Book List

11 of the Most Terrifying Books of All Time

CUJO

King goes non-supernatural this time—and the result, despite the usual padding, is a tighter, more effective horror novel. We are once more up in Castle Rock, Maine, ayuh, where the natives are striving to survive some earlier King visitations of the unspeakable. Recent arrival Vic Trenton, who has brought a big ad account with him from New York, is having a hard time hanging onto both the Sharp cereals campaign and his wife Donna, who has just severed an affair with a filthy-poet/furniture-stripper. Meanwhile: Joe Camber, an alcoholic auto mechanic, is angry at wife Charity for wanting to take their son Brett on a visit to her folks (he's afraid Brett will get a taste of sane family life that will show up Joe's madness), but finally—figuring that he'll have a hot time while she's gone—Joe agrees. And all of this sets the scene for some big, extended horror sequences hi Joe's yard. You see, Brett's 200-pound St. Bernard ("Cujo") has chased a rabbit into a big hole also occupied by bats, and a rabid bat bites Cujo's nose. Soon the dog is acting queerly, slavering, and going mad with a headache that warps his thinking about men: Cujo is lost in a mist and can't be found the day Charity and Brett leave. The first to die is Joe's buddy Gary Pervier—who lives just down at the foot of the hill from Camber's yard and crosses Cujo hi his own yard. Later, when Joe finds Gary's body he himself has but two minutes or so to live. And next Donna's car breaks down, so she drives it into Camber's yard with her four-year-old Tad: they're attacked in their car and kept there for three days, even after an investigating cop is killed. Finally, then, there's the dog-versus-woman showdown as savaged Donna, now half-crazed, kills Cujo with a ballbat—but it's too late to save Tad, whose heart gives out. . . . The inevitable film is going to be hard on St. Bernards and may even seriously affect their good-guy image. But, the ASPCA notwithstanding, there's no denying that King's three-day vigil in the carnage has a solid hook that will hold his fans; and his Maine humors do offer witty relief. so once again. . . the moola will flow.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1981

ISBN: 0451161351

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1981

Piercingly effective and genuinely terrifying.

SHARP OBJECTS

A savage debut thriller that renders the Electra complex electric, the mother/daughter bond a psychopathic stranglehold.

Camille Preaker is a cutter. At 13, she carved “queasy” above her navel, at 29, “vanish” on her neck. In the intervening years, she etched her entire epidermis from the chin down with cries for help. Entertainment Weekly TV critic Flynn discloses this information 60 pages into her explosive novel; before that, we know Camille as a hard-drinking, good-looking Jimmy Breslin wannabe, sent by a second-tier paper to cover two gruesome killings in her Missouri hometown. Nine-year-old Natalie’s corpse was found jammed between the Cut-n-Curl Beauty Parlor and Bifty’s Hardware nine months after another’s girl’s body was dumped in a creek. The murderer’s grisly signature? Both strangled corpses had their teeth yanked out. As she snoops around, Camille gets hot for a cute detective and anxious in her mother’s house. Haunted by the ghost of her sister, a child felled by mysterious illness, Camille warily befriends half-sister Amma, a snaky Lolita with precociously developed smarts and breasts. Bite-sized Queen of Mean who rules the town’s teens, Amma joins Camille in shuddering at their mother, Aurora, an oh-so-proper virago who pulls down a million dollars a year running a pig slaughterhouse. Mommie Dearest is afflicted with an outré psychological disturbance: She inflicts illness on her loved ones to then prove her sweetness by nursing them. Could she be the slayer? Or perhaps an even more hideous revelation awaits? Flynn delivers a great whodunit, replete with hinting details, telling dialogue, dissembling clues. Better yet, she offers appalling, heartbreaking insight into the darkness of her women’s lives: the Stepford polish of desperate housewives, the backstabbing viciousness of drug-gobbling, sex-for-favors Mean Girls, the simmering rage bound to boil over.

Piercingly effective and genuinely terrifying.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2006

ISBN: 0-307-34154-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Shaye Areheart/Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

A pleasing book for those who like to scare themselves silly, one to read with the lights on and the door bolted.

