12 horror novels for wimps

12 horror novels for wimps

Readers, you probably weren’t expecting a horror novel book list from me. While I’m a confirmed scaredy-cat and Highly Sensitive Person, I enjoy a good spine-tingling read, especially this time of year. I’ve also noticed that, like many readers, I’ve been reading more books with horror elements since the pandemic began. By their very nature, horror novels take our deep-seated internal fears and make them external—and then, crucially, bring them to some sort of resolution. I doubt my timing is coincidental.

On a simpler note, I also enjoy branching out into less-familiar genres. I’ve learned over the years not to discount any outright. The truth is there’s a lot of range within horror, even for wimpy readers like me. Do I sometimes have to skim scenes that are a bit much for me? Sure. But I’m still able to get lost in a page-turning, suspenseful read.

I might not ever be an avid horror reader but these books (with one feverish exception, as you’ll see) struck the right balance for me. Of course, not all wimpy readers have the same concerns so do your own due diligence when it comes to any triggers or concerns. (As you’ll see, there’s a book on this list that was perfect for a wimpy reader on the MMD team but it wasn’t the right timing for me. Maybe this year I’ll give it another try!)

If you’re looking for a scary book that isn’t likely to induce any nightmares, I hope you’ll find just what you’re looking for on this list.

12 gently scary novels for scaredy cats like me

Coraline

Coraline

Author:
This creepy tale begins with a seemingly mundane move to a new house—but when young Coraline opens a door in her new home she discovers another universe where everything is just like her own family’s flat, but better. All the people strangely have buttons instead of eyes, yet she’s tempted to stay with this other family and be their little girl forever—until she realized other children are trapped in this world, and she might be their only hope of escape. (Heads up: there is an animated movie but it’s quite different from the book. You could watch the movie with your kids, but you probably don’t want to read the book with them until they're teenagers.) More info →
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The Passage

The Passage

Author:
Team member and fellow wimpy reader Leigh Kramer chose this as one of her favorite books in WSIRN episode 9. She worried it would be too scary for her but wound up inhaling it. When scientists try to find the cure for mortality, their experiment goes awry. The kind of awry where most of society gets wiped out. The drug turns test subjects into vampire-like creatures, all except for one six year old girl. Rich, multilayered, and filled with social commentary. It wasn’t too scary for Leigh but I tried reading this several years ago while I was feverish with the flu, which I do not recommend. I ultimately had to DNF thanks to actual book-induced nightmares but perhaps I’ll try again one (healthier) day. More info →
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The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

Author:
If you’ve been looking to knock another classic off your reading list, try this novella-length story about a British governess who becomes convinced the estate she's working on is haunted and that she must protect the children in her charge at all costs. But who will protect her? Part gothic, part ghost story, part psychological study. I highly recommend the audio version, narrated by Emma Thompson. More info →
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The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood

Author:
I’ve often recommended this YA novel from a past Summer Reading Guide. Alice and her mom have spent 17 years on the run, trying to dodge the persistent bad luck mysteriously connected to an unnerving book of stories penned by Alice's estranged grandmother. When Alice's grandmother dies, her mother thinks they're free—until the day Alice comes home from school to discover Ella has been kidnapped, leaving behind a page torn from her grandmother's book and a note: Stay away from the Hazel Wood. But Alice has to save her mom, so she enters what she slowly begins to see is her grandmother's book of stories come-to-life—and those stories suddenly look a lot more like horror than fantasy. This seriously twisted and often bloody fairy tale reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale, with a dash of The Matrix. More info →
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Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic

