The bestselling horror books of all time are an elite group of frightening tales that have become pop culture staples. Unsurprisingly, Stephen King reigns supreme on bestseller lists and practically has his own section in this post. You’ll also find several classics on this list — titles that have stood the test of time and crept folks out for centuries.
Of course, for many years, publishing has offered limited opportunities for people from marginalized groups, so the bestseller lists have been dominated by white men for a very long time. (Seriously, does Stephen King ever sleep?) Of course, there are exceptions like horror queens Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson. Still, to counteract some of this historical bias, I’ve included a section of popular horror from writers of color.
Now for a disclaimer. I have learned so much since I started writing for Book Riot. One major revelation has been how difficult it is to find information on some aspects of the book world. Apparently, finding out how many copies of a book has been sold falls into that category. There’s how many copies a publisher had printed, how many publishers have held the rights, and other factors I still don’t quite understand. For older titles that have entered the public domain, it’s even trickier to track sales numbers.
Thus, the titles below include widely accepted bestsellers and extremely popular works that I don’t have sales numbers for but feel confident belong here. I spent time on various bestseller lists, as well as perusing Goodreads and Amazon for consensus. I share numbers when I have them, but even then, please take those figures with a grain of salt.
If you, like me, don’t have a clear picture of what good sales numbers are, here are a few general numbers to know. According to Publisher’s Weekly, most books sell fewer than 99 copies. The average book sells 500 copies in the U.S. In a typical year, fewer than 500 titles exceed 100,000 copies sold.
The Bestselling Horror Books of All Time
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In recent months, I’ve enjoyed the corner of Twitter where people roast the worst men the internet has to offer. Someone reposts an incel tweet and then Twitter rips him to pieces, usually agreeing that we should throw the whole man away. Mary Shelley, ahead of her time in so many ways, decided long ago that it was better to build a man from scratch. Her timeless work of literature has been endlessly adapted and is an undeniable staple of pop culture. With it remaining in print since 1818 and eventually entering the public domain, its sales numbers are hard to track. However, 200 years after its initial publication, Frankenstein still sells 40,000 copies a year.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Another titan among the bestselling horror books of all time, Dracula has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1897. The tale of the quintessential vampire has also entered the public domain, so sales numbers are vague, but it has continued to be printed for over 120 years. Ironically, that’s similar to the demand for the bestselling book of all time across genres — the Bible.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Vampires have repeatedly proven their immortality. Since 1976, Anne Rice’s masterpiece has sold over 150 million copies. It also spawned an excellent movie adaptation and an even better recent AMC series. (I said what I said. The AMC series is absolutely perfect and I will die on that hill.) I recently reread the novel after watching the show and Rice’s tale is as spellbinding as ever. If you haven’t experienced the melancholy musings of Louis de Pointe du Lac and his mercurial maker Lestat, you are missing out.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
I read all of V.C. Andrews’s books growing up and they’re disturbing in a variety of ways. Little did I know, Andrews’s popular gothic horror has sold more than 40 million copies. Admittedly, I didn’t think of this book as horror before making this list, but the tale is horrifying. A disinherited woman on the verge of abject poverty, returns home with her four children. However, the children are locked in the attic for YEARS to keep their existence from their grandfather’s knowledge. There are some truly upsetting twists and turns, including incest and sexual violence, so keep that in mind before trying this one out.
Jaws by Peter Benchley
A great white shark preys on the inhabitants of a small beach town, while three men try to catch and kill it. That description doesn’t seem like much of an interesting story, and yet it is a huge staple of pop culture. The iconic shark movie that we all know from a mere two notes of its score, is actually based on one of the bestselling horror books of all time. It has sold over 20 million copies to date, and ruined the beach for an entire generation.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
With over 13 million copies sold, The Exorcist has earned its place on this list. As a horror aficionado, I am embarrassed to say that I watched the movie for the first time last year and did not enjoy it. I know, I know. It was groundbreaking in its time and I totally respect that. What I can say, however, is that the book is better. I read it last year and found it absolutely horrifying. I would love to see it adapted with today’s technological advances, but I know Hollywood would just mess it up.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
I know you’re picturing Anthony Hopkins’s skin-crawling take on Hannibal Lecter. His performance was one of many amazing aspects of the movie adaptation. However, the book is not to be overlooked. With over 10 million copies sold, this bestseller is every bit as engaging as the popular movie version.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
I have never wanted to watch or read this classic because I find the concept of motherhood inherently frightening. Even if you aren’t carrying the spawn of Satan, growing and then caring for an entire human is a huge undertaking. Also, the very realistic gaslighting that happens to poor Rosemary is too much for me. I am in the minority, however, as it has sold over 4 million copies to date and was the bestselling horror book of the 1960s.
Carrie by Stephen King
Instead of making this list like 50% Stephen King, I’m highlighting just a few of his popular works. To date, the story of telekinetic teenager Carrie White has sold over 4 million copies. It is also one of the author’s best and most beloved movie adaptations. King’s other bestsellers include The Stand at over 4.5 million copies sold and Misery, which was the fourth-most-popular hardcover book of 1987 and the 15th most popular book of the decade.
