IT Stephen King, Signet, 1987
You probably know someone who has coulrophobia, an unreasonable fear of clowns, and King’s 1987 novel does nothing to assuage that terror. The title being, a shape-shifter and the source of horror for seven kids who carry their monster-under-the-bed nightmares into adulthood, manifests frequently as Pennywise, a leering clown who intrudes into their dreams and waking lives. Told in two time periods, the novel looks at the creepiness behind the seemingly ordinary. The TV mini-series wasn’t bad either.
RED DRAGON Thomas Harris, Berkeley, 1981
A breathless thriller about a driven FBI profiler chasing a mysterious serial killer known only as the Tooth Fairy, Red Dragon may not strike anyone as a horror story at first glance. But Harris’s narrative is basically a freight train speeding into the darkest corners of the human psyche, pitting damaged people against one another with no guarantees of a happy ending. It’s the textbook definition of horror: it sees into you, grabs your softest parts and twists. Harris wrote this before he turned Hannibal Lecter into a superhero. Here, the Tooth Fairy is simply the most dangerous creature on earth.
THE RUINS Scott Smith, Knopf, 2006
The premise – six tourists meet death by plants in Mexico’s Yucatan – sounds silly: Little Shop Of Horrors meets Hostel. But in clear, nuanced prose, Smith (A Simple Plan) makes his characters – four Americans, a German and a Greek, each of them carefully defined – and their choices utterly believable. And buried in here is a message about the consequences of global warming, not to mention that age-old theme of blood sacrifice. No surprise I haven’t visited Mexico since.
NEVER LET ME GO Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf, 2005
This story of young clones with a life-saving mission over which they have no control is frightening precisely because the kids seem so normal, attending a school that’s like any other private enclave, except…. Tapping Ishiguru’s exquisite craft, the novel’s first pages have a weirdly disorienting effect until the penny drops – in what is one of the most breathtaking reveals in all of fiction – and the devastating truth comes out. You still want to root for the characters, though, which makes this story not only horrifying but terribly sad.
SUSAN G. COLE
UNDER THE SKIN Michel Faber, Harcourt, 2000
If you’ve already seen Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film adaptation of Under The Skin starring Scarlett Johansson, read the book anyway. It’s entirely different. The premises are the same: an alien kidnaps Scots from the streets of Glasgow and its surrounding hills. But while the film languishes in Scotland’s grimy post-industrial wasteland, the novel reveals much more about what happens to her victims stashed away below.