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Required Reading: Books Scarier than the Movies They Inspired

While we here at Powell's are always up for a good horror flick, many of the most iconic scary movies were adapted from books. And no amount of special effects, creepy soundtracks, and camera tricks can outdo a chilling story written by a master. Below is our selection of books that trump their film adaptations in the fear department. While you might not find all of these books in the horror section, spooky mansions and supernatural forces aren't the only things that keep us up at night.

÷ ÷ ÷

Let the Right One In
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

This book is not only creepy but also much more violent than the film. The film plays up the romance between the two little kids, which is downplayed in the book. What makes the book so disturbing is the fact that this little girl is a bloodsucking fiend whose childlike innocence is being taken advantage of by her elder male companion. To say their relationship is inappropriate would be an understatement.
Nicolette L.
Also chosen by Brian B. and Desiree

The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

The 1963 movie of this book, with its perfect casting of the late Julie Harris as the fragile, doomed Eleanor, is one of my all-time favorite spook flicks, but it still does not capture the incredible malevolence and inexplicability of a place gone very, very bad. That was the genius of the novel.
Susan C.

On the Beach
by Nevil Shute

Forget bumps in the night — is anything really scarier than certain death and the apocalypse? Written in 1947 and filmed in 1949, and again in 2000, On the Beach is a psychological novel about the human response to impending doom. Atomic war has come, and a group of survivors in southern Australia watch as city by city, nation by nation goes dark as the fallout makes its way down toward them. As the situation grows darker, some go crazy and some take refuge in routine — and others in unbridled hedonism. The dread and hopelessness intensify with every turn of the page, cranking up the anxiety even though we know how this ends — there will be no survivors. It's the only book I've ever had a nightmare about after finishing.
Patrick D.

by Stephen King

Of course, Misery the movie is fabulous; Kathy Bates can do no wrong. But in the book, every brutal aspect of Annie Wilkes's psychopathy and horror are just a little more, to quote the book, "oogy." You'll be surprised by what this gosh-darn sweet lady can do to all the "dirty birds" she meets. Two words: farm equipment.
Jordan G.

The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill

Atmospheric, dreary, hallucinatory. This is a story told with an English sensibility of calmness set against a backdrop of impending horror. You can see it coming, but logic tells you it can't be real. No blood, no gore, just terrifying imagery and psychological shivers. However, the 2012 movie starring Daniel Radcliffe... not remotely scary or entertaining.
Rebeca K.

John Dies at the End
by David Wong

If you're a fan of the movie, this book has everything you loved about it: the gut-wrenchingly funny juxtaposition of lowbrow humor and surrealism, the gore, the impending sense of doom that soaks the narrative until you're coated in a sticky quagmire of horror and humor. All of that is here only amped up by a factor of at least 10. What the movie misses the mark on is the sense of existential dread that permeates the book, making this a novel that is haunting and genuinely scary instead of just being mostly weird and funny like the film.
Brian S.

by Stephen King

Far more intense than the movie, Stephen King's It is structured to create great suspense. The book emphasizes the hopelessness of the situation — in which unarmed children are up against an unknown, demonic force — along with the relationships developed by the children.
Nick S.

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Akutagawa specialized in acutely observed tales of classical Japan that often skirted the edges of the fantastic. Akiro Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon was adapted from a story included herein, though someone familiar with Kurosawa's work may be surprised to find the spooky, dry-ice ambiance of the source material closer in tone to the director's 1957 film Throne of Blood. Fans of Roberto Bolaño are especially encouraged to try Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
Jesse I.

The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson

Ever since Tina Fey adapted a nonfiction book into the successful Mean Girls, a desperate Hollywood has been hard at play turning serious works of nonfiction into the next goofy romp. While the collision of military black ops and new-age thought, as offered up by Ronson, does have definite moments of hilarity, it should also strike terror into every reader. At first you can't help but laugh, but as the exploration continues, you begin to recognize that the people in charge have lost their minds and are turning to gurus for insight in how to kill people better. The movie goes in for another laugh before you can really get thinking about it.
Benjamin H.

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

Partial spoiler: the part with the cannibals comes out of nowhere and is utterly terrifying. I had planned to get out of bed and brush my teeth before going to sleep that night, but once I had read that part of the book, I was just too scared (to my husband's great annoyance) to do anything so potentially risky.
Suzanne G.

'Salem's Lot
by Stephen King

This book will make your skin crawl! Ever wonder what's lurking in the basement of that creepy house in your town? How about the scariest vampire since Dracula! Not only is he living there but he's also changing everyone in town into his bloodsucking minions.
Jocelyn K.

I Am Legend
by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson is a master of suspenseful storytelling, and I read I Am Legend after seeing the movie and being reminded of the title. The main character and his actions are different in the book, and the overall feel of the book is much more psychologically tense. Parts of the book had me curled up tight in fear, as if I were the one hearing people I once knew chasing me through the encroaching darkness.
Angela G.

by Mary Shelley

After reading Frankenstein, I found it sad how Hollywood destroyed this character. The original novel is nothing near what we have seen on the big screen. It's dark and a macabre reflection of mankind with scenes that made my skin crawl.
Jeff J.

The Shining
by Stephen King

While the movie is very good, the book has so much in it the movie does not that really tells a much more complete, spine-tingling story. Stay out of the boiler room and away from topiary animals!
Gloria M.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Woman in Black (Random House...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. Let the Right One In
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  4. It
    Used Mass Market $6.95
  5. John Dies at the End
    Used Trade Paper $11.50
  6. On the Beach
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  7. Misery
    Used Mass Market $3.95
  8. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
    New Trade Paper $17.00
  9. The Men Who Stare at Goats
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  10. The Road
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  11. The Shining
    Used Mass Market $5.50
  12. I Am Legend
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  13. Frankenstein (Penguin Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  14. 'Salem's Lot New Trade Paper $15.95

5 Responses to "Required Reading: Books Scarier than the Movies They Inspired"

    Erin October 23rd, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Remember the short-story collections: Ray Bradbury's "The October Country"; the Alfred Hitchcock compilation "Stories for Late at Night"; and anything by Robert Bloch.

    Kathy October 31st, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Does anyone else remember The Other by Tom Tryon? That book scared the daylights out of me.

    Beverly October 31st, 2013 at 10:37 am

    I'm SO glad you included I am Legend, by Richard Matheson, I was 'pushed' into reading it and have never been sorry, and no Movie of it has ever done it justice.

    I want to add an old one - The Other - by Thomas Tryon. It scared me so bad, I didn't watch or read horror stories for two decades. It was evil....


    Karen October 31st, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    This hasn't been made into a movie, as far as I know, but Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir's "I Remember You" is a masterpiece of creepiness.

    Elizabeth Stewart December 30th, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Lionel Shriver's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is the story of a kid who's never quite right but slowly and spectacularly spins off the rails. The mounting tension and fear of his next steps is palpable--I could not put this one down.

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