The "Gothic horror" label made me a little afraid to try this but I needn't have feared: it’s deliciously creepy, but not frightening. Moreno-Garcia situates her novel firmly in the tradition of Gothic country house classics like Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, and even references some of these titles in her novel. When Noemí's father appoints her to see to some business on his behalf, the beautiful, intelligent young socialite agrees to do her duty for the family. Her recently married cousin Catalina has sent an odd, urgent letter to the family, pleading for someone to save her—but from what? When Noemí visits her new marital home High Place, a remote and lavish estate built by ill-treated mine workers, she discovers her cousin's predicament is worse than she feared: her husband is a brute, her father-in-law a terror, the staff deeply hostile, and even the house itself seems set against her—and worse, determined to entrap her. No spoilers here, but if you like the sound of a deeply strange and spine-tingling read about a smart heroine who saves herself, this is the book for you. Excellent on audio. More info →
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Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep

Author:
A couple of readers I trust told me I could probably handle this sci-fi/horror novel. They were right, and I suspect the far-fetched premise helped me persevere (and enjoy!) the scariest heart-pounding scenes. Here's the deal: Mermaids are real, but they are not like Ariel. Some researchers believe this with their whole heart and have made studying these mermaids, or sirens, their life's work. Others are deeply skeptical, but regardless what camp they're in, a huge swath of the scientific community is about to set sail on another voyage to the Mariana Trench, a follow-up to a seven years earlier voyage that ended in tragedy, with everyone on board lost at sea. No one is exactly sure why; skeptics called the whole thing a hoax. Both the siren skeptics and the true believers are about to discover mermaids are very real—and it will be a miracle if anyone gets out of there alive. More info →
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Plain Bad Heroines

Plain Bad Heroines

It’s 1902 at the Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara are deeply in love and they’re obsessed with the writer Mary MacLane, who wrote a scandalous bestselling memoir the girls take very seriously. When they meet in a nearby apple orchard, things go horribly wrong—and legend has it the place has been haunted ever since. More than a hundred years later, three women are brought together to make a film about the ghostly happenings at Brookhants, and things once again go horribly wrong. While some scenes were definitely unsettling, I wouldn’t call it frightening—though I will never think about yellow jackets in the same way again. More info →
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The Other Black Girl

The Other Black Girl

Full of twists, turns, and biting social commentary, this highly original (and highly discussable) debut novel will leave you with your jaw on the floor. Editorial assistant Nella Rogers is thrilled when Wagner Books hires another Black woman. Finally, she won’t be the sole Black voice at the publisher, she won’t endure microaggressions alone, and maybe she’ll even make some progress on her stalled-out racial diversity efforts. But new hire Hazel doesn’t turn out to be the ally and friend she expected. Meanwhile, threatening notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk, saying LEAVE WAGNER NOW. The atmosphere grows ever creepier as Nella tries to befriend Hazel, while surreptitiously investigating her past. The ending left me gobsmacked: I was desperate to discuss it with a fellow reader asap. (For more about this book, listen to One Great Book volume 5 book 6 and the mildly spoilery Patreon bonus episode 112: Buddy reading The Other Black Girl with Shannan & Shawntaye.) More info →
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Leave the World Behind

Leave the World Behind

Author:
My exact words to my husband Will: This book is WILD. Similar to his last book That Kind of Mother, this new novel features two families whose lives suddenly become intertwined. Amanda and Clay splurge and rent a house on Long Island for a getaway; they couldn’t be happier to spend time with their teen son and daughter away from the city. But late one night, a knock on the door interrupts their pleasant getaway. Ruth and G.H., an older Black couple, own the Long Island house, and beg their short-term tenants to let them crash in the basement. There’s a blackout in the city—not the first they’ve experienced, but this one feels more threatening, somehow—and they’ve come to seek shelter at the safest place they can think of: their second home. Each couple grapples with whether or not to trust the other, while questioning what is happening in the city, whether they are safe here, and what to do next. Psst—they’re not safe, and no one knows what to do. I’d give this an eight-line edit if I could. More info →
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The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House

Author:
Shirley Jackson’s stories have a way of sticking with you. (I still have a visceral memory of reading The Lottery in high school!) This creepy tale is no exception. An occult scholar invites guests to Hill House, searching for proof of whether it’s really haunted. Are the ghosts real, or only in their heads? Jackson leaves it to the reader to decide. More info →
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The Sun Down Motel

