The world's 20 scariest novels

October 30, 2019
The world's 20 scariest novels

Do you like that feeling of chills tingling down your spine when you read? 

Literature is a vital part of the everyday lives of those who love languages. Many professional translators are also avid readers. Are you one of them? 

One of the first horror novels I read as a teenager was Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. It opened my eyes to a whole new literary genre that has fascinated me ever since – and not just at Halloween! I’m not much of a fan of scary movies but I find getting lost in a horror novel to be a wonderfully exhilarating experience. 

To celebrate our collective love of literature this Halloween, why not join me in taking a look at some of the scariest novels of all time? The Tomedes team has rounded up 20 of our favourites to delight and terrify you in equal measure. Read on if you dare! 

1. The Shining, Stephen King

A master of suspense (many would say THE master of suspense), Stephen King is a prolific writer who has been producing terrifying novels since he published Carrie in 1974. His earliest works are some of his most raw and terrifying, with IT and ’Salem’s Lot also vying for attention in our round-up of the world’s scariest novels. 

The Shining provides thrill after terrifying thrill as we follow the painful unravelling of the mind of Jack Torrance, as he spends the winter taking care of the deserted Overlook Hotel with his wife Wendy and psychically gifted young son, Danny. The hotel’s dark past tangles deliciously with the family as the novel builds to its terrifying conclusion. 

2. The Rats, James Herbert 

Do you have a fear of rodents? If not, you might just develop one as a result of reading this novel! 

Another horror stalwart, James Herbert published 24 novels and several short stories over the course of his life. A fun fact for our professional translators who are reading this – Herbert certainly kept the professional translation community busy over the years, with his novels entertaining horror enthusiasts in 34 languages, including Russian and Chinese. In total, he has sold 54 million copies of his books worldwide. 

Like King, Herbert published his first book in 1974: The Rats. Many consider this to be his finest work. 

The Rats is a tale of mutated, giant rats that not only attack and kill their victims, but also poison those they bite. A young schoolteacher by the name of Harris is the hero of the work. After being drawn into the drama when one of his students is bitten (and then dies), Harris works with Health Minister Foskins to track down the source of the increasingly terrifying rats, in a deadly quest to find their alpha. 

No time to read? We cherry-picked our favorites and made a short video just for you.



3. The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

If you like a religious tinge to your horror novels, then look no further than The Exorcist. The novel follows the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil, an 11-year old girl, a doubt-ridden Jesuit priest, Father Damien Karras, and his elderly fellow man of the cloth, Father Lankester Merrin. The story of MacNeil’s possession unfolds slowly, with her mother – a famous actress, recent divorcee and atheist – pursuing medical and psychological treatments before finally turning to her local church for help. 

This is a classic tale of the battle between good and evil which builds to a truly explosive conclusion. An absolutely must read for any true horror fiction fan. 

4. Such Small Hands, Andrés Barba 

Such Small Hands was originally written in Spanish, but thanks to Spanish to English translation, English-speaking audiences have been able to enjoy Andrés Barba’s eerie story as well. This chilling novella, translated by Lisa Dillman, is one that will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading it. It follows seven-year-old Marina’s journey into life as an orphan, when her parents are killed in a car accident. 

A clever work in the way that it evolves, Such Small Hands shows us Marina first as a vulnerable, delicate little girl within a frightening orphanage setting. During the course of the book, she evolves into a powerful force who holds sway over the other children, gradually introducing them to her doll, also called Marina, with chilling consequences. 

5. Valley of Terror, Zhou Haohui

Translated from Mandarin to English by Bonnie Huie, Zhou Haohui’s Valley of Terror delivers all of the elements that a classic ghost story should. There’s an eerie mountain landscape, a series of deaths (residents of Longzhou are dying from fear) and a detective who is keen to get to the truth. Accompanied by an historian and a psychologist, the detective sets out to track downthe source of the horror. 

6. Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman

A supernatural story of paying for the sins of the past, Those Across the River sees Professor Frank Nichols and his wife return to the professor’s ancestral home in Georgia in 1935, where he plans to write a novel about the plantation’s former horrors. The couple are curious about a local ritual where villagers adorn two pigs with flowers and then send them across the river, never to be seen again. All too soon, they learn of the presence that the villagers fear – a presence that is only too happy to have a Nichols back home once again. 

7. The Small Hand, Susan Hill 

Have you discovered Susan Hill yet? A prolific contemporary horror writer, her novels never fail to send a tingle down your spine. The Small Hand, published in 2010, is one of her most captivating. 

A chilling ghost story, this novel follows antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow as he takes a wrong turn and ends up standing before a derelict Edwardian house – where a tiny, cold hand takes hold of his. Panic attacks and nightmares follow the visit and Snow is drawn to find out more about the house. As he does so, that ghostly little hand comes back with increasing regularity and increasing insistence, drawing Snow further into the darkness. 

8. The Ruins, Scott Smith

Have you ever been scared of a plant? No? Well, this novel might just change that! 

Hailed by Stephen King as ‘the best horror novel of the new century,’ Smith’s tale follows a group of carefree travellers into the depths of the Mexican jungle. However, they aren’t carefree for long, as they stumble across an ancient evil in the ruins, which has been waiting for them for a very long time. 

9. Dracula, Bram Stoker

While many horror novels have focused on the topic of vampires, none has eclipsed Bram Stoker’s dark tale of Count Dracula, the 15th century prince who must feed on the blood of the living for all eternity. 

