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Top ten literary horrors

Bound & Flogged: From horrifying hypertext to cult pulp, here are the best books for dark days

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky. Check back on our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

Horror fiction is a genre oft-overlooked for its relative subtlety in the face of film; no matter how gory your goriest protagonist sounds, he’s going to seem more horrifying on screen. Still, there’s something to be said for the imagination required of fiction – it’s not so different from the imagination that makes you think you’re being followed, watched, or stalked by an oozing sharp-toothed creature without a face living in the basement of your house.

Horror stories take time. They creep their way into your subconscious, make you forget the difference between what you read and what you imagined, and what you imagined and what is real. From horrifying hypertext to classic cult vampire novels, here are ten works of fiction that keep us unsettled, uncomfortable, and very, very scared. 

Frisk by Dennis Cooper

It doesn’t take much for pornographic themes to ‘cross the line’, but even if it did, Dennis Cooper’s Frisk is fucked up enough to land far, far on the other side. What takes it from shocking to gut-wrenchingly horrific is how deftly Cooper balances insight with fantasy; it’s really hard to tell which is which.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

When the language of their children starts making parents sick—in a richly described creeping, disgusting way, naturally – things are bad. Then they get worse, dystopic-existential-crisis-style. 

The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Unexpected invasions into the private world of happy – or, in this case, resentfully struggling – coupledom are a common trope of horror stories both visual and literary. Koja’s tale of two struggling artists transfixed by a black hole in the floor of their apartment takes the confusion of the coming-of-age to a heart-racing extreme. 

The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot

Obscure to the point of being crazy hard to find a copy, Talbot’s vampire novel is so much more than what that phrase has come to represent, cough, cough. Talbot paints a complex portrait of an immortal society that functions just below the surface of reality, and his writing is stellar. 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Danielewski’s postmodern horror/love story is gripping as a narrative, but what makes House of Leaves stand out is the way it’s told: intentional layout, multiple narrators, and footnotes on footnotes on footnotes create a sense of unease that connects you to the story in a way that’s hard to shake. 

The Dionaea House by Eric Heisserer

This hypertext horror makes use of forms that will induce some noughties nostalgia – can you say ‘AIM transcripts!’? – not to mention the (totally irrational, right?) sense that your life is no longer in your hands. Seriously artful story-telling for the Internet age. You can read it here

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

All the worst shit seems to happen in suburbia. Framed by the protagonist’s past-tense guilt and regret, The Girl Next Door focuses not on the limits of what the human mind can imagine – no gruesome vampire conversions or unimaginable horrors lurking at the bottom of a black hole here. Rather, what’s so upsetting about this book is that it only demonstrates what human beings are actually capable of – and it’s based on a true story. 

White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Another common horror theme is the home that slowly turns on its occupants: what’s more terrifying than something – you don’t know what, exactly – creeping insidiously into your life while you sleep? Here, the house serves as a powerful metaphor for xenophobia in England, but there’s enough psychological thriller to keep you worried about the protagonist’s strange eating disorder, too. 

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

We love a good existential crisis narrative, and McCarthy’s unconventional debut draws a very blurry line between human reality and fantasy that drives home the haunting ambiguity of it all. 

Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones

Written as the three-part installment of a script for a horror film series, Demon Theory has a conventional plot: group of talented kids gets cryptic phone call, heads to a really ill-advised forest location, gets murdered in sequence. But Jones’s graphic, precise prose – and range of pop culture references – makes this one of the most gripping horror stories we know.