The finest classic horror novels combine the best of both literature and horror to create a spellbinding reading experience. A few select authors laid the groundwork for many of the modern horror writers we read today. From Mary Shelley to Stephen King, the style of classic horror books may have changed over the years, but the main goal remains the same—to present a darker version of reality that makes us look at the human experience in new ways. Whether the books contain ghosts, monsters, or some other representation of evil, the best horror writers can frighten you and make you think at the same time. Check out this list of 5 must-read classic horror books, and be sure to visit our other articles on more great horror books and classic horror short stories, too.
Perhaps one of the most widely-known modern horror novels, Stephen King’s The Shining was first published in 1977. One of his early works, the novel was inspired by a trip King and his wife Tabitha took to Colorado’s Stanley Hotel, which was to become the tale of Jack Torrance. A recovering alcoholic attempting to write a book, Torrance takes up residence at the fictional Overlook Hotel as the off-season caretaker.
The hotel is located in the Colorado Rockies where a winter storm leaves Jack snowbound at the hotel with his wife Wendy and their son Danny. He struggles with writer’s block while dealing with supernatural forces that begin to test his sanity. Meanwhile, it turns out that Danny possesses psychic powers known as “the shining” which gives him the frightening ability to see into the hotel's grisly past. Jack slowly descends into madness at the Overlook, ultimately leading to a climax of paranoia and fear.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
First published in 1890, the original text by Oscar Wilde was edited to remove content deemed offensive by his first publisher. Over the years, various versions of the work were released, some with added material to compensate for the loss of original text. In 2011, Harvard University Press finally published the original manuscript as Wilde intended.
The story revolves around Dorian Gray, a wealthy young man in Victorian England. He has a portrait of himself painted and wishes that the picture would age and bear the marks of life instead of himself. In fact, Gray seeks to sell his soul to make this happen. After an incident with a rejected lover in which she commits suicide, the picture begins to exhibit degradation and Gray understands his wish has been granted. Following in the footsteps of his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he becomes a hedonistic monster, indulging in womanizing and opium use all while his portrait bears the scars.
A Christmas Carol
People all over the world are familiar with the legendary story of Ebenezer Scrooge. It has been published multiple times and adapted into stage plays, musicals, and countless television and theatrical film releases. Published in 1843, it was written by Charles Dickens as an examination of the era's Christmas traditions as well as an allegory for British society of the time.
Scrooge, a self-obsessed miser, finds himself on Christmas Eve complaining about the season and treating those around him with cruel disdain. He's depicted as a man with no regard for those in need, even his own employee, Bob Cratchit.
Soon, he finds himself visited by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns him that he will be visited further by three more ghosts. With each ghost, Scrooge gets glimpses of his own past, present, and future. Each time period proves to be disturbing, as Scrooge must learn hard lessons about both himself and society.
While A Christmas Carol is not the scariest story compared to some other horror novels, it still stands as one of the all-time classics of the genre.
Setting the standard for Gothic horror, Dracula is an 1897 novel by Bram Stoker. Dracula, while not the first story written about vampires, is by far the most famous, published a number of times and adapted into film, radio, television, and stage. It also spawned countless spin-offs and sequels, as well as lines of toys and video games.
Stoker tells the story of Count Dracula, a vampire aristocrat from Transylvania, and his attempt to move to England in the 1890s. Told through a series of letters, log entries, diaries, and newspaper articles, Dracula follows a number of people as they band together to fight Count Dracula and prevent him from bringing his reign of evil to his new home. The different parts of the tale focus on different characters, each describing their experiences and eventually coming together. Joined by the vampire hunter Van Helsing, the group finds a way to kill Dracula while suffering casualties along the way.
Mary Shelley's masterpiece may be the most famous of all horror novels ever written. She was only 18 when she began the novel and it was published for the first time in 1818. The inspiration for the novel comes from real-life events she experienced in Germany where she was told stories of alchemists’ experiments from centuries before.
Frankenstein is the story of its namesake, Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a reanimated being from the dead tissue of others. The Creature, as it is called, is a giant at eight feet tall, with yellow eyes. Frankenstein flees but eventually meets his tortured Creature again. At its request, the scientist creates a female companion but destroys it before it is brought to life. The Creature eventually kills Victor's wife and the creator pursues it all the way to the North Pole, dying in the quest to save humanity from the evil he brought to the world.
Classic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein are early precursors to many horror movies and television shows loved by fans to this day. These books set the standards for modern horror stories created today. Although the style of horror writing has evolved over the years, the essential elements remain the same. Haunted houses, ghosts, vampires, monsters, and supernatural experiences remain the basis of modern works by authors such as Clive Barker and R.L. Stine. Proof that people of all eras love to be frightened by a good scary story.
Inspired to read some of these classic novels? You can also wear some of the iconic horror characters from the books on a shirt. How about a Frankenstein shirt, or maybe that famous “Here’s Johnny” moment from the film version of The Shining?