Come on, admit it: Your high school book reports were little more than regurgitated back-cover-plot-synopses, or, at the most, owed a great deal to CliffsNotes. Don't kick yourself; the truth is, in this digital age, the majority of fiction junkies get their fixes from television or the movies (and cheat using Wikipedia). Still, ardent book hounds—such as your fam here at Complex—know that the best stories are usually told in literary form. Frankly, authors can get away with far more than directors, especially in the fantastic free-for-all that is the horror genre. For example, this weekend's new vampire flick Let Me In, with its suck-free child actors, is quite good (if not one of the best horror movies of 2010), yet its source material, Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's 2004 novel Let the Right One In, still reigns supreme. It's not the first time a scary book has outshined its big-screen adaptation. Maraud through the nearest Barnes and Noble's "horror" section and you'll discover that several classic flicks were initially embraced in paperback or hardcover formats. Here, in no particular order, are 25 of the best horror books that eventually became films. And, the last time checked, only two of them (Dracula and The Turn of the Screw) are available in CliffsNotes editions. Take that, slackers.
by Matt Barone
AMERICAN PSYCHO (1991), BRET EASTON ELLIS
Synopsis: As the 1990s approach, Manhattan investment banker Patrick Bateman grows tired of his inferior peers and neighbors. Instead of simply leaving the Big Apple, though, Bateman entertains his violent urges and goes on a below-the-radar killing spree.
Why it's scary good: As a scathing parody of late '80s yuppie culture, American Psycho is top-notch. It's also an unexpectedly brutal slasher tale, though, saving its most vivid murders through many a chapter before finally unleashing Bateman's ax-wielding fury.
Movie adaptations: American Psycho (2000)
THE STEPFORD WIVES (1972), IRA LEVIN
Synopsis: Jessica, a young photographer, suspects foul play after moving to a postcard-worthy Connecticut town where all the women adhere to their husbands' commands. Jessica begins to wonder if the town's females aren't all obedient robots programmed by their spouses.
Why it's scary good: You don't have to in touch with your feminine side to feel Jessica's pain and anxiety throughout Levin's psychologically dense novel. True, its themes of misogyny and "get in the kitchen, woman" gender woes hit harder if you're packing estrogen. That's why Levin's knack for gut-kicking climaxes (see Rosemary's Baby) is his secret weapon—he might've mastered lady-centric horror, but that doesn't mean he's quick to let his heroines off the hook.
Movie adaptations: The Stepford Wives (1975), The Stepford Wives (2004)
A STIR OF ECHOES (1958), RICHARD MATHESON
Synopsis: Out of nowhere, Tom Wallace's hidden psychic abilities take shape, allowing him to hear people's thoughts. Not just those of flesh-and-blood individuals, though—he begins to receive messages from the deceased.
Why it's scary good: In Tom Wallace, Matheson created a great everyman. His sudden ability to communicate with the dead is presented informally, more like a secondary plot device. Matheson's primary focus is Wallace's teetering marriage to the mother of his unborn child. As Tom believes in his otherworldly skills more and more, his wife further rejects the possibility. The book's underlying message: Stay single as long as you can, fellas.
Movie adaptations: Stir of Echoes (1999)
BURNT OFFERINGS (1973), ROBERT MARASCO
Synopsis: A man, along with his wife, son, and elderly aunt, relocates from Queens, N.Y., to a country mansion in Long Island. The new crib seems to be picturesque at first, before the supernatural takes over and, eventually, all hell breaks loose.
Why it's scary good: Burnt Offerings only seems like a obvious cross between The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House in plot description. Marasco separates his contribution to fiction's haunted house canon by giving the house a puppetmaster's control over the characters. As the house regenerates itself (dead flowers bloom without water, for instance), the family's attempts at hauling ass away from the grounds are repeatedly halted by unseen forces (such as trees falling onto roads). And you thought your constantly overflowing toilet was annoying.
