The All-Time Bestselling Horror Novels

The horror genre tends to get shorted in the respect department. Considered juvenile by some, or lumped in with other genres by others, the only horror writers who ever seem to get any respect are the ones by wildly famous writers like Stephen King. That respect is usually tied to their immense book sales or their ability to cross over into other, more “respectable” genres.

But some of the greatest books ever written have been horror novels—and some of the biggest-selling books ever fall into that category. Furthermore, every October people turn to their horror novels for a good chill and a seasonal reminder that no matter how in-control we like to think we are, the universe ticks on around us without our input, approval, or comprehension. That mystery is the root of all horror: When we walk down a dark hall and become convinced someone is behind us, when we think we catch a movement in the mirror that shouldn’t be possible, when our immediate surroundings suddenly defy easy explanation—that’s when we get that familiar sense of dread.

Why we enjoy that dread is something else entirely, but the fact is, we do. Or most of us do, at any rate—enough that the following ten books have sold millions of copies and remain near-permanent parts of pop culture, especially around Halloween, when even folks who don’t care for horror will indulge in a little scare-reading. If you haven’t read all of these books, this would be the ideal moment to grab a copy and bone up on your ghosts, monsters, and dark forces. If things get too intense, don’t worry—just put the book in the freezer for an evening and have some of the candy you’ve been saving for Trick-or-Treaters. You’ll be fine.

Two of the oldest and most famous horror novels are also easily the most widely-sold, although hard numbers are difficult to come by because they’re both in the public domain (in fact, you can download and read both for free if you want). Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely regarded as the first horror novel in the modern sense (also sometimes the first modern Sci-Fi novel), and her story of a creature made from the parts of dead bodies and reanimated by weird science remains so fundamentally affecting it continues to be adapted, riffed on, and reprinted to this day. Dracula may be one of the most iconic horror novels ever written, but it was not an immediate hit upon publication. In fact, Bram Stoker died poor and it wasn’t until his novel was unofficially adapted into the stage play Nosferatu that sales picked up. As with Frankenstein, Dracula is one of the mainstays of horror to this day, and has sold uncounted tens of millions of copies and continues to inspire new and creative adaptations and reinventions.

Andrews’ most-recognized work is usually considered gothic horror, and it is by far the best-selling modern horror novel. Launching a series of books and film adaptations, Andrews’ story of children enduring unspeakable treatment at the hands of their own mother is terrifying precisely because there is no supernatural element; as with some of the best examples of the ​genre, the horror is entirely in man’s inhumanity to man. The bond between parent and child is sacrosanct in almost every culture, and we’re aware on some level that when we’re children we rely on our parents for everything. The betrayal of that bond gives the book so much dreadful emotional power it continues to astound new readers today.

The film adaptation of this book was so successful many folks don’t realize there was a source novel. Published in 1971, Blatty (who also scripted the first film) based a lot of the story on supposedly true events, and claimed to have based the exorcism ritual described in the book on an actual event. The Catholic Church does have an exorcism ritual, but interestingly by the 1960s it was not often performed. The success of the film actually revived interest in the ritual and examples multiplied as a result, and the Catholic Church had to clamp down on “rogue priests” who performed exorcisms with no oversight, sometimes with tragic results. In recent decades the Church has reined in these activities and exorcisms are once again pretty rare—so reading Blatty’s classic novel is your best bet for getting a good scare from a possessed child.

Anson and the Lutz family claimed this book was based on actual events, but most people regard it as a horror novel—that is, a work of fiction. Whether the Lutz family made everything up or really did experience something disturbing is something for readers to decide on their own. The facts are, in 1974 a man named Ronald DeFeo murdered his family at the iconic house in Amityville, New York. A year later, the Lutz family moved in, then fled a month later, claiming terrifying paranormal happenings. The book and film followed, and the rest is up for debate. What isn’t debatable is that The Amityville Horror is one of the most famous and bestselling horror books of all time. It might be a little extra scary, in fact, if you assume it really did happen. For even more chills, rent the film version, if only to get the visual of that famous roof line, with the dormers that look like nothing more than eyes peering at you from some other dimension.

It’s hard to imagine how unexpected Interview with the Vampire was in 1976. Rice wrote a short story in the late 1960s about an interview with, yes, a vampire, but did not attempt to publish it. After the tragic death of her daughter in 1970, Rice entered a long period of depression, but in 1973 was inspired to pick up the story and re-work it into a novel. It was a tough sell; she accumulated rejection letters until she secured a literary agent. When the novel finally sold, she received a $12,000 advance—a number that would be a decent advance today even without being adjusted for inflation. Adjusted, that’s about $60,000. As time would prove, money well-invested. What makes the book remarkable for its time is the literary style and approach Rice used at a time when horror and vampire fiction was regarded as low-brow and disposable.

Ghost Story made Straub’s career; prior to this 1979 novel he’d been fairly successful, but Ghost Story launched him into the stratosphere and remains one of the bestselling horror novels of all time. The story, told from the point of view of five older friends who share a dark secret and gather every year to tell ghost stories, is a perfect melding of classic ghost story elements and modern style; when one of the five dies mysteriously, the survivors begin to suffer dreams that convince them their dark past is literally haunting them in the present. The book holds up nearly forty years later, so if you’re looking for a spine-tingling tale to finish up right on Halloween, this is the ideal choice, really.

Shirley Jackson remains one of the most underrated writers in American history, in part because her influence is often subterranean. The Haunting of Hill House is the story of a team of paranormal investigators who move into a crumbling mansion to try and capture proof of the supernatural forces that are rumored to exist within it. Jackson leaves the ultimate verdict on whether actual ghosts or frayed nerves and unstable minds are at work, but the book drips with dread, which is why it remains a consistent seller and fodder for film adaptations. Both of the film versions (in 1963, starring Julie Harris, and 1999, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones) were titled simply The Haunting, meaning that audiences might not be aware of the connection to this classic novel.

Stephen King has to make this list, of course. King’s bestselling books overall are the non-horror Dark Tower series (while there are certainly horrific elements in those books, they are clearly more SFF than horror), but It has been a juggernaut for the writer since its publication in 1986. Sporting one of King’s most horrifying characters in the form of Pennywise the Clown, It transcends the period it was written in and remains a powerful story, with a new adaptation on its way for 2017. If nothing else, this bestseller clarified for everyone that there is absolutely nothing at all funny or comforting about clowns.

Published in 1898, James’ classic novel is surprisingly modern to this day and is a guaranteed chiller even for modern readers. What makes this book so unnerving is the ambiguous way in which James presents the story of a governess to two young children in a country house in Essex who becomes convinced that the ghosts of two deceased members of the household staff are haunting the home and possibly possessing the children. Some interpret the story as a literal ghost story, while others see clear signs from James that the governess is an unreliable narrator and possibly insane. The richness of both arguments can make for some lively debates, but whichever theory you subscribe to after reading the book one thing is certain: You will be chilled to the bone by this clever and terrifying story.

Horror is Literature

Don't be fooled; horror can be as complex, affecting, and timeless as any other genre or category. Don't be afraid to expand your horror reading beyond Halloween!