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The Top 20 Greatest Horror Writers of All-time
Who are the Masters of the Macabre?
By Tim Janson
February 20, 2009
When I recently wrote the list of the 15 Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All-time, I definitely had my sights set on tackling horror with the next list…and I had no idea just how difficult that would be. With Sci-Fi, you have a starting point that most people can agree on, namely the publication of Amazing Stories in 1926, the first magazine devoted to science fiction. On the other hand, horror’s legacy is far older. One can trace the telling of ghost and monster tales back thousands of years to ancient times. For example, almost every culture has their own tales of vampires, dating back to Mesopotamia. Some scholars will point to the rise of the gothic novel in the 18th and early 19th centuries as the roots of modern horror.
While not considered horror writers, some of the most renowned Early American writers like Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables), plied their hand at horror stories and created early classics. While neither of these men is on the list, it shows just how rich the lineage of horror literature has become. With that in mind, my list presents a mix of the modern and the classic…of subtle ghost story and blood-drenched splatter tales.
The criteria were also more difficult to settle on. While Sci-Fi has had awards like the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus that have been around for several decades, the top horror honor, the Bram Stoker Award, has only been around since 1987, and the International Horror Guild Awards were only started in 1994. So while the awards might have some influence, it isn’t nearly as much as in the Sci-Fi category. The other things I’ve taken into consideration are body of work, the longevity of the work, and the influence of the work on popular culture. Also, it was important that the writer’s work have been predominantly in the horror field. Dan Simmons, for example, has written a couple of outstanding horror novels but I would not consider him a horror writer.
I began my list with close to 60 names and whittled it down to the final 20, and once again that last spot was the one that was the most difficult to fill. There were many names I came close to including and I will note those in the honorable mentions. There were also names I excluded for various reasons that I will also note. The emphasis is on HORROR…not dark fantasy…not romantic vampires and werewolves trying to disguise themselves as horror (Sorry Anne Rice fans!). These are the writers who will truly give you sleepless nights!
20. Graham Masterton –
Masterton has written over 40 horror novels and dozens of short stories but he still seems to be a guy unknown to a lot of people. His first novel, The Manitou was adapted into a film in fairly major 1978, starring Tony Curtis, Burgess Meredith, and Susan Strasberg. My first Masterton read was the gruesome Charnel House with its tale of an evil force living within an old house. Masterton is still going strong with a new book due out this year. His early books are fairly quick reads and while they are long out of print, they’d make a good quest for used book stores.
19. Richard Laymon –
Laymon died all too young in 2001 at the age of 54 but he left behind an incredible legacy of horror. He was nominated three times for The Stoker Award for best Novel, winning once in 2001 for The Traveling Vampire Show. One of his earliest (and best books) The Woods are Dark was just released last year in an uncut version with fifty pages of material not in the books original release in 1981. Laymon often worked in more visceral sub-genre’s of horror such as splatterpunk, but his 1991 novel Darkness, Tell Us is a fantastic supernatural story. Funland is another classic…who doesn’t love a horror tale involving a carnival funhouse!
18. F. Paul Wilson –
Wilson’s first novel The Keep (1981) is a classic that was adapted into a film by the same name. It tells the story of Nazi soldiers in 1941 who are being killed off within the confines of a mysterious castle in Romania. This would be the first of Wilson’s “Adversary Cycle”, a series of six books so far. The second book in the series, The Tomb, would introduce Wilson’s popular anti-hero, Repairman Jack. The Repairman Jack novels (a dozen in all) have tied in with the Adversary Cycle works to create a lush mythos of classic supernatural and modern horror. Outside of these series’, Wilson’s Midnight Mass is a superlative vampire novel.
