Humans are a bit weird, as we are a species that become curious about things that spark fear within us. This probably explains why horror fiction is still as relevant today as it was in generations past. Thus in this post, I will share 29 classic horror gems that continue to haunt the imagination.
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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is touted as the first horror literature that incorporates pseudo-science. The novel is about an ambitious young doctor who is willing to push the boundaries between life and death and brought to life a being made up of corpses but who is the true monster? The doctor who created it or the innocent being brought to life against their will.
The novel’s main theme explores the themes of creation and the moral responsibilities that accompany it. This theme is ever relevant today, especially with the progress in our scientific pursuits, and raises the important question of the consequences of unchecked scientific progress and the limits of human ambition, and whether we are truly prepared to be responsible for our actions.
What makes Frankenstein a classic horror literature, is also the discussion it has on humanity, loneliness, and the corrosive effect of revenge on an individual.
The Vampyre by John William Polidori
The Vampyre is about Aubrey, an English gentleman who becomes enamored by the mysterious and enigmatic Lord Ruthven as they travel across Europe. It is during these travels that Aubrey must come to terms that his charming new friend might be hiding a sinister secret that wreaks havoc on all the lives he encounters.
Lord Ruthven might be the very early few novels that showcase how the vampire archetype can be a seductive and charming character as opposed to a hideous blood-sucking monster. This in turn influenced subsequent works in the genre in regard to the vampire archetype, the most famous vampire character being the suave Count Dracula.
The Vampyre explores the struggle we have as humans between good and evil as well as the consequences of succumbing to our forbidden desires at the expense of others. Can you blame our young Aubrey though? Lord Ruthven must’ve been handsome who wouldn’t swoon?
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Carmilla revolves around a young girl named Laura who lives in an isolated castle together with her father. Her life takes an unexpected turn when a beguiling and charming stranger appears at the castle.
The friendship between Laura and the stranger named, Carmilla, deepens to worrying heights as it the longer their friendship goes the sicker Laura gets.
Carmilla is considered to be a ground-breaking work at the time as the novel delves deeper into same-sex attraction. The novella also examines the theme of vampirism being used as a metaphor for not only a parasitic relationship but also for addiction.
Like The Vampyre, Carmilla also explores the themes of identity and the different masks people wear.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Need I say anything about the very popular Dracula by Bram Stoker?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula introduced the world to the most famous and iconic vampire, Count Dracula. The story is relayed through a series of journal entries and letters whereby it follows the battle between Count Dracula who is committed to spreading his evils to the new world and a group of individuals equally determined to rid of his existence once and for all.
If previous works on vampirism mainly deal with the theme of identity, Dracula focuses on the themes of sexual repression, colonialism, xenophobia, and the fear of otherness that was the norm in Victorian England.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the life of Dorian Gray who is the subject of a portrait painted by the talented artist Basil Hallward. Soon after, unfortunately as Dorian is influenced by Lord Henry Wotton, he proceeds to live a a life of indulgence and moral corruption.
Dorian remains eternally young and handsome physically but his portrait slowly changes to reflect the decay of his soul.
Truly another classic novel that is relevant in the age of social media where everybody is pursuing physical beauty and aestheticism whilst neglecting to nurture their soul.
This classic novel showcases the dangers of pursuing a life of ONLY seeking hedonistic self-indulgence disregarding the ethical and moral ramifications.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
In this novel, we follow Dr. Jekyll as he conducts human experimentation on himself whereby he successfully found a way to transform himself into the cruel and amoral Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a novel explores the psychological duality of human nature and the repercussions of not only suppressing one’s darker impulses but also not knowing when to put an end to said impulses.
The novel also explores the allure and addictive nature of partaking in transgressive behaviors without having accountability to keep oneself in check.
The Complete Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe
The Complete Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe might not exactly fit into this list of classic horro gems as it leans more towards gothic literature but the atmospheric storytelling that is present in his work is too tempting for it not to be listed.
The short stories brings the readers to explore the supernatural and macabre, filled with allegory and symbolism to reflect the human condition.
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
The Great God Pan written by Arthur Machen first published in 1894, follows the mysterious and sinister experimentation conducted by Dr. Raymond on a young woman named Mary.
Dr. Raymond’s experimentation on Mary in theory allows Mary to perceive the supernatural world which in this scientists mind is the true nature of reality. A reality free from the flawed viewpoint of man.
Unfortunately, his experiments has unwanted and horrific effects not only for Mary but for everybody she comes into contact with.
The Great God Pan like Frankenstein explores themes of forbidden knowledge and the devastating repercussions of pursuing such taboo knowledge. The novella also puts forth themes of sexuality, repression and the animal instincts present in mankind that hides beneath the surface of human civilization.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The novel The Haunting of Hill House tells the tale of four individuals who are brought together to instigate an investigation on the supernatural phenomena plaguing the infamous haunted Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House uses the premise of a haunted house to explore themes of psychological exploration and the power of the human mind.
In line with the theme of psychological exploration, The Haunting of Hill House delves deeper into the complex dynamics between the characters and their interactions with their haunted environment and the psychological undercurrent that pushes them to act the way they do.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin follows Rosemary Woodhouse, a young wife who in her pursuit to live her best life with her husband moves into an old apartment building.