Ring by Kōji Suzuki
If you’ve heard of the horror movie The Ring, you know it’s an American adaptation of the popular Japanese horror series. What you might not know is that the Japanese movies are based on books. This, the first in the series, has sold more than 2.8 million copies. It follows a reporter who is the grieving uncle of one of four teens to die mysteriously and simultaneously after returning from a holiday resort. As it turns out, the teens all watched a cursed videotape that kills anyone who views it.
World War Z by Max Brooks
With over 1 million copies sold, World War Z brought zombies to the bestseller lists. This unique take on the sub-genre is written as a collection of firsthand accounts of individuals who have survived a pandemic that changed much of the world’s population into a zombie horde. The hardcover version spent four weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List and has been loosely adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt.
The Shining by Stephen King
Not all of Stephen King’s bestsellers have passed the million mark, but they’re still doing impressive numbers. The Shining, the popular story of Jack Torrance’s descent into madness over a winter of isolation at the haunted Overlook Hotel, has sold over 700,000 copies and been adapted into one of the undisputed best horror movies of all time. Among King’s other popular books that spawned excellent movie adaptations, Pet Sematary has sold 800,000 copies. It has also been a bestseller, with an admittedly dubious source estimating it at 300,000 copies sold.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
First published in 1886, this classic sold over 40,000 copies in its first six months in print. By 1901, it had allegedly sold 250,000 copies in the United States. This enduring novella is considered the defining book of the gothic horror sub-genre. Jekyll and Hyde have become more than book characters in our culture, making the names an easy shorthand to describe someone mercurial or secretly evil despite a kind demeanor.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
I read the illustrated version of this tale and was completely unprepared for something that looked so harmless to be this disturbing. Published in 1962, We Have Always Lived in the Castle sold close to 30,000 copies in its first three months of publication, hitting The New York Times Best Seller List in month four. For comparison, Jackson’s previous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, sold about 12,000 copies in its first six months of publication.
10 Future Bestselling Horror Books of All-Time
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Do you enjoy the creeping dread of Shirley Jackson? Have you ever lain awake at night pondering how yellow wallpaper can slowly drive a woman mad? Well, fellow gothic horror fan, this is the book for you. A wealthy socialite is sent to a secluded manor to check on her cousin, as their family is concerned with her behavior since she married a handsome stranger and moved to the distant Mexican countryside. Soon, however, our protagonist finds herself just as paranoid and trapped as the cousin she sought to save.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Four American Indian men go hunting and end up haunted in this psychological horror. Years after the ill-fated hunting trip, their families are stalked by a ghostly figure carrying an elk’s head. According to a favorable review on NPR, “[b]esides the creeping horror and gory poetry, The Only Good Indians does a lot in terms of illuminating Native American life from the inside, offering insights into how old traditions and modern living collide in contemporary life.”
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
This New York Times bestseller follows the only Black woman working at a New York publishing company. She is understandably delighted when another Black woman joins the staff. Unfortunately, that’s when something strange begins to unfold. In a New York Times book review, it is described as “tak[ing] on traits of the horror genre with a dash of magical realism…there is certainly something very Jordan Peele-esque about the plot.”
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
With a 4.3/5 star review on Amazon, this horror novella is a frightening story of magic and monsters. “A tribute to and a criticism of the early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft,” LaValle’s book is a spin on “The Horror of Red Hook,” which is considered to be one of the classic author’s most racist and xenophobic works. According to a review on Tor.com, “The Ballad of Black Tom should delight and disturb fans of cosmic horror.”
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
The story of the Donner Party is so disturbing that it has lingered in our collective consciousness for nearly two centuries. Ninety people were trapped in a freezing mountain range, forced to cannibalism to survive. Katsu gives this true story a supernatural twist in this suspenseful tale. Horror titan Stephen King said this book is “deeply, deeply disturbing, hard to put down, not recommended reading after dark.”
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun
Described as a Korean take on Stephen King’s Misery, this story follows Oghi, a man paralyzed after a car accident that killed his wife and child. With only his grieving mother-in-law to care for him, Oghi is bedridden and neglected. All the while, his mother-in-law obsessively digs holes in his late wife’s garden. The New York Times called it “a surreal and mesmerizing tale.”
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
Already a proven modern classic, The Gilda Stories recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. If I have any say, this will be one of the bestselling horror books of all time. One of my friends texted me and said, “You have to read this book. It’s about a bisexual Black vampire who is an ex-slave and joins a coven of lesbian vampire women.” I was SOLD. Dear reader, it did not disappoint in the least. With badass Black and Indigenous women vampires navigating the world as it changes around them, while they never change.
If you’re looking for more great horror recommendations, try The 10 Best Horror Books of 2022 or The Best Horror From Around the World. For bestsellers in other genres, check out The Bestselling Fantasy Books of All Time and The Bestselling Books of the Week, According to All the Lists.