17. Robert McCammon –
McCammon could have been ranked much higher on this list and perhaps will some day. During the 1980s, McCammon could easily be mentioned in the same breath as Stephen King and Dean Koontz. His early novels, now out of print are classics: Baal, Bethany’s Sin, They Thirst, Swan Song, Stinger, and The Wolf’s Hour. McCammon won the Bram Stoker award for best novel three years in a row from 1989 – 1991, a feat no other writer has duplicated. But then McCammon took over a decade off from writing, some people even thought that he had passed away. He returned in 2002 with the first in his “Matthew Corbett” series of historical mysteries set in early colonial America that border the horror genre and are fantastic. They show that McCammon lost none of his skill during his ten year sabbatical. Hopefully he will return to some straight horror but even if he doesn’t, he has earned his spot on the list.
16. Ambrose Bierce –
Bierce may be the most colorful writer on the list. Bierce was a novelist, journalist, and adventurer. Bierce was a Civil War veteran who joined up with Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in 1913 and was never heard from again. Bierce wrote one of the most famous horror stories of the 1800s, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, about a Confederate sympathizer who is about to be hanged when the rope breaks and he falls into the creek, escaping to return to his wife and children…only to find it was all an illusion as he feels a sharp pain in his neck and all goes black as he dies at the end of the rope. This story was adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone. This story has influenced countless films and TV episodes over the years. His story An inhabitant in Carcosa would later be an influence on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. His story, The Damned Thing, Was recently adapted into an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror”.
15. Algernon Blackwood –
Blackwood is one of the legends of early horror. This English writer was called one of the “Masters” by no less than H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft considered Blackwood’s tale The Willows to be the finest weird tale ever written. If you read Blackwood’s stories such as The Man Who Found Out and Ancient Sorceries would heavily influence the Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Long before modern day supernatural detectives came along, Blackwood created his Supernatural hunting Psychic, John Silence. The Complete John Silence stories are readily available as our many collections of Blackwood’s work. If you’ve never read Blackwood, he’s certainly worth checking out. Even though many of the stories are over one hundred years old, they are still powerful and relevant.
14. John Saul –
John Saul is one of the finest horror writers in the classic tradition of old style supernatural fare. His subtle prose has sometimes kept him under the radar of modern horror fans, even though most of his books have made the New York Times Best Seller List. His first novel, Suffer the Children (1977) remains a potent and disturbing read. Hellfire is a quintessential New England horror about a haunted mill where children died in a tragic fire decades earlier. His serialized novel, The Blackstone Chronicles dealt with the effects than an old asylum had on the residents of a nearby town. Saul has been criticized for writing the same type of story over and over but he really is the master at what he does. These are the kinds of books you read on a dark and stormy night. Pure horror in the classic vein!
13. Jack Ketchum –
Jack Ketchum aka Dallas Mayr isn’t your traditional horror writer. He doesn’t write about demons, vampires, vengeful spirits, or ax-wielding maniacs…his monsters are much more mundane and terrifying because they are us, man…everyday people. His stories are among the most unsettling to read because of this. The Girl Next Door is a terrifying tale about everyday suburban kids who brutally torture the nieces of an alcoholic woman, often with her encouragement. It’s as depressing a story as I have ever read. Ketchum’s first book Off Season about a clan of cannibals preying on vacationers in rural Maine created somewhat of a stir when it was released in 1980. The original story was edited, and later pulled from shelves by the publisher because of its explicit content. An unedited version was release in 1999. Ketchum has been nominated for seven Bram Stoker awards, winning three times, including his long fiction story, Closing Time.
12. Dean Koontz –
I’ve always like Dean Koontz. Koontz effectively blends elements of science fiction and horror to be wholly unique among modern horror writers. His novels often contain threats which are technological or biological in scope but they never lose that pervasive sense of terror. Koontz’ breakthrough novel was Whispers about a psychotic man who is killing women he believes are possessed by the spirit of his abusive mother. Koontz wrote a number of very good books prior to Whispers under various pen names including The Funhouse, later adapted into a film of the same name. In Phantoms (good book, bad film) the residents of a small ski resort village are being devoured by an amorphous creature which can create life-like phantoms that go out and hunt for food. Other Koontz works adapted into film or TV include Hideaway, Demon Seed, Watchers (including sequels, Intensity, and The Servants of Twilight. In 2003 Koontz wrote the first of six planned novels about his creation “Odd Thomas”, a short-order cook who is able to see and communicate with the dead. Koontz has received three Stoker Award nominations for best novel.
