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
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 about of spooky for me, but as I mentioned to Valencia Taylor in WSIRN episode 255
, the cigarette smoke freaked me out. More info →
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 →
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 list, and 7 spooky (not scary) short story collections.
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