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10 of the Scariest Books of All Time

Chilling tales of haunted mansions, real-life serial killers, vengeful vampires and more

Little girl reading terror stories to her brother and a skeleton.
Getty Images

You may start sleeping with the lights on after diving into this stack of 10 frightening books — some of the scariest reads around — including a 17th-century classic on witches, two true stories about elusive serial killers, and a Stephen King novel featuring vengeful creatures returning from the dead. Perfect for spooky season!

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Penguin Random House

Jackson breathes life into the architectural lead character — Hill House — a rambling haunted mansion that terrorizes three naive folks brought together by a researcher of the supernatural. Locked in each night by a couple of creepy caretakers, the guests are subjected to increasingly disturbing phenomena as the house reveals the evil at its heart. Lonely, single Eleanor is particularly vulnerable to the tricks, and treats, contained in the halls — or are the horrors just part of her active imagination?

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (2003)

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a Hulu series based on this book (a finalist for a 2003 National Book Award), so now is the time to pick up this Gilded Age story of true-crime and architecture. Larson uncovers the mythic personalities behind the creation of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (the White City), and the trials of erecting 200 temporary buildings for a crowd of 27 million people in Chicago. In the shadows lurked killer and con man H.H. Holmes, a devilish villain who had his own ambitious agenda for the fairgoers at his custom-designed “Murder Castle.”

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (2010)

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
Grand Central Publishing

This not-quite-historically-accurate historical novel exposes the little-known side-hustle of the 16th U.S. president: vampire hunter. Grahame-Smith (who also penned Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) interprets a set of Lincoln’s secret diaries, recounting his quest to avenge his mother’s death after she was killed in a savage vampire attack at their log cabin. One by one, Lincoln hunts down and slaughters the vampires with his trusty ax. All roads lead to war when he discovers that their taste for blood (and unquenchable thirst for wealth) is tied up with the goals of the Confederacy.

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias (2022)

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias
Mulholland Books

Modern horror is most effective when grounded in the reality of our lives, as Iglesias demonstrates in this gritty bilingual story that follows a father in Texas who turns hit man to raise money to pay for his daughter’s medical bills. But mixing with criminals and cartels reveals both brutal human monsters and otherworldly evil at the Southern border. As the hardworking dad finds himself trapped in the lure of one last job, his descent into a nightmare existence becomes unstoppable.

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Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) 

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Penguin Random House

Moreno-Garcia reimagines the familiar tropes of the Gothic novel — family secrets, deteriorating mansions with whispering walls and damsels in distress — to create a vividly innovative story set in the high-society world of 1950s Mexico. A tale of love and betrayal with a fascinating and compelling heroine you can’t help rooting for, this deliciously dark book will draw you in from the start.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)

King has loads of scary books, but this horror story is among his most chilling. A family seeks rest and repose in a Maine farmhouse with a property bonus nobody finds in today’s real estate market: a cemetery for kids’ beloved animals. But beyond those pagan plots lies a more ominous, sour place, one where earthly rules don’t apply. After tragedy strikes, the grieving father tries his luck at bringing back those he loves, learning that sometimes it’s better for the dead to remain so.

The Omen by David Seltzer (1976)

Seltzer released this novelization of the Oscar-winning demonic film in bookstores two weeks before the movie hit theaters (he also penned the screenplay), and the tale is just as creepy in print as it is on-screen. Malevolent powers are at play when a father secretly switches his own baby, who has died at birth, with an orphan infant. His wife, none the wiser, raises the boy as their own. Devilish dogs and a killer nanny protect the child from nosy photographers, God-fearing priests and his own fearful parents on his mission to take over the world (as realized in a plethora of sequels).

Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
Penguin Random House

The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Poe, the undisputed father of scary stories to tell in the dark, is also the inventor of the detective mystery, inspiring crafty writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. These collected tales include “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (solved by the ingenious Dupin), along with other spine-chillers such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” featuring an eerie Gothic manor concealing a family’s trip into madness, and “The Masque of the Red Death,” where plague survivors discover there is no safe place to hide from the grim reaper.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

This bestseller is a fascinating dive into the repercussions of violence, particularly in the lives of women. McNamara details a series of unsolved rapes and murders committed in 1970s and ’80s California, while obsessively working to uncover clues to the deadly predator’s real identity through interviews and historical research. A high-tension story, it’s a great companion to the HBO documentary series of the same name that follows the final capture of the Golden State Killer (as he was known), a resolution that McNamara, who passed away in 2016, tragically didn’t live to witness.

Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, a full and plain Evidence, Concerning Witches and Apparitions by Joseph Glanvill (1681)

Glanvill, chaplain to King Charles II, died in 1680, but his stories continue as the foundation for today’s on-screen horror. In this terrifying collection of local lore, he recounts a murky world rife with devils, wizards and wicked witches. Paranormal investigations revealed drumming poltergeists, a spirit woman exposing her murderers, and ghosts tugging at bedsheets in the dark of night. And it includes a pro tip from the past: Glanville shares the recipe for an enchanted witch bottle (made from household ingredients) to prevent visits from naughty apparitions.