This time of year, there’s no shortage of things to be afraid of: things that go bump in the night, clowns, or—the horror!—getting coffee stains on your favorite book. But what can we say, we like to live on the edge. We asked 13 authors to share with us the downright scariest books they ever read. Readers be warned, you’ll be sleeping with the lights on after reading these spooky tomes.
“To catch a serial killer, FBI rookie Clarice Starling makes a Faustian bargain with another serial killer—this one far more sinister than the one she’s chasing. The bargain: She lets Hannibal Lecter—a sadistic psycho and manipulative genius—inside her head, offering up her psychic vulnerability and childhood wounds for clues on how to catch Lecter’s protégé, the victim-skinning Buffalo Bill. I’ve had a serial killer (one of my own villains) take up residence in my head, and it’s the stuff of searing nightmares.” —Jon Jefferson, co-author of Without Mercy
“‘Scary’ as a description of literature makes us think of horror, fantasy, or even science fiction. It is much less common to think of relationship fiction this way. But in his tour de force The Case of Mr. Crump, Ludwig Lewisohn tells us the story of a man who meets a woman, a little older than him, and without knowing it takes a step into the fires of hell. Reading this novel, you think, ‘No, it won’t go that far….’ And yet, it goes that far, and beyond. Reading this novel is challenging, breathless, exhausting, agonizing—I’m looking for the right word… Ah, I found it: ‘scary.’” —Pierre Lemaitre, author of Blood Wedding
“And Then There Were None is not a cozy crime novel. From the start, it chills with its incredible atmosphere. Ten people are summoned to an island, to a house replete with every luxury, but lacking one crucial thing: hope. Nobody can escape, and one by one the characters are murdered. We experience the inevitability of death, lurking evil, a compelling pattern that cannot be broken, and most chilling of all, we identify with the characters. By the end, we know that their misfortunes are entirely deserved—and we might be just as guilty. No book has given me more goosebumps, ever!” —Sophie Hannah, author of Closed Casket
“There are books that give you chills, books that keep you awake, and books that leave you open-mouthed with terror. And then, there’s the scariest book I ever read. When I was about twelve I read Rosemary’s Baby. I must have gotten it from the library. No responsible adult would have given it to me. I wasn’t just scared of the story. I was scared of the book itself. I put it in another room with a heavy encyclopedia—we still had those when I was twelve—on top of it so the words couldn’t get out in the night. I might read it again to see if it’s still as scary. Or maybe not”. —Alex Lake, author of After Anna and Killing Kate
“I’m going to cheat and mention two books because each scared me equally, but at different times of my life and for different reasons. The first is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. As a kid, the book scared me silly, which was odd because I wasn’t used to subtle scares. I was used to monsters and aliens. Jackson’s slowly creeping dread kept me awake for days.
“The other book is Cabal by Clive Barker. Yes, it’s a book about monsters. But it’s also about the persecution of a ‘scary’ minority by the established order. Having grown up as an odd outsider in Texas, Cabal was both horrifying and all too familiar.” —Richard Kadrey, author of The Everything Box and The Wrong Dead Guy
“Six days after graduating high school I had a spinal fusion. Not fun. I was to spend the rest of that summer convalescing in my house alone most days, as my parents worked and my siblings hung out with their friends. I pulled Stephen King’s It off the bookshelf, figuring I had the time, and dove into the first chapter. Poor little Georgie gets lured down into the sewer (I imagined my basement) by Pennywise the clown and, yeah, I chucked It across the room. And let’s just say I had issues with going into the dark basement the rest of that summer my life.” —Paul Tremblay, author of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock
”In jail, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock heard about the Clutter family’s wealth (an exaggeration: The Clutters didn’t keep cash), got out, and killed them. For me, there’s nothing more terrifying than when evil intrudes on the ordinary. It’s like Smith and Hickock were tormented by what they lacked—love of family, financial security, the comfort of banality—and had to annihilate it. Capote shows us what happens when two versions of America collide. Maybe that’s why In Cold Blood is so chilling: It feels eerily prophetic.” –Kim Savage, author of After the Woods and Beautiful Broken Girls
“I can’t recall ever feeling genuinely frightened by a novel, I have, however, often been disturbed, and never so deeply as by the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. This poor stuffed rabbit wants nothing more than to be loved by his child, instead it is shunned by the other toys, mocked by real rabbits, and when the child finally decides to give it love, the child develops scarlet fever, so all his toys, including the rabbit, have to be burned (nothing traumatizing going on here). Thereafter I was haunted by the concept that my toys were pining for my love and those I neglected or abandoned would be lost into some kind of miserable forlorn damnation.” —Brom, author of Lost Gods
“The scariest book I ever read would have to be Stephen King‘s The Shining. I was 15—right at that age when books have the greatest impact on you. I remember trying to figure out what ‘redrum’ meant, and telling myself: ‘You idiot! If you figure it out, you’ll never be able to go to sleep tonight!’ But I figured it out before it was revealed in the book, and sure enough I couldn’t sleep. I still wince every time I’m at a hotel and they give me room 217. I always have to check the bathtub for the rotting old lady.” —Neal Shusterman, author of Scythe
“Once a year, every year, as a pre-teen I reread the same book: Wait Till Helen Comes, by Mary Downing Hahn. Why every year? Because I loved it so much. Why only once a year? Because it scared me so badly I could only convince myself to read it if it had been a year since I’d experienced it. I reread it as an adult a few years ago and it was fun, but certainly not terrifying. And that’s part of why I write for younger readers—it’s so much harder to traumatize adults!” —Kiersten White, author of And I Darken
“The scariest book I read as a teen was also the most magical: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. The author gave me a copy of it for Christmas when I was 13. I read it every Halloween. It was my introduction to dark fantasy. Two boys, one born a minute before midnight and the other born a minute after, are swept up in a creepy tale of survival when Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show rolls into their small midwestern town. The story never gets old because true magic is ageless.” —Jonathan Maberry, author of Scary Out There and Mars One
“In fifth grade, while combing through my dad’s books, I found Stephen King‘s Pet Sematary. The creepy, hissing cat on the cover of this ‘adult’ book seemed to be challenging me, daring me to read it. The idea of a family’s dead pet coming back to life was terrifying. I grew up in rural Vermont, and when our cat died, we buried it in our yard. It didn’t take much of a leap to imagine my zombie cat clawing its way out of the dirt and eerily scratching at the back door to come in. ” —Michael Dante DiMartino, author of Rebel Genius and co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra
“My first love as a young reader was horror—The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson; The Shining, by Stephen King; The Keep, by F. Paul Wilson; and lots of others. But a more recent standout would be the aptly titled Afraid, by J.A. Konrath writing as Jack Kilborn. The premise is chillingly simple: A group of psychopaths, militarily trained by the US government to cause maximum carnage behind enemy lines, is mistakenly unleashed on the town of Safe Haven (hah!), Wisconsin. The government, recognizing its error, dispatches a SpecOps teams to eliminate them. The townspeople are caught in the middle. It’s genius. I could say more, but don’t want to spoil the fun. But I will say: The toe-sucking sequence alone has probably netted millions of dollars to the therapists of unsuspecting people who read it. Hilarious, gruesome, and scary as hell, Afraid is a perfect book for Halloween. Or for any dark night.” —Barry Eisler, author of Livia Lone