The best horror books about bad moving decisions

Who am I?

I think of reading horror stories as perfect armchair adrenalin-thrill-seeking. I prefer horror on the quiet side, dark and thematic, with any depiction of blood and gore in measured quantities. My favorite is historical horror with a moral edge, or underlying theme that explores who we are—good, bad, or in-between—as human beings, and how societal norms have changed from one era to another. The monsters of our imaginations are scary, but for true terror, there's nothing more frightening than the things we've done to each other throughout history. Dress society’s ills or expectations in monster clothes and write a story about them, and I’ll want to read it.

I wrote...


By K.D. Burrows,

Book cover of Bittersharp

What is my book about?

In 2018, Rachel Shepherd finds her father dead in the haunted mansion he had been renovating into a B&B. Something is wrong at Hollister House. Rachel has dreams and nightmares of a dark-haired man. After she sees the apparition of a woman who has haunted her memory for years, Rachel becomes convinced that exposing the truth about a death in 1927 holds the key to freeing Hollister House of its past. She enlists the help of her first love from a decade ago, and together they discover a mysterious mosaic mural, an album of disturbing photos, and Eve Boland’s diary.

As secrets are revealed, Rachel is about to learn that the worst horror of all may be living with the ghosts of the past.

The books I picked & why

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Rosemary's Baby

By Ira Levin,

Book cover of Rosemary's Baby

Why this book?

Ira Levin is one of my favorite writers. Rosemary never should have moved into the Bramford apartments with her struggling-actor husband, or befriended their weird, pushy-old-people neighbors. She definitely shouldn’t have let her husband talk her into eating the chocolate mousse roofie. This book is a genuine masterpiece of horror, and having been raised Catholic, Satanic horror can really scare the hell out of me.

The book was a huge success. It satirized an established religion, the upwardly mobile, and motherhood, and included social commentary on the stress of being young and ambitious while weighing the choices of what has to be traded for success, or given up for motherhood. Or you can ignore all that and just read it as great horror. Rosemary’s Baby kicked off a boom in horror books in the 1960s. There’s a movie, and subsequent television and movies remakes, and a book sequel, but it’s still worth reading the original today. Ira Levin’s pared-down, straight-at-you story-telling style, which tells you exactly what you need to know, but leaves out everything you’ll never miss, is a great lesson in writing brevity.

A Sudden Light

By Garth Stein,

Book cover of A Sudden Light

Why this book?

I can never get enough ghost and haunted house stories that have social commentary themes. This is one of the books that helped inspire my own book. Trevor Riddell’s parents are separated, and Trevor and his father move to his lumber-robber-baron grandfather’s mansion in the woods of the northwest, where Trevor’s father and aunt hope to talk their ailing father into a big-money real estate deal involving the house and land.

This book has everything I love: ghosts, intrigue, mystery, history, emotionally-complex antagonists, and epistolary story-telling through letters and journals. Woven into all that, Stein manages to insert a moral about conservation and trees (and other things I’ll let you discover on your own). Ghost stories have a history of being morality tales, and this is a modern version—true to the tradition—that I really enjoyed.

Harvest Home

By Thomas Tryon,

Book cover of Harvest Home

Why this book?

Sure, most people might like to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and move to a quaint village in the countryside where folkloric tradition is woven into modern life and the locals wax poetic about corn and harvest festivals. But if you do, don’t ignore the foreshadowing.

This book is an old-fashioned traditional horror story with a slow build and a New England cadence to its voice. It’s widely credited with inspiring Stephen King’s Children of the Corn and was adapted into a miniseries starring Bette Davis. I love its timeless style and milieu, with shades of The Wicker Man and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. There aren’t any real surprises in this novel, after years of internet children-of-the-corn memes and the like, but it’s an old comfy sweater of horror; not flashy, but it does its job.

It’s easy to identify with the classic theme of leaving behind your stressful life to pursue your dreams in some bucolic paradise and worrying about whether the move will be fruitful or die on the vine. Check out Tyrone’s The Other, too.

Wylding Hall

By Elizabeth Hand,

Book cover of Wylding Hall

Why this book?

Written in a documentary style, this short novel is about an early 70s folk-rock band being interviewed about the summer they moved into a rambling, multi-era English country manor to work on their last album—and the mysterious happenings that occurred. There’s a beautiful musician dipping his hand into spells and metaphysics, a mysterious girl who shows up out of nowhere, and ancient folkloric echoes of a different era and place, manifesting in hidden passageways, time-and-space-bending ancient libraries, and a magic barrow in the woods. Hand is a prolific, award-winning author, and this is my favorite book of hers.

I love how she leaves the reader to make up their own mind about what exactly happened, and who or what some of the players are, never tying the story up in a pretty bow of explanations. It’s also a perfect reminiscence of the romance of the music scene in the early 1970s. Tee up some early 70s folk-influenced tunes for ambiance while reading this one.

The Uninvited

By Dorothy Macardle,

Book cover of The Uninvited

Why this book?

This old-fashioned thriller from 1942 is a classic ghost story with an undercurrent theme of the feminism of the time. It’s available now through Tramp Press’ Recovered Voices, one of the programs that are making available old works of literature. I love the trend of bringing old books back for new readers.

Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela buy a suspiciously-cheap house in Devon in the UK, the previous home of a dead and misogynistic artist whose daughter sold Roddy and Pamela the house. The siblings soon decide the house is haunted by revenants of the artist’s love triangle with his wife and his model/lover. When the artist’s daughter starts coming to visit, things get worse fast, but by the end of the book, every mystery is solved, discussed, and tied up with no loose ends, after a satisfying twist you might see coming.

The first half of the 20th century as a setting is like reader catnip to me. Extra points that this book was actually written then, and reflects the writing and story styles of the era. Have a pot of tea while you’re reading this book and imagine yourself speaking very properly while living on the coast of England.

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