Readers seek out horror novels for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps it’s out of sheer curiosity, a desire for excitement, or the thrill of trying to outsmart the monsters before the main characters do. Maybe you’re naturally drawn to the darker side of fiction, enjoying the way a disturbing story can influence you long after you put the book down.
Whatever your personal reason is for delving into this genre, this guide will give you a brief introduction to the vast literary world of horror fiction. You’ll learn the most common elements of horror novels before being introduced to some of the most popular types of horror subgenres. By the end of this article, you’ll become well acquainted with a variety of books that will play on your deepest, most personal fears. Ready to begin?
H. P. Lovecraft once said that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In other words, a great horror story has to go beyond simply scaring the reader. The greatest horror writers make their monsters or antagonists seem terrifyingly real, or at least plausible. These are the kinds of stories that make you reluctant to turn the lights off at night, or make you jump at the slightest of sounds, even though you logically know there’s nothing there.
Although authors may frighten readers by concocting stories about a broad range of subjects, from masked murderers to demonic poltergeists to reclusive Satanic cults, most horror writers incorporate some common elements in their stories. These recurring horror tropes and themes include:
- Stirring up feelings of dread and fear in the reader.
- Describing uncanny or frightening settings.
- Introducing a relatable protagonist who, despite their best intentions, continuously finds themselves in danger.
- Creating a suspense-driven plot.
- Portraying an antagonist, monster, or entity whose main mission is to cause devastation.
- Adding details that make the monster sound realistic enough to exist in the world as we know it.
In Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, he explains that an ideal horror monster or villain must be both threatening and “impure.” “If [a monster is] only threatening, then the emotion is fear,” writes Carroll. “If only impure, the emotion is disgust. But, if both, the emotion is horror.”
The “threatening” part of a monster revolves around the visceral fear of what might physically, spiritually, mentally, or emotionally happen to the character. A demon might possess someone’s body, for example, or a zombie may bite and infect a character. However, to make these monsters “impure,” as Carroll suggests, authors need to add something that disgusts people because of its inherent wrongness, or incompatibility with biology. For instance, a demon that appears to be slowly rotting away from the inside out amps up the feelings of revulsion, therefore heightening fear as well.
Horror comes in a variety of flavors that readers can sample until they find the most intriguing one for them. Whether you’ve read hundreds of horror novels and are searching for something more intense, or if you just want an easy introduction to the horror genre, there’s something out there to meet your needs. Just check out these subgenres and pick something that speaks to you:
- Comedy horror. If you’ve seen films like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Zombieland, you’re already well-acquainted with the comedy horror genre! Similar to the movie genre, comedy horror novels provide brief moments of respite from dread and terror with laugh-out-loud situations and funny characters. One popular book in this category is David Wong’s John Dies at the End.
- Crime horror. If you like detective fiction, police procedurals, or murder mysteries, crime horror will be right up your alley. Generally, these books will include a detective or police protagonist who is attempting to solve a particularly unsettling or inexplicable crime, made more dramatic with elements of horror. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is one popular novel in this category.
- Dark fantasy. This category blends fantasy creatures or magical elements with some of the suspense and darker tropes found in horror fiction. Coraline by Neil Gaimon is a well-known children’s book in this category (although it’s better known for exciting kids and terrifying their parents).
- Erotic horror. Sometimes, monsters can be sexy, too. In erotic horror novels, the monstrous creatures or evil antagonists end up in love (or lust) with the main character. The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus is a good introduction to this subgenre.
- Gothic. This early foray into horror focuses primarily on death and the macabre, along with some elements of romance. Edgar Allen Poe is often praised as one of the most prolific Gothic writers of his time, whose works include poems, short stories, and novels like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a common example of a classic Gothic horror novel.
- Lovecraftian. H.P. Lovecraft’s self-proclaimed “weird fiction” became an entirely new subgenre in horror after other writers began to build off his ideas that stretch beyond human understanding. Lovecraftian horror is also known as “cosmic horror,” designed to shock readers by pointing out the ultimate insignificance of human existence. The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft is a classic that all horror readers should check out.
- Occult. The word “occult” is frequently associated with mysterious rituals, unfamiliar religions, mysticism, cults, and dark curses. Books in this subgenre might include exorcisms, witchcraft, sacrificial rituals, or other variations of “black magic.” If this sounds fascinating to you, read The Ritual by Adam Nevill.
- Paranormal fiction. Paranormal horror and supernatural horror frequently overlap. Both subgenres include inexplicable beings or phenomena that leave the characters and readers terrified and unprepared to combat them. These entities transcend scientific understanding or logic, with common creatures including fairies, shapeshifters, zombies, aliens, or other monsters popularized by folklore. It by Stephen King includes a truly unique and terrifying entity that forces readers to leave reasoning behind.
- Post-apocalyptic. After a worldwide disaster happens, civilization is destroyed, and the remaining character or characters are left in the tattered remains of their society. Some post-apocalyptic stories are more dystopian, whereas others involve terrifying horror elements like deadly diseases, harmful radiation poisoning, zombie outbreaks, or inexplicable dark forces trying to kill off the remaining survivors. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson explores this subgenre in thrilling detail.
- Psychological horror. These books are for those who don’t like too much gore or violence. These books prey upon the character’s fragile mind, making them feel paranoid and afraid to trust themselves. Common themes in psychological horror include mental illness, traumatic events, suspicion of others, and constant anxiety or dread. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is often recommended for this subgenre.
- Sci-fi horror. This mash-up of science fiction and horror frequently involves the scary unknown of space travel as humans struggle to survive far away from Earth. Aliens are often involved, and are typically not very welcoming. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, who actually has a PhD in astronomy, will pull you into this electrifying subgenre and simultaneously entertain and terrify you.
- Slasher horror. Also called body horror, slasher horror is typically violent, graphic, and highly deadly. A common trope of a slasher book includes a killer (who may or may not be a supernatural creature) who is hellbent on punishing others who harmed them, to seek revenge, or simply because they want to cause chaos. Stephanie Perkins’ There’s Someone Inside Your House includes a cast of clueless high school students who slowly get killed off in gruesome ways, one by one.
- Supernatural horror. Supernatural horror, much like paranormal horror, contains supernatural entities or humans with supernatural powers. Some plotlines might include a person obtaining psychic abilities, a demon possessing a character, a Ouija board game welcoming in something dark and horrific, a poltergeist terrorizing a family, and so on. Read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson before checking out the Netflix series!
- Survival horror. In survival horror stories, an isolated character or small group of characters has to deal with the terrifying feeling of being alone, lost, and exposed to the elements. The unsettling location, combined with an inability to contact anyone from civilization, hikes up the level of horror until nightfall. As the novel unwinds, characters might get injured, separated, or end up facing something that’s been stalking them the entire time. The Hunger by Alma Katsu is a deeply disturbing survivalist novel partially inspired by the tragic events of the Donner party.
To find free horror novels and terrifying tales, go to the JustKindleBooks free books page and click on the horror tile to browse all of the free horror novels currently available in the Kindle store!