11. Brian Lumley –
Perhaps no modern horror writer has done more to keep the spirit of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories alive than Brian Lumley. His Titus Crow character has appeared in over a dozen novels and short stories. The difference with Lumley’s stories is that Crow and his allies don’t drop dead or go insane when confronted by the creatures of the Mythos. They actually strive to defeat them and so there is a far more heroic tinge to Lumley’s take on the Mythos. Lumley’s other famous creation is the long-running Necroscope series, now up to over a dozen novels. Harry Keough is the Necroscope, able to communicate with the dead and use their knowledge and abilities in battling the Wamphyri, evil, vampire-like creatures. The prolific Lumley has also had numerous collections of his short fiction published as well.
10. Joe R. Lansdale –
Good ol’ Texas boy Joe Lansdale is one of the most diversely talented writers in the business. Novels, short stories, screenplays, comic books…you name it and Lansdale has done it. How can you not love a guy who can write the raucously satirical Bubba Ho-Tep, and then can turn around and write the blood-soaked zombie classic, On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks. The Drive in is another classic about a group of friends who go to an all-night drive-in theater to watch a horror film marathon, and find they are trapped inside, along with the rest of the movie-goers, by a malignant force. His story Incident On and Off a Mountain Road was the adapted as the first episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series. Lansdale has been nominated for an incredible 16 Stoker Awards, winning seven times, most recently in 2006 for his anthology, Retro Pulp Tales. True to his tough guy image, Lansdale operates his own martial arts school in Texas.
9. Peter Straub –
Were it not for the looming shadow of Stephen King, Peter Straub might be the most well-known American horror writer of the past thirty years. Ironically the two would become friends and collaborators on two best-selling novels. Straub’s first big hit was the chilling Ghost Story in 1979, and later adapted into a lackluster film. The novel that made me a Straub fan was his next one from 1980, Shadowland. This is an enthralling story about two prep school buddies who spend the Summer at the creepy estate of one of the boy’s uncle, a magician whose magic may not be just parlor tricks. He and King wrote Talisman in 1984, and then got together again for the sequel Black House in 2001. Straub has won four Stoker Awards for Best Novel (The Throat, Mr. X, Lost Boy Lost Girl, and In the Night Room), two Stokers for Best Collection, and another for Best Long Fiction. The thing that might work against Straub is that he has had numerous gaps in his writing career where he has gone several years at a time without publishing anything new.
8. M.R. James –
The UK has an incredibly rich tradition when it comes to horror literature. Some of the great writers of English literature like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson took their turn at writing horror tales. Particularly popular in the UK were themes involving ghosts and the supernatural and there is no finer writer of ghost stories than Montague Rhodes James. James was a well-respected mediaeval scholar who wrote numerous book on historical subjects but it was his ghost stories that he became famous for around the world. His most famous books are Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories. “Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad” is a truly chilling story of a man who finds an ancient whistle buried in the sand of a beach, and what is summoned when the whistle is blown. “The Ash Tree” was adapted into a 1975 UK produced film. Several other James stories were adapted for British television on the BBC. When you sit down as a kid to tell ghost stories, these are the kind of stories you want to tell. They exude atmosphere and even after a hundred years they are still terrifying. Many of James’ stories are now in public domain so they can be read for free. Just Google his name.
7. Ramsey Campbell –
How good is Ramsey Campbell? S.T. Joshi, one of the most respected historians of weird and horror fiction, considers him “…every bit the equal of Lovecraft or Blackwood." High praise from a man noted for being highly critical of modern horror writers. Campbell burst onto the scene in the 1960s with a volume of Lovecraft-inspired tales The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants. Campbell isequally adept at short fiction as he is with novels, perhaps even more so…Collections such as Alone with the Horrors (1993), Demons by Daylight (1973), and Told by the Dead (2003) are classic short-story collections. His 2008 novel The Grin of the Dark was one of the best horror novels of the year. Campbell has won two Stoker Awards, Nine British Fantasy Awards, and an International Horror Guild Award. I can see Campbell one day cracking the top five…he is THAT good!