Whilst living at their new apartment, the Woodhouse’s are befriended by their elderly neighbor and odd and occasionally traumatic happenings start to occur causing the newly pregnant Rosemary to fear for her safety.
Rosemary’s Baby discusses themes of motherhood and sacrifice whereby Rosemary is expected and pressured to do things that she dislikes for the “betterment” of her pregnancy and for the baby.
Together with the theme of motherhood and sacrifice, Rosemary’s Baby is well known for its theme of gender roles and expectations and the loss of control as the people in the novel only view Rosemary as an object as opposed to a human being with her own individual thoughts and emotions.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson
In I Am Legend we read how Neville struggles to survive not only against the vampiric-like creatures but also against the pervasive loneliness he feels living in a world devoid of human connection.
The world Neville currently lives in was hit by a pandemic that caused all humans to be turned into vampiric-like creatures and Neville being oddly immune to the disease attempts to find a cure that decimated an entire civilization.
With being the last surviving human being on Earth it is safe to say the novel explores themes of extreme isolation, the nature of humanity and the boundaries of human sanity.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist follows the story of Chris and Regan Macneil, a mother and daughter duo, as the mother attempts to find an answer to her daughter’s increasingly disturbing behavior.
As mainstream medicine didn’t help Regan to be better, her mother Chris was forced to resort to religion to gain understanding and it is here that it’s revealed Regan is possessed by a demonic entity.
The plot of The Exorcist discusses the themes of demonic possession as well as the exploration of faith, doubt, the dichotomy of the supernatural and science.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier follows a young and naive lady’s companion of which whose name is unknown. The shy heroine meets the enigmatic widower Maxim De Winter and a whirlwind romance ensues and the couple soon marry and the heroine is whisked away to Maxim’s estate in Cornwall.
At the estate, our heroine realizes this might not be her happy ending after all as the estate is shrouded in the lingering and haunting presence of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca and the secrets that she held.
Rebecca is a haunting novel due to its writing that incorporates the oppressing atmospheric tension experienced by the main protagonist along with the psychological suspense that follows the deep rooted fears within the characters.
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson is based on the terrifying paranormal experiences experienced by the Lutz family after they moved to their house in Amityville.
When The Amityville Horror book was published, the story captured the publics imagination and its infamy is further solidified as it claims to be based on true events.
The Beetle by Richard Marsh
The Beetle by Richard Marsh was a novel published in 1897 that follows the terror faced by the people of Victorian London as they are terrorized by a shape-shifting ancient Egyptian creature.
The novel is considered a classic horror read as it showcases the universal fear held by humankind which is the fear of the other.
And that fear is amplified by having a supernatural creature that can shape-shift into anything and anyone causing the fear to reach a heightened frenzy as the people within the novel losing their ability to trust.
Another aspect of the book that is considered to be modern at the time was the authors push for female empowerment by having a strong female protagonist, Marjorie Lindon.
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood
In The Willows, the readers explore cosmic horror and the horrifying truth that we as a human species are insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood follows two friends on their canoeing trip along the Danube River. As they proceed with their travels navigating their way through the desolate landscape, they encounter inexplicable phenomena.
These experiences causes the friends to question their sanity and senses as the things they face did not have any rational explanation.
The Best of H. P. Lovecraft
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft is a collection of short stories by the author that inspired cosmic horror.
Must I say more?
The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft
Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft we follow Francis Wayland Thurston, an investigator that discovers a series of documents left behind by his grand-uncle that reveals a hidden cult. This hidden cult worships an ancient deity called Cthulhu that slumbers in a sunken an abandoned city underneath the Pacific Ocean. From there, Francis is racing against time to prevent the awakening of Cthulhu that will plunge the world as we know it into chaos whilst also battling cosmic forces that try to stop Francis from completing his mission.
The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson
In The House on the Borderland, we follow two men who discover a decaying manuscript whereby its contents recounts the experiences of a previous occupant of the house. As the two friends delve deeper into the contents of the manuscript they are transported to a realm where time and space is irrelevant.
The House on the Borderland creates an unsettling ambiance for its readers especially as the house itself becomes a malevolent presence looming over every page. This novel is considered a classic as it weaves together elements of not only cosmic horror but also supernatural horror and psychological suspense that taps into the primal fears within its readers.
The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson
The Nightland tells the story of a lone survivor as he travels the desolate landscape looking for his beloved whilst battling terrifying creatures and malevolent forces that threaten his very existence. The protagonists story is told through his journal entries and through his writings the readers witness his harrowing encounters with monstrous beings and the constant and oppressive darkness that breeds unimaginable terrors.
The Nightland is considered a classic horror read as it is a pioneer in dystopian fiction as well as exploring cosmic horror.
The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson
The Necromancers is set in the early 20th century that follows a group of individuals that unleash dark and malevolent forces not only upon themselves but the world in their pursuit of knowledge in the dark arts of necromancy. The group then must face their inner demons to combat the evil that they have unleashed and face the repercussions in regards to the ethical implications of their choices.
