Written horror is still my first love, hands down. There’s something visceral about a published piece that you can’t get with a movie.
A Hellbound Heart, or its companion Hellbound Hearts
This list is not written in any particular order. Hellbound Hearts is in my current line of sight, therefore, it’s the first on my list. Clive Barker’s A Hellbound Heart is near the top of my list of ‘fiction that does symbolism really, really well’. If you enjoy modern horror classics (which I really would call Hellraiser) then you need to read the novella that inspired it. If you don’t want to read the original, then at least read Hellbound Hearts which is an anthology of short fiction inspired by Hellraiser.
“The Yellow Wallpaper”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is in fact my favorite piece of symbolic horror and I will go out on a limb and say that it’s one of the best symbolic and feminist horror pieces ever written.
You probably read this piece in high school when it was required reading. Go back and read it, because part of what makes it so effective is that I’m not sure that so much has changed- they may have changed the color of the room and made it a little larger, but I think that her message is still scarily appropriate.
(And this ends my interjection of personal politics for the evening).
Dracula and Carmilla
The granddaddy of all vampire fiction. I think that it goes without saying that if you enjoy sparkly vampires you should probably experience where that genre started.
If you can get your hands on it, read Camilla for the feminine counterpoint.
A Christmas Carol
This one is probably going to make people think that I’ve lost my mind, but I also think that it’s probably not too much of an overexaggeration to say that this is the most familiar ghost story in American popular culture. Dickens has a writing style that’s beautifully wry. You really should read the book.
M R James and HP Lovecraft
The Comte and Durkheim of horror (I will work geekiness into everything if you let me). I will admit that I can handle interpretations of Lovecraft better than his original works, and that it took me years to appreciate James’s work to a level that it deserved, but these two arguably helped shape the face of modern horror. Besides, it takes talent to make octopi and bedsheets scary.
Salem’s Lot or The Shining
I will admit that I’ve been disappointed with a lot of Steven King’s recent work, but these are what I would list as his among his best work. A lot of his short pieces are exceptionally good as well, and you really need to be familiar with what a lot of people would call America’s best horror writer of recent decades.
The Turn of the Screw
Henry James has a knack for ghost stories that’s almost perfectly creepy. This is one of those stories that you’ll recognize because it’s echoed in so many modern works, but probably won’t realize is its own piece. The handling of the theme is wonderfully executed, and personally, I find James to be a lot easier to read than some of his contemporaries.