Beginner’s Guide to Horror Fiction

Autumn is often called the spooky season, and people naturally gravitate toward reading horror novels during the fall. I contend that horror should be read year round and my coworker Liz agrees! She likes to reads The Terror by Dan Simmons at the height of summer to feel that icy Arctic wind. She read The Ruins by Scott Smith on a cold winter day so she could wilt in the scorching tropical heat. Whether you are seeking a horror novel for the spooky season or any time of year, this guide can help you get started with horror novels. I have collaborated with my coworkers to create this beginner’s guide to help you get acquainted with all the things that go bump in the night.

Horror—What is it and what are the benefits of reading horror? 

It has been said that “horror is an emotion,” provoking a visceral reaction (usually fear, dread, shock or, well, horror) in the reader. Why do we read horror books if they upset us? I think we read horror to feel those emotions, but to feel them in a safe, controlled way. Reading horror gives us tools to deal with real-life horrors. As Liz says “The gulf between the terror on the page and one’s comparatively safe but sometimes anxiety-prone life can bring a deep and satisfying calm to us readers.”  For me, the start of the Covid pandemic saw me incorporating horror into my regular reading. Reading about (and feeling afraid of) haunted houses, demonic possession, and ghosts gave me an outlet for the fear I was feeling related to Covid. 

My colleague Steven also finds comfort in reading horror. He says, “one reason I like horror is that it is a traditional form of story-telling, and I, for one, am drawn to traditions. The current vogue for folk horror explicitly acknowledges horror's long roots that extend to primitive times. In a world of change and uncertainty, there's something oddly comforting about being frightened by the same beings and situations that have been frightening people for centuries. I believe that horror has been so effective for so long because it draws from deep wells, both psychological and cultural."

Steven continues, “True horror is not based on just anything that might frighten us, such as realistic dangers of terrorism, serious illness, or natural disaster. Instead, it fixes on ancient primordial terrors—transgressing taboos, death, inhuman supernatural entities, and repulsive creatures. Horror is often mingled with religion and religious imagery because both deal with worlds that are larger than the human. Like religion, horror reminds us that we are part of a larger reality that we can only partially understand.”

A National Public Radio article from 2018 argued that reading horror can arm us against a horrifying world. In the article, author Ruthanna Emrys argues that horror “tells us how to live with being afraid. It tells us how to distinguish real evil from harmless shadows. It tells us how to fight back. It tells us that we can fight the worst evils, whether or not we all survive them—and how to be worthy of having our tales told afterward.” 

Besides giving us tools to survive, reading horror can make us feel smarter. After all, we are not as stupid as the characters who enter a mummy's tomb or dark crawlspace or investigate that noise they hear in the basement during a blackout.

Finding and Choosing Horror Novels

Horror is very personal. For example, I’m Catholic, and I find demons and demonic possessions scary, but others may not. As my coworker Cheryl states, “it’s what I can’t see that’s scarier, that’s why I like horror books. When I read, my mind’s eye sees the parts of the story that are more personally scary to me, which makes it that much more real, suspenseful, and frightening…and fun.” Horror also has different types of scare levels.  For some horror novels, the scares are all psychological. On the other end of the scale, the scares are not implied, but gruesomely described on the page.

Just like the horror genre is year round, horror is for all ages. In fact, many of us first encountered horror stories as children. For some, like Steven, the first exposure to horror was through television shows like Scooby-Doo and old black-and-white movies shown on Creature Feature TV.  For my coworker  Amber, it was movies like Scream and other 1990's slasher films that ignited her interest in horror. Liz read horror in elementary school; she and her classmates would take turns checking out Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series with spooktastic illustrations by Stephen Gammell. From Scary Stories, Liz graduated to Goosebumps, then Christopher Pike, and by high school she was reading Stephen King’s books. Many staff members listed Stephen King as their first (and favorite) experience with horror novels as an adult.

If you are interested in starting your horror reading journey with classic authors like King, you will find many great titles on our Beginner's Guide to Horror: Staff-Favorite Classics book list. One of the oldest forms of horror stories is the haunted house story. The Middle Eastern classic One Thousand and One Nights features some haunted house stories, like The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib. In Western culture, a haunted castle is the setting for The Castle of Otranto, a book that is considered the first gothic novel.

More so than other genres, horror fiction tends to be dominated by a handful of big names like King and Koontz, but their popularity shouldn't be allowed to completely overshadow the countless less well-known writers who produce excellent work. In particular, Steven recommends that horror readers try novels from other countries, including those translated from other languages. He’s read great books translated from Catalan, Icelandic, and Norwegian, as well as German and Japanese. Within the horror genre, there are many different types of horror novels or subgenres to choose from, and new types are created all the time. A new trend now is fungi horror, with recent books Mexican Gothic, Sorrowland, and What Moves the Dead  exploring the connection between rot, horror, and survival in darkness.  

Here are some other categories and ideal books to start with:

Final Girls: a category most of us are familiar with in horror movies—there are also many great final girls horror novels.

Humorous Horror: who says you can’t laugh and scream at the same time?

Creature Feature: demons, creepy kids, monsters, vampires and other supernatural creatures. 

Small Town Horror: small, rural towns with lots of secrets.

Gothic Horror: atmospheric reads that focus on emotions and humanity.

Horror from around the world: there's an entire world of horror out there for readers to explore.

Ready to give horror a try?

If you're still not convinced that horror is for you, consider that it is a pretty sweeping genre, and there is likely something that you would enjoy. We would love to help you find the right book to start with. Try one of the books above, and also see our staff favorites. We’ve created annotated lists of suggestions spanning all types of horror and scare levels:

Happy reading!