I am a horror story fanatic. Give me a book filled with scares, a thunderstorm outside, and I’m in paradise. There’s something about a plot that can pull you in and make you face your deeper fears. A great story is an exaggeration of life and great horror is the exaggeration of death. Authors have known this since the first time cavemen and women painted on walls.
I’ve decided to split my list into books and categories to offer some alternative suggestions to the ones selected as the top. Feel free to try out any of these and let me know what you think.
It is debatable where to start. I think as good a point as any is the summer of 1816 with the extended vacation of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Byron’s doctor John Polidori. Legend has it that the group had a scary story contest. The contest generated Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. My list of horror classics runs as follows:
1/ Dracula by Bram Stoker
2/ Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
3/ Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
4/ The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
5/ The Divine Comedy by Dante (this goes way back before any on the list and, as you read it, you have to marvel at his grasp of the horrific in his depiction of the punishments in Hell.)
Stoker, Shelley, Wilde and Dante – Classic Horror Authors
The Short Story Masters:
It takes a fine touch to write a good short story. They can span a hundred words (flash fiction) to many pages. A short story should have all the elements of a novel compressed into its body. There are many masters of the art and here are some within the horror genre.
1/ H.P. Lovecraft: Last summer I had the chance to visit Lovecraft’s grave and take the Lovecraft walking tour in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence is a beautiful city and the Swan Pointe Cemetery is a perfect resting place for one of the grand masters of horror. Lovecraft creates his own world within the Cthulu Mythos of his stories. If you haven’t checked him out yet, do it as soon as possible.
2/ Edgar Allen Poe: Poe came before Lovecraft and any astute reader can see the connections. Poe’s work is dark, filled with madness and violence. His images scandalized his readers and his death is still a mystery to this day. He will be forever known for his poem The Raven. He lived an odd life and left a permanent imprint on horror literature.
3/Ambrose Bierce: Bierce was a multi-talented writer and journalist who, like Poe, met a mysterious end as he disappeared while covering the Mexican Revolution in 1913. His most famous story is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. He was skilled in his language and his twist endings, a pattern that also carried over to the modern parishioners of the art.
4/ Richard Matheson: Matheson was a long time writer for The Twilight Zone. He is a master of the short stories and hugely prolific. There are few horror plots that haven’t been inspired by or found form in his pen. His novels are also goldmines; with the likes of I am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, and What Dreams May Come. His son Richard Christian Matheson is making his own career in horror literature and deserves a read if you get the chance.
The Modern Masters:
This group consists of those names we associate with horror literature at the local Barnes and Noble. They each have made a career from scaring readers and any of their books make good reads and engrossing experiences.
1/ Stephen King: Shouldn’t need to clarify this too much.
2/ Clive Barker: Pick up any of his books and you will see his amazing skills at creating atmosphere. Barker has a sick mind and the ability to paint with words. His Books of Blood short story anthologies were his first publications and they are worth the read.
3/ Peter Straub: Straub has coauthored books with King and made his own strong career within the horror market. Read Lost Boy Lost Girl if you want to experience Straub at his finest.
4/ Joyce Carol Oates: Oates could have easily had a spot under the short story masters. She is a prolific author and professor at Princeton University. You can pick up any of her works and gain something from their reading (and she produces more than one a year). I recently read her collection Black Dahlia & White Rose and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Clive Barker’s Sick Mind – Check Out These Modern Masters of Horror
The New School:
1/ Sara Gran: Gran is not a purely horror author but I put her name here for one reason only. Read her book Come Closer. It is the scariest novel I have ever read. It is short enough to do in one sitting. I won’t get into details as you need to experience it for yourself and feel free to let me know how badly it messed you up.
2/ Benjamin Percy: Read Red Moon. If you like monster stories with intelligence, grace, and skill, read it as soon as you can. The novel is as much political allegory as horror and works equally in both fields.
3/ David Wellington: Wellington’s is under the radar as a horror author. Check out his Vampire Zero series and his recent foray into werewolf fiction. I’ve actually corresponded with Wellington by email and he is a quality guy and skilled writer.
4/ David Moody: Moody’s career is a great story. He started publishing on his own, even giving away free copies of his books until Guillermo Del Toro picked one up before boarding a flight. He loved it and contacted Moody about the film rights. I also contacted Moody and he sent me a great, encouraging email that I’ve saved. Read Hater to get his spin on the zombie genre.
5/ Justin Cronin: Read his Passage trilogy if you want a great entry to the vampire genre. Like Percy, he has taken a classic monster and elevated it to a new and better form.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I recommend every author on here and hope to someday join the list by writing the great horror novel. Most of these can be found at your local library so stock up and get ready for Halloween.