45 seriously spooky (but not quite scary) books

45 seriously spooky (but not quite scary) books

I dreaded Halloween story hour as a kid. (Classic HSP.) The librarian inevitably read us too many ghost stories, and I’d spend the half hour with my fingers in my ears, humming softly to myself and trying not to hear. It never worked, and I’d have nightmares for weeks. My poor sensitive soul just couldn’t handle it.

Now that I’m an adult, I still hate scary stories. I don’t read horror novels, not ever. But I do enjoy a good creepy book. I love chilling mysteries and psychological thrillers: books that make my hair stand on end, but still allow me to sleep at night.

If you hate horror but are still up for a spine-chilling read, these are the books for you.

Spine-chilling books I love

  1. In the Woods, Tana French. Definitely disturbing, but un-put-down-able. Tana French writes an amazing psychological thriller.
  2. 11/22/63, Stephen King. This would never be defined as horror, but it is spine-tinglingly creepy.
  3. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier. A modern Gothic page-turner.
  4. The Starbridge series, by Susan Howatch. Especially the later three books set in the 1960s. Seriously creepy supernatural elements.
  5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling. All the Harry Potters have their suspenseful elements, but this one was specifically mentioned the most.
  6. The Distant Hours (or anything else by Kate Morton). She’s wonderful at psychological drama.
  7. The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay. This gave me serious goosebumps. One of my favorite books of the year.

Creepy classics

  1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  2. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  4. 1984, George Orwell
  5. The Telltale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
  6. The Giver, Lois Lowry
  7. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  8. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (This link goes to the collection illustrated by Canadian artist Jacqui Oakley, who did the gorgeous covers for Anne of Green Gables and the additional L. M. Montgomery titles that appeared here.)
  9. The Nancy Drew collection (not the new Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew series), by Carolyn Keene

Reader favorites:

  1. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
  2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, R. A. Dick
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  4. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger
  5. Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
  6. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind
  7. Pines, Blake Crouch
  8. The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  9. Before I Go to Sleep, S. J. Watson. (The movie with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman is hitting theaters on October 31.)
  10. Don’t Breath a Word, Jennifer McMahon
  11. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

Tales of the apocalypse

  1. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  2. World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler
  3. The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton
  4. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
  5. The Stand, Stephen King

Creepy books I’m dying to read

  1. Among the Shadows, L. M. Montgomery. A collection of nineteen Montgomery stories, unlike anything else she ever wrote.
  2. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield. Every Jane Eyre fan worth her salt has this on her reading list.
  3. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve heard such good things about Ishiguro’s work.
  4. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. The hook: Shakespeare + a global pandemic.
  5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson. I’ve wanted to read this ever since I heard about it on the Books on the Nightstand podcast.
  6. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie. Because I’ve never read a Christie novel (I know!) and I’ve heard good things about this one.
  7. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak. Because everyone says so.

Truth is scarier than fiction

  1. The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, Richard Preston

“Creepy” might not quite cover it

  1. Flowers in the Attic, V. C. Andrews
  2. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  3. Bag of Bones, Stephen King
  4. Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane
  5. Bird Box, Josh Malerman

What are your favorite spooky—but not quite scary—novels?

Spooky Books

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  1. One of the most pee-in-my-pants scariest books I ever read, under the covers after lights out (probably with a flashlight) was “The Birds” in the Hitchcock series. Not the movie. The book. Which is always far scarier than the movie.
    I got partway through “The Book Thief,” but am too worried about a Hitler repeat to be able to finish it. Same thing with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

  2. Bridget says:

    This is a great example why this is one of my favorite blog. As an HSP, I can’t handle true horror. There is so much to love on this list. 11/22/63 was fantastic. I just recently read it and it’s in my top 5 all time favorites. There are not enough praise words for it. I really hated The Road. I read it for book club. I struggled with the story, the style, and the ending just killed me.

  3. Mary Kate says:

    Love this list!

    The Book Thief, Never Let Me Go, and And Then There Were None are on my all-time faves list, though I wouldn’t classify the first two as creepy (though the third definitely is.) Can’t wait to hear what you think.

    Her Fearful Symmetry was good but utterly bizarre–now I must go search your archives to see if there’s a discussion on this book somewhere…

    Probably the best spooky book I’ve ever read is The Woman in Black, made popular a few years ago with the movie (starring Harry Potter). The book itself is WAY less scary than the movie–the movie was terrifying–and I loved it because it’s just an incredibly written ghost story. I, like you, do not like horror (though I do like certain Stephen King books)–but the thing I dislike about horror is gore and overall disturbing-ness. Give me a good scary story without the gore and I’m good to go, and The Woman in Black is such a good story.

  4. Mari says:

    I just started reading a new novel, We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson. It’s so creepy- about an Italian exploitation film being made in Colombia with a creepy director and very strange happenings. It’s definitely not horror itself, just eerie. I haven’t finished it yet, but I recommend it!