IMAGINARY FRIEND

Two decades after his debut novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), Chbosky returns with a creepy horror yarn that would do Stephen King proud.

“Mom? Will he find us?” So asks young Christopher of his mother, Kate, who has spirited him away from her abusive mate and found a tiny town in Pennsylvania in which to hide out. Naturally, her secret is not safe—but it’s small potatoes compared to what Christopher begins to detect as he settles in to a new life and a new school. His friends, like him, are casualties, and that’s just fine for the malevolent forces that await out in the woods and even in the sky, the latter the place where Christopher comes into contact with a smiling, talking cloud that lures him off into the ever dark woods. “That’s when he heard a little kid crying,“ writes Chbosky, and that’s just about the time the reader will want to check to be sure that no one is hiding behind the chair—or worse, and about the scariest trope of all, which Chbosky naturally puts to work, under the bed. Christopher disappears only to turn up a little less than a week later, decidedly transformed. But then, so’s everyone in Mill Grove, including his elementary school teacher, who harbors an ominous thought: “Christopher was such a nice little boy. It was too bad that he was going to die now.” As things begin to go truly haywire, Chbosky’s prose begins to break down into fragments and odd punctuation and spelling, suggesting that someone other than the author is in control of the fraught world he’s depicting. One wonders why Kate doesn’t just fire up the station wagon and head down the Pennsylvania Turnpike rather than face things like a “hissing lady” and a townsman who has suddenly begun to sport daggerlike teeth, but that’s the nature of a good scary story—and this one is excellent.

A pleasing book for those who like to scare themselves silly, one to read with the lights on and the door bolted.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5387-3133-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

Beukes gave us a time traveling serial killer in The Shining Girls, and the monsters in her latest tale, whether they’re...

BROKEN MONSTERS

A genuinely unsettling—in all the best ways—blend of suspense and the supernatural makes this a serial-killer tale like you’ve never seen.

Set in a crumbling contemporary Detroit, Beukes’ fourth novel (The Shining Girls, 2013, etc.) seamlessly alternates between the points of view of a single mother homicide detective; her 15-year-old daughter; a wannabe journalist; a homeless man; and an artist with deep-seated psychological issues. At the scene of the crime, Detective Gabriella Versado can’t remember the last time she’s seen something so brutal: The top half of 11-year-old Daveyton Lafonte is fused with the hind legs of a fawn in a hideous display of human taxidermy. While it’s obvious that the five storylines will eventually join together, Beukes never takes the easy route, letting each character develop organically. Versado’s daughter, Layla, cautiously navigates high school in the digital age; homeless scavenger Thomas “TK” Keen warily patrols the streets; Detroit transplant Jonno Haim tries to make a name for himself by chronicling first the city’s art scene and then the hunt for the killer dubbed the Detroit Monster; and sculptor Clayton Broom’s creations begin to take on lives of their own. Versado’s dogged pursuit of the killer, under the glare of the media spotlight, is as compelling a police procedural narrative as Broom’s descent into madness and the horrors of his dream world are a truly terrifying horror story.

Beukes gave us a time traveling serial killer in The Shining Girls, and the monsters in her latest tale, whether they’re real or imagined, will keep you up all night.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-316-21682-1

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

Worth waiting in line for, if you’re a Hill fan. If you’re not, this is the book to turn you into one.

STRANGE WEATHER

Horrormeister Hill (The Fireman, 2016) offers a four-pack of mayhem in this sparkling collection of short novels.

