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Between the bevy of new horror video games and Nic Cage‘s absolutely wild career turn as a scream king, we’re in the midst of a horror revival. For your creepiest bedside TBR, I’ve pulled together a list of 20 must-read horror books that deserve adaptations, big screen or small.
If you find yourself increasingly drawn to horror media as your anxieties about climate change, war, fascism, and the economy rise, you’re not alone. Writing for The A.V. Club, Matt Schimkowitz argues that the haunted house genre has reflected problems with the U.S. housing market over the last 50 years. We fixated on zombies during the Great Recession, and the Trump era saw mainstream horror pictures tackle racism.
Horror’s bigger now than ever, and while that may bode ill for the near future, you can take comfort in the relative safety of horror fiction. When you finish a creepy novel, horror video game, or scary movie, you’ve managed to survive the unthinkable, even though the characters may not have been so lucky. Being able to enjoy a horror novel, then, means being able to weather a storm and come out OK on the other side.
So scary movie fans, make it a point to read the books on the list below. These 20 must-read horror novels are primed for an on-screen revival.
Must-Read Horror Books That Deserve Adaptations
The Between by Tananarive Due
When his wife, a Miami judge, begins receiving racist threats in the mail, Hilton finds that the childhood trauma he thought he’d escaped has caught up to him. Straddling the world he shares with his wife and an alternate reality, Hilton is diagnosed with schizophrenia. But is he mentally ill, or just plain haunted? First published in 1995 and re-released in 2021, Tananarive Due’s debut novel was nominated for a 1996 Bram Stoker Award.
Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow
Pitched as Get Out meets My Sister the Serial Killer, Cherish Farrah centers on the two eponymous teens — the only Black girls at their parents’ country club. When her family falls on hard times, Farrah risks losing the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed. She hatches a plan to move in with Cherish and her white parents, but all is not as it seems in her best friend’s home.
Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare
Fans will be pleased to know that there is a film adaptation for this novel already in the works. If you haven’t read Clown in a Cornfield yet, you’re in for a treat. Kettle Springs sprung up around the Baypen Corn Syrup Factory. Now, the factory’s closed down, and it seems the town is on its way out as well. The last thing Kettle Springs’ teenagers want to do is die in this one-horse town, but when Baypen’s mascot, Frendo the Clown, goes on a killing spree, they may have no other choice. A sequel, Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives, is due out in August 2022.
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
What I wouldn’t give for an anthology series based around Brian Evenson’s short stories. Collapse of Horses is my personal favorite collection of his, but believe me when I say that there is no wrong answer to the question, “What’s your favorite Evenson book?” The title story in this collection, available to read for free at The American Reader, follows a narrator who cannot abide the way his and his wife’s accountings of their life together differ. Do they have three children or four? Was that window always right there? And why can’t he stop thinking about the horse paddock?
The Deep by Alma Katsu
Annie was working as a maid aboard the Titanic when it sank. Like many of the survivors, she’s convinced the ship was haunted before disaster struck. Years later, she takes back to the sea working as a nurse aboard the Titanic‘s sister ship, Britannic. There, she meets Mark, a man she last saw on the Titanic… A man who could not possibly still be alive. Alma Katsu’s gripping work of historical horror is ripe for a miniseries’ reaping.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Dread Nation and its sequel, Deathless Divide, are the natural successors to prestige series like The Walking Dead and Lovecraft Country. After zombies begin to rise from Civil War battlefields, the fractured U.S. knits itself loosely together to take on a new threat. Newly emancipated Black and Native American children are forced into a different kind of servitude: protecting white people from the zombie threat. As the mixed-race daughter of a wealthy white mother, Jane has the opportunity to train as an Attendant — a bodyguard who will work closely with a white family — while poorer children of color are forced onto the front lines.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
A thriller in the vein of The Outsider, Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild centers on Joan, a Métis woman searching for her missing husband. Victor has been gone for a year by the time Joan catches up to him at an evangelical revival held in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Except now he’s not going by Victor, and he doesn’t seem to remember Joan at all…
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I know what you’re thinking: We’ve already had a Hill House adaptation! And you’re right! The problem — and I mean no shade to Mike Flanagan here — is that only one of Hill House‘s many adaptations has been true to the source material, and it came out nearly 60 years ago. Shirley Jackson’s classic story of paranormal research, psychic phenomena, and a house gone Wrong™ deserves a comeback in the near future.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay’s breakout hit shifts between past and present as one young woman struggles to finally tell the story of her family’s brush with the supernatural. When Merry was 8 years old, her big sister, 14-year-old Marjorie, began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia. Believing Marjorie to be possessed, the girls’ unemployed father signed the family up to be on a reality show that would document her exorcism. Fifteen years later, horror fans are left wondering what really happened…but is Merry ready to tell the tale?
