There’s been no better source for unique horror films than the gemstone mines of horror novels and novellas. From Dracula and Frankenstein to the litany of Stephen King adaptations (with his son Joe Hill already making ground in similar productivity and quality), horror literature has crafted some of the most startling and haunting source material for films. Tropes of the genre were born in the literary works of authors like Shelley, King, McDowell, and more, and the collective of incredible horror authors that continue to produce terrifying works of fiction only grows as the popularity of reading and book collecting also rises!
Indie horror and the concept of “elevated” horror is also having somewhat of a zeitgeist cultural moment, which gives excellent opportunities for literary adaptations of horror novels to succeed. Considering the chart topping successes of some of these novels, I’m almost 100% sure that we’ll see at least a few hit the big screens in coming years!
DISCLAIMER: I am only including books I have read in full for this list. There are plenty of other awesome horror books out there that might make great adaptations, even ones I have read that didn’t make my thirteen cut-off. Please include any additional adaptations you’d like to see by leaving a comment!
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia
The book follows Noemi Taboada as she journeys to a remote hacienda owned by her cousin’s new husband. The strange behavior of her cousin’s in-laws, coupled with the isolated and unfamiliar atmosphere already sets Noemi on edge; but as she experiences horrific, all-to-real dreams and uncovers the hacienda’s bloody history, she must find a way to flee the terrible fate met by all too many who’ve walked its halls.
By far one of the most popular horror books of this list, don’t let that mainstream success fool you. Trending doesn’t equal bland in the case of this stunning gothic horror story set in 1950s Mexico. While it is currently in development as a Hulu limited series, I could also see this book being successfully adapted for a theatrical release, particularly for a director with an eye for gothic sensibilities a la del Toro.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
When the house makes an unearthly yowl during the walk-through, the realtor brushes it off as settling noises, and the desperate couple are all too willing to believe it. Julie and James soon try to fit themselves into the flow of small town living, determined to put the past they are fleeing behind them. However, as they try to adjust to how stifling this new life can be, the couple soon realizes that the walls closing in on them aren’t the suburban lifestyle; there is something horrifically wrong with their new home.
This book is what I have occasionally called (in a sense of love and respect to be clear) a “more accessible House of Leaves’ Navidson Record portion.” This wouldn’t be an adaptation for fans of gore or jumpscares–rather this is a horror built on atmosphere, suspense, and ambivalent unease. I feel this would be a return to the haunted house genre as seen in Robert Wise’s Haunting (which was itself based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson), departing from the modern sensibilities brought to the genre by major directors like James Wan.
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline meets the cosmic horror sensibilities of H.P. Lovecraft in T. Kingfisher’s genuinely scary, funny, and above all delightfully weird novel. Kara, nicknamed Carrot, returns to her old home with her Uncle Earl, following a divorce. This works out well for Earl, who can finally take time off from his job for knee surgery and the subsequent rehab. His job? Owner and curator of The Museum of Wonders, a quaint oddities museum that Carrot loves with her whole heart. Shortly after she makes friends with a local barista that results in him offering to help her fix a hole in the wall at the museum, however, Carrot discovers her beloved childhood paradise hides portals to strange and horrifying other worlds, filled with cosmic terrors she never could have imagined. The pair of friends must escape these hollow places without capturing the attention of the monsters within but….
These monsters can hear thoughts, and they feed on fear.
This book expertly balances effortless charm and humor with mindbogglingly creative terror and monstrosity. More than one reviewer on Goodreads categorized this book’s core concept as Narnia from Hell; in the right hands, this could make an incredible film or limited series. With as beloved as the book and author are, there would be a built in audience, sure to only grow as word spread!
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
This novel is made to be filmed–literally! One of the main narrative arcs of the story is key to the presence of a film crew. When 14 year old Marjorie begins experiencing symptoms of treatment-resistant schizophrenia at age 14, her vulnerable parents are preyed upon by an exorcist priest who wants to make a name for himself. He calls in the documentary crew to film the poor girl’s suffering for reality television, the desperate parents agreeing only to pay the avalanche of medical debt. Interspersed with the reality show narrative is a flash forward to a follow up show fifteen years after the finale, examining the controversial case through the eyes of Marjorie’s traumatized younger sister Merry, casting everything the public was shown into sickening clarity.
