Horror seems like a strange thing to enjoy reading: why would you want to be terrified while mental images of grotesque bloodshed are burned into your head? What’s wrong with you?
Of course, nothing’s wrong with you. One of the jobs of fiction is to give us clues on how to survive, and seeing how characters defeat horrific beasts gives us hope in fighting our own monsters.
Boneshaker combines steampunk with zombies in an alternate history version of Seattle, Washington. It was nominated for the 2009 Nebula and Hugo, and won the Locus Award in 2010.
In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus, Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine was born.
But on its first test run, the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.
“Intelligent, exceptionally well written and showcasing a phenomenal strong female protagonist who embodies the complexities inherent in motherhood, this yarn is a must-read for the discerning steampunk fan.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In 1973, the story Who Goes There? was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written. It’s the basis for the three The Thing movies.
An Antarctic research camp discovers and thaws the ancient, frozen body of a crash-landed alien. The creature revives with terrifying results, shape-shifting to assume the exact form of animal and man, alike. Paranoia ensues as a band of frightened men work to discern friend from foe, and destroy the menace before it challenges all of humanity.
A mysterious disease is turning thousands of ordinary Americans into raving, paranoid murderers who inflict brutal horrors on strangers, their own families, and even themselves. One morning, ex-football star Perry Dawsey awakens to find mysterious welts growing all over his body. Soon Perry finds himself acting and thinking strangely, hearing voices, fighting uncontrollable rage… he is infected. Worse, the disease wants something from him, something that could alter the fate of the human race.
Infected was originally released as a podcast. The print book didn’t come until two years later.
“[I]maginative, gross, frightening, suspenseful, funny, thought-provoking and sick in the ‘omigawd-I-wanna-barf’ way”.
— Sacramento News
In this #1 New York Times bestseller, a new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one: Boston, Detroit, Seattle. It’s a highly contagious, deadly spore that marks its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks across their bodies—before causing them to burst into flames. Millions are infected; blazes erupt everywhere. There is no antidote. No one is safe.
“[A] tremendous, heartrending epic of bravery and love set in a fully realized and terrifying apocalyptic world.”
— Publishers Weekly
Leviathan Wakes is less a horror book than a science fiction story with elements of horror in it. But it’s still ridiculously entertaining.
Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money, and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations, and the odds are definitely against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
(James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.)
A derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn’t want to meet?
Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find—but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . .
With The Andromeda Strain, author Crichton essentially invented the technothriller genre.
A military space probe, sent to collect extraterrestrial organisms from the upper atmosphere, is knocked out of orbit and falls to Earth. Twelve miles from the crash site, an inexplicable and deadly phenomenon terrorizes the residents of a sleepy desert town in Arizona, leaving only two survivors: an elderly addict and a newborn infant.
Under conditions of a total news blackout and the utmost urgency, scientists race to understand and contain the crisis. But the Andromeda Strain proves different from anything they’ve ever seen—and what they don’t know could not only hurt them, but lead to unprecedented worldwide catastrophe.
“A reading windfall—compelling, memorable, superbly executed… Achieves something important.”
— The New York Times
The Day of the Triffids is a classic, one of the cornerstones of the post-apocalyptic genre. It traces the fate of the world after a comet shower blinds most of the world’s population. The few with sight must struggle to reconstruct society while fighting mobile, flesh-eating plants called triffids.
Arthur C. Clarke called The Day Of The Triffids an “immortal story.” Director Danny Boyle says the opening hospital sequence of The Day of the Triffids inspired Alex Garland to write the screenplay for 28 Days Later.
Like all great dystopian stories, The Hunger Games features a society gone bad that attacks the good guy (or gal, the spunky and badass Katniss, in this instance).
Some critics have railed against the book’s brutality, but teenagers have always loved stories where other teens die violent, blood-soaked deaths (see: every horror movie ever made).
John Dies at the End was first published online as a webserial in 2001, then as an edited manuscript in 2004, and a printed paperback in 2007.
