Whether it's a skin-crawling selection from the bibliography of a master of horror like Stephen King, or a nonfiction account of just how bad things are (and how much worse they can get), a good book has the power to leave you haunted long after you turn the last page.
Submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
1."Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo was so disturbing I couldn't finish it. The premise is that a young soldier wakes up to discover he has lost his sight, hearing, power of speech, and all four of his limbs in a landmine explosion. He is completely alone with his thoughts, unable to interact with the world around him, and yet Trumbo weaves such an intense and claustrophobic narrative around it. What's really dreadful is that it was based off a real case during World War I."
2."Lots of people list The Mist by Stephen King, but his The Long Walk (written as Richard Bachman) is obscenely brutal. It's a Hunger Games-like marathon walk. But less world-building and more deep dives into the psyches of the contestants. Fantastic book."
3."Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. I have tried multiple times to read it, and I keep having to put it down. It is ruthless and holds no punches. It is about a Black woman who keeps getting warped back to US slave era, randomly and without any control over when or how it happens."
4."Okay, I've read all 240 answers, and I can't believe no one has said Jaws. I read that book when it first came out (so a long time ago), and I still think about it anytime I'm near the ocean."
5."The Hot Zone. I've seen since reading it that the author exaggerated some Ebola details, but still..."
6."I read Hiroshima in high school, and I still often think about it 20 years later."
7."House of Leaves. I wouldn't even call it a horror story personally. But it's the only book I've ever read that instilled feelings of not just fear, but genuine dread that persisted long after putting it down."
8."Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, written or collected and rewritten by Alvin Schwartz, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Found it in my elementary school library and had nightmares for a while afterwards. Still wouldn't want to re-read it as an adult. The illustrations are haunting and terrifying and no doubt a big part of what disturbed me so much reading it as a kid."
9."I remember the growing dread as I read Pet Sematary for the first (and only) time. I was literally begging a character not to do what I knew he was about to."
10."On the Beach by Nevil Shute. It’s about a group of people in Australia waiting for a radiation cloud to come and kill them; the government has issued suicide pills."
11."Swan Song. The depiction of nuclear war and the survivors scraping by and killing each other over what is left during seven years of nuclear winter put me genuinely on edge. And with everything happening now, it hits a little harder."
12."The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, if you like science fiction. It paints a chillingly dark and frighteningly probable future for humanity and the prospect of alien life."
13."I always find nonfiction books to be the scariest because humans have done some truly horrifying things throughout history. Night by Elie Wiesel disturbed me so much when I read it at 14 that I couldn't stop thinking about it for months afterward, and it pretty much shattered my childhood innocence."
14."The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Not particularly scary, but it reaches down inside you and pulls that chord labeled 'feeling of powerlessness that was the worst part of childhood' and yanks it hard. If you were ever the kid who tried to convince the adults that something was wrong and they did not listen, this book may not be a good choice."
15."This is a left-field one but The Great Post Office Scandal. It’s so relatable and scary to think that perfectly honest and diligent people could be thrown in jail by the hundreds because a few bureaucratic fuckwits couldn’t admit their computer system wasn’t perfect."
16."The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. There’s an ever-present evil lurking in rural Appalachia, cloaked in religion and superstition and sickening lust."
17."The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. The story of Ted Bundy. I read it years ago when I was living by myself in an apartment. It scared the shit out of me. The fact that she volunteered with him at a suicide prevention group and had no idea what he was doing at the time, and also when he committed the Chi Omega murders in Florida. One of the girls saw him walking down the hall as she was coming in a back door from her date. The book stayed with me a long time. I rarely ever read anything 'scary.'"
18."The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Forget the awful movie with Harry Potter in it. The book is terrifying."
19."The short story 'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.' It’s about a dystopian future wherein all superpowers wage war via super computers. The computers merge and become sentient and wipe out humanity, except for six humans that they keep alive forever, using their omnipotence to torture them for eternity as punishment for creating them."
20."A Little Life. I don't recommend this book. I was having nightmares for a whole month after reading it during the first lockdown."
21."And the Band Played On. It's about how the US handled AIDS. I just remember reading it and thinking, 'There's no way we would mishandle something like that today.'"
22."Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. I read it during the pandemic, and I was terrified Butler saw the future. Still am watching in terror."
23."The Fault in Our Stars, if you read it as a parent."
24."Black Boy by Richard Wright. Because I read about something in 1945 that continues to actually happen to other Black people eight decades later. Like, he could've written that anytime in the 20th century or the 21st century thus far, and it would've been immediately relevant."
25."I am haunted by Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. It's nonfiction, but both poetic and deeply terrifying. A lot of people's lives were destroyed on that trip for absolutely nothing."
26."Probably The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and The First Cell by Azra Raza. A history of cancer and the current state of cancer treatment, by two prominent oncologists. Terrifying."
27."The Handmaid's Tale. So horrifying that I told my husband that he was free to watch the series, but I would not."
28."1984 is terrifying all over again no matter how often you read it."
29.And finally: "I'll Be Gone in the Dark about the Golden State Killer. That really frightened me."
What other books were so chilling you still think about them to this day? Tell us in the comments below!
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