Think climate change is bad now? Just wait until those obsidian-sharp blades of rain cut you to pieces come the next storm. Hill, son of Stephen King, has his father’s eye for those climacteric moments when the ordinary turns into the extraordinary—and the sinister to boot. In Rain, a warm Colorado day turns nasty when silver and gold needles begin to pour down. Hill’s narrator, ever the helpful neighbor, watches as they rip a woman to shreds: “Her crinkly silver gown was jerked this way and that on her body, as if invisible dogs were fighting over it.” Memorable but icky, that. In such circumstances, you can bet that the ordinary norms don’t hold; give humans an emergency dire enough, and civil society collapses, presto! So it is in Loaded when a Florida shopping mall becomes the playground of a shooter unusual in more ways than one; what gives the story, which is altogether too probable, creepy luster is the dancing cyclonic firestorm that’s heading toward the mall, which may have been what prompted the security-guard protagonist of the tale to add to the death count without the intercession of any apparent conscience. Hill squeezes in some nice pop-culture references along the way, including one to a namesake: “Finally the kid who looked like Jonah Hill had entered the shop, and the shooter, with her dying breath, had put a bullet in his fat, foolish face.” Icky again—as it should be for a horror honcho. In homage to "The Illustrated Man," perhaps, in Snapshot Hill imagines an ancient mariner sort of psychopath whose Phoenician-script tats invite onlookers to run away but instead lure them in, the easier for him to tinker with their memories, while Aloft is a pitch-perfect fable that blends Ted Chiang and Aristophanes into an eerie delight.

Worth waiting in line for, if you’re a Hill fan. If you’re not, this is the book to turn you into one.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-06-266311-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

A haunting story of humanity’s herd mentality, brilliantly rendered.

SHIRLEY JACKSON'S "THE LOTTERY"

A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION

A stunning graphic adaptation of a chilling classic.

Hyman, grandson of Shirley Jackson, original author of “The Lottery,” offers his interpretation of her iconic story. In it, townspeople gather to partake in a disturbing tradition—the origins of and reasons for which we are not told. There is mention of bigger towns, where the lottery takes two days, and talk of other, radical towns where the lottery has been eliminated altogether. To follow their lead would mean regressing to living in caves and “eating stewed chickweed and acorns.” Each head of family must draw from an heirloom box a slip of paper. He who draws the slip with the black, circular mark is chosen; his family must draw again. The member of his family who draws the marked slip will be stoned, presumably to death, by the rest of the town, including the remaining family members. Hyman’s illustrations are powerful: rich and evocative graphic realism, softly colored, marrying Rockwell-ian and American Gothic style. The tone, at first, is both ominous and mundane. As the townspeople gather in the June sun, they banter with familiar ease—“Wouldn’t have me leave m’dishes in the sink, now, would you, Joe?”—but beneath the banal, the mood is decidedly baleful. When the black spot is drawn, the mood, along with the color scheme, shifts dramatically: both are immediately drained of the bucolic and sonorous. The rest of the story is starkly depicted in black, white, and harvest orange. The most unnerving illustration depicts a small boy taking up a fistful of child-sized rocks to aim at his pleading mother.

A haunting story of humanity’s herd mentality, brilliantly rendered.

Pub Date: Oct. 11, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8090-6650-6

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

One of Simmons’ best.

THE TERROR

Horror novel based on an ill-fated 19th-century polar expedition.

Simmons (Olympos, 2005, etc.) tells the story through the eyes of several characters, including the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin, co-commander Captain Francis Crozier and the ship’s surgeon Harry Goodsir. The author jumbles the chronological sequence, beginning in October 1847 with Terror (one of the expedition’s two ships; the other was Erebus) trapped in the ice north of Canada, where they have come in search of the Northwest Passage. The initial scene immediately introduces the novel’s main supernatural element: a giant bear-like entity (the crew call it the thing) that preys on the explorers and appears invulnerable to their weapons. The expedition is in enough trouble without this hostile being’s attention. Food is short, thanks in part to improperly prepared canned goods; the ships have been frozen in thick sea ice for two consecutive winters; many of the crew show signs of scurvy; and temperatures have been consistently 50 or more degrees below zero. Overconfident Franklin has disobeyed orders to leave behind messages detailing his movements, so rescue expeditions have no idea where to search for him. Crozier, for his part, is a chronic drunk, although it doesn’t seem to affect his command of his ship and men. Simmons convincingly renders both period details and the nuts and bolts of polar exploration as his narrative moves back and forth in time to show the expedition’s launch in 1845 and its early days in the Arctic. Tension builds as the men struggle to survive: The thing is a constant menace, and deaths continue to mount as a result of brutal Arctic conditions. The supernatural element helps resolve the plot in a surprising yet highly effective manner.