The Sun Down Motel

Described by readers as both mystery and horror, this is a suspenseful dual timeline story. In 1982, Viv winds up in Fell, NY, takes a night clerk position at a seedy motel, and becomes curious about the young women who were murdered in the unassuming small town. 35 years later her niece Carly wants to find out what happened to her aunt and takes a night clerk position at the same hotel, where she quickly learns things are not as they seem. The haunted motel is as much a character as Viv and Carly, and the pages practically turned themselves as the mystery unfolded with palpable dread across the two timelines. This propulsive, atmospheric read was just the right amount of spooky for me, but as I mentioned to Valencia Taylor in WSIRN episode 255, the cigarette smoke freaked me out. More info →
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White Smoke

White Smoke

I’m a longtime fan of Jackson’s YA thrillers; this haunted house story is her foray into horror. It’s also at the upper limits of what this wimpy reader can handle—this book gets pretty scary in places! But it worked for me. Described as The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out, Marigold is looking for a fresh start when her newly blended family moves to Cedarville. This move is supposed to give them a fresh start, but Mari can’t help but get the sense that they’re not wanted in Cedarville—and on top of that, her new home gives her the creeps. This book reminded me of Alyssa Cole's When No One Is Watching. I expect many wimps like me will enjoy this book—but if you have any kind of phobia involving bed bugs or dark basements, you may want to opt for a different title on this list. More info →
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Do you have any wimp-friendly horror novels to recommend? Please share them in comments!

P.S. 31 spooky (but not too scary) books for your fall reading listand 7 spooky (not scary) short story collections.

12 horror novels for wimps

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  1. bonni E mcshane says:

    Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix. It’s Into the Drowning deeps meets an Ikea catalog. Spooky, funny and so unbelievable you can’t really be THAT scared. But definitely spooked.

    • angie says:

      Great reco and one where the aesthetic adds to the pleasure. Another one from Hendrix to try is My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Totally different setting with a similar vibe, tone, and complementary aesthetic. Like Horrorstor, it’s approachably macabre with a sense of humor and an especially special treasure for 80s kids or fans.

      • Edie says:

        I couldn’t stop reading Hendrix’ The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I ignored my family for a day and a half after impulsively picking it up at the library. Funny and creepy and I couldn’t put it down. I meant to binge on his other titles but got distracted by other books. Glad for the reminder and suggestions here!

  2. Jayme Grubb says:

    The Missing Years by Lexie Elliot is very atmospheric, kind of spooky and creepy but won’t give you nightmares. It’s similar to The Haunting of Hill House in that you’re never sure whether it’s something supernatural or human going on. The ending is fast-paced and very satisfying. The audiobook is excellent, for anyone who usually listens.

  3. Jana Griner says:

    How We Became Wicked by Alexander Yates. This is YA and it’s about a type of pandemic that has to do with insects. It made me laugh, I loved the characters, but I was also VERY creeped out by the people who became “wicked”. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  4. Lisa Rose says:

    I recommend following Leave the Word Behind with Station Eleven by Emily St. John. I felt it’s the “what happened next” I was left wondering about.

    • Debi Z says:

      That’s interesting. I did not like Leave the World Behind because I really wanted more of an ending. I enjoyed Station Eleven, but I read it about a year earlier. I might have to reread in your order 🙂

  5. Patti Kush says:

    Now I want to know what the 8 or so lines were in Leave the World Behind. Apparently I’m not as easily shocked since I don’t remember what you are referring to. Maybe it’s because I am rarely able to visualize what I am reading so maybe that helps me not be as shocked and not remember it! (I took a quiz and I am very close to having aphantasia, but don’t have it since I can sometimes visualize if I try hard enough)

    • Caroline says:

      I’m trying to remember those lines too! I think I know what scene Anne is talking about but I can’t remember details.

  6. Ann says:

    I love the old black and white movie version of The Haunting with Julie Harris in the role of Eleanor. I watched it countless times as a child.
    Not to be confused with a crazy later version with Catherine Zeta Jones.

