The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is one of the most famous horror novels turned films. Following the demonic possession of a young girl, daughter of a famous actress. The poltergeist wreaks havoc on their life, dragging the young girl through disturbing physical and psychological changes – violent behaviour, starvation and sleep deprivation.
When medical treatment seems to fail, her mother turns to the faith leaders. What ensues is a battle of wits, good vs evil as Father Karras’ faith in God is challenged to the extreme.
For more horror novels doing the devil dance with possession read:
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Paul G Tremblay is one of our favourite modern writers in this genre. We suggest you start with this book in particular. It combines possession of a child by an evil spirit, a family in distress and TV vultures filming a reality show out of their misery.
At the beginning of the book, we meet 23-year-old Meredith ‘Merry’ Barrett, who sits down with a writer to finally narrate the ordeal of her family’s past. We flashback to her as an 8-year-old at home with her unemployed father, struggling and breadwinning mother, and her sister Marjorie. Marjorie’s behaviour starts getting more erratic.
Her born again Christain father enlists the help of the Church priest to conduct an exorcism of Marjorie. With financial struggles growing, he agrees to let a reality show crew settle in the house and document the entire thing.
Tremblay blurs the line between reality and fantasy, shedding light on the real signs of mental illness that are often conflated by religious figureheads into signs of possessions in the past. We only learn what’s actually going on in the end and you’ll find yourself flipping through the pages with bated breath to know the truth.
The Amityville case is one of the most famous in the American landscape. Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror documents the real experience (though the veracity of the ‘truth’ has been contested) of the Lutz family buying and moving into a home where previously heinous murders had been committed by the patriarch and the spirits lived on.
If you want a horror read based on real-life events to get under your skin then read:
The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan
If you know someone that has lived or spent time in Tennessee, USA, then they’ll know the tale of the ‘Old Kate’, known as the Bell Witch.
A spirit that took us residence in the home of John Bell and his family and tormented them for years. Starting by giving them frights with loud noises and chains dragging across the floor to aggressive attacks that lead to death.
It’s believed to be one of the first documented cases of the supernatural activity causing the death of a person in US history – though that is contested by modern experts. However, if you’re a believer then you would have been enthralled by Brent Monahan’s book that’s based on an alleged manuscript by a local schoolteacher who documented the events.
Kate would converse with the residents and travellers, disrupt gatherings, often focusing her energy on the daughter Betsy, beating her with her invisible ghostly hands. Her antics even caught the attention of a US president who sent a team to look into the matter.
Many people travelled to the Bell home from 1817 to 1821 to debunk and investigate the claims, almost all of them coming away spooked and shaken.
Even if you’re into body gore you know that Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille isn’t for the weak of heart nor stomach. Graphic, sexual and depraved, it covers the sexual perversions and explorations of two French teens which gets increasingly more bizarre.
If you’re equally disgusted and fascinated by bone-chilling body gore then read:
The Troop by Nick Cutter
In The Troop, we follow a group of five boy scouts and their Scoutmaster Tim Riggs who take a weekend trip away on a remote island. When has that ever turned out well for anyone?
They do the usual camping and bonfires but their revelries are disrupted by the arrival of a stranger on a boat. Looking completely emaciated and on the brink of death, Riggs takes in the stranger to try and help (he is a physician).
Little do they know that this man carries within him a bioengineered worm that devours the host from the inside out and can travel and spread from one person to the next. Endorsed by Stephen King himself, this book will have you squirming and cringing at the body horror that follows. The boys turn against one another, fighting to survive and get off the island.
This one is for the horror veterans. Or as King describes it, “This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”
Bram Stoker gave pop culture the infamous vampire, count Dracula. In the epistolary style narrative solicitor, Jonathan Harker visits Transylvanian Count Dracula at his castle. Exploring the castle while Darcula is away, despite warnings not to, Harker stumbles upon three women and through the course of events realises that Dracula is a vampire.
Harker escapes and Dracula moves to England to terrorise a town where is then hunted by the legendary Abraham Van Helsing.
For a biting tale about vampirism sans the glittering skin read:
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
This story written by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist is the story on an unlikely friendship between 12-year-old Oskar and his new neighbour, a young girl named Eli. Oskar is a lonely boy, bullied constantly at school, living with his mother and occasionally visited by his alcoholic father.
Eli gives him the confidence to fight back against his tormentors, but he also learns about her dark secret and link to a string of murders.
