The Most Terrifying Book I’ve Ever Read
And a Top 5 List, and Some Honorable Mentions
I got addicted to frightening reads when I was in third grade. I was a chronic insomniac (still am) and read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, start to finish one night while everyone else in the house was asleep.
The second half of that book scared the hell out of me and I loved it.
My interest in terrifying reads grew when, in seventh grade, I checked out a hardback copy of Stephen King’s Carrie from my local library.
While Carrie isn’t nearly the thrillfest that some other King novels are, I think it is underrated as far as King’s novels go.
And it was plenty scary for a seventh grader.
The first truly terrifying book I read, as in made my heart race and left me wondering if my brain would ever return to normal, is #5 on my countdown list, and it’s one I read the summer after my freshman year of high school.
#5: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
American Psycho tells the story of a Manhattan businessman who, alienated and isolated, decides to try his hand at being a psychotic serial killer. Worse, he finds that, with each kill he makes, his control over his own psychopathic urges decreases, meaning the novel gets more and more messed up as it goes along. This book is terrifying not just because the scenes of carnage are brutal (and brutally narrated in first person by the killer) but because it scares you into believing, rightly, that each page is going to be even worse than the last one.
#4 Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
Coraline presents itself as a kid’s book, and I would let my kids read Coraline. It never gets gory or off-the-rails. Part of the book’s brilliance is that it is genuinely frightening, even for adults, while still somehow also being appropriate for kids…in a Hansel and Gretel kind of way.
The story is about a girl who finds a doorway that leads to a bizarro world version of her own life, one where the button-eyed people who stand in for her parents don’t want to let her go.
It gets weirder from there, and as Coraline struggles to return to her world, and bizarro world doesn’t want to let her go, the fear of entrapment with hints of eternal despair suddenly becomes quite real.
Honorable Mention: The Mist by Stephen King
The Mist is a novella that appears at the beginning of Skeleton Crew, and has also been published as a standalone. I’ve read all of Stephen King’s classics and many of his stinkers and, for my money, The Mist is his most frightening creation.
#3 Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Josh Malerman’s Bird Box is already well known among horror novel aficionados. With the movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock now in production, it will soon be known to everyone.
Because it’s scary as hell.
Simple premise to this one: something sinister is in the air that, if you see it, will drive you to madness, and so when a mother takes her children on a journey, she must do it blindfolded.
The scariest monsters are the ones we can’t see. This novel takes that idea and amplifies it to the extreme.
#2 Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
I put this one on the list with real reservations.
If you’re not already a Chuck Palahniuk fan, don’t read this.
If you’ve been curious about Palahniuk and want to start with something, start with Fight Club.
This book is not for beginners.
In many ways it’s not for anyone.
This book is a transgressive novelist seeing just how far he can push the envelope. It gets a little bit nuts.
The opening chapter of this novel famously made people pass out in city after city during Palahniuk’s book tour. Not kidding. It kept happening in every city he went to in order to do a reading.
The opening chapter of this novel is frightening, perverse, and very, very gross.
This is all making you more curious and now you want to read this one more than any of the others on the list, but seriously, be careful. Know what you’re getting into. Think of transgressive movies like The Human Centipede, you know, artistic ventures that are disgusting and disturbing on purpose in an attempt to explore the boundaries, and now imagine a story that’s way worse than anything a movie can do because the novel is so much more personal and able to get into your head.
This novel is strange, disturbing, disgusting, perverse, and also, terrifying. I’ve read it once and honestly, I will never read it again. I won’t even keep a copy in my house.
Honorable Mention: The Passage by Justin Cronin.
If Palahniuk uses horror as part of an exploration of the edges of the human psyche, Cronin uses horror as part of a story about the redemptive power of the human spirit. The Passage is a vampire apocalypse novel written in the style of a Louis L’Amour epic. It’s a sweeping panorama of beautiful writing that just happens to be about the end of humanity due to the rise of bloodsucking monsters.
And though The Passage might be my favorite end-of-the-earth novel, it’s not the one I would call the most frightening.
That title goes to the book at the top of my list, the most terrifying book I’ve ever read.
#1 The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Earth ends in a fiery ball of ash and there’s nothing left for humans to eat but each other. That’s The Road. That’s the novel Oprah once picked for her book club (WTF Oprah?)
The premise is simple enough, and the scenes are harrowing, but what truly makes this novel unmatchable in terms of its power to frighten and disturb is the writing.
Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest writers America has ever produced. His powers of description, of pacing…his ability to bring forth an emotional reaction with his words…the fact that someone of his skill would choose to write a story like this…
It’s hard to talk about. If you’ve read it you understand.
The Road isn’t McCarthy’s only bonkers gonzo terrifying novel. Blood Meridian is also off the hilt and some of his fans might choose it as their #1 frightfest.
But I think The Road is even crazier than Blood Meridian. The things that happen in this novel, the way McCarthy makes you believe it’s all so real…
The thing about The Road is that McCarthy doesn’t give you much detail about how the world came to be like this. He makes reference to some kind of fiery holocaust but leaves the details out because he doesn’t want to be bound by whatever rules your imagination wants to put on him.
He wants a world turned totally to ash where the desperation of people who now live on the verge of death in every moment can emerge. Reading it, you get the feeling that McCarthy believes that every one of us has it inside of ourselves to become a murderous bloodthirsty cannibal.
The Road scared the hell out of me because, for a couple hundred pages at least, I was convinced he was right.
The Road is my pick for most frightening book of all time because it transcends simple jumps and scares and makes you consider the idea that the monster inside you might be more hideous and horrifying than the fictional creations we use to scare ourselves.
Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels. His latest audiobook, The Tetradome Run, is being released in full as a free podcast with a movie-quality score of music and sound effects. Play the video below to hear how it sounds.