    The Turn of The Screw is so good!! Again, great movie version, retitled The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr.

    Both totally worth checking out.
    Sorry, but Mexican Gothic really stinks. The nicest thing I can say about it is, I liked the cover.

    I think all of Stephen King’s scary books are great. Maybe too scary though??! My favorite of his is The Body. Before he started pumping out all the others.

    Rebecca is creepy as is Jane Eyre.

    I keep hearing about a new release The Lighthouse Witches, that sounds good, but my library doesn’t have it yet.

  7. Lori Janeway says:

    Thanks Anne for this list! I too am an HSP and a wimp, but I love choosing a book that’s just a little creepy in October! Gosh which one will I choose? This is going to be fun!

  8. Terry V says:

    Our book club read Mexican Gothic. My review was creepy, wicked and gross! Not my favorite read, but I was compelled to finish it, because I had to know the ending!!! It got me to thinking…have I read horror before? The only thing I could come up with was The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. I read this one as a teenager and remember it creeped me out.

    • Maria D. says:

      I too would love some suggestions for non-wimps! Some of my favorite “spookier” reads are World War Z by Max Brooks and The Shining by Stephen King. I’d love some more recommendations!

  9. Michelle K says:

    I just finished reading another of Simone St. James’ novels, The Broken Girls. I would also classify it as horror lite. Plus, I cannot resist a boarding school novel 😉

  10. Caroline says:

    The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell— so deliciously spooky! Also, in the real and actual horror category, The Fold and 14, both by Peter Clines. I stumbled on the audio book version of 14 and loved it, even though some scenes were too much for me and then moved on to The Fold. Horror is not my genre but these were weird and fun and had amazing narration.

  11. Jo Yates says:

    The Passage is definitely not for wimps! I had trouble sleeping, imagining virals flying in during the night. But I finished it, and the 2 sequels. Horror show was fun!

      • Kristin says:

        I would not recommend Grady Hendrix for wimps, at least not his latest, Final Girls Support Group. I’m almost done with it, and I’m enjoying it, but the violence is pretty graphic. There is more humor in his Southern Vampire book, but it has some icky parts. I’d recommend anything by Neil Gaiman. Charlaine Harris vampire series is fun and not too scary.

        • Jennie Gist says:

          Oh yes, THAT Grady Hendrix! I read his Southern Vampire book, finished it quickly and thought, WHAT did I just read? Not at all my usual, but I guess I enjoyed it.:D

  12. Sarah Lewis says:

    Something wicked this way comes by Ray Bradbury is beautiful, spooky, tender, thought-provoking and the perfect October read. I don’t read horror or gore, and this has none of that, but it is perfectly spooky along with being so very meaningful. I read it every October.

    • Alison says:

      The last couple of years I’ve read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow aloud to our kids in October. We loved it! This year I am reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

  13. Marie says:

    Love this category – it’s me! Adding to the list, 2 fav YA authors from my childhood: Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Headless Cupid, The Egypt Game) and Lois Duncan. I happened to pick up Lois Duncan – “Locked In Time” at a free library and was surprised at how good it was! About a teen girl trapped at an old estate with her stepmother and something supernatural is going on. BTW, my husband and I discovered The Hazel Wood through our teen daughter and Anne’s recommendation – one of the few books that all 3 of us loved.

    • Ashley says:

      Yes to The Headless Cupid and The Egypt Game! I loved those books when I was in middle school and I’ve re-read them as an adult and even purchased my own copies for my library. Even thinking about them gives me all the nostalgic feels.

  14. Anjanette says:

    The short stories of Daphne Du Maurier are pretty creepy. Not scary, really. She wrote The Birds, which is what Hitchcock based his film off of.

  15. Nanci says:

    The Passage was so compelling that I read all three books in the series. Cronin is a gripping writer. I am a total wimp, but loved these. They are unlike anything I have ever read!

  16. Lee Ann says:

    The Passage and its sequels are some of my favorite books. Content warning, though: one of the characters is an abuse survivor and some of that is described somewhat graphically.

