DRACULA (1897), BRAM STOKER
Synopsis: A compilation of journal entries and letters, Stoker's multiple-POV story centers around Count Dracula, a suave vampire who destroys the lives of several warm-blooded English folk.
Why it's scary good: One of the more interesting things about Dracula is that it's Stoker's lone masterwork; the guy's other novels flip-flopped between hack-tastic and barely marginal. Despite the accompanying argument that Dracula is a fluke, its seminal aura is more than deserved. Everything in it works, from the romance to the perverse horror to the sly presentation of a sketchy rape fantasy. Think about it: Dracula prefers to drink the blood of helpless women. Stoker was one sick pup.
Movie adaptations: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Dracula (Horror of Dracula) (1958), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
THE LOST (2001), JACK KETCHUM
Synopsis: In the summer of 1965, New Jersey teenager and sociopath-in-training Ray Pine gets his first taste for blood. Four years later, with the cops having yet to catch him, Ray triggers a series of events that bring forth a high body-count and tons of anti-humanity ideas.
Why it's scary good: Ketchum is a horror lover's kind of writer, an anti-mainstream scribe whose prose is always crisp, and who never shies away from taboo-smacking graphic violence. With The Lost, he creates a most chilling sociopath in Ray Pine, a sort of young Hannibal Lecter. How Ketchum surrounds Ray with such sympathetic characters makes for truly devastating consequences once Ray snaps and gets his rocks off through ritualistic homicide.
Movie adaptations: The Lost (2006)
GHOST STORY (1979), PETER STRAUB
Synopsis: Four elderly gents living in New England comprise the "Chowder Society," a club formed to share scary stories. Yet, their creepiest tale of all is one that's true, the death of a girl back when the fellas were much younger. And she's not exactly resting in peace.
Why it's scary good: First off, a word of advice: Avoid this one's inept, laughably horrendous film adaptation alone. It's quite possibly the worst book-to-film translation ever. And that's a shame, because Straub's work in Ghost Story is a sprawling achievement in multi-protagonist plotlines that blend seamlessly together. Not to mention, the ways in which Eva Galley enacts her vengeance pay off like gangbusters, especially a bit involving a character being sucked into a big screen showing George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Movie adaptations: Ghost Story (1981)
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (1959), SHIRLEY JACKSON
Synopsis: A supernatural investigator invites three strangers to join him inside a supposedly ghost-filled mansion for the summer. The home's inner demons waste no time before making it one ghoulish season for its doomed inhabitants.
Why it's scary good: Jackson revolutionized the haunted house tale with this intricately written classic, an exercise in implication over exhibition. The bloodshed is minimal, nearly nonexistent; rather, Jackson alludes to horrific entities, and establishes their presence through sounds and character reactions. Hill House becomes a character itself, albeit one with interior design hiccups (doors that beat like hearts; walls that moan) that'd send those Extreme Makeover: Home Edition heads into an early retirement.
Movie adaptations: The Haunting (1963), The Haunting (1999)
THE SHINING (1977), STEPHEN KING
Synopsis: Hoping to finish a novel, writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance moves his wife and possibly clairvoyant son into the massive, closed-for-winter Overlook Hotel. Unfortunately for the Torrances, the Colorado-located hotel is as haunted as daddy's beloved whiskey bottles are strong.
Why it's scary good: King's third novel, The Shining is where the beyond prolific author fine-tuned his impeccable balance of character depth and wall-to-wall horrors. He pays as much attention to Jack Torrance's tumultuous backstory as he does to the nightmarish legacy of the Overlook Hotel, resulting in deeper resonance when the scares hit. And there's enough shock moments here to send the sales of Hanes underwear into a frenzy.
Movie adaptations: The Shining (1980), The Shining (1997; ABC miniseries)