I was shelving books in the bookstore and saw a book by Dan Simmons that reminded me how much I enjoyed his book "The Terror." That set me off on thinking about some of my favorite horror novels. So I put together a short list to post here. These are roughly in the order that I first read them from the earliest to the latest. I hope you enjoy it and maybe find some good reading material here.
1. Salem's Lot by Stephen King. This is the first novel that I can remember reading that really scared me. I was a freshmen in college and a friend asked if I had read anything by Stephen King. I had not and was only barely aware of him as an author (at that point, he only had 3 or 4 books out). So I gave this vampire tale a try and was soon enthralled in the story and characters. In it, a writer returns to the town he grew up in only to find it being taken over by vampires. I read the book in 2 days and became a King fan for life. In several interviews, King has said that this is his favorite of all his books.
2. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Technically, this may not be a horror novel, but it is a book that gave me the creeps and is one of the greatest thrillers ever written. "Silence of the Lambs" is a wonderful book, but I like Will Graham as a main character much better than Clarice Starling. I am fascinated by Graham's ability to walk through a crime scene and get into the mindset of a killer. This plot device is somewhat common now, but it was pretty revolutionary in 1981. I have reread this book several times and it always captures my imagination and creeps me out. There is one scene where Graham climbs a tree behind the victims' home and finds a vital clue that has stayed with me all these years.
3. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. I really enjoyed this story of four old men in Milburn, NY that accidently committed a horrible act in their youth that has come back to haunt them. The book is very atmospheric and slips seamlessly between the two time periods. We see how these four men act and react to what happened and it's eventual consequences. "Ghost Story" is another book that has scenes that stick with me decades after I read it. Straub has written some other very strong horror novels over the years.
4. The Mist by Stephen King. Actually just a novella, but it packs a hell of a punch. Soon after a powerful thunderstorm passes over a secret military installation, a mysterious mist spread across the countryside near a small town in Maine. When some of the characters drive into town for supplies, they are trapped with several others in a grocery store that becomes enveloped in the mist. There are "things" alive in the mist and they start trying to get to the people inside the store. The situation brings out the best and worst in people as they try to cope and decide whether to stay or attempt an escape. Along with "11/22/63" (not really a horror story), this is my favorite of all of King's works.
5. The Ruins by Scott Smith. I use to tell people that this was the best Stephen King novel not written by King. It is the story of 6 young people on vacation in Mexico that follow a map to a mysterious ruins in the jungle. Of course, there is something very evil that guards the ruins and horrible things start to happen to the visitors one by one. The "monster" here is at first glance somewhat silly, but when you start to realize what it can do, it becomes horrifying. It was made into a pretty bad film.
6. Nightrunners by Joe Lansdale. Only his second novel, this is not Lansdale's best book, but the circumstances under which I read it put it on this list. "Nightrunners" is the story of a bunch of vicious teens in a 1966 Chevy terrorizing the countryside. This violent, scary, and occasionally funny book is considered one of the first splatterpunk novels. The main reason this book makes my list is that I read most of it one night in a tent while camping. I read it late into the night and when I turned out the lantern, every sound outside the tent was almost certainly a teenager with a very large knife. There was not much sleep that night for me...
7. lost boy, lost girl by Peter Straub. This novel introduces us to a a middle-aged writer trying to help his brother Philip and nephew, Mark, after the suicide of Philip's wife, Nancy. There is a possibly haunted house, a serial killer preying on children, and a lost girl. Mark goes missing and Tim and Philip work together to find him before he disappears forever. The fact that the book involves children as victims and a terrifying mix of real and supernatural horrors has made it one that I have no desire to read again, but that stays with me.
8. The Terror by Dan Simmons. A hugely entertaining mix of historical fiction and horror. Based on the real life disappearance of two British ships of an 1845 Arctic expedition, Simmons brings in something very scary out on the ice that is slowly picking off the men. The mixture of the loneliness of the Arctic ice with the horrors of Inuit mythology bring a real sense of dread to this work. At over 700 pages, this was one of the books that got me started on e-books.
9. The Passage by Justin Cronin. First in a series of three books, the second book "The Twelve" is also very good (I'm still waiting impatiently for the final book to come out). "The Passage" is set in current times when a highly contagious virus begins turning people into beings that have some of the same characteristics of vampires. The book then jumps into the future where these creatures have overrun America. A small band of humans try to make it cross country to a rumored place of safety. This was close to being my number one book of 2010.
10. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. Stephen King has two sons who also write, Owen King doesn't really do horror, but his one novel, "Double Feature", was quite good. Joe Hill, on the other hand, is proving himself as an excellent horror author. His first novel, "Heart Shaped Box", is about an aging rocker who buys a haunted suit; and his second book, "Horns", was recently adapted as a film starring Daniel Radcliffe. My favorite is his newest novel, "NOS4A2", which is the story of Victoria McQueen, a girl with the power to take shortcuts through another dimension to get places. Later in life she needs to use this power to try to save her son from Charles Manx, a frighteningly memorable villain. Manx drives around in his 1938 Rolls-Royce, offering to take unhappy children to Christmasland, where he says nothing bad ever happens. For me this book was every bit as epic, as King's "It", whose Pennywise the clown Manx reminded me of.
As a bonus pick, I think the "non-fiction" book "The Amityville Horror" scarred a whole generation of readers. Reading it while alone in the house on a very windy night with a large tree just outside the window didn't help. Jodie the pig and clouds of flies always seem to be just at the edge of my vision, making me hesitate to turn and look. I hope you try a few of these and they don't cause you to lose too much sleep.