  5. Katheryn says:

    The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I read this in 2007 when my husband was working crazy hours and wouldn’t come home until 2 or 3 in the morning. I completely freaked myself out staying up late reading this book and letting my imagination get the better of me.

  6. Thea says:

    Wow! Great choices. I can’t believe you haven’t read Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day is so beautifully written and very different from Never Let me Go. No Agatha Christie in your history either?! And Then There Were None is a great place to start.
    I still need to read Rebecca. A Classic that should not be missing from my own reading history.

    It strikes me that I am of an age (mid 50’s) when Christie and Poe stories were about the creepiest tales in the library of my youth. Steven King became popular about the time I was in college. His early novels certainly made me lose sleep! Interesting to see how the genre has grown and developed in the last 30 years.

  7. Diane H. says:

    Betty Ren Wright, an author for young adults wrote some very scary books but they also always had a moral. One title it “The Dollhouse Murders”. Get ready to have your hair stand on end!

  8. kimmie says:

    Many “yes!!” to The Thirteenth Tale!! I love that book….and Rebecca…and Bag of Bones…..and….I have a thing for spooky. 🙂

  9. Meredith says:

    Never Let Me Go also might make my top three book lists. It got under my skin when I read it. Couldn’t shake it off for weeks. Wuthering Heights and Haunting of Hill House are also faves, although Shirley Jackson keeps me up at night, so she might be one notch above creepy for me. One I didn’t see on the list: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. I love a big, creepy castle!

  10. Molly says:

    I don’t think of The Book Thief or HPat PoA as creepy though I did love them. I am not a fan of gore or horror, but I do love a good thriller. Two titles I would add are The Most Dangerous Game and The Alienist. Almost anything by Poe qualifies as creepy without being horror, too.
    The Pit and the Pendulum anyone?

  11. Ann says:

    It’s not Halloween without Dracula and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Not books but I love to watch Frankenweenie and Hocus Pocus this time of year!

  12. LadyWoman says:

    A thousand times Shire Jackson. Don’t forget The Lottery and Other Stories. The Southern Reach Trilogy – the first book, Annihilation, is one of the best creeping horror stories I’ve ever read, it’s a trip! Black-Eyed Susan was addictive (I stayed up til 2am to finish it in one sitting!) and there was almost no violence/gore, which surprised me since its about a survivor of a serial killer. The Book of Lost Things is fairytale creepy, but also funny and moving. Coraline! Touch by Alex Zentner was a beautiful, sort-of ghost story, but mostly about the past in our lives. Uprooted by Naomi Novik is fantasy but with a “villain” bordering on horror territory. The Woman in Black is great. Kelly Link’s short stories. I adooooore horror and creepiness, so I could go on and on 🙂

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  14. April says:

    And Then There Were None is my all-time favorite Agatha Christie novel. Definitely read it. You won’t regret it. Love that you picked The Giver, The Tell-tale Heart and Jane Eyre. Just wonderful!

  15. I’m definitely an HSP and probably have a lower tolerance level than you! But my favorite October read is The Night Circus. My friend introduced it to me last year and I will likely read it every October from here on out. So beautiful, imaginative, magical, and a little spooky. But with a lovely end.

    • Kate says:

      I loved The Night Circus, creepy but beautiful and sweet at the same time! I haven’t found anything else quite like it. Jonathan Strange& Mr. Norrell is frequently cited as a readalike, and while I enjoyed that book a lot, I didn’t think it hit the same notes as TNC.

  16. kaida says:

    A great list. I love suspense in a book, but not a lot of gore. I am familiar with several books on this list. I would encourage you to read 13th Tale, Historian,Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I think Castle was even creepier than Hill House. The Book Thief is wonderful, and the movie does a pretty good job of portraying the book. It really is not a creepy book except for the fact that death narrates it. If you like Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) read The Demon in the Freezer about Smallpox. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a New York Times best-selling non-fiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum- also very good.

  17. Mary B. says:

    “And Then There Were None” is legit scary. I’m a huge Christie fan, and that one is a classic for a reason. It stays with you. I would also recommend “Sleeping Murder,” a lesser-know mystery also by Agatha Christie. The psychological suspense is so eerie that it borders on supernatural–a sort of haunted house story with a rational conclusion.

    “Phantom of The Opera” by Gaston Leroux. Dark gothic romance (a deranged and deformed genius falls for the very epitome of beauty and innocence) mixed with elements of true horror (stalking, kidnapping, murder, and a torture room (!!!) ) are all featured in the book.

    Looking forward to reading some of the other books on your list!

  18. Nisreen says:

    Hi Anne,
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Station Eleven are both excellent reads. Station Eleven is simply superb.
    I wish you can provide a list of your top picks for audio books (Station Eleven on audio is perfect btw). I am always looking forward to your recommendations, and I would really love to see your favourite audio books.

  19. Holli Petersen says:

    I’m a total HSP. I watch ONE scary(ish) movie a year with our family per tradition, but I HATE it. This year, we went tame with Watcher in the Woods and even that had me on the edge of my seat.

    As far as books go, I tried to read American Gods but the mood of the first chapter totally freaked me out. I had to abandon!

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