ReadingThe Horror Show

The history of horror: What are the best books in the genre?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is one of the classic texts most people would agree is one of the “best” horror novels ever

Any literary genre is open to distinctions in readers’ taste, but arguably none more so than the horror genre. Fear, as we’ve argued since the start of this month, is subjective; what scares one person will render another indifferent. Some readers crave ferocity and gore; others prefer quieter stories that get under the skin in more subtle ways. Stephen King’s hierarchy of effects – terror, horror, and the gross-out – is one measure of how horror fiction is constructed and it is clear that different readers will apply different value systems to each of those three levels.

Given the evident discrepancies in what creeps individual readers out, the thought of compiling a list of the best horror novels of all time would seem like a fool’s errand: any list is going to be subjective and what appeals to one person is equally likely to alienate someone else. As with any literary genre, there are relatively unquestioned staples that more or less must appear – in the case of horror, foundational classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, “The Turn of the Screw,” and The Haunting of Hill House, most of which any aficionado would agree, personal taste aside, are important texts.

Then there’s everything else. How does one assess the relative merit of Ramsey Campbell versus Kathe Koja; Thomas Ligotti versus Nathan Ballingrud; Paul Tremblay versus Lisa Tuttle? Then there are questions of what qualifies as horror. Is Toni Morrison’s Beloved a horror novel? What about Joyce Carol Oates’s serial killer novel Zombie, loosely based on the career of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Arguments about what constitutes horror as opposed to literary fiction are as old as they are tired. The utility of lists that purport to identify the hundred best horror novels of all time is in part the potential for discovery of authors or titles you may have missed in your own travels, or the chance to complain about what was included or left off.

That said, two recent lists of the best one hundred horror novels seem at least moderately representative in their approaches and selections. These two lists both offer an interesting mix of titles that don’t adhere to a single approach or sensibility, though neither tilts very far in the direction of the kind of pulp, grindhouse fiction that was popular in the late 1970s and ’80s. Both these lists are generally too literary too admit writers like Graham Masterton, James Herbert, Shaun Huston, Jack Ketchum, or Edward Lee, each of whom appeals to a certain niche readership, but each of whom traffics in a less refined style of horror than what Discovery or NPR is willing to countenance.

The Discovery list begins with some core texts from the past and then proceeds in chronological fashion, including some refreshingly unexpected choices like Jo Nesbø’s psychological crime thriller The Snowman and Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.

The NPR list is broken down by category, touching on classic horror, feminist horror, and horror aimed at a young adult audience.

Neither list is perfect, nor perfectly comprehensive, and there is overlap between them: anyone who is unsure about the subjectivity of either list might want to try out one of the books both selects, such as Mira Grant’s cyber-zombie novel Feed or, for the more adventurous, Mark Z. Danielweski’s postmodern acid trip House of Leaves. For me, the lists are as interesting for the points at which they diverge. NPR includes Junji Ito’s manga Uzumaki, calling the author “one of horror’s singular visionaries.” That list also includes Bret Easton Ellis’s hyper-self-reflexive postmodern ghost story Lunar Park. Discovery, by contrast, highlights Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One and Grady Hendrix’s mock IKEA catalogue satire Horrorstör.

One thing about these lists: if neither of them is guaranteed to please everyone, both contain something that most readers of horror might easily enjoy.

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