Movie adaptations: Burnt Offerings (1976),
THE SENTINEL (1974), JEFFREY KONVITZ
Synopsis: Aspiring model Allison Parker moves into an aged NYC brownstone after her father passes away. All goes well until she discovers that her new building is actually a gateway into Hell, a fact that her realtor neglected to mention.
Why it's scary good: Here's an example of an idea that's better in conception than execution. Konvitz's central plot is a doozy, as is the story's bonkers, demon-filled climax. You'll just have to push through some stilted dialogue to reach the showstopper of an ending, but damn if the coda isn't a knockout.
Movie adaptations: The Sentinel (1977)
• CLICK NEXT TO SEE MORE CLASSIC HORROR STORIES...
THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU (1896), H.G. WELLS
Synopsis: A shipwrecked man is saved and brought to an unnamed island, where a mad doctor performs interspecies experiments on humans and animals.
Why it's scary good: Look at the year in which this way-ahead-of-its-time classic was written: 1896. The ideas that Wells flexed in Doctor Moreau (dissection, gene splicing, God complexes) must've blown people's minds back when the tale first surfaced. What's just as impressive is how effectively it reads today; Doctor Moreau is right up there with Joseph Conrad's inimitable 1902 novella Heart of Darkness (filmed as Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola).
Movie adaptations: Island of Lost Souls (1933), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
JAWS (1974), PETER BENCHLEY
Synopsis: A great white shark feasts on dangling human limbs in the waters of Amity, a seaside resort on Long Island. Looking to kill the huge fish, Amity's police chief, Martin Brody, teams up with an oceanographer and a grizzled shark hunter.
Why it's scary good: Steven Spielberg's mega-hit film version is easily the better of the two, but that doesn't mean Benchley's source page-turner is a slog. It's still a vicious bit of aquatic brutality, stronger with its shark attack moments than its character development (Benchley's screenplay, co-written with Carl Gottlieb, curiously pays more mind to the human element).
Movie adaptations: Jaws (1974)
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1983), SUSAN HILL
Synopsis: A young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, heads to a small village in the United Kingdom to attend the funeral of an elderly widow. While there, Kipps begins seeing a black-clad specter believed to be the harbinger of death for children.
Why it's scary good: There's nothing all that original about Hill's The Woman in Black. Spooky old houses, bumps in the night, and a voiceless ghost—fans of supernatural fiction have read it all before. Hill's tale stands out, however, thanks to its wise use of first-person narration, which gives the familiar scares a wicked sense of urgency. And as for its heart-crushing final scene... it'll leave you wanting to hug the nearest little kid in sight. Not like that, perv.
Movie adaptations: The Woman in Black (1989; made-for-TV in Britain), The Woman in Black (2011; in production for a 3D release)
MISERY (1987), STEPHEN KING
Synopsis: Paul Sheldon, a famous romance novelist, is rescued from a car accident by Annie Wilkes, who claims to be his biggest fan and brings him to her secluded cabin for some R&R. After learning that Sheldon has killed off his most popular character, "Misery Chastain," Wilkes turns torturous.
Why it's scary good: King's ability to slowly mold Annie Wilkes into an imposing psychopath is what gives Misery its accessibility. Chances are, however, that the book is scarier for actual writers than casual readers. The idea that one's printed words can drive someone else to insanity is quite the sucker-punch for scribblers. King's Misery was Eminem's "Stan" before Marshall Mathers even started high school.
Movie adaptations: Misery (1990)
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN/LET ME IN (2004), JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST
Synopsis: Oskar, a 12-year-old outcast living in Sweden, befriends peculiar little girl Eli, who's just moved into his apartment complex. Immediately after Eli and her suspect "father" settle in, though, corpses begin piling up, all without blood.
Why it's scary good: Lindqvist's novel is elegantly written and tautly macabre. And it's also much freakier than either film version; in Lindqvist's mind, Eli is a childlike immortal devoid of genitals, while her caretaker makes no qualms about his little-boy-adoring kinks. On second thought, let's thank Hollywood for leaving that minor detail alone.
