Short stories tend to be scarier than novels: their tightness of focus allows them to do away with pesky things like backstory and character development and elaborate setting and offer a blazing unity of effect. A novel’s scare is more a creeping dread, a tension that builds slowly and inexorably and leaves you deeply unsettled even after the book is finished. For me, the most frightening books are not about scary clowns or demons or witchcraft, but those that show the awful things humans are capable of doing to one another.
There are many great writers I could have included, people like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft, whom I simply haven’t. Not because I don’t appreciate them, but because most readers have already found them. Then there are books like Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist that I find genuinely terrifying, but less so than the movies based on them. Finally, there are writers like Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Kelly Link, and Carmen Maria Machado whose short stories I find as terrifying as anything out there, but who primarily work in the story form. With those caveats, here are 10 deeply unsettling novels.
1. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
This 1987 science fiction novel concerns a woman named Lilith who wakes up with no idea where she is or how she got there. As she begins to figure things out, she comes to understand that she’s been taken by the Oankali, aliens who want to blend with humanity as a way of diversifying their species and allowing the remnant of humanity to continue in a less violent (and less human) fashion. What makes this book so effective is you are never sure to what degree Lilith should be considered a collaborator with the enemy. Even Lilith isn’t sure. The moral implications of the novel are immense, and Butler shifts the tension every time you (or Lilith) begin to become comfortable. It builds slowly but inexorably, leaving readers in ethical ambiguity until the end, trapped in the dilemma of not knowing what to think. It’s one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read, partly because of how benign and reasonable the aliens seem as they gently manipulate Lilith.
2. The Auctioneer by Joan Samson
Samson’s sole book is about a New Hampshire farming community called Harlowe and what happens to the community after a mysterious auctioneer named Perly Dinsmore shows up and begins to solicit donations for auction, slowly clearing out first everybody’s castoffs and then all their worldly goods, eventually going to real extremes. A stunning and terrifying picture of developing totalitarianism and people’s unwillingness to stand up against it, The Auctioneer is particularly frightening given our particular political moment.
3. Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Chaon is one of those authors who never disappoints. Dustin, a psychologist, has an off-kilter patient trying to convince him that a series of drownings are the work of a serial killer. As he reluctantly embarks on an amateur investigation, his ability to distinguish the truth becomes more and more vexed. Add to that Rusty, his adopted brother who was imprisoned for years for killing Dustin’s parents and who is just getting out, and Ill Will becomes a complex and beautifully chilling story about damage caused by the stories we tell ourselves so as not to see how things really are.
4. We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson
This first novel is the only book I’ve read recently to give me the same vertiginous sense of fright as Ill Will. It focuses on a struggling actor, identified through most of the book only as “you,” called suddenly to Colombia to play the lead in a low-budget Italian horror film. But everything is going wrong, and the director seems out of his mind: he has no script and seems to be making things up as he goes. Indeed, he wants to blur the boundaries between life and film in a way that might be detrimental to “your” (and perhaps everybody else’s) health. Add to that the filming’s close proximity to guerrillas and drug dealers and things really begin to get ugly.
5. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Though mainly recognized by the literary community—it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—Argentinian writer Schweblin’s Fever Dream is literary horror at its finest. It involves people falling ill for no reason, the partial swapping of bodies, and a slow working through of mysterious past circumstances as the narrator edges closer and closer to death.
6. Dagon by Fred Chappell
First published in 1968, this novel was overlooked in America and would have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for the French: once translated, it won the French Academy’s Best Foreign Novel Prize. Poet and novelist Chappell here combines the Lovecraftian weird with the Southern gothic in a way that takes full advantage of both genres. Dagon is the story of Peter Leland, a minister who retreats with his wife to his ancestral home ostensibly to finish a book, but who quickly finds himself obsessed with a strange squatter’s daughter. Once obsessed, Peter begins to dismantle his own life. Chappell’s language is so precise as to be almost abstract, veiling events as much as revealing them—though at the right moments things fall into vivid and painful focus.
7. The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine by Peter Straub
Straub is one of the few writers whose books have made me too frightened to sleep. Lists like these often include his wonderful novel Ghost Story. His novella The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine, published separately and also in Interior Darkness, is the story of a couple traveling down the Amazon on yachts over several shuffled decades, slowly (or serially) coming to a realization of something quite dark going on in the parts of the yacht they can’t see. Enigmatic and deeply disturbing, this is atmospheric horror at its absolute best.
8. Ubo by Steve Rasnic Tem
Better known as a short story writer, Tem is equally strong as a novelist. Ubo is his strangest offering. It’s about Daniel, a man who finds himself trapped in Ubo, a mysterious complex in which giant roach-like creatures experiment on him and his fellow inmates by having them relive and intimately reexperience the past lives of historical killers and dictators. As the inmates struggle to maintain their identities and slowly go mad, they begin to realize that the few things they’ve seen as reliable and stable may not be real after all, including themselves.
9. The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois
A savage little book that reads like a cross between Lord of the Flies and a lost-in-the-woods slasher novel. It’s about a group of six-year-olds who go camping with three adults. As we learn early on, none of them will come back alive. Absurd and vicious, it’s an intense yet ambiguous critique of our love for violence.
10. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
Simmons’s massive novel is about the sort of vampire that feeds on the soul. In Carrion Comfort, an extremely small percentage of people have “the ability,” psychic powers that allow them to manipulate others, feed off their emotions, control their bodies, and redirect whole cultures. At the heart of the novel is Saul Laski, a Holocaust survivor aware of the manipulation but not of its extent, but determined to stop it. Part thriller, part horror novel, Carrion Comfort acknowledges that there are people out there playing by different rules than ordinary folk and gives it a supernatural explanation.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Unsplash/MontyLov.