12 terrifying books that will actually scare you

12 terrifying books that will *actually* scare you

In Reading Lists by Emma Contreras

12 terrifying books that will actually scare you

At the tender age of 13, I picked up Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and, let me tell you, that was the last horror book I dared read for a long time. For days after I finished the novel, I jumped at every little sound and lay awake at night absolutely convinced that the dead hamster buried in my backyard would turn into a reanimated corpse determined to come after me.

Admittedly, I scare easily. Which is why I’ve always been amazed by my friends who can dive into horror books and come out on the other side seemingly unscathed. This list of actually scary books is for readers like them: The horror aficionados who love the thrill of terror and are on the hunt for something that will give them a real fright.

From psychological thrillers like Baby Teeth to absolute blood baths like The Rats, there’s no turning back once you get started with these genuinely scary books. You’ve been warned!

1. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

If it’s terrifying enough for the king of horror himself, it’s terrifying enough for you. King has stated that this is the only novel he’s written that actually scared him — which says a lot, considering his impressive repertoire of horror books (see: ItMiseryand Finn)

Pet Sematary brings every parent’s worst nightmare to life in a shocking combination of trauma and loss, the dead and undead. While the 2019 film adaptation starring Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz is certainly worth a watch, it didn’t leave a mark on me (read: traumatize me) the way the book did.

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2. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

There’s a lot to fear in Simmons’ paranormal thriller: First, there are the horrors of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Then, there are the mind-controlling, racist, homophobic, misogynistic vampires that commit acts so vile they redefine the word “evil.”

Carrion Comfort follows an elderly Holocaust survivor who’s determined to hunt down the demons of his past and unwittingly stumbles across a small but powerful group of people who can gain complete control over others using telekinesis. A deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

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3. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Neil Gaiman’s review of The Wasp Factory back in 1985 states that it “will delight horror fans with its mixture of black humor and horrible, imaginative, beautiful deaths.” That’s a spot-on summary of this novel narrated by a psychopathic teenager named Frank whose violent outlets include truly perverse acts of abuse against animals and small children.

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4. The Ritual by Adam Nevill

Warning: Read this one with caution if you’re preparing for a camping trip.

What starts as a reunion hiking trip for four university friends turns into a harrowing struggle for survival in the Scandinavian wilderness. Lost and desperate after attempting to take a detour, the group comes across an abandoned house that turns out not to be a cozy comfort, but rather a place of sinister rituals. 

Psychological terror builds with each twist in Nevill’s 2011 horror novel that was later adapted into a movie starring Rafe Spall. 

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5. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

As if moms didn’t have enough to worry about: Stage’s debut novel is a twisted psychological thriller about a truly dysfunctional family and a young girl’s out-of-control adoration for her dad. 

Hanna loves her dad. Her mom? Not so much. In fact, she’d do anything to be the one-and-only in her father’s life — even if it means taking her mom, Suzette, out. Permanently. As Hanna’s attempts to remove her mother from their family grow increasingly refined, Suzette is forced to confront their failing family dynamics. 

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6. The Deep by Nick Cutter

A bizarre plague is wiping people’s memories, turning them into husks of themselves. Veterinarian Luke Nelson is tasked with researching a new biological substance that could save humanity, but the lab is miles below sea level. When Luke arrives, it’s clear something eerie — possibly evil — is at play. 

Cutter takes readers on a psychologically terrifying journey in The Deep — a book that feels increasingly suffocating, and not just because it takes place in the darkest depths of the Pacific Ocean.

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7. Phantoms by Dean Koontz

From the start, Koontz delivers a relentless onslaught of suspense that builds to a terrifying crescendo. 

Sisters Jenny and Lisa, eager to reconnect during a trip to a remote ski town, are distressed to find it completely devoid of people. Living ones, that is. The discovery of body after body, each strangely disfigured, entangles the women in a gruesome mystery that turns out to be less of a whodunnit, and more of a “whatdunnit.” 

Widely regarded as one of the best Koontz books, this blend of science fiction and horror weaves in details from real-life disappearances, making it all the more scary. 

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8. Perfect by L.A. Kessler

In Kessler’s genetic thriller, Juliet has been kept protected her entire life, not allowed to mar the perfection of her DNA. When she finally begins to question everything, horrific plans come to light, and Juliet has to figure out how to keep herself and her younger sister alive. 

Kessler blends in themes of abuse, betrayal, and friendship to stunning effect, making for an emotional, character-driven read. 

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9. What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Alex Easton visits old friends Madeline and Roderick Usher after receiving word that Madeline is dying. But something is very wrong at the Usher house and the Usher siblings are behaving most erratically. 

Multi award-winning author Kingfisher (The Twisted Ones) pens an eerie iteration of Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s an atmospheric horror novella about a people and a place gone awry — and one friend trying desperately to uncover the truth.

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10. The Rats by James Herbert

If you, like me, are intensely repulsed by rats and their bald, skinny tails (no offense to the Ratatouille fans out there) but love a good horror novel, you are going to hate/love Herbert’s 1974 gore fest. Hate, because so many rats. Love, because this actually scary book will creep you out and make your skin crawl for days on end.

London is under attack by mutant rats that are meaner, smarter, and bigger than their predecessors. They’ve developed a penchant for human flesh, and let’s just say humanity is losing the fight. 

Overloaded with graphic details of gruesome rat attacks, The Rats is the start to a bloody good trilogy rife with old-school horror fun. 

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11. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Twelve-year-old Oskar is lonely, bullied, and friendless, until he meets his neighbor, Eli. Her odd abilities and behavior make sense after she reveals she’s a vampire. Lindqvist’s melancholic story of wholesome friendship is set against a stark backdrop of fear, gore, and revenge.

The bestselling novel, originally published in Swedish, inspired two film adaptations, a TV series, and a comic book series. 

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12. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

Brace yourself: This book is full of monsters, and not the supernatural kind.

Every small town has its secrets, some darker than others. In 1950s Indianapolis, one suburb is shaken to its core by the discovery of unspeakable acts of abuse against two young girls at the hands of their aunt, cousins, and other neighborhood children. 

Based on the heartbreaking true story of Sylvia Likens, Ketchum delivers a brutal gut punch of a story that will haunt you long after you put it down. 

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About the Author: Emma Contreras

Emma is an Everand booklist curator and a freelance content marketing writer covering finance, business leadership, and B2B SaaS communications.