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Compiling a list of horror books for beginners is a pretty daunting task. The horror label collides with many others: thriller, mystery, speculative fiction, the list goes on. Anything can distort the horror. It’s not exactly a closed genre. But that’s exactly what makes it so exciting!
I was a scared cat as a kid. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland convinced me I was going to die, and the scene in The Goonies when they put Chunk’s hand in the blender has scarred me to this day. I thought horror wasn’t for me and as such I avoided that description like the plague.
Over the years my friends dragged me to a few horror films that I wasn’t a fan of (Paranormal Activity, Dead Silence, and The Skeleton Key), so I firmly believed I was right. I didn’t like horror.
But then I saw It Follows and Coherence and Hush and I liked them. A lot. I started exploring the horror genre more and finding the subgroups that worked for me. I wasn’t into the slashers or the paranormal, but I liked the homicide / house invasions, the sci-fi-y off-kilter singers, the weird I-don’t-know-what-is ones in front of you. That’s the thing about horror: you have to figure out what works for you.
That’s why I’ve put together a few horror books for beginners in different subgenres to try out. If you try one thing and it doesn’t resonate with you, try something else. Just because you don’t like one type of horror doesn’t mean you don’t like another. There is fear for everyone if you stick with it long enough. None of these should be scary (try these if that’s what you’re after) so you can dip your toe into the genre and see if it makes you want more.
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I bet your sophomore English teacher didn’t tell you the horror genre was still alive then. If you enjoy reading the Jane Austen and the Mary Shelleys, try these out to get you started!
We always lived in the castle of Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is a staple in the horror genre, so you really can’t go wrong with her books and short stories (some of you may have read “The Lottery” in your English class). Your novel The Haunting of Hill House is another great starter, but we’ve always lived in the castle, wins in my eyes because it’s weird and unsettling and written absolutely beautifully. It’s got small town horrors, poisoning, arson, oh my! (If you want more ghostly horrors, try The Haunting of Hill House too!)
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I’m sure you already know what this is about, and that’s exactly why it’s great for a beginner looking to get into horror. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is named as the birthplace of the archetype not only of the vampire, but also of the vampire hunter. This letter novel is essential to understanding how modern horror came about, and a great place to start if you want to see how it has evolved since then. Through letters and newspaper articles, the story of Dracula unfolds which is “overly terrifying” to 20th century readers and today’s readers.
Thrillers are still a big sub-category, but if you’re looking for serial killers, home invasions, murder without too much blood, try one of these!
Misery of Stephen King
Okay, I know you can’t google horror without being plagued by Stephen King’s name. This is an obvious choice, but with good reason! It’s good! Its scary! It’s trapped in-a-room-with-a-murderous-fan, terrifying. It’s one of King’s best (and isn’t terrifyingly long like some of his more recent titles), which makes it a great place to start. Annie Wilkes is a name that you are sure to remember.
Søren Sveistrup’s chestnut man
This procedure is Sveistrup’s debut novel (you may know his work if you’ve seen The Killing), but it is excellent for getting your heart pumping for what one man does! The chestnut man, so called because he leaves a chestnut and two sticks as a calling card at every crime scene of his victims – all mothers – is terrifying and so very human. This is not the work of some superhuman, paranormal, otherworldly being. No, it’s just one person. Your neighbor or butcher or doctor maybe. How terrifying!
In the style of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, the literary horror genre is full of slashers. You want blood and blood You have it!
Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare
This horror novel for young adults is a revival of the slasher films of the 80s in book form. Quinn, a new town teenager, and a group of new friends battle to survive when the town’s mascot, a clown named Frendo, turns murderous. Tensions in the small town came to a head when dozens of Frendos began throwing stitches. And shoot arrows. And with chainsaws. It is fun! Its scary! And it’s so, so damn it!
Stephen Graham Jones’ last last girl
Another ode to teen slasher films, this Halloween-esque exploration of the girls’ final trop is a delight, full of horror movie references, homecoming queens and murderers wearing masks. The novel is written with scene jumps that mirror a movie, which makes it all the more fun. Full of slasher tropes of the 80s with a dash of satire about it, The Last Final Girl is a must for anyone who has a thing for blood.
In my opinion, this is where horror shines. The strange, eccentric and inexplicable. The I-have-no-idea-what-is-happening-but-I-loved-it. The atmospheric and strange, often without a satisfactory ending, so that the story festers in your head.
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi
Machado’s debut collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, is an excellent introduction to her strange and haunting style, and her comic book The Low, Low Woods is no different. Set in Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania, a town with a strange disease that devours people’s memories, the comic follows El and Vee as they investigate what exactly is happening to their people. DaNi’s illustrations are rich and terrifying as the two immerse themselves in the strangeness of their world.
I’m thinking of ending things by Iain Reid
Once you get into the horror genre, Reid’s name is one that gets tossed around a lot. His debut, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a great place to start if you’re looking to leave a book that is as enthusiastic as it is confused. Jake and his unnamed girlfriend (the narrator) go on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. Full of long philosophical conversations, troubled parents, a strange encounter with the Dairy Queen, and a late night high school break, this novel will leave you with more questions than you had at the beginning. But you will think of history for years to come.
Werewolves, Vampires and Ghosts! Here are a few paranormal horror books for beginners if that’s your taste.
Certain dark things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Want a fun, different vampire story in Mexico City? You have it! This is violent, harsh, and full of body as Domingo, a street kid, Atl, a blood drinker crossing paths. The vampires in it are unique and terrifying, and the story is rich in crime bosses, vampire gangs, and action. The setting is rich, the characters are corrupt, and the story is compelling.
Mixed Breeds by Stephen Graham Jones
Yes, this is another Stephen Graham Jones book, but it’s just so good! Mongrels is a werewolf novel like you’ve never read before. This coming-of-age novel is about a young man who grew up in a werewolf family on the fringes of modern society. It’s bloody and gruesome, yes, but what really won me over is how full of heart it is. And the details! The details are so clever and grounding that it makes believable that this package would exist in reality.
I remember you: A ghost story by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, translated by Philip Roughton
Of course, I had to throw in a ghost story here too. I Remember You: A Ghost Story is a story that is told in two parallels. The first: a group of friends renovating a house in a remote area. The second: a doctor whose son disappeared while investigating the death of a woman. When the two paths cross, one thing becomes clear. The house is not as deserted as the friends thought it was before.
I hope at least one of these beginner horror books has given you the goosebumps you crave! Did any of them make you want more? Check out these 2020 releases, those folk horror novels, or those small town horrors.