There are just so many amazing books to choose from, it’s kind of amazing to think any book can actually cut above the rest and gain a readership. For every breakthrough book that seems to be on the tip of everybody’s tongue, there are books that go unread, or forgotten with the passage of time. Given horror’s increase in popularity in recent years, we’re seeing a bevy of psychological horror books coming out. Maybe they went out of print quickly, or they were marketed as something else to fit the marketplace of the time. Or maybe they had their audience but time has been unkind to their draw. But what I want to talk about are those psychological horror books that have been on shelves, just waiting for you to discover them.
The following are some of the most unique psychological horror books that remain unfortunately underrated.
The Tenant by Roland Topor
The source material for the 1976 Roman Polanski film of the same name, Topor’s novel has over the decades become less talked about despite its subject material remaining undeniably fresh. Trelkovsky is desperate to find an apartment when he stumbles across an opportunity. From the onset the apartment seems less than ideal yet the threat of being homeless weighing in heavy, Trelkovsky negotiates a price and moves in quickly. What happens next is a methodical descent into madness by way of subtle (and not so subtle) torment from Trelkovsky’s neighbors. The novel is brilliant and likely one that has gone lesser read due to it being out of print until recently, thanks to Valancourt Books.
Panics by Barbara Molinard
Barbara Molinard was quite a curious person. Infamous for having destroyed all her writing after finishing it, Panics is the only collection of work saved from her self-destructive habits. Though many would label these stories in other categories, everything about the collection spells psychological horror. A thread found across every story is the direness of mental illness, a void that casts a shadow across every character’s actions. Molinard’s stories come off as outwardly disturbing for their candid portrayal of disconnection and depression. Taken as a whole, Panics represents an author demonstrating such surrealistic originality, she easily stands up among canon mainstays like Kafka.
The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson
The Lost Weekend
The Lost Weekend propelled author Charles Jackson into bestseller status when it was published in 1944 and has since become yet another book that has become less talked about over the course of time. Marketed as literary fiction, Jackson’s novel is a pulverizing portrait of alcoholism and its detrimental effects on the body and mind.
Protagonist Don Birnam is a would-be writer that struggles with alcoholism. When he is left alone for a weekend, he succumbs to the urge for a drink and falls into a bleak, all-encompassing bender. For anyone that’s struggled with addiction, or alcoholism, and really for anyone looking to see an honest and utterly painful portrait of a mind in the middle of a battle with inner demons (and potentially failing), The Lost Weekend is one of the most terrifying books you can read.
Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
Long before The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw, Stephen Graham Jones was writing as quickly and as masterfully in the early 2000s and happened along an immensely inventive novel, Demon Theory.
Deemed a “psychological tale of cinematic horror,” in Demon Theory, Jones gets one of his first real stabs at flexing his film obsessions. Written to be a bit like a script, Demon Theory is about a group of classmates that are lured back to a house by way of a phantom phone call on Halloween night. Jones laces the story with countless film references and facts, and in many ways, Demon Theory might be one of his most underrated titles. Long out of print, I hope it finds itself being reprinted in a new edition soon. It deserves more readers.
The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
The Vanishing’s premise is decidedly simple: While on a road trip, Rex and Saskia pull into a rest stop to refuel and grab something to drink when Saskia disappears and is never heard from again. What commences is a paranoid and utterly harrowing descent into grief as Rex remains in limbo, unable to shake the unknown whereabouts of Saskia. As if haunted by a ghost, one day Rex receives a message, seemingly from Saskia, that reads “Rex you’re so sweet.” The Vanishing is a masterpiece of psychological tension and holds its own as one of the best examples of brevity on the page.
Basal Ganglia by Matthew Revert
Matthew Revert’s novel Basal Ganglia takes an impossible premise and confidently nails the landing. The book introduces readers to Rollo and Ingrid, a couple that willingly escapes reality by way of a labyrinthine pillow fort they’ve made that mirrors the structure of the human brain. The couple’s escape becomes an obsession, with every waking moment being devoted to the structure, maintenance, and construction of the fort. This is before Revert begins to explore the lovers’ own psychological complexities by way of the fort itself.
Basal Ganglia is a book just waiting for more readers to discover it. If you’re looking for something totally unlike anything else, give Revert’s novel for a spin.
Dermaphoria by Craig Clevenger
Clevenger made a name for himself among transgressive and horror fans for his debut novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook. His follow-up, Dermaphoria aims to dazzle on both a plot and sentence level, aiming to mess with readers as much as the hallucinogenic drug at the center of the novel does to protagonist Eric Ashworth.
Suffering from amnesia, Eric uses the drug to reassemble the shattered memories of his past all the while the drug makes it impossible for him to hold onto any shred of reality. It’s an intoxicating effect of remarkably written sentences that dig under your skin and mess with your mind. Clevenger has been quiet for years, and has yet to follow up Dermaphoria with another book. All the more reason to hunt down this book (and The Contortionist’s Handbook!) now, because you never know when he’ll step out of the shadows with something new.