My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).


Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

2 thoughts on “My top 5 horror novels

  1. This is a fabulous list.

    I’ve never read The Exorcist, or seen the film. Clips were enough to put me off. In horror, I lean toward the dark, ambiguous hinterlands of psychological suspense or the mythic qualities of the best ghost stories; rather than the blood-spewing, raving monster, zombie-attack, demon-possession thing. But perhaps I should try the book after all.

    Rebecca is a favorite, and I return to it often (although I am a dyed-in-the-wool Daphne du Maurier fan) . Same with The Woman in Black. Susan Hill is, I think, the only well-known writer doing faux 19th century ghost stories in the tradition of M. R. James, Poe, and the like; and she does it so, so brilliantly.

    Michelle Paver I only know as the author of her fine children’s series set in prehistory, now collected under the title “Chronicles of Ancient Darkness”. But as soon as I read, “a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s” you had me. That’s more than enough to interest me. Period-piece ghost story in the ice with creeping suspense? Oh yes, please!

    With regard to the predicted post-antibiotics holocaust, we need more funding in research. Currently it seems that phage therapy and various predatory bacteria solutions may be the way forward. But the possibilities for unleashing a real “alien inside” with that sort of thing shouldn’t be ignored. More money in genetics, too. Once we can accurately and precisely manipulate DNA, we’re home-and-dry.*

    Thanks for this great post – and for adding at least one new book to my TBR pile!

    *famous last words…

    1. I’m glad you like the list! Dark Matter was never on my radar until a porter at work with similar reading habits handed me his copy and told me to read it, and he kept asking until I did. Turns out, it is perhaps the best horror/ghost story I’ve read. Do let me know if you read it and enjoy it! As for the Exorcist, it has its moments of gore, but I find that they really do pale against the bleakness of the story. That’s the book only, mind. I like the film, but to me it didn’t have the same dread as the novel. If you do decide to pick it up, I’d be keen to hear what you think.

      I’m all with you on the funding in research, and it is not (just) for selfish reasons. There are some good possibilities in the pipeline, and with a looming potential crisis there may be enough profit in it to fund their development. I hope so. And if/when they do, I hope they get distributed fairly as well. Plus, we should invest a bit in better drug management so we won’t have this problem again. Speaking of disease and disease management – there’s a book on potential pandemic zoonoses that you may enjoy: David Quammen’s Spillover. It highlights a lot of the work that goes into identifying, studying and curtailing infections originating in the animal kingdom, and while it is a few years old now, it’s still an interesting and informative read. The chapter on SARS is particularly good.

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