Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published October 20th 2018
The best horror is written horror
I love a good book. I read a lot, across many genres. However, if you ever saw my library, you'd notice that in the fiction section, above all else, you'd see what is generally called speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy and horror. And of those, horror dominates.
It extends across my writing. Of the more than 50 short stories, poems and essays I've had published so far (and, hopefully, counting), more than 50% have been horror themed. I find horror surprisingly easy to write; the ideas come to mind way too simply for me and I love churning out a story of a few thousand words designed to scare people. In fact, of my (huge number) of unpublished novels and novellas, the majority are horror or based on horror in some regard.
Ahh, good old fashioned fun... (Pexels)
So, it should come as no surprise that I love my horror tales.
For this list, I have collated my 10 favourite horror novels of all time. Now, I have not read even close to every horror novel of all time, of course, but I like to think I have read quite a deal. There are some that others have declared the best that are not included on my list; many I just didn't feel were horror enough for my tastes, or I wasn't that keen on. I have actually taken quite a few of these lists and used them as guides for my own reading, so I have read a vast majority of those whom people think are the best.
Now, for this list, I made the choice not to include collections of stories. This does exclude Edgar Allan Poe (who I have written about previously) and HP Lovecraft, as well as a few Stephen King anthologies that were brilliant, as well as a huge number of fine short story collections I have read (and, yes, I do appear in some of them). I have also limited myself to two Stephen King books, or else he would dominate half of the list (yes, I am a huge fan). And I have also only included published novels; one of the best horror novels I have read is by a guy living here in Adelaide which has remained unpublished for over 20 years. I also feel that some of my choices might be a surprise to people; I hope it will make at least a few go out and try something new.
So, to my list! (The order is my order of preference, so the last book here is my favourite horror novel of all time. How's that for building tension?! Huh? Okay, it's lame. I'm sorry.)
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
This was a book I came across in an odd way. I heard about the film and so I went to find it. In the mid-1980s at the local Video-Ezy store, they didn't have it. Neither did Alpha Video or the other one we were members of. So, thinking I wanted to know about this thing that everyone was talking about, I decided to get the book of the film. At my local second-hand bookshop, the lady (who knew me by name… yeah, I know…) told me it was a film based on a book, and sold me the book. I read it and it freaked me out. The child of the Devil, and the creepy people who live in the complex just made me freak. I didn't see the film until I was in my 20s, and it was okay, but the book was so much better. Isn't it always?
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) I have written about this book before, but it is worth talking about again because it is one of my favourite horror novels. The story has become a cliché all its own, even if informed too much by the Boris Karloff film version: the tale of a scientist who creates a man from discarded body parts; the creature is a desperate being who understands that he is an impossibility and hates his new life and ends up pursuing his creator to the ends of the earth (literally) to destroy him for what he has done.
The language might be difficult for the modern reader, and some of the words put into the mouths of the characters are a little improbable, but I really enjoy it. It does not let up at all; every time things seem to settle, a new complication arises. And the 'monster' is a fine character, garnering sympathy from the reader. Considering it is now 200 years old, it still holds up remarkably well.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890) This is a famous work, and yet it is seldom read. People seem to know it more from allusions to it in popular culture than have read it. Well, I personally recommend you read it because it is a damn fine piece of work. It is Wilde's only novel; on this evidence, that is a shame. The disjointed narrative, jumping from time to time to show the true nature of the depravity, actually works. It stops it falling into a dull single voice. And the ending is actually quite creepy and not a little sad.
The story is about a man whose depraved life is reflected in a painting, while he remains eternally young, covering quite a long period of time. It is surprisingly, for its time, quite detailed in some of the things that happen, and I think this actually makes it more accessible for the modern reader. It is a slightly odd work, but I think that also adds to its allure. Again, because of when it was written, the language might be a little awkward, but I found the situation drew me in despite it. Fine piece of work.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
I wanted to see this film, but my dad wouldn't let me. He said I was too young (maybe 10 years old). So my grandma bought me the book. That was fine, by the way; my father felt that the book wouldn't be as bad. Ha! I did eventually see the film on TV (after dad had passed away) and then, later still, the unedited version on video. The film is great, by the way; but the book is better. There are certain things the book includes that are missing from the film for obvious reasons – the best being the way the actions of the shark are described without anthropomorphising the animal. That is a masterclass of descriptive writing which has been rarely matched.
It basically tells the story of a shark that stalks part of the American coast-line until it is hunted down. I couldn't put it down when I first read it. I loved it. And yet… this was the last book to give me a nightmare for over 30 years. Even the fact that I prefer other horror novels has not diminished the effects this book has had on me.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
As you will see, 1983 was quite the year for Stephen King novels. I was given this book in 1986 as a birthday present and had finished it in three days. By this time I was already a huge fan of King's work, and then I was given this. The sense of atmosphere and place is virtually unmatched; the descriptions of the 'sematary' itself are incredible. When he climbs over the barrier to go to the real cemetery, that description is something I used when I studied professional writing as an example of outstanding writing.