One of Simmons’ best.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2007

ISBN: 0-316-01744-2

Page Count: 784

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2006

Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.

ANNIHILATION

From the Southern Reach Trilogy series , Vol. 1

After their high-risk expedition disintegrates, it’s every scientist for herself in this wonderfully creepy blend of horror and science fiction. This is the first volume of the Southern Reach trilogy from VanderMeer (Finch, 2009, etc.); subsequent volumes are scheduled for publication in June and September 2014.

The Southern Reach is the secret government agency that dispatches expeditions across the border to monitor Area X, an ominous coastal no man’s land since an unspecified event 30 years before. This latest expedition, the 12th, is all-female, consisting of a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor and a biologist (the narrator). Names are taboo. Their leader, the psychologist, has hypnotic powers. They have no communication devices, but they do have firearms, which they will use; some earlier expeditions also ended bloodily. Close to base camp is "the tower," a mostly underground structure that acts as tunnel, which they descend. On its walls are grim biblical admonitions, raised letters made of fungi. The biologist incautiously inhales tiny spores which, she will discover later, fill her with brightness, a form of ESP. Tension between the women increases when the anthropologist goes missing; they will discover her dead in the tower, discharging green ash. Next, the psychologist disappears. Leaving the hostile, ex-military surveyor behind, the biologist makes her way to the other interesting structure, the lighthouse, which she climbs in dread. VanderMeer is an expert fearmonger, but his strongest suit, what makes his novel a standout, is his depiction of the biologist. Like any scientist, she has an overriding need to classify, to know. This has been her lifelong passion. Her solitary explorations created problems in her marriage; her husband, a medic, returned from the previous expedition a zombie. What killed the anthropologist? The biologist’s samples reveal human brain tissue. Some organism is trying to colonize and absorb the humans with whom it comes in contact. Experiencing “the severe temptation of the unknown,” she must re-enter the tower to confront the Crawler, her name for the graffiti writer.

Speculative fiction at its most transfixing.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-10409-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2013

A literate, ironic, strangely tasty treat for fans of 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, The Last Man on Earth and other...

WORLD WAR Z

AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE ZOMBIE WAR

An “oral history” of the global war the evil brain-chewers came within a hair of winning.

Zombies are among us—turn on your television if you don’t believe it. But, Brooks reassures us in this all-too-realistic novel, even today, human fighters are hunting down the leftovers, and we’re winning. Brooks (The Zombie Survival Guide, not reviewed) seeds his mockumentary with smart nods to the chains of cause and effect that spring from today’s headlines. Like the avian flu, one CIA agent tells the interviewer, the zombie plague began in China, whose government embarked on a campaign of “health and safety” sweeps (“Instead of lying about the sweeps themselves, they just lied about what they were sweeping for”) to contain the endless armies of the moaning, walking dead. It didn’t work. Ear to the ground, Israel quarantined itself—it helped that it had that tall new wall. Greece, Japan, England: Every center of world civilization was overrun, with notable pockets of resistance. In England, for example, the queen stayed in Windsor Castle, the most easily defended bastion in the realm, to steel the hearts of her subjects. Who says the royal family is a relic? Finally, the zombies come to North America, where, after the disastrous Battle of Yonkers, the humans regroup and take their pound of extremely icky flesh in vengeance; even Michael Stipe, the antiwar rock singer, signs up to kick zombie butt. Brooks’s iron-jaw narrative is studded with practical advice on what to do when the zombies come, as they surely will. For one thing, check to see who doesn’t blink (“Maybe because they don’t have as much bodily fluid they can’t keep using it to coat the eyes”), aim for the head and blast away.