The book is similar to that of Frankenstein as it explores the dark recesses of human curiosity without thinking of the repercussions of it along with discussing the cost and benefit of pursuing forbidden knowledge.
The Manitou by Graham Masterton
The plot of The Manitou revolves around Harry Erskine, a psychic and tarot reader, that was approached by a woman named Karen Tandy. Karen is desperately seeking for help as she is plagued by a tumor growing on her neck that inexplicably exhibits supernatural property. During Harry’s investigation, it is discovered that the tumor is a manifestation of an ancient Native American shaman known as Misquamacus. The Native American shaman is planning to resurrect himself through the tumor to unleash his ancient powers upon the modern world. It is now upon Harry and his ragtag allies to find a way to stop Manitou before all hell breaks loose.
Elizabeth by Ken Greenhall
The quiet life of a seemingly ordinary suburban town is slowly upended when the enigmatic and captivating Elizabeth moves into the neighborhood. The townsfolk are drawn to her charm and beauty and whilst her presence within this small community grows, an eerie atmosphere descends upon the town .
As the narrative unfolds, Elizabeth’s true nature is revealed leaving the readers immersed in the suspenseful journey of fear and psychological manipulation. “Elizabeth” enraptures its readers with its slow-burning tension and psychological depth making it a classic horror gem.
The Man in The Picture by Susan Hill
The Man in The Picture by Susan Hill is a novella that discusses the themes of obsession, temptation and most of all the consequences of unchecked desire. In this novella, we follow the perspective of a young professor who finds a mysterious painting whilst attending a gathering at a prestigious university. The mysterious painting piques the curiosity of the young professor as the painting portrays how the wishes of the owner are granted but a heavy price must be paid in return.
Whilst being completely enamored with the artwork, the young professor learns that the painting holds a malevolent power that is able to transcends time and space and the boundaries between reality and supernatural start to blur.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill follows the experience had by a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps, who was summoned to handle the affairs of the late Mrs. Drablow, a reclusive widow staying at the isolated Eel Marsh House. Arriving at the estate, Arthur senses that the estate holds dark secrets that is connected to the malevolent presence he feels there.
As Arthur proceeds with his work, he encounters a spectral figure of a woman dressed in black causing him to be on a mission to uncover the truth behind this spectral figure. Unfortunately, the more he searches for the truth the more he is entangled in a web of supernatural forces out of his control. The Woman in Black is a book that delves into the lingering power of the past as well as grief that can cause a person to lose their sense of self.
It by Stephen King
Stephen King’s “IT” is a terrifying tale of evil and friendship where the story unfolds in two timelines: one set in 1958 focusing on a group of outcast kids called “The Losers” as they discover the malevolent presence causing the disappearances of the children in their small town, and the other timeline is set in 1985 when the now adult group has to reunite to confront their fears and put an end to the evil terrorizing the town.
The book is considered a classic horror read due to its iconic villain; Pennywise the Dancing Clown and how Stephen King was pushing boundaries by putting children as the protagonists of this book and having them get hurt as at the time children dying or being hurt in works of fiction was not the norm. Also, Pennywise taps into our human fears of the unknown causing the book to be an evergreen read.
The Shining by Stephen King
The Shining is a psychological terror where we follow the Torrance family as they take on the job as caretakers at the isolated Overlook Hotel during the winter season. Jack Torrance, a struggling writer with a troubled past and immense anger issues hopes that being isolated at the Overlook Hotel will finally break down his writers block. However, unbeknownst to the Torrance family, the Overlook Hotel itself has a dark history and a malevolence that slowly corrodes and unravels the sanity of its occupants.
The Shining explores the themes of intense isolation, addiction, the disintegration of the family unit and the fragile nature of the human mind.
Misery by Stephen King
Misery by Stephen King follows Paul Sheldon, the renowned author of a best selling series of Victorian era romance novels that centers on the main character, Misery Chastain, being trapped and at the mercy of his biggest fan, Annie Wilkes.
After a car accident leaves Paul injured and helpless, Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, take him back to her isolated home to care for him. However, the longer Paul stays with Annie, he slowly realizes how unhinged Annie is especially as she has an obsession with Paul’s fictional character ‘Misery Chastain’.
It slowly dawns on Paul that his life is in danger as his previously seemingly kind caregiver has transformed into a sadistic captor and Paul must find a way to escape Anni’s clutches before it is too late.
Misery is a good horror read as you are constantly at the edge of your seat just waiting at what would happen and the showdown between Paul and Annie. The injury that cripples Paul adds an intensity like no other as Paul truly has to fight for his life against a psychopathic fangirl.
The Turn of The Screw by Henry James
The novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is the story of a governess sent to care for two orphaned children who starts to experience strange occurring at the remote estate she is sent to.
The strange occurrences happen more frequently causing the governess to be convinced that malevolent spirits are out to possess the souls of the two orphaned children under her charge.
The governess’s noble intention to care and protect the children slowly becomes a consuming obsession forcing the reader to follow along the psychological battle occuring within the governess as she wrestles between her conviction and the possibility that her perceptions are clouded by her own imagination and paranoia.