There are affiliate links in this article. I could receive a commission if you make a purchase after clicking one of these links.
The text that is bloody and gory is not what I find to be the most terrifying. It’s not even the kind that makes me wonder whether a killer is hiding in the darkness at night. The writing that starts those pesky ideas, the macabre punchlines that appear while I’m in line at the grocery store and see something that reminds me of the story—the writing that mentally shocks me—is, in my opinion, the scariest. In conclusion, I enjoy psychological horror novels.
However, the distinction between psychological thriller and psychological horror literature is subtle. Books on psychological terror are neither mysteries or whodunits. Instead of using violence, chase, or even actual gore, they arouse terror by innuendo, anxiety, and suggestion. The top 25 psychological horror books I could locate are listed below.
BY CHUCK PALAHNIUK
Although this book is made up of short stories, a larger story threads them all together. Writers are admitted to a retreat where they are entirely cut off from the outside world. Each of them sets out to create a survival experience once they get there, not realizing that everyone else is doing the same. Due to the structure of the story, Haunted is one of the most horrifying psychological novels since each individual creates a brand-new hellscape.
WOMAN AT POINT ZERO
BY NAWAL AL-SADAWI
This little book, which reads like an interview, tells the story of a lady who is waiting for execution in Cairo. The most terrifying aspect of her is not that she is a murderer, but all of the horrible, violent, and misogynistic things she endured before she turned murderous, as well as the hope she has lost or never had.
BY IRA LEVIN
If you sometimes think, “He has his father’s eyes,” when you see tabloids about celebrity births in the checkout line, you might want to check out this terrifying psychological horror novel. According to Ira Levin, Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby was exactly how he envisioned it in his mind.
LET ME IN
BY JOHN AJVIDE LINDQUIST
Let Me In is a vampire novel, thus some could claim that it doesn’t qualify as a psychological horror book, but I disagree. The least terrifying component of this novel is the vampirism. Instead, consider Oskar, the youngster who harbors aspirations to murder his tormentors. Eli’s status as a young vampire. The idea that the hunter she has hired is a pedophile who is passionately in love with her. And the atrocities don’t stop there; this is only the top of the list.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
BY THOMAS HARRIS
I’m not sure what to say if Silence of the Lambs isn’t on your list of the scariest psychological horror novels. Clarice Starling must deceive Hannibal Lecter in order to enlist his assistance in apprehending another another serial killer. Hannibal Lecter is a certified psychiatrist who manipulates his patients into becoming his physical food. Furthermore, Robert Ressler, one of the top criminal profiling FBI agents, was consulted in the development of this book because it is based on actual events involving Ed Gein and his victims.
WHOEVER FIGHTS MONSTERS
BY ROBERT RESSLER
The phrase from Friedrich Nietschze that serves as the inspiration for the title of this book reads, “Whoever battles monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Additionally, if you stare into a chasm for too long, it will stare back at you. It this factual book—yes, you read that correctly—is about one of the top criminal profiling agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation is therefore appropriate. Although it could appear that this is just another true crime book, the notion of the title—that the abyss is staring back at Ressler and, by extension, you—is what really sets it different.
NEVER LET ME GO
BY KAZUO ISHIGURO
Never Let Me Go, while being primarily touted as science fiction, creates such a sense of unease and impending doom that it must be included among the scariest psychological horror books. Imagine becoming a clone and learning that you are a duplicate and that your organs will be used to help people with real souls. Then picture attempting to stop yourself from making that forced donation. Yeah. I believe it is valid.
BY BRAM STOKER
Despite what you may expect given that it is an epistolary book, this book is set in Victorian times, so keep that in mind. They were unable to simply come out and say anything. If you are not reading carefully, you could even miss all of the implicit sexual violence. Furthermore, because we can only see one aspect of the tale at a time, the style of its writing permits that paranoia to grow.
BY MARY SHELLEY
You could still believe that this literary classic doesn’t rank highly on the list of psychological horror titles, but it does. There is, in fact, violence. Furthermore, despite his impending damnation, Dr. Frankenstein struggles to reconcile his own blasphemy-related guilt. In addition, there is the Creature, whom everyone despises based only on his looks despite the fact that he has not begged to exist.
BY KATHERINE DUNN
A freakshow family makes up the Geek Love roster of characters. More precisely, a couple concocts a plan to create a weird family before starting a freakshow. You’ll be left wondering how it all came about as a result of the characters’ psychological manipulation of one another and their physical manipulation of one another.
BY PATRICK SUSKIND
In Perfume, our main character has a particularly keen sense of smell and no noticeable body odor. His ultimate objective in life is to imitate the body odor of a beautiful lady he inadvertently murdered, therefore he spends a significant portion of his time not only mastering the art of smell curation but also intentionally killing women in an effort to imitate the original’s essence. The language in this book is flawless, but what is most terrifying about it is how wildly popular it is and what its message is. Men should make art at the expense of everyone else, is that right? Gross. And it appears like everyone is okay with the idea.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
The thirteen weird tales in this terrible psychological horror book “carve down into the flesh of the mind, into our most fundamental fears and certainties, and there’s no anesthesia.” You can turn on the light, but doing so will just create additional shadows.
