Michael Marshall Smith’s SF/fantasy novels include Only Forward, described by Clive Barker as an “extraordinary debut”, and Spares. His latest, as Michael Marshall, is the bestselling serial-killer thriller The Straw Men.
1. Dark Feasts by Ramsey Campbell
Any list of top horror books must contain a sprinkling of short story collections because that’s where so much of the genre’s very best work is done. Campbell is one of the field’s true giants and a master of the short form. Elegiac, disturbing and very memorable, this collection of beautifully crafted tales is modern British horror at its very best. Eerie.
2. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
I could fill half this list with King novels, of course, and there are others like The Shining, The Stand and It which perhaps deserve to be here more on individual merit. But Pet Sematary wins the nomination by being the one that disturbed me the most on first reading. Lean, sombre and veined with dread, this is horror, pure and simple. Chilling.
3. Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Many of Straub’s novels are hard to categorise, skating somewhere along the literature/crime/horror boundary. They’re all good, but Ghost Story is more straight-down-the-line horror, a wonderfully subtle and complex tale of the impact of a visitor on a small community. A modern classic.
4. Dead Babies by Martin Amis
Yes, OK, so this isn’t a horror novel as such. But it’s a good example of the kind of more mainstream novel that inhabits much of the same emotional territory while managing to avoid being tarred with the “horror” brush. Check out John Fowles’s The Collector and, of course, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho for other examples. Literary.
5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is perhaps best known for his lyrical science fiction short stories. However, he wrote a lot of stunning horror ones, too – check out The October Country or The Illustrated Man for some great examples. This, one of his relatively few novels, is a charming tale of small-town scares that successfully brings his strengths into the longer form. Old school.
6. Night Shift by Stephen King
Oh, go for it, here’s another King. This was his earliest collection and was one of the first things I read when starting into the genre. Creepy par excellence. Few writers are as skilled at both the long and short form: King walks all over both. Novellas, too, of course – look at Different Seasons for four superb examples, three of which you’ll recognise from the cinema. Masterful.
7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Horror is blessed with a number of great stylists and Jackson is right up there. Both this and We Have Always Lived in the Castle demonstrate an extraordinary ability to evoke disquiet and melancholy from the simplest of things, and to keep gradually racking them up until you think your head will melt. Has one of the greatest opening paragraphs in horror, too. Spooky.
8. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Another matter of definition, this one. Thompson’s a crime writer, without doubt, and this story of a local sheriff out of control is certainly pitched nothing like horror. But as a glimpse into the mind of the dangerous, it’s far more effective than an armful of typical serial killer-style horror novels. Noir.
9. At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft
Lovecraft’s over-the-top verbal styling and unique vision of crawling chaos and dread is one of the gems of the genre. Much of his best work is in his short fiction (collected in several volumes) but this novel set in the Antarctic is my favourite of all. I like to read it on flights to America, so you can look down out of the window and use the icy wastes below as a kind of audio-visual aid… Fetid.
10. Best New Horror, edited by Stephen Jones
I have every single one of these on my shelf. Produced each autumn by an anthologist with an unparalleled knowledge of the field (and a great eye for new talent), this anthology is where you’ll find an up-to-date illustration of the best the horror field is capable of. Scary, well-balanced and classy. The yardstick.