6. Robert Bloch –
As a mere teenager, Robert Bloch became a regular contributor to the pulp magazine “Weird Tales”. He became a letter-writing pal of H.P. Lovecraft and soon was writing his own tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. However in 1959, Robert Bloch wrote a story that took the horror world by storm and eventually went on to influence literally hundreds of horror films, Psycho! Without crazed Norman Bates and his motel of horrors, would we ever have a Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or any of the other modern horror icons? Bloch wrote a sequel in 1982 called Psycho II that is completely different than the film of the same name. he completed his trilogy with Psycho House in 1990. Bloch won a Hugo for his 1959 horror tale The Hell-Bound Train. While Psycho is one of the most important horror novels ever written, Bloch truly shined as a writer of shorter fiction. If you read one Bloch collection, it must be The Early Fears, a collection of forty stories. This was released as a limited edition and is hard to find and hopefully it will be re-printed one day but this book gives a fantastic overview of Bloch’s work.
5. Clive Barker –
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the most significant event in horror fiction in the last 25 years was the publication of Barker’s Books of Blood series in the mid-1980s. These books changed horror fiction as we knew it then, ushering in a raw power that Stephen King hailed as “the future of horror”. The six books feature thirty stories in all, several of which have been adapted into feature films including The Forbidden (Candyman 1992), The Last Illusion (Lord of Illusions 1995), and Midnight Meat Train (2008). The Books of Blood should be required reading for any horror fan. Barker’s story The Hellbound Heart would introduce the Cenobites and become the basis for the Hellraiser film series. His novella Cabal, would be adapted into the 1990 film, Nightbreed. In recent years, Barker has been devoting more time to his career as a painter and writing far less than he did twenty years ago. In fact he’s written only ten books in the last two decades. Fans can only hope Barker returns to horror soon.
4. Edgar Allan Poe –
Like a lot of great horror writers, Poe died very young and you can’t help but wonder what works he would have produced had he lived a full life. Poe’s work cannot be described as anything else but macabre. He was infatuated with death and themes of premature burial and torture. Poe’s stories read like the Hall of Fame of horror tales: The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Premature Burial, and Ligeia. All of these stories have been adapted for film or TV, some multiple times. Legendary horror actor, Vincent Price, made a career out of starring in roles based on Poe’s stories. Even his Poetry has been adapted to film including The Raven, The Conqueror Worm, and The Haunted Palace. As recently as the second season of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” we saw an adaptation of The Black Cat, showing how relevant his work still is over 150 years later.
3. Richard Matheson –
Richard Matheson may very well be the greatest horror writer NOT to be influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. His accomplishments in the horror field are staggering! His 1954 novel I am Legend is one of the top ten greatest horror novels ever written. Hollywood has failed to do the story justice in three attempts so if you haven’t read the book you DON’T know the story. Matheson wrote one of the most famous episodes of the original Twilight Zone TV series, Nightmare at 20,000 feet in which a traveler on an airplane (played by William Shatner) sees a monster on the wing of the plane. So many of Matheson’s stories have been turned into feature films or TV episodes or movies including The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes, and Hell House (The Legend of Hell House). The made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror, was based on three of Matheson’s tales including the one about the Zuni warrior doll that comes to life and tries to kill a woman in her apartment. His story, Duel, about a motorist stalked by a trucker along a remote highway is regarded as one of the great TV films of all time and was the first film directed by Steven Spielberg. His novels The Night Stalker & The Night Strangler would both be adapted into TV films and introduce the character of monster-hunting newspaper reporter, Carl Kolchak. The character would later get his own series that unfortunately only lasted one season.