The Lost Village by Camilla Sten
In 1959, Silvertjarn was abandoned, save for an executed woman’s corpse and a crying baby. Documentarian Alice has connections to Silvertjarn, and she’s come for answers. This remote corner of Sweden isn’t talking, however. Instead, a series of setbacks befall the crew, and Alice must confront the fact that someone — or something — still lurks in the old mining town.
The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
Cave horror offers a particular kind of claustrophic terror, and few have done the genre better than The Luminous Dead. Here, a down-on-her-luck mercenary falsifies her way into a lucrative mission. The job she’s paid to do isn’t the one she signed up for, however. Now, alone in the cave system of a remote planet, Gyre must trust her employer and navigator, Em, to get her back to the surface safely. But what’s Em’s agenda, and why is she controlling Gyre’s body whenever she wants?
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Newly wed into a family of English colonizers, Catalina writes home to say that her husband, Virgil, plans to murder her. But when her cousin, Noemí, comes to Virgil’s ancestral estate, the remote High Place, she finds herself barred from seeing or talking to Catalina. Convinced that something is awry, Noemí musters all her wits to investigate Virgil’s home and family. She isn’t going to like what she finds, however. Mexican Gothic is perfect for fans of Jane Eyre and Get Out.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
Horror goes meta in My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Horror movies have been a lifeline for Jade, an unloved, biracial teen living in a tiny Idaho town. And thank the filmmaking gods for that, because Jade’s about to need every ounce of horror-movie trivia she knows. Someone’s on a killing spree near Proofrock, Idaho, and that means her time has finally come to shine.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Another meta offering, Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth centers on an… unconventional… destination wedding. Ghost-chasers Talia and Faiz plan to marry at a haunted Heian castle. Centuries ago, a young woman whose fiancé died on their wedding day became the castle’s hitobashira, and legend has it that she’s demanded another sacrifice with each passing year. And if that weren’t enough, the three well-wishers they’ve brought along may be anything but. Can any of the wedding party survive the wedding night?
Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena
Eve is a hivemind of mitochondria present in humans, and she has big plans for the next stage of our evolution. All she needs is the right host to bring about humanity’s downfall. The 1997 J-horror film based on this 1995 novel — which also spawned a manga series and video game trilogy — unfortunately flopped at the box office, which is all the more reason to bring it back to screens in the 2020s.
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
A girls’ trip turns deadly for four fortysomething friends in this survival thriller. Going whitewater rafting in rural Maine was supposed to bring them closer together. But when their guide is killed in a freak accident, Wini and her BFFs find themselves in a fight for their lives. Not only are they stranded in the wilderness without any real survival supplies, but they also aren’t alone in the woods.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
One year ago, Elsie survived a terrible and suspicious fire. With murder charges looming on the horizon, it’s up to one man, an expert in the burgeoning field of experimental psychology, to determine whether she’s guilty or mentally ill. Through their interviews, a deliciously gothic story unfolds involving a pregnant widow, a strange diary, and a house no one will approach — a house populated with eerily lifelike wooden figures.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
In the near future, an animal-borne virus has proved lethal to any humans who eat infected meat. After humanity bands together to destroy other animals out of fear, the global population faces a starvation crisis. To survive, countries around the world institutionalize cannibalism, rendering certain unfortunate humans as heads of cattle for the slaughter. But when a middleman in this brave new meat-packing industry receives a female head as a gift, he’s thrust onto a philosophical tightrope.
The Troop by Nick Cutter
A camping trip turns deadly on two fronts in this 2014 novel. When a stranger seeks medical assistance from their scout leader, a physician, five teenage boys are plunged into a fight for their lives. Trapped together on a tiny island, the boys must find a way to survive a lethal infestation while also facing the threat of escalating violence from within their troop. As of 2019, James Wan was set to adapt this one for the big screen.
Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
Years ago, their band rented out the eponymous country manor to record their new album. A series of strange events culminated in the disappearance of the band’s frontman, Julian, somewhere within the sprawling house itself. Now, a documentarian has brought Julian’s old bandmates back to Wylding Hall with a psychic in tow, to solve the mystery of the vanishing singer. But what truths stand to be revealed upon their return?