The 21 Best Horror Books of the 21st Century

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Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist


2004

John Ajvide Lindqvist gets compared to Stephen King a lot (some editions of his work have King's name repeated more times on the covers than Lindqvist's), but Sweden's reigning horror king has a depth of terror and emotion all his own. Let the Right One In, known to wider audiences thanks to both the Swedish film adaptation and the American remake, Let Me In, is as much a story of adolescent isolation as it is the defining modern work of vampire fiction (sorry, Twilight). Bullied preteen Oskar isn't just frightened when teens in his small town start ending up dead—he's excited, believing that vengeance has finally come to his tormentors, potentially in the form of a mysterious girl who has moved in next door with a suspicious older man. And while both films are worthy takes on Lindqvist's story, Let the Right One In truly sings when given nearly 500 pages to breathe. —Steve Foxe

Lisey's Story by Stephen King


2006

Stephen King is fairly infamous for crafting protagonists who just happen to be bestselling authors with beautiful wives, but it wasn't until 2006's Lisey's Story that King gave the wife a turn in the spotlight. Lisey's Pulitzer Prize-winning husband has been dead for two years when her story begins, but his ghost (metaphorically) haunts her. At the prompting of a nosey academic, Lisey finally sorts through her husband's remaining papers, revealing secrets even a 25-year marriage couldn't uncover. Much of Lisey's Story, written as a sort of love letter to King's wife, Tabitha, reads like a non-genre domestic drama, which makes the moments of horror—and romance—that much more affecting. —Steve Foxe

The Missing by Sarah Langan


2007

It's a bit of a shock whenever Sarah Langan makes a modern-day reference in 2007's The Missing; the novel feels so purely derived from the stomach-churning legacy of the '80s horror boom. Langan, who nabbed Bram Stoker Awards for this novel and 2009's Audrey's Door, sets her story of a looming cannibal apocalypse in a familiar state for horror fans—Maine—constructing vignettes around schoolteachers, hospital workers and librarians piecing together that something is happening. Langan never nails down the source of the plague—there are suggestions both scientific and supernatural—but she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. Those seeking a happy ending or purely likable characters need not apply. —Steve Foxe

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill


2013

If Heart-Shaped Box is notable for deftly avoiding Stephen King's overt influence, NOS4A2 marks the point at which Joe Hill embraced his father's quirks—and emerged all the better for it. Arriving after the solid, compact and not particularly scary Horns, NOS4A2 revs its engines in a nostalgic opening that quickly turns into The Christmas Chain Saw Massacre. When Vic McQueen hops onto her bike, she has a special way of finding things. When Charlie Manx gets into his vintage Rolls-Royce, he's able to transport his young passengers to "Christmasland." And when the two collide after Vic becomes the first child to escape Charlie's yuletide hellhole, Hill unravels more than 700 pages of pure horror. —Steve Foxe

The Passage by Justin Cronin


2010

The Passage is often misrepresented as merely a vampire novel—or a zombie novel or a post-apocalyptic contagion novel—but it's so many things at once. Terrifying throughout its suspenseful crescendos, it combines the disorientation of 28 Days Later, the life-or-death urgency of The Walking Dead and even some of the supernatural dazzle of X-Men. As the start of a trilogy, its scope is admittedly grand; this book chronicles 90 years in which colonies of healthy humans must fight against infected humans turned vampyric. The Passage boasts a meticulous attention to detail, effectively raising heart-rates as we follow characters who are being hunted by man and monster alike. —Jeff Milo

Savaging the Dark by Christopher Conlon


2014

Christopher Conlon's all-too-possible Savaging the Dark shares a premise with Alissa Nutting's controversial Tampa, but the differences in execution are what makes this novel truly horrific and Nutting's more of a pitch-black comedy. Conlon's narrator, Mona Straw, slowly unravels while carrying out an affair…with her 11-year-old student. Whereas Tampa introduced an admitted predator from the first page, Conlon takes care to build a believable case for how Mona justifies her taboo actions, even as her control of the situation—and her sanity—slip out of her grasp. Of all the novels on this list, Savaging the Dark may be the scariest if only because of its plausibility. —Steve Foxe

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes


2013

While horror has always flourished on the small-press scene, Lauren Beaukes is helping to forge a continued legacy for the genre at major publishers as well. The Shining Girls is a serial killer novel unlike any other, as Harper Curtis discovers a house in Depression-era Chicago that opens its doors to other times—and comes with a kill list of "shining girls" destined to die at his hand. Kirby is the last name on the list, and the only one who survived Harper's first murder attempt. As in her exceptional follow-up, Broken Monsters, South African novelist Beukes weaves together a diverse cast of characters and just enough science fiction to complicate her premise without distracting from the horror at hand. —Steve Foxe

The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved by Joey Comeau


2014

Joey Comeau's first horror outing, One Bloody Thing After Another, is perhaps creepier and more unsettling than this summer-camp slasher. But The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved gets the nod for importing the genre from film into prose while layering in subtle, smart commentary on our thirst for teen blood. Eleven-year-old Martin is used to entrails—his mother does special-effect makeup for horror movies—but would like to keep his inside of his body. A maniac employed at his bible camp has other intentions. The title of Comeau's previous novel would have worked here just as well: the gory killings are one bloody thing after the other, stacking up as a reminder that we've created a prolific genre around watching kids get murdered in inventive ways. —Steve Foxe

The Terror by Dan Simmons


2007

From Song of Kali and Carrion Comfort to a host of sci-fi classics, Dan Simmons is no stranger to lengthy literary outings. But the last decade found the author hitting his stride with immersive historical horror fiction, the best of which is the story of the HMS Terror's failed search for the Northwest Passage. While most of the horrors awaiting the ship's crew are all-too-real—shrinking rations, scurvy, bitter cold—there's a looming supernatural presence driving the survivors farther from civilization and any hope of rescue. —Steve Foxe

Under the Dome by Stephen King


2009

This may be a controversial pick—you could make a strong case for the overly sentimental Doctor Sleep, the half-great Revival or even the totally decent Duma Key—but this hefty story of a town cut off from the world by a mysterious invisible force field is pure King. At his best, the prolific scribe puts a magnifying glass to ordinary people's reactions to extraordinary situations, and finding your community trapped with itself certainly qualifies as extraordinary. Rather than haunted hotels, vampires or extra-dimensional clowns, Under the Dome relies on the darkest impulses of humanity to conjure its scares. —Steve Foxe

World War Z by Max Brooks


2006

So many of our favorite zombie romps stay within a narrowed scope, like zombies in a shopping mall or zombies in a bioengineering laboratory. The scariest part comes after, when we imagine what a zombie plague will mean for the rest of the world. Max Brooks expanded his scope to the entire globe, telling his hauntingly realistic story as though it were a United Nations commissioned report following a war against the "walkers." World War Z demonstrates that it can be infinitely disturbing to gain chapter-sized surveys of zombie-infested locations by way of interviews with a diverse cast of characters. The image of walking corpses wading their ghastly way across depths of the sea floor will haunt you. —Jeff Milo