is a horror tale that takes most of its blood and gore from true events.

A fictionalized account of Jack the Ripper told from the perspectives of both the murderer and investigator tracking him, there’s a strange dichotomy as the Ripper unravels with each new murder and becomes more and more unhinged while the investigator is psychologically broken. Between the art and the story, there’s a gruesome, bloody mysticism, and a fantastic horror everyone should read.

Buy it on Amazon

There you have it, forty more books to fill the dusty, dark shelf in the corner of your room. They’ll give it a nice haunted accent to accompany the cobwebs for a great reading atmosphere. I would Enjoy the stories, and don’t forget to leave a light on to keep the monsters away!

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is the best horror author of all time?

You’ll get a lot of varying answers depending on who you ask. My personal number one is Richard Matheson. Meanwhile, if we’re talking about overall name recognition or sales it would be someone like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, who have been in the game for a while and have a massive catalog of work.

What is the best-selling horror book of all time?

While it’s somewhat of a contention, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are both within a hair of each other at the top. Understandable, given the massive jump it got on all the others by coming out decades earlier.

What is the scariest book ever written?

Everyone has different fears, of course, so it’s very subjective. Many people would agree that Salem’s Lot is one of the scariest they’ve ever read, myself included. Others may consider the scariest book ever to be as tame as a Goosebumps entry or more in the extreme horror genre with novels like Survivor by J.F. Gonzalez.

Is extreme horror like zombies on skateboards or things like that?

No, but we will pin that idea and revisit it at a later point. Extreme horror is more violent than others, usually with much darker themes. While it can vary from the realistic like the above-mentioned Survivor, it can also just be in the vein of darker matter without the graphic violence like Tender is the Flesh.

I’ve always loved scary movies but never read any horror fiction. Where should I start?

It depends on what you like as far as horror movies, so we’ll run off a couple of different tropes/genres and recommendations for each.

1. Like creature features? Check out Devolution by Max Brooks.
2. Slashers like Halloween your thing? The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Saved by Joey Comeau.
3. Psychological horror? Hell House by Richard Matheson
4. People playing games with deadly stakes? Battle Royale by Koushun Takami.
5. Conspiracy horror? Necroscope by Brian Lumley.

Horror has a lot of subgenres and they have some weird names, so here’s a small rundown of what each genre covers.

1. Splatterpunk- A combo of slasher/exploitation horror with plenty of blood and gore. 
2. Experimental- Anything out of the normal format of fiction, with stories being told as if through a journal, found transcript/footage, or something of that nature.
3. Camp- Cheesy, ridiculous, and revels in it all. These are B-Movies put to paper.
4. Body- Anything involving the human body doing something it should not do under any circumstance.
5. Folk- Horror mixed with folklore specific to a region, people, or 6. place. Usually draw on myths and legends as antagonists in horror.

What are the most popular horror books of all time?

1. The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
3. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
4. It by Stephen King (1986) 5. Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
6. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975)
7. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)
8. The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
9. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
10. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977)
11. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988)
12. Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
13. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
14. Misery by Stephen King (1987)
15. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)
16. The Birds by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
17. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
18. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker (1986)
19. The Omen by David Seltzer (1976)
20. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
21. The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (2014)
22. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (2013)
23. The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010)
24. World War Z by Max Brooks (2006)
25. The Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis (1988)
26. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (2003)
27. The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)
28. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (2015)
29. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding (2001)
30. Bird Box by Josh Malerman (2014)

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