A literate, ironic, strangely tasty treat for fans of 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, The Last Man on Earth and other treasures of the zombie/counterzombie genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2006

ISBN: 0-307-34660-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

Lecter emerges as one of the great villains of thrillerdom, and this novel, likely to garner a huge readership, as one of...

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

With this stunning sequel to his 1981 blockbuster, Red Dragon, Harris (Black Sunday, 1975) seals his reputation as a thriller-master by delivering a deeply involving, blood-freezing tale of a young female F.B.I. trainee on the trail of a serial killer.

The premise of Red Dragon was its detective's ability to sympathize with the killer he sought. Here, Harris reverses thematic gears, finding an unbridgeable chasm between good and evil. On the side of light stand spunky heroine Candice Starling and her compassionate FBI boss, Jack Crawford; in the darkness dwell two indelible creations: rampaging serial killer ""Buffalo Bill""—so-nicknamed because he skins the women he kills—and homicidal genius Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a minor figure from Red Dragon here expanded into the very embodiment of self-knowing evil. With no clues to Bill's identity, a desperate Crawford sends Starling to the madhouse where Lecter, an expert on the criminally insane, is imprisoned. Will the insane psychologist help ferret out Bill? Yes, but at a price: Starling must reveal a personal secret for each sliver of advice, In a series of chilling meetings, Starling strips her psyche bare; Lecter responds by toying with her, feeding helpful but inconclusive clues. Meanwhile, Bill—a walking nightmare busy making a human suit out of the skins he harvests—kidnaps a congresswoman's daughter, dumping her into a pit in his basement. The congresswoman learns of Lecter's help and offers him a deal: identify Bill—a former patient of his—and Lector will be transferred to a room with a view. Sadistically, Lecter coughs up a false name—and then escapes during his transfer in an orgy of killing. As the clock winds down. Starling and Crawford race to find Bill—a race that culminates in an ultratense, violent confrontation between Starling and the madman in his lair—while Lecter connives to stay free; will he return to cast his long, black shadow in yet another sequel? A tour de force of suspense, dark and polished as onyx.

Lecter emerges as one of the great villains of thrillerdom, and this novel, likely to garner a huge readership, as one of the most gripping reads of the year.

Pub Date: Aug. 29, 1988

ISBN: 978-0-312-02282-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1988

This one is really scary.

GERALD'S GAME

King takes it over the top, way over the top, in an exquisitely horrifying frightfest about a woman forced to face her deepest fears—and then some.

Jessie Burlingame, 39, is getting plenty tired of being handcuffed to the bed of her Maine summerhouse by her attorney-husband, Gerald, so that he can play his silly sex games. So when Gerald refuses to uncuff her, she kicks him in the family jewels, accidentally smashing them to kingdom come—and the terror begins. Each hand cuffed to a bedpost, the keys out of reach, Jessie howls for help—and is answered by a feral dog that proceeds to chow down on Gerald's face in lavishly described, muscle-shredding detail. As the long hours pass, cramps bite like iron jaws into Jessie's own flesh; but they're nothing compared to the thirst raging through her. Can she somehow reach the glass of water on the shelf above her head? It takes the moat tightly controlled writing King's ever done to find out, but soon even the thirst pales beside the guilt-gargoyles that Jessie's mind begins to throw up, all pointing at the sun-eclipsed day so long ago when she became much more to Daddy than just his little girl. The minutes tick by, each an agony—and King's just warming up. Night falls: What's that shadow in the comer? The one with the smirking face of Death? And how can Jessie, growing into a heartbreakingly brave heroine, escape? She tugs and tugs at her wrists but can't slip them past the cuffs. Is there a hot, sticky lubricant at hand? He's not really going to describe that, is he? But, with a ferocious gleam in his eye, King does, out-splatterpunking everyone else on the planet in a tour de force that—even given some overindulgent psychologizing, awfully strong echoes of Cujo and Misery, and a long, peculiar anticlimax—is his most wrenching novel to date.

This one is really scary.

Pub Date: July 13, 1992

ISBN: 0451176464

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1992

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