Movie adaptations: Let the Right One In (2008), Let Me In (2010)
• CLICK NEXT TO SEE MORE CLASSIC HORROR STORIES...
THE TENANT (1964), ROLAND TOPOR
Synopsis: Mr. Trelkovsky moves into a strange apartment building; more specifically, he establishes residence in a room previously occupied by a suicide victim named Simon Choule. It doesn't take long for Trelkovsky to lose his marbles and think he's becoming Choule.
Why it's scary good: Like Roman Polanski's underrated film adaptation, Topor's frantic novel is akin to waking up in an inescapable bad dream. Trelkovosky's nosedive into madness is a hoot, layered with dark comedy and Topor's quirky sensibilities. It's a one-of-a-kind, brain-melting stew.
Movie adaptations: The Tenant (1976)
THE OTHER (1971), THOMAS TRYON
Synopsis: Set in the 1930's, The Other is about 13-year-old twins living in a quaint Connecticut town, where they practice personality transference... just not safely.
Why it's scary good: Tryon's haunting novel isn't easy on its reader; his prose is enigmatic at times, seeped in abstract metaphors that demand undivided attention. He's also an especially disarming author, slipping in a key reveal earlier than expected, leaving the reader to think, "How bizarre can this get from here?" Try newborn-baby-slaughter nuts.
Movie adaptations: The Other (1972)
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1988), THOMAS HARRIS
Synopsis: With the help of an imprisoned and cannibalistic serial killer named Dr. Hannibal Lecter, FBI trainee Clarice Starling must track down "Buffalo Bill," a sicko who kidnaps fat women, starves them, and carves their skin off. In other words, he's quite the romantic.
Why it's scary good: On the surface, Harris's thrilling police procedural doesn't seem like a quintessential horror novel. But all it takes is one sit-down with The Silence of the Lambs to understand why it made this list. What's not horrifying about the book's many gore-drenched, and realistic, kill sequences? We'd like to see James Patterson write a murder mystery even half as raw as Harris.
Movie adaptations: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I AM LEGEND (1954), RICHARD MATHESON
Synopsis: After an outbreak of vampirism turns mankind into creatures of the night, the sole survivor, Robert Neville, devotes his lonely existence to fighting the monsters and researching possible cures.
Why it's scary good: Hopefully those Smigel-like, CGI-gone-bad creatures in 2007's Will Smith blockbuster flick haven't coated I Am Legend in corn, because Matheson's original novel is a master class in intelligent horror. Though it's largely about a man coming to terms with extreme loneliness, I Am Legend also puts human nature under its microscope, and the results aren't pretty. If that's too heavy, rest assured... there are plenty of coochie-flashing vamps and nasty bloodsucker fight sequences.
Movie adaptations: The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), I Am Legend (2007), I Am Omega (2007)
THE EXORCIST (1971), WILLIAM PETER BLATTY
Synopsis: A young girl named Regan shows signs of demonic possession, which leads to visits from a Jesuit priest experienced in the field of exorcism. But Lucifer won't go down without a fight.
Why it's scary good: Director William Friedkin's film adaptation is regarded with more fanfare, yet Blatty's source material is superior in many ways. Seeing Regan's head spin and mouth spray vomit like a fountain in the movie is good dirty fun, yes, but allowing Blatty's descriptive writing to form loony images (such as Regan slithering along the floor like a snake while spewing blasphemy) in your head is what's really good.
Movie adaptations: The Exorcist (1973)
• CLICK NEXT TO SEE MORE CLASSIC HORROR STORIES...
ROSEMARY'S BABY (1967), IRA LEVIN
Synopsis: A happily married couple moves into a posh NYC high-rise and becomes friendly with the building's elderly occupants. Once the wife, Rosemary, becomes pregnant, paranoia sets in and she fears that her neighbors are occultists after her unborn child.