I’m a huge fan of the sequel to this book, This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, but this one is pretty damn funny, too.
It’s a bit more of a comic horror story than a straight science fiction tale, but it’s still worth a read.
A drug called Soy Sauce lets users look into another dimension. That’s not a calming thing, because some really hideous monsters from that dimension are here and about to enslave humanity.
“The book’s smart take on fear manages to tap into readers’ existential dread on one page, then have them laughing the next.”
— Publishers Weekly
The Girl with All the Gifts is a wonderful book, which is odd praise for a story about zombies. But it’s surprisingly thoughtful, and at times, even tender, all while managing to be a fast-paced thriller. Every day I looked forward to reading it.
In a post-apocalyptic England, Melanie, along with other children, is imprisoned in a windowless bunker. They are all strapped down and muzzled whenever they leave their cells. No adult is allowed to touch them under any circumstances. Given who these children are, these are reasonable precautions. Then the installation is attacked, and Melanie is freed along with several adults, some who want her alive, some who want her dead, and others who want her dissected.
Stevenson’s stepson wrote: “I don’t believe that there was ever such a literary feat before as the writing of Dr Jekyll. I remember the first disease of the world though it were yesterday. Louis came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days.”
The rumor is that after some criticisms from his wife, Stevenson burnt this first draft, only to rewrite the story again in three to six days.
You can make the case that Matheson invented the modern zombie. The creatures in I Am Legend are perhaps 70% vampire and 30% zombie.
But is it a good book? People disagree wildly:
“The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is immediately dropped and kicked out of sight.”
— Damon Knight
“[I]t is perhaps the greatest novel written on human loneliness.”
— Dan Schneider
It’s been argued that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. It’s certainly the first transhumanist one (though who knows what Shelley would have made of that term). It delves into the humanity of the monster and those around him, as opposed to the precise methods the doctor used to animate him.
Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.
It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.
Pissing off science fiction writers everywhere, Ellison wrote the story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in a single night in 1966, making virtually no changes from the first draft. He won a Hugo award for it, too. Bastard.
The granddaddy of alien invasion stories, The War of the Worlds was classified as “scientific romance,” as was Wells’s earlier book, The Time Machine.
Wells appears to have enjoyed the idea of obliterating his neighborhood. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking—killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways—then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”
To modern eyes, the events in this book may not seem particularly horrific, but they’re fun enough for this list.
The Tommyknockers is another #1 bestselling book by Stephen King, although he doesn’t hold it in very high esteem.
The novel was written during the height of King’s experiences with his own addictions and is filled with metaphors for the stranglehold of substance abuse. In an interview with Rolling Stone, King acknowledged that the quality of his writing suffered during his period of drug use, saying, “The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act.”
However, millions of other people have liked it just fine.
On a beautiful June day, while walking deep in the woods on her property in Haven, Maine, Bobbi Anderson quite literally stumbles over her own destiny and that of the entire town. For the dull gray metal protrusion she discovers in the ground is part of a mysterious and massive metal object, one that may have been buried there for millennia. Bobbi can’t help but become obsessed and try to dig it out…the consequences of which will affect and transmute every citizen of Haven, young and old. It means unleashing extraordinary powers beyond those of mere mortals—and certain death for any and all outsiders. An alien hell has now invaded this small New England town…an aggressive and violent malignancy devoid of any mercy or sanity…
Yes, it’s about zombies, but the book reads more like highly technical and thoughtful science fiction than a splatterfest.
World War Z is a shockingly well-written series of vignettes from a number of different perspectives as humanity is driven to the edge of extinction by approximately 200 million zombies.
Caught behind the lines of Hitler’s Final Solution, Saul Laski is one of the multitudes destined to die in the notorious Chelmno extermination camp. But then finds himself face to face with an evil far older and far greater than the Nazis themselves.
“Carrion Comfort is one of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th century. Simple as that.”
— Stephen King
“A true classic.”
— Guillermo del Toro