She’s a vampire, living with an older man, her caretaker Håkan. A disgraced former teacher was fired for the possession of child pornography. Håkan is in love with Eli, devoted to her care and hunts down victims and blood for her to feed on.
We learn that Eli is in fact Elias, a boy who was castrated when he was turned into a vampire. There are aspects of this book that will make you tremendously uncomfortable. Beyond the blood and gore are horrors that we can inflict on each other. It’s a dark and creepy monster tale that hits close to the heart as well. There are two film adaptations of the book as well, we recommend watching the 2008 Swedish one.
In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier Daphne du Maurier, the titular Rebecca may be dead in this book but she carries and twists the narrative throughout like a lurking shadow despite not being its narrator. The narrator is unnamed, taking the name Mrs De Winter after marrying a wealthy widower Maxim De Winter and accompanying him back to his estate Manderley.
The narrator feels she can never live up to the first Mrs Du Winter and is constantly reminded of that by the devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers. This book is considered one of the greats of gothic fiction that marries romance, horror and suspense, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
For more Gothic atmospheric feels read:
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
There is a constant sense of dread that seeps through the pages of Mexican Gothic. If binge-worthy was a book, it would be this. It’s unputdownable, you frantically speed read to try and escape the suffocating atmosphere that Moreno-Garcia masterfully creates. The story focuses on Noemi who after receiving a frantic letter from cousin Catalina is sent to her English husband Virgil Doyle’s estate to check on her condition.
She learns that Catalina is sick, with what exactly Noemi is sceptical of. Doyle’s home, High Place, gives her the creeps right as she enters the door. His family is no better, the staff tight-lipped about dark family history and she’s mostly kept away from Catalina. So Noemi uses the time to uncover their past and befriends only one member of the family, Francis.
There’s a race to uncover mysterious deaths and the darkness that looms between the walls of High Place and Noemi stares down her own potential doom.
Like any great ghost story, Peter Straub’s book Ghost Story has stood the test of time as one of the greatest. A group of four older men meet regularly and swap ghost stories. At one of their meetings, terrible things start happening in their town the violent attacks, animal mutilations and deaths.
While they share these stories, they don’t acknowledge the one true shared experience from their past. Soon enough the past comes knocking on their door in the form of a vengeful creature. They realise that they’ve all met this creature in some form or the other through the course of their lives without even realising it.
For another story that focuses on a group of friends running from their horrible past actions read:
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
The Only Good Indians talks a lot about the identity of Native Americans, their culture, customs and beliefs, interspersed with horror and folklore.
A past trauma haunts four men who feel trapped when a supernatural entity starts to hunt them down for revenge. Going back to their young we learn about a hunt the young Blackfeet men embarked on, entered into a culturally restricted territory to hunt elk.
They get old, regret their past transgressions and worry about having to pay the price one day. We read about intergenerational trauma, racism, substance abuse that exists in the lives of the Native community, especially the ones who move out of the Reservation. A decade has passed since their hunt and a vengeful spirit in the form of a woman with an elk’s head is bent on revenge for the killing of her herd and calf.
You get plenty of gore and horror in this book but Jones also brilliantly blends it with the context of Native American history, culture and social critique.
Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor has been adapted from the stories of Henry James, namely The Turn of The Screw. It’s undergone many debates, criticisms and analyses over the years, about whether it’s truly just a ghost story, a critique of Marxism or a feminist reading.
At the base of it all lies a story of a governess newly hired to take care of two young children after the death of their parents. The kids are wonderful and weird, but in the house linger evil and silent figures. The governess is frightened and determined to protect the children, but the children seem to have other plans and no fear of these hidden figures to the surprise of their caretaker.
For a great modern spooky ghost story read:
Goddess of Filth by V Castro
V Castor’s novella has been hailed as fiercely feminist sprinkled with sharp humour. It’s a coming-of-age story of high school friends Lourdes, Ana, Perla, Pauline, and Fernanda transitioning into womanhood. One night, they decide to host a seance.
Enjoying playing pretend witches, they actually end up summoning… something. Demure Fernanda starts to transform and act out. Speaking Nahuatl, the language of their Aztec ancestors and sucking the sins out of the guilty around her. Suspecting her to be possessed by an evil spirit, her family reaches out to local priests.
Lourdes, however, believes it’s something else. Something older, and more powerful, and perhaps not so evil after all.