It is young lawyer Jonathan Harker who propels Dracula into action when he visits his castle in order to finalise a land deal. Instead, the Count imprisons Harker and sets off to London in pursuit of his fiancé Mina, who just happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Dracula’s dead wife. 

10. Coraline, Neil Gaiman

Filled with ‘the delicate horror of the finest fairy tales,’ according to Terry Pratchett, Coraline is a disturbing tale that leaves the reader thinking. The novel focuses on the experiences of Coraline, as she opens a door in her new home to discover a spookily similar home on the other side. That home is better in fact, as are the versions of her family that she finds there. Better, that is, until Coraline wants to leave… 

11. I Remember You, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Do you like ghost stories? If so, this is the one for you! 

Translated from the original Icelandic by Philp Roughton, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s haunting novel follows two tales as they intertwine. In one, a doctor discovers that an elderly woman who has committed suicide was obsessed with his vanished son. In the other, three friends discover that they are far from alone in their new home – and that whoever (or whatever) was already there, isn’t very happy with their presence. 

12. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

Originally published in 1959 and recently revived courtesy of Netflix (go for the book – it’s way more chilling!), Shirley Jackson’s gothic horror novel is one of the 20th century’s finest literary ghost novels. The clever plot leaves much up to the reader to decide as a result of its delicate intertwining of events that could be supernatural, could be telekinesis or could be the result of emotional disturbance. 

The four main characters are Dr John Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. They spend the summer at Hill House to investigate the existence of the supernatural, but as events become increasingly spooky, it seems that Eleanor in particular is succumbing to the power of the house (or possibly her own mind). Things deteriorate until the others force Eleanor to leave, with devastating consequences. 

13. Pet Sematary, Stephen King

Ok, so we’ve already included one Stephen King novel in this list, but we just couldn’t leave out Pet Sematary. This is a novel that will still give you the creeps even years later. 

Pet Sematary centres on the Creed family and their new home in Maine. When their cat is killed accidentally, local Jud Crandall advises Dr Louis Creed, the head of the household, to bury it in the ground near the local pet cemetery. The cat comes back from the dead but isn’t quite the same loving creature that the family knew from before.  And then their young son Gage is killed when a truck hits him, and Louis is drawn to the ‘pet sematary’ once more… 

14. Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons

Another tale that drew praise from Stephen King (he called it ‘one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century’), Carrion Comfort takes the idea of vampires and gives them a fresh new twist. 

Instead of feeding on blood, Dan Simmons’ villains are able to feed on humans’ emotions. They can also read people’s minds and control their wills, forcing them to commit horrific acts. In fact, the more that the novel’s protagonist, Saul Laski, discovers about them, the more dark and eerie the story becomes. Finally, Saul tracks down the three ringleaders in a showdown that will determine the very future of the world. 

15. The Graveyard Apartment, Mariko Koike

One of the great things about translation is that it makes fascinating writing available to a wider audience. Such was the case with this masterpiece brought to us by Japanese to English translation

One of Japan’s most prolific writers, Mariko Koike is known for blending genres with spectacular results. In The Graveyard Apartment, we see a young couple and their daughter move into their new home, next to a graveyard. However, the perfect apartment quickly descends into a place of terror, as strange occurrences force their neighbours to abandon their homes. Soon, the young family are the only ones left. Apart from whatever is lurking in the basement, that is. 

Warning: This novel may induce a lifelong fear of basements! 

16. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley 

Mary Shelley’s intention with Frankenstein was to ‘curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart’ and that she certainly does! Her classic gothic horror novel has captivated the imaginations of readers for over two centuries. 

Victor Frankenstein’s dream is to create his own creature. He sets to work on turning his dream into reality, collecting body parts in order to stitch them together as part of his creation. When his creature comes to life, the novel becomes even darker, descending into tragedy. 

17. House of Leaves, Mark Z Danielewski

Are you feeling bold? This fabulously inventive tale requires a brave reader indeed! 

A collection of notes, loose sheets of paper, stained napkins and more, but in book form, House of Leaves follows the journey of a young couple who move into a strange new home. Strange, because it’s larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The thrilling tale that unfolds is as terrifying as it is creative – a wonderfully fresh take on the horror genre. 

18. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

Bradbury’s novel is a superb exploration of the darker side of human nature, as well as the struggle between good and evil that can take place in every person. It focuses on the arrival of a traveling carnival in Green Town, Illinois, and the power that the carnival’s leader, Mr Dark, is able to wield over the town. Best friends Jim Nightshade and William Halloway are just 13 when the carnival arrives and have no idea of the horror that is to unfold around them. But unfold it most certainly does! 

19. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

Not a horror story in the traditional sense, Station Eleven is a dystopian novel that spans both the present day and a future 20 years away, after a flu epidemic brings about the collapse of civilisation. Relationships, art and fame all come under the microscope in this complex tale, which is terrifying in its plausibility. 

20. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, Greta Thunberg

Aged 15, Greta Thunberg took a day off school and sparked a global movement. This collection of her speeches, made to the likes of the United Nations and earning her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, is an eerie insight into facts that have been around for years but that have largely lain dormant. 

The terrifying part? That it took a 15-year-old schoolgirl to bring the issue of the survival of our planet into the spotlight, while governments and global corporations merely pay lip service to it. Or worse yet, deny that climate change even exists… 

Final Thoughts 

Which of our 20 scariest novels have you read? And which have you yet to read? Share your views – along with other scary novel recommendations – by leaving a comment below! 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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