From contemporary ghost stories to intricate murder mysteries and near-future dystopian visions, we present a selection of titles that will strike fear into the heart of even the most hardened reader

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

‘To learn what we fear is to learn who we are,’ noted the imitable Shirley Jackson, an author widely considered one of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century. Of course, Jackson – whose expertise lay in weaving pitch-perfect levels of disquiet throughout her work – was right. And it’s within these deep, dark fears that the best writers, both of classics and contemporary novels, have found their inspiration, often venturing well beyond the confines of the horror genre.

Intrigued by this notion, we turned to our readers to uncover the best of these works. The books you chose – which came from members of our Book Club, our Substack community and social channels – echoed Jackson’s sentiment: not only did you recant eerie tales of things that go bump in the night, but a wealth of chilling stories that explore the shadowy recesses of humanity itself. 

Here, just in time for Halloween, we present the scariest books from the Booker archives, handpicked by you.

The Ghost Road and the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Pat Barker’s acclaimed trilogy and chronicle of the horrors of warfare follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers towards the end of the First World War. Her third volume, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995.

What our readers said: ‘Pat Barker’s historical Regeneration trilogy is pretty darn chilling, in its accounts of young men subjected helplessly to the physical and psychological horrors of WWI. Barker takes into account how political practitioners in WWI pulled all the strings, sending hundreds of thousands to certain death or lifelong injury in a war of unfathomable magnitude. In Regeneration, her first volume, she describes how shell shock shattered soldiers and, scariest of all, how they were treated and then sent back to the muddy, bloody front as a matter of policy. What a nightmare. Many of these men were sexually complex, highly sensitive individuals – war poets feature prominently – whose masculinity should never have been called into question, but it was, by themselves and others. It’s also worth noting that the covers to the first English editions of Regeneration and The Eye in the Door are some of the eeriest.’

Rebecca, Substack

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

In Paul Lynch’s prescient novel, which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, a mother faces a terrible choice. An exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a society on the brink.

What our readers said:Prophet Song scared and disturbed me more than any other book I can recall. I have not stopped thinking about it. The slow descent of the family from suburban normality into a situation that is simultaneously horrifically unimaginable and yet completely believable at the hands of a totalitarian extreme right-wing regime - the idea that this could happen to anyone and any family at any time is far scarier and more disturbing than any ghost story or gruesome horror in my mind! Masterfully written; one bit made me gasp out loud in anguish, such was the investment I had in the characters in this story. I have thought about it every single day since I read it - a rarity in my experience.’

Ruth Ellen Drake, Facebook

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1992, Patrick McCabe’s novel is a true journey into the heart of darkness. Here, he portrays the descent into madness of a young killer in small-town Ireland in the 1960s, through his narrator’s stream of consciousness. 

What our readers said: ‘The most terrifying place to be was inside the mind of the Butcher Boy, so brilliantly created for us by Patrick McCabe. Such a heartbreaking view of an abused child slipping from reality and being overcome by mental illness. Part of the horror was not being able to reach him and save him and his victim.’

Christine Tindall, Substack

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novel, which is shadowed by the supernatural, two strangers wake up in the same bed after a bicycle crash. Complications, of both heart and head, ensue. When it was shortlisted for the prize in 1990, it was Fitzgerald’s fourth nomination, which came after her win in 1979 for Offshore

What our readers said:The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald contains a terrific ghost story, told by a character based on M R James. There’s an unreal, nightmare-like quality to it, with terrible visions described in very matter-of-fact terms. It’s wonderfully unsettling.’

Sixhundredandfifty, Substack

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay 

The nostalgia in Shena Mackay’s unsettling evocation of a 1950s childhood is stifled when innocence is damaged by domestic violence and sexual abuse. Achingly sad, the 1996 Booker Prize-shortlisted title was heralded as one of the best novels of the nineties – and Mackay’s best work.

What our readers said: ‘Shena Mackay is one of my favourite authors. Her books are short but really pack a lot in them. The Orchard on Fire was the first of hers I read. The protagonist, April is the epitome of childhood innocence and you really feel for her when people she trusted let her down. I think it’s so scary that April’s naivety could be pounced on, taken advantage of in a small village with parents not realising what is happening to their own daughter. However, it is a timeless tale and despite its 1950s setting there are echoes of what happens to vulnerable children today.’ 

Debra Cresswell, Substack

The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay

From the very first chapter with its grotesque depiction of a certain death, I knew that this book would not disappoint

— A Substack reader on Flying to Nowhere by John Fuller

Flying to Nowhere by John Fuller

On a desolate island monastery in the Middle Ages, pilgrims are going missing one by one. This hauntingly strange and lyrical novel takes readers far beyond the standard conventions of a murder mystery, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1983.

What our readers said: ‘From the very first chapter with its grotesque depiction of a certain death, I knew that this book would not disappoint. Being a fan of the Gothic, this one is of the highest order, albeit a very literary one, as evidenced by the almost poetic language, unique characters with very dubious motives, and a pitch-perfect evocation of atmosphere (a well that swallows people, what more could you ask for?) all leading to a terrific conclusion. A perfect little gem in a truly extraordinary year.’

Walid El-hosseiny, The Booker Prize Book Club

Flying to Nowhere by John Fuller

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilika

A whodunnit with a difference, Shehan Karunatilaka’s rip-roaring epic is a searing, mordantly funny satire set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war. It was only Karunatilika’s second novel, and won the Booker Prize in 2022.

What our readers said: ‘For me, it would be The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, a book that exposes the brutality of conflict in Sri Lanka, a country close to my own home and explores the fragility of life. The scariest bit was the fact that the protagonist was dead but still not really dead. Ugh, what strife and agony!’

Anagha Shukla, Substack

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022, this is a collection of short stories that straddle the boundaries of sci-fi, magical realism and horror, while dabbling in the supernatural, which Chung has laced with an overarching, fable-like narrative. 

What our readers said: ‘I’d say Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung has some spine-chilling short stories, as well as some more absurd ones. I love ‘The Head’, in which an (evil?) head pops out of someone’s toilet one day. The short story ‘Cursed Bunny’ is absolutely the scariest of them all.

Brecht Vissers, Substack

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

In this haunting story of broken souls, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this taut, unsettling ghost story for the real world. The novel was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2017.

What our readers said: ‘A surreal, weird, hallucinating and perfectly structured ghost story!’

EST, Substack

Fever Dream

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Another deceptively simple story from Penelope Fitzgerald where a 500-year-old damp-infested building begins to take on a life of its own. Longlisted in 1978, Fitzgerald’s book is a black comedy laced with Shirley Jackson levels of unease.

What our readers said: ‘While there are many, I would like to mention Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. Growing up in the world of literature, we all have dreamt about opening a bookshop but what if that dream comes true? As you’re finally trying to enjoy that life, the place you’ve opened comes to life. This book was able to make me rethink that dream. A must-read!’

Chittajit Mitra, Substack

The Bookshop

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

For a quintessential ghost story, look no further than Sarah Waters’ postwar set The Little Stranger, where things go bump in the night from within the crumbling Hundreds Hall. Like many great ghost stories, much of The Little Stranger’s terror is psychological rather than physical, and it’s this suffocating sense of disquiet that consumes the family from within, where the novel thrives. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

What our readers said:The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - genuinely chilling. And I know an almost identical house built by the same architect: used to spend time there as a kid.’

Sharon Bakar, Substack

Some of our readers’ answers have been edited or abridged for clarity. 

The Little Stranger