2. Stephen King –
Love him or hate him, one cannot deny King’s overwhelming credentials. There simply is no more important person in horror literature in the past 40 years than Stephen King. His books have sold over 300 million copies. King has won 6 Stoker awards, 6 Horror Guild awards, 5 Locus Awards, 3 World Fantasy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 by the Horror Writers' Association. It all began with Carrie in 1974 and thus began an unparalleled string of best-selling novels. Salem’s Lot (1975), perhaps the only vampire novel that may be better than Matheson’s I am Legend; The Shining (1977); The Stand (1978); Cujo (1981); Christine (1983); Pet Sematary (1983); The Talisman W/ Peter Straub (1984); It (1986); Misery (1987); The Dark Half (1989); Needful Things (1990); Gerald’s Game (1992); Then there are the collections: Night Shift (1978); Skeleton Crew (1985); Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993); and Everything’s Eventual (2002).
No need to talk about adaptations as there are too many to list, suffice to say that nearly every novel and numerous short stories have been adapted for film or TV. King has shown a remarkable ability to regionalize his work into his quaint New England settings while still being able to reinvent himself with new takes on old plots. Snobbish critics have often lambasted King’s writing style but such is the price of fame when everything you write becomes an instant best seller. Jealousy knows no bounds! After all, it’s idiot snobs who gave us Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark and Annie Hall over Star Wars as Oscar Winners for Best Picture.
1. H.P. Lovecraft –
It’s fitting that the #1 writer on the list have probably the greatest name a horror writer could ever have. Lovecraft’s influence has not waned, even more than 70 years after his death. Any writer who mentions “old Gods”, “Elder Gods” or beings of cosmic origin owes a debt of gratitude to Lovecraft. Like so many other horror writers, he died before he could see the fruits of his labors flourish. His works have been adapted into film, TV, comic books, video games, and role-playing games. The conception of the Cthulhu Mythos, and its pantheon of terrifying deities and monstrosities remains the most important creation in horror during the 20th century. Lovecraft show incredible foresight by opening up the Mythos for writers to create their own characters and stories. This early group consisted of writers who would all become legends in their own right including: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, August Derleth, and Henry Kuttner.
Lovecraft’s most famous Mythos stories include The Unnamable, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour out of Space, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow over Innsmouth, Dreams in the Witch House, The Shadow out of Time, and The Haunter in the Dark. Lovecraft’s stories were frequently set in his beloved New England and often in the fictional town of Arkham, MA. Miskatonic University, located in Arkham played a role in many Lovecraft tales including the ghoulish Herbert West-Re-animator, later adapted into a cult horror film that spawned several low-budget sequels. Lovecraft’s stories have often failed when being adapted to film and TV, largely because of poor directing and adaptations and the fact that his suggested and psychological horror just doesn’t translate well to live action. Still, one of the better recent adaptations was a “Masters of Horror” episode featuring a faithful version of Dreams in the Witch House.
Lovecraft by no means took full credit for the development of the Cthulhu Mythos. He pointed to many writers as inspiration including Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsay, Ambrose Bierce, Poe, and Arthur Machen. But his genius was taking various ideas and concepts and molding them into a coherent, shared landscape that still has many active writers today. There can be little doubt that Lovecraft is the clear choice for #1 horror writer of all-time.
John Skipp – Skipp is regarded as the Godfather of splatterpunk horror and currently two of his novels are in film development. If he gets a bit more work under his belt, He’s a guy who could be on the list in a decade or so.
Ed Lee – Lee’s situation is similar to Skipp. Much of his work has been done for small press publishers but he’s certainly a talented writer.
Frank Belknap Long – Long was very close to making the list. He was one of the early group of writers who contributed stories to the Cthulhu Mythos and he wrote hundreds of short stories. It was a very difficult decision to leave him out and it came down to the fact that while he was undoubtedly a great horror writer, he didn’t have the scope of influence that other writers did.
Robert E. Howard – The creator of Conan, King Kull, Solomon Kane and other fantasy characters was also very gifted as a horror writer. He was another original Cthulhu Mythos contributor and produced many of his own original horror stories, often set in the deep south such as “Pigeons from Hell” one of the great stories dealing with voodoo and zombies.