Thanks to David Wilbanks for publishing my Top 20 Horror list on his blog a couple of months ago. They aren’t what I necessarily consider the best of the genre, just my personal favourites, so I thought I’d briefly explain why each book made the list.
This powerful gothic took me by surprise. It has all the brooding struggle and mood I’d expect from an 18th century piece, but also shoehorns in as much devilry, depravity, treachery and torture as I could possibly have hoped for. Hooray!
The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (1827- 1849)
I was fascinated by the macabre as a young child, and understandably not allowed the extreme stuff. But Poe was apparently okay, it being with the literary classics and not in the forbidden horror section, so I devoured it. The likes of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” blew me away, and have never lost that intensity.
Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)
Ill-advisedly picturing Christopher Lee in a spooky Carpathian castle when I first picked it up, I was unsettled by the atmosphere of grim pestilence, and just how tragic it is. A quintessential vampire novel, and pleasingly, it couldn’t be less sparkly.
Vampires again, but I enjoy it more as a survivalist apocalypse tale. The infected next-door neighbour trying to cajole the protagonist into leaving his barricaded house gives me a chill just thinking about it.
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
A faultless haunted house story that absolutely nails the difference between horror and terror. Pure dread and anticipation all the way.
Susan Hill – I’m the King of the Castle (1970)
It’s not a genre book, but this novel about childhood bullying disturbed me as much as the finest horror can, slowly wringing all hope from my soul. This is razor-sharp writing and the first of only two books on this list that I have never read twice. And never will. Once was more than enough.
Stephen King – The Shining (1977)
There are plenty of reasons to adore this King classic, but it also stands out for me in that it’s the only story I’ve ever read that made me physically jump in my seat. A reaction normally reserved for films, I still don’t know how the hell he managed it. Extremely well played, sir.
This is more drama than horror – unusual for early King – and it’s a gorgeous collection. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” are superb, and “Apt Pupil” is my single favourite story of all time. It’s the ultimate account of a deteriorating mental state and the Nazi butcher element gives it a palpable, historical reality that frosts the bones. I only have to pick it up and start the first paragraph to end up reading the whole thing again.
James Herbert – Domain (1983)
I was delighted when Jim concluded his giant rats trilogy by throwing in a nuclear holocaust. As well as some gripping and grim adventures in the main story thread, I’ll never forget the claustrophobic vignettes of subterranean survivors about to die. A very formative novel for me.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984)
Another that isn’t necessarily a genre book, but has all the right elements. And it also parades my favourite opening line of all time, a beautifully wry and ominous teaser that sums up the creepy, dysfunctional ride we’re about to take:
“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.”
“The Yattering and Jack”, “In the Hills, In the Cities”, “Son of Celluloid”… there are far too many favourites in this six volume masterpiece to individually name. I’d just end up listing the entire contents. Artful storytelling that’s always head-shakingly imaginative, Barker gets right under the skin where so many others try but fail. He’s never topped them for me. And come to think of it, has anyone else?
Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian (1985)
I love McCarthy, and this brutal western suits his unconventional style perfectly. An onslaught of desert dust, sweat, horrific violence and amorality with one of the finest villains ever created. Nobody forgets the Judge.
Clive Barker – Weaveworld (1987)
Another imaginative tour-de-force from Barker, he really lets the fantasy shine here. Nowhere near as disturbing as his Books of Blood, it still pulls out the trademark darkness when required and deftly avoids whimsy. Certainly his most colourful and fun work.
Abuse at its most harrowing. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever put a book down and took a deep breath, wanting it to stop, wishing I could somehow intervene. Then braced myself, picked it up and immediately had to stop again. As with “I’m the King of the Castle”, once was enough.
The Starry Wisdom – A Tribute to HP Lovecraft (1995)
An indie press publication from the early 90s, it’s one of those eclectic adults-only anthologies that leaves splinters in the brain. Full of original, twisted ideas, it captures that Lovecraftian otherworld atmosphere to a tee. I’ve re-read it several times.
Stephen Laws – Daemonic (1996)
A monster-thriller set in an insane film director’s urban fortress? Sorted. The concept is right up my street, and it’s delivered to the absolute max. A blast.
Poppy Z Brite – Exquisite Corpse (1996)
This hellish serial-killer romance is beautifully told, and as emotional as it is shocking. It made me feel sad and strangely violated for days.
Ramsey Campbell – House on Nazareth Hill (1997)
A superb contemporary haunted house novel, my mouth fell open at the unforgettable finale. Whenever I hear the word Hepzibah, a song starts to jangle in my head and causes a shiver. Even on sunny days. And just now.
I never get bored of picking up this slick, punky collection and randomly reading a story or two. I love the dystopian feel, and there’s a texture to the writing that has almost become a comfort blanket. Quite an abrasive one, obviously.
Stephen Volk – Whitstable (2013)
An ominous challenge for an author, this fictional tribute to the wonderful Peter Cushing in his darkest hour couldn’t have been better. It was everything I’d hoped for and more, and I hung off every word.
And that’s your lot. As with all lists, this is subject to change on a whim. Thanks for reading, folks.