Of Mexican descent herself, Castro provides a lot of social commentary in this short book. Infusing into horror and the supernatural, the lived realities of working-class Latinx women constantly being told to forget their past and assimilate into the dominant white culture for acceptance.
Probably a lot more women will be able to relate to it, especially when she writes, “Be smart, but not too smart. Be beautiful, but not so pretty as to make other females mad. Be successful, but not bossy or overly ambitious. Nobody likes a mouthy brown woman. Be a declawed kitten.”
Stephen King might as well flip his name and change it to King Stephen because no one does horror and supernatural stories quite like him. While it’s hard to pick a favourite, The Outsider is a good bet.
Terry Maitland is one of the most beloved members of the community. An all-round stand-up guy. But that changes when the body of a young boy is found with his fingerprints all over the crime. A very public arrest is made. Eyewitnesses and DNA evidence pad the case further. But Maitland also has an iron-clad alibi, placing him hours away from the scene where the crime was committed.
So who really is the criminal here? Is Maitland an evil genius, is he being set up? There is something more sinister at play.
Another great read where suspense, horror and supernatural elements blend is:
The Patient by Jasper Dewitt
Dr Parker H is a young, confident and ambitious psychiatrist who has just started working at a psychiatric hospital. He wants a challenge and on his first day learns of the institution’s most difficult case that no other doctor has been able to crack. A patient who’s been locked away in isolation, deemed too dangerous to ever be let out and interact with other people.
Now aged 40 and deemed untreatable, this patient was first committed at the tender age of 6. The few doctors who tried came away either traumatised and catatonic, or died by suicide. Dr Parker takes it upon himself to cure this mysterious patient once and for all. From their first interaction itself, things start to spiral out of control and the line between real and unreal starts to fade more and more.
We read the story in the form of posts that Parker makes on an online page. Hewitt’s story itself began on Reddit in the form of posts on the NoSleep board.
If we had to pick a second favourite horror writer after King, it would be Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House is a true to spirit (no pun intended) haunted house tale. It has several adaptions, most notable perhaps is Netflix’s series of the same name. Hill House is home to many ghosts, past secrets and down-right creepy noises. It starts to rattle the four main characters who come to investigate the strange events, one of them being the young heir to Hill House.
For another chilling haunted house story that’ll make you sleep with the lights:
Young couple Julie and James relocate to a small town outside of the city for a fresh start. They want to focus on strengthening their relationship, starting a new life together and creating a new home but the house has other plans for them.
The story does grip you as the house comes alive. Mysterious stains on the wall, hidden spaces in the house, locked doors and bruises on Julie’s body. You almost feel the walls closing in around you as you flip through this page-turner and feel the built-up tension of this haunting.
There are many foreboding moments through the narrative, a broken porch step, unexplained growling through the walls that’ll make you want to scream ‘Run’ at the protagonists.
You can’t help but keep wondering what it is that the couple did to deserve the unleashing of such torment upon them.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
The Wendigo novella by Algernon Blackwood takes you into the harsh wilderness of Ontario, Canada, where two men are on a hunting trip with two other guides. In the late of night, one of the guides goes missing.
The search starts for him and they come across footprints that definitely aren’t human. The cold emptiness of the wilderness plays with their minds, they can’t believe what they see nor accept what they think is real. What creature had the group come across in the wild and can you really ever be the same after it?
If you’re aching for more survival horror-themed novels then read:
The Ruins by Scott Smith
Four American tourists – Eric, Stacy, Amy and Jeff – a group comprising of two couples are on holiday in Mexico. They befriend a german tourist Mathias who is about to head out to rural Yucatan in search of his missing brother Heinrich. The group decides to help him and make their way towards a Mayan village.
They follow a trail that takes them towards a large hill covered in vines, atop the hill lies an abandoned campsite covered in the same vines. Once they step onto the hill armed Mayan villagers surround them and refuse to let them come back down. With limited rations, the group is left to survive on their own with hopes of being rescued by another group they befriended before embarking on this journey.
Some terrifying is lurking in the jungle and they are forced to take some extreme measures to survive in the jungle.
Our four main leads are quite terribly unlikeable. You see them as ignorant entitled tourists doing ignorant things. Probably why this book had such a mixed response from readers. But we feel reading this book tickles a kind of schadenfreude. We get to watch terrible people get what they deserve, even though it’s pretty horrific and that can be pretty cathartic. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.