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Scary Books for Adults to Read for Halloween

Updated on August 23, 2011

Scary books have been with us for centuries. They feed some craving in our psyche. Clearly, we like to be shocked and frightened. Monsters and ogres have populated world literature since people started to record their cultural experience.

Some of the ugliest are meant to simply shock and rattle an audience. But, the best scares have a backstory or undercurrent. Their creators want to expose the reader to something ugly and fearsome in us. The ancient world had a Minotaur, multi-headed serpents, and sea-nymphs. Each of these presented some allegorical lesson. But, there also were monstrous people, such as Clytemnestra and Medea, people capable of incalculable horror.

We continue to want and buy this in billion dollar markets. There have, of course, been great scares in movies, but visual shocks are easier than written scares. Gratuitous violence and gore, along with computer generated monsters, sometimes overpower us. But, a really good scary read can keep you up at night – and scared for days. What a great treat for yourself as Halloween approaches!

Some top Halloween books for adults include:

Under the Dome by Stephen King creates a world in which a fabulously wealthy man covers a city with a dome. He, then, drives them to compete to the death using the severed limbs of their family and ancestors. King’s worlds, in Duma King and The Shining, survive at great length in an atmosphere of foreboding where everyone is potentially a victim of their surroundings. Now, you can also enjoy the work of Stephen’s son, Joe Hill (nee Joseph Hillstrom King). Check out his Horns, a wild ride across time and terror.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is a real fright in print, even without Sir Anthony Hopkins. Oddly enough, Harris’ Red Dragon is more horrific although it did not make a successful film in two separate tries. Neither Hannibal nor Hannibal Rising, sequels to The Lambs, captured the same terror and reduced Hannibal Lecter to a killing machine.

• The Exorcist by William Blatty and Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin have not been topped in their mini-genres. Stories and movies about exorcism and evil pregnancies appear several times a year. No films live up to William Friedkin’s exorcist or Roman Polanski’s devil baby. Still, the novels breathe fear and foreboding as a life condition.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub is just that. It is a story of the ghosts created by lies, secrets, and evil deeds. The haunting occurs in nightmares and night terrors as five young men struggle with a huge dark secret. Their guilt creates specters and ghosts that eventually get even. This theme of young men committing evil acts they must live with has spawned numerous bad movies, but the Straub read is fearsome.

Deliverance by James Dickey is deeply disturbing. Written by a poet, the words are the topic. Hey are the forest and water, primeval forces at work to test man’s nature and conscience. It recalls the dark sweaty worlds of William Faulkner and lays groundwork for the guilt of men in Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home.”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is at the center of the haunted house genre where a cadre of young people is sequentially destroyed by some force in the house. As in Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery,” she explores the house as an objective correlative for community evil.

Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice are extraordinary prose narratives. Textured in time, setting, and character, the novels are unique in recent years. They evoke the same complex worlds and mystery as Robert Lewis Stephenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis does not purport to be a ghost story. It details in excruciating vile detail the activities of a misogynist and psychopath in progress, but it is no accident that his evil behavior corresponds to the endemic amorality in the Manhattan society around him.

• Relentless and Intensity by Dean Koontz make up for a lot of lightweight work. Relentless watches a happy family man and bestselling novelist turn into a brutal sociopath as vengeance drives him to exact “justice” from his only critic. Intensity creates such a world as a young woman survives a brutal mass murder in her own self-interest until she is driven to save the killer’s next victim. Both are short books with intense energy and threatening atmosphere.

Richard Matheson is an extremely prolific writer of novels, short stories, and film and TV scripts. I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Hell House, The Night Stalker, What Dreams May Come are just a few. But, read Duel (2002) or Nightmare at 20,000 Feet for a real scare. Everyone vividly remembers The Twilight Zone episode when a passenger panics at the sight of an alien on the wing of the plane in flight. Matheson works deal with humans dealing with forces night quite outside the realm of possibility.

John Kellerman and Faye Kellerman have respectfully successful careers. John introduced his psychiatrist/detective Alex Delaware in the Edgar Award winning When the Bough Breaks. Her Straight into Darkness investigates the horrors of human evil in Dachau.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Fatal Vision by Joel McGinnes are not novels. They are scary, in part, because they are true coverage of the Charles Manson mass killing in the Hollywood Hills. They join the world of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field where the history as fiction and fiction as history communicate cold blooded fear in the very words of real killers.

Novels by Janet Evanovich, John Sanford, and others continue the scares. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson are truer crime stories, but they occur in a dark amoral culture where action, even violent action, is a good thing. Every week brings new scares to the bookstores and movie theatres, but these are some of the best.


Submit a Comment

  • Woody Marx profile image

    Woody Marx 

    7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    I just finished The Dome by listening to it on audio book and found it one of King's best. It's a great read and very long so don't expect to finish it before you fall asleep in one night. Also thanks for the tip about King having a son who writes. I didn't know, so will have to check out his book(s) and see if he has his father's talent for 'creepy'.

  • gryphin423 profile image


    7 years ago from Florida

    Great list, thanks for sharing! The Stieg Larsson books were disturbing but so well done.

  • rikabothra profile image


    7 years ago

    i loved your list.. cannot wait to get my hands on some of them!! Thanks.. voted up!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    Oh, awesome list! I so love thrillers and scary books. Dean Koontz has to be the best at setting a scary scene and setting. Voted up and awesome!

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    I would like to suggest 'TheAuctioneer' by Joan Samson. Now is a good time for this book to be rediscovered, since we are all thinking about limited government, expanding government, freedom, slavery and the temptation of power.


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