The story of a cemetery that is very powerful and special feels unique, and it is an amazing read. It feels genuinely terrifying, and the final denouement is just plain creepy and shudder-inducing. I wish I could write like this; hell, I wish I had ideas like this. I used to say I wanted to be Stephen King if I grew up; now I say I want to be regarded in the same breath as Stephen King if I ever become a proper writer.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (1971)
This was a book, one of the very few, where I saw the film first. In the mid-1980s a few mates from high school and I had a horror film night. The Exorcist was one of the better ones of that night, with genuine shocks and surprises, though it does tend more towards the gross-out. It is actually a good film. Anyway, me being me, I sought out the book, thinking it would be the book of the film. I was pleasantly surprised to find the film was based on a book, and so I sat down to read it. It freaked me out.
The story involves a young girl possessed by a demon and the priests who try to save her soul. The descriptions were so superbly done and the slow build-up of tension was just incredible. Since this book, the number of devil-possession stories out there has been never-ending (I have written a few myself… sorry…) but none have matched the original.
World War Z by Max Brooks (2006)
I generally hate zombie apocalypse fiction. The stereotypes and clichés – all of them stolen from George Romero films, and not the actual zombies of myth and legend – abound in nearly all of them. And this is not just what I have read – my few personal examples of zombie fiction (including one that has been published) fall into all of these traps. So Max Brooks' novel was approached by me with a great deal of trepidation, and not done until 2014. I read it in 2 days. He has taken a trope-filled sub-genre and made it his own and created something new.
Written as a series of stories about different characters telling the story of a zombie apocalypse, I think that it is the constant change of voice that makes this rise above the mundane. It makes the story more personal and this is an outstanding technique that works so well. Ignore the film version – this is different and so much better.
Pig by Kenneth Cook (1980)
This is going to seem a weird choice, but this is my favourite Australian book. Ever. I don't care what anyone else thinks. Ever. The film and book Razorback follows a similar theme, but the way this story is written and the characters in the book make it stand head and shoulders above the other in my opinion.
It is about a giant feral pig that is running rampant in Outback Australia. I first read it when I was in high school, and the way it was written informed my writing for quite a few years. It was the first book I could not put down; I re-read it when I was in my twenties and it still held up. Even though I knew where it was going and what was coming, it was still good enough for me to read in only a couple of days.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
Now, as I might have mentioned, I read a lot of horror, of all different types. This book was recommended to me as an example of psychological horror. It is more than a mere example – it is the quintessential example. It took me two days to read it. I could not put the thing down. I did not pick the ending, who the mother was writing to, nothing. It is superb.
For those who have not heard about, it is a collection of letters by the mother of a boy who went on a school killing spree. But… Oh, man, is it so much more than that. Her thoughts, her everything, the family dynamic, all of it is just so brilliantly put together. I can't really say much more about it – especially the ending – without giving away spoilers. But that's okay, because this book is incredible.
On a personal note, what I read or see on TV does not give me nightmares, and hasn't since I was 10 years old (and that was thanks to Jaws). I was in my 40s when I read this book (10 years after it was released – my bad) and it gave me nightmares. It has leapt into my favourite book list, sitting at number 3 behind the next book on this list and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (I am nothing if not eclectic). It is that fantastic.
Christine by Stephen King (1983)
Considering how much I have read, and what I have read and everything else, here's the admission – this is my favourite book of all time ever. I found the film did not even come close to matching the book for me and disappointed me hugely. But I don't care – I've read this book more than ten times, and it still gets me. The style – sections one and three in first person, section 2 in the third; the hero doesn't get the girl; the story doesn't really end – is superb. Too much of my fiction has been described as a Stephen King pastiche or derivative, and I think this book is to blame for that.
For those who have not heard of it, the story is about a car that kills people to protect itself and its owner. There's dead old guys, recovery from damage (the one thing the film did brilliantly, and without CGI, which was even better), a main character who was heroic without being a super-hero, and the gradual deterioration of Arnie Cunningham were all done so fantastically. Especially that last. He became the villain, but the sympathy generated for him makes his demise actually quite sad, and his poor parents…
I love this book. It is simply outstanding. I don't care what anyone else says – this is my favourite book and I am proud to let people know.
So, those are my favourites. Please, feel free to add your own. What did I get right, what did I get wrong? And, above all else, I hope you read at least one of them.
Steve - have read all but 2 (didn't know Rosemary's Baby was based on a book!). Must have been hard to limited yourself to 2 by Stephen King (the master). But i don't classify Kevin as horror (but LOVED it). Physcho-thriller?