Why do we like reading horror books so much? Is it because of the adrenaline rush they bring us as an already gut-wrenching plot is twisted beyond the realm of possibility? Or is it because it gets us shook in what we call ‘visceral’ terms? Maybe it is the allure of the unknown and all the questions that remain unanswered to date?

Perhaps we are just self-destructive creatures and hate to have a good night’s sleep? Or we are competitive and just want to prove our resilience to fear?

Our compulsive appetite for risk makes us want to live on the edge, even if for just a few hours before bedtime. It could probably be because we like the illusion that we are smarter than the protagonist and could have maneuvered the maze better? (great for the ego, am I right?)

It is also interesting to see how our idea of fear, which is, as a matter of fact, a primal emotion hardwired in our emotive structure, has changed over the years. Once upon a time horror meant ghosts in ugly whites, and the stereotypical satanic demons.

The genre now sees the manifestation and allegories in the representation of what triggers emotions of fear: from mental disorders to monotony: everything is depicted as a potentially scary subject in the new-age psychological horror.

To let you traverse through the uneven terrain (full of devils, and ghosts and other unknown elements), we present to you a cheat sheet, or better yet, a checklist, if you will.

The Classics

The books you HAVE to read to understand the original, untainted definition of horror. Here goes:

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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You may have heard of this book as a steady inspiration for films across genres. And I know for sure, that you have at some point in your childhood, equated Frankenstein with ‘monster’. That’s what a classic does: it stays a generic name for the whole product line. It is an important ancestor in the genre, whose story goes like this: Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts out of curiosity of the impact of animating a dead body. As luck (and cliché) would have it, Frankenstein’s creation gets rogue. The book ends up doing more than scare you: it provokes existential questions as fodder for your contemplation.

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Here’s the pioneer in the now-hackneyed plot of gothic horror. Broker Jonathan Harker is hired by Count Dracula for the purchase of a London house. Only, Harker will now discover horrifying facts about his client and his castle.

Like Frankenstein, this book is provocative too and uncovers layers of questions about truth, sexuality etc. Needless to say, this is where all your vampires come for lessons!

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by RL Stevenson

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Another gothic novella by Scottish author RL Stevenson, this isn’t the obvious horror. Stevenson always leaves the scope of interpretation with his novels: the basic premise revolves around how Dr. Jekyll, the seemingly harmless person has an evil inner self.

4. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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If I tell you this story is about two boys unraveling secrets in a carnival, the plot might seem very absurd, like a Scooby-Doo mystery. But it is the same plot: Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has come to Green Town, Illinois, and these two boys have a nightmarish adventure.

The Contemporary

These are relatively fresh off the press, and so is the fear they produce.

1. The King of Horror – Stephen King

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We cannot possibly pick up one best book by the emperor of horror fiction. To name a few of the masterpieces: The Shining, It, The Stand, Misery. The last one also won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, so you get the idea. If you are into series, The Dark Tower is a must read

2. The Other Side by Faraaz Kazi and Vivek Banerjee

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We need to acknowledge Indian products in the genre that don’t adhere to the clichés. Macabre characters, eerie events, uncanny places, supernatural beliefs, horrible scenarios left unexplained, sinister ramifications…all the ingredients in just the right measure, across a variety of stories in this collection of short stories. Even though at one point, one character goes, “ghosts, evil spirits are by-products of a fanciful imagination. These are cooked up tales to usurp the property in the long run.”

3. Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

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Palahniuk creates the most complex plots (remember Fight Club?) The stories in the book are basically people’s response to an ad headlined ‘Artists Retreat: Abandon your life for three months’. I think I will leave it at that.

4. Slade House by David Mitchell

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Slade House is every mom’s nightmare…not the novel, but the house. It is that quintessential house that your mom told you not to go inside, but you did anyway. Here’s that story.

Not a child’s play horror

Why they say it is children’s fiction is beyond me, because I have been more scared of some of these stories as a functional adult more than I was, as an ignorant kid.

1. Goosebumps series by RL Stine

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You are just lying if you say that Goosebumps wasn’t the definition of horror in your childhood! Granted, not all the stories evoked as many goosebumps as the others, but it was definitely our introduction to spooky stories.

Other recommendations in children’s horror fiction

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Coraline and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, The Creakers by Tom Fletcher. Gaiman, the master storyteller, for example, gets really bizarre: an entire family is murdered, and the toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

The Genre-defying

They are contemporary, but also play with the supernatural. They can be bizarre, macabre, and yet ordinary.

1. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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If bizarre and creepy is what you are looking for as a sub-genre of horror, this is your pick. This book isn’t your usual straightforward horror story. You solve the puzzle, cross the hurdles and the labyrinth.

Interesting, I say, as I feel a shiver down my spine.

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