IN COLD BLOOD
BY TRUMAN CAPOTE
“The True Account of Multiple Murder and Its Consequences” is what it’s meant to be called. We’re expected to believe that the “multiple murder” refers to the victims’ innocence. By the end, Capote genuinely persuades you that one of the murders is not guilty. The actual horror is that. (I mean, the destruction of the family is horrifying, of course, but much more terrifying is the psychological manipulation that a writer as elusive as Capote can depict.)
BY TONI MORRISON
It’s about slavery in this novel. And the associated psychological fear. And the spirit of Sethe’s kid, who passed away unidentified and whose tombstone is inscribed with the phrase “Beloved,” is a presence in her new house. You should read this book if you haven’t already.
BY CORMAC MCCARTHY
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the book that most people are most acquainted with, not just because it was included in Oprah’s book club and won a Pulitzer, but also because it is a terrifying psychological horror story about society after the end of the world. It is fantastic. Likewise, Outer Dark is. It is based on a sister who is giving birth to her brother’s child in Appalachia. He abandons it to perish in the wild. She searches for it. The Big Three horror themes, so the saying goes, are cannibalism, incest, and death. Cormac McCarthy succeeds with each one.
THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER
BY JAMES HOGG
Despite being written three centuries ago, this book undoubtedly ranks among the scariest psychological horror books I’ve ever read. A man’s existential crisis, whether or not he is predestined for heaven, and whether or not his new buddy with the Bible scribbled in red ink has anything to do with his salvation are all topics that are covered in the book in addition to the horrors of corrupt religion. I’ll give you a hint: HE DOES.
AS I LAY DYING
BY WILLIAM FAULKNER
The best of Southern Gothic is found in this book. The matriarch of the Bundren family contemplates her relationship with the devil as she hears the construction of her coffin. When she passes away, the father is adamant about returning her body to Jackson so that she can be interred among her people. Oh, and she has a psychic son. You’ll be plagued by As I Lay Dying for days.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES
BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO
The Girl with the Green Ribbon is retold for adults in this collection of short tales, and it closes with a completely weird psychiatric writers’ retreat. I took breaks while reading this one, just to let my mind relax from the strange sense that each story created in a different, unsettling way.
LORD OF THE FLIES
BY WILLIAM GOLDING
The question of whether or not humanity is inherently good or evil is addressed in this horrific psychological horror book. In order to survive on the isolated island, a group of choirboys who were shipwrecked attempt to create a hierarchy among themselves. It’s amazing, and even today I have to crack jokes about it when I discuss it.
THE DOLL-MASTER AND OTHER TALES OF TERROR
BY JOYCE CAROL OATES
Six unsettling short tales by Joyce Carol Oates are included in The Doll-Master and Other Tales. After his cousin sadly dies, the youngster in the title story becomes fixated with the doll, and as he gets older, he starts to gather “found dolls” from the neighborhood. But what sort of dolls are they exactly?
BY STEPHEN KING
The more psychologically distressing elements of Stephen King’s debut book deal with bullying, repressive religion, and girls’ coming of age, even though it does play on violent deeds.
THE SECRET OF VENTRILOQUISM
BY JON PADGETT
Padgett’s short stories “address the riddle of human suffering, the anguish of personal life, and the terrible ways by which someone can seek redemption from both,” according to the text. Within the hollow box spring of a bed, a bullied youngster seeks retribution. The unattainable home haunts a person who has lucid dreams. In 20 easy stages, a dummy displays its own anatomy. The unfathomable mysteries of a mill town can be unlocked by a stammering librarian. Two words scrawled on a cardboard sign destroy the perspective of a commuter. The time a prospective ventriloquist spends staring in the mirror is a tad excessive. They are all being spoken through by a presence. Yikes.
BY MARGARET ATWOOD
You are most likely familiar with Margaret Atwood from The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian, misogynistic society governed by religious zealots that takes place after an epidemic of infertility. A distinct form of psychological horror novel is Alias Grace. Grace, an immigrant from Ireland, was found guilty of two murders committed during the Spiritualist era. This is how she described her experience. Grace Marks was a real person, despite the fact that this book is a work of fiction, and you will be haunted by her narrative because of how true it is.
BY WILLIAM BLATTY
The core demonic occult story found in this horrifying psychological horror novel is as frightening as they come. But the unresolved cliffhanger story conclusion is what most people overlook. The story seems to come full circle and conclude firmly. You then begin to consider it when you are in the aisle with the washing detergent.
BY ROBERT BLOCH
What brazen list of terrifying psychological horror books could leave out Psycho by Robert Bloch? The Slasher genre was essentially created by Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaption! Psycho is based on real events, just like many of the most horrifying books on our list. Even days after reading it, you still wonder: What kind of creature is this?
What do you think, then? Which books on psychological terror didn’t make my list? What psychological horror books have you pondering their consequences while standing in the produce aisle? Comment below and let me know!
Leave a Reply