Why it's scary good: Paranoia can't be easy to capture in written form, yet Levin does just that with his lean narrative style and snappy dialogue. Rosemary's Baby is so fast-paced and engrossing that even the most ADD-prone can hang. Levin is also a master of detail, packing the novel with a few real-life NYC touches (a newspaper strike, a papal visit) to achieve an acute sense of realism. Mission accomplished, sir.
Movie adaptations: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
FALLING ANGEL (1978), WILLIAM HJORTSBERG
Synopsis: Disheveled private detective Harry Angel is hired by a mysterious fella to find a singer named Johnny Favorite. Angel's search uncovers a New York City underworld full of voodoo rituals, devil worship, and mistaken identities.
Why it's scary good: Written in sharp first-person, Falling Angel is a rollercoaster of a read. It has everything lovers of pulp fiction could want in a hard-boiled detective novel, just with the additional smattering of gruesome scenes, such as a Black Mass in a subway during which a baby is sacrificed to Satan. All of the OMG moments are conveyed in Angel's own cynical voice, and his inevitable descent into a cryptic self-realization becomes more frantic with every page.
Movie adaptations: Angel Heart (1987)
PSYCHO (1959), ROBERT BLOCH
Synopsis: Norman Bates—the unhinged proprietor of a roadside motel—has more mommy issues than social skills. His lonely world is disrupted, however, when a pretty girl pocketing stolen money checks into one of the rooms.
Why it's scary good: When it comes to writing about deranged folks with homicidal tendencies, Bloch is one of the greats. Particularly in his many colorful (i.e. gruesome) short stories, the late author (he passed away in 1994) conveyed sick psyches like no other. His penchant for such literary insanity is in full swing throughout Psycho. Bloch's text outweighs Alfred Hitchcock's classic film in one crucial area: how it establishes Bates's mental imbalance through inner monologues and secondary character observations (a brief peek at his bedroom library speaks volumes).
Movie adaptations: Psycho (1960), Psycho (1998)
DON'T LOOK NOW: SELECTED STORIES OF DAPHNE DU MAURIER (COLLECTION RELEASED IN 2008), DAPHNE DU MAURIER
Synopsis: This stellar collection of Du Maurier's short fiction includes two stories of particular note. The first, "Don't Look Now," is about a troubled husband and his wife grieving over their dead child while vacationing in Venice; the second, "The Birds," finds the titular winged creatures suddenly attacking man, forcing a farmer and his family to barricade themselves indoors.
Why it's scary good: The experience of reading a Du Maurier story is equal parts unpredictable, entertaining, and dread-laden. She's not one for happy endings, particularly in "Don't Look Now"; its final image involving a murderous dwarf (seriously) is an all-time great shock. For 1952's novelette "The Birds," Du Maurier ignored the reader's jugular and honed in on the pulse, squeezing tons of pathos and intense attacks out of a simple, claustrophobic setting.
Movie adaptations: The Birds (1963), Don't Look Now (1973)
THE TURN OF THE SCREW (1898), HENRY JAMES
Synopsis: A young governess is hired by a wealthy man to look after his parentless niece and nephew. Not a tough job, right? Sure, if the children's home wasn't haunted by a pair of malevolent spirits.
Why it's scary good: What's so fascinating about James's novella is that the existence of the ghosts is never confirmed, yet their appearances before the story's unnamed governess/narrator are quite eerie. James does a remarkable job of employing an unreliable storyteller, an untrustworthy woman who's off-center enough to envision a 10-year-old boy as her honeymoon partner. Little man must've had crazy game.
Movie adaptations: The Innocents (1961), The Turn of the Screw (1974; made-for-TV film), The Turn of the Screw (1992), Presence of Mind (1999), In a Dark Place (2006)
• CLICK NEXT TO SEE MORE CLASSIC HORROR STORIES...
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)