  17. Ashley says:

    I read coralline in grade school and it was straight up traumatizing… I didn’t sleep for weeks! But I should give it another chance as an adult. I bet it’s good. I read we have always loved in the castle and Frankenstein last year at Halloween and both were good. We have always lived in the castle made me feel quite uneasy when I finished it. I can’t decide if that means I should or shouldn’t read the haunting of hill house LOL.

  18. Mary Lou says:

    If you’re a wimp, I must be a super wimp. I remember reading The Haunting of Hill House many years ago, at night, and being scared out of my wits. It is a good book, though.

  19. Tasha says:

    I am a huge fan of Christopher Beuhlman’s works. He’s classified as horror, but I’d call it horror-lite or medium-lite. His werewolf book: Those Across the River; his vampire books: The Lesser Dead and the Suicide Motor Club; his witch/necromancer book: The Necromancer’s House; his historical plague/demons/angels book: Between Two Fires; and his most recent, which is classified as fantasy but has some creepy elements: The Blacktongue Thief. He deserves more love from readers!

  20. Joy Shelden says:

    I LOVE Coraline!!! I own Turn of the Screw, but I’ve been too scared to read it. I HATE being scared, but I do like classics such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde. I love this list! I’ll definitely be reading these books.

  21. Kara` says:

    I read The Turn of the Screw last October (and survived!). This fall I’m reading The Haunting of Hill House. Wish me luck!

    Among the Shadows is a collection of short stories by L.M. Montgomery that contains all the creepiness a wimp like me could hope for. I recommend it!

  22. Stephanie says:

    I’m flummoxed by the inclusion of The Other Black Girl on this list! It’s definitely not horror (in my opinion, it barely registers in the thriller category). And on top of that, I thought it was kind of terrible. Maybe if they make it into a movie they’ll clean up what I thought was a disjointed ending (and a bit of a let down) and that might make it feel more horror? I don’t know…I had been so excited to read it based on hype from others and just really felt let down. Maybe it’s just me, but I am surprised at how often it’s showing up on lists (not just on this site).

  23. Kelli Roberts says:

    Edgar Allan Poe is always good at this time of year. His stories like The Tell-tale Heart are just long enough to give a dose of spookiness without overdoing it.

  24. JoAnn Moran says:

    I have read five of the books on the list, and they are great suggestions. Might I suggest Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. It’s one of my favorite “gentle” horror novels.

    • Sarah Lewis says:

      Joann, YES!! This is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s spooky in a gentle way and the story is so tender and meaningful. I read it every October!

  25. Tonya says:

    Shirley Jackson also has a book about the Salem Witch Trials, The Witchcraft of Salem Village. The audiobook is very engaging.

  26. Kat says:

    I loved the Sun Down Motel – I’m a suck for past/present mysteries and I found this had the perfect blend of mystery and creepiness. I would also recommend The Dead Zone by Stephen King – it’s a very different tone from his other horror books.

  27. Sophie Kersey says:

    Love this list – and the type of book your recommend. My new novel is scary but not overly disturbing, I wonder if it would make the cut?

  28. Darcy says:

    I adore horror so I’m not super wimpy, but the teo I recommend to EVERYONE are Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. Lovecraft Country is called “horror” but it’s really not SCARY, is in fact quite funny in bits, and has an entertaining adventure vibe at times. Book of Lost Things is in the Hazel Wood vein of young adultish dark fairy tales. If I recall there is one faitly graphic sequence, but it’s brief.

  29. Robin says:

    I would add Cackle by Rachel Harrison to this list. It’s really not scary but it’s spooky, and take heed if you have a fear of spiders. I don’t recommend this to anyone who is really scared of spiders. The Thirteenth Tale is a great rec! Helps to know the story of Jane Eyre first – I think you get more out of it. And The Woman in the Mirror by Rebecca James is a good one. And anything by Laura Purcell – Bone China is a quite creepy. I don’t think she gets enough love in the US.

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