See what I mean about literally made to be filmed? Whether as a movie or limited series, this book would not only succeed in this format but absolutely flourish, giving an entry for even more of Paul Tremblay’s popular horror works to be adapted for a larger audience. With a director and editor team that knows the docu-horror style subgenre, this could be one of the most gripping adaptational horrors to go to screen in a long time.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Mermaid horror might not sound like the most terrifying, but this is definitely more H. P. Lovecraft than Hans Christian Anderson. Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, takes a creature we usually associate with Lisa Frank aesthetics and Howard Ashman songs and dials the gore up to make a truly unique tale of high seas horror.
The tale follows an impressively large ensemble cast on a journey to the area around the Mariana Trench, tracking the possible trail of a long missing scientific documentary crew’s failed expedition. However, they soon discover the horrible truth behind the missing crew of the Atargatis; it’s up to them to fight to survive so that they all can avoid the same fate.
With the ensemble cast and build up, as well as the extra material generated by Grant’s prequel to this novel, a limited series would be an excellent way to adapt this work and possibly open the door for more of the author’s excellent bibliography of work.
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Another book which utilizes cameras as a story-telling element (and thereby making it somewhat readymade for adaptation), Hex is an eerie tale of a small isolated town living under quarantine due to a generations old curse. The borders of city limits are fenced and guarded and cameras track the every move of the Black Rock Witch who looms over children in the night. When a group of understandably stifled adolescents break free from the town’s wards, they accidentally kickstart far greater consequences than they could have anticipated, casting the town and Hudson River Valley into a medieval darkness.
Translated into 25 languages and a global bestseller in the genre, I wasn’t too shocked to read while researching for this article that a series is currently in development for TV by Gary Dauberman! I’m very excited to see what they come up with, as this novel is highly worthy of the attention and praise. Here’s hoping that they get an excellent practical effects makeup artist to work on the design of the Black Rock Witch–her book description alone gives chills and an iconic makeup look could launch her into the visual horror lexicon forever.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Hear me out: yes, The Only Good Indians is likely Jones’ most famous horror novel at this time. Yes, My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a glorious love letter to the very genre of horror that would certainly earn itself fans as a movie or limited series. But there’s something so uniquely charming about Jones’ gorey tale of a nomadic family of werewolves that would make an amazing coming of age tale for the young narrator character.
The strength of Mongrels lies less in the horror and more in the rich worldbuilding, lending itself well to a limited series or a dark comedy film adaptation. Shockingly, none of Jones’ work has been optioned for film or series…yet. Mongrels would make an excellent jumping off point for adapting Jones’ significant bibliography of horror books, which nearly rivals Stephen King in numbers.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Film or limited event streaming on a platform like HBO Max would be the best bet for adapting the compact intense novel about the monstrosity of the KKK taken to its literal extremes. After secret sorcerer D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation casts a literal spell over the country, white racists fomented by the film transform into literal monsters via body horror sequences that might give either Cronenberg pause. A group of resistance fighters, lead by the fiery Maryse, must fight back and make a stand down in Macon, Georgia, if they and their families are all to survive this endemic which reveals “normal people” as monsters.
Written with a rich alternative history made alive by Clark (who is, in addition to noted novelist, also an academic historian specializing in comparative slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world), Ring Shout could be the allegorical horror for our troubled times, utterly unafraid to hide anything too far behind the shroud of metaphor. Put an expert production team–such as the one behind the Watchmen limited event series–behind it, and you’re sure to have a recipe for success.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle
To quote one of my favorite darkly comedic Reddit comments on the notoriously controversial horror author: “everybody gangsta till it’s time to call Lovecraft’s cat’s name.” Howard Phillips Lovecraft was not merely racist by the standards of his time period; he was so racist that even other racists looked at him and said “damn, dude, we don’t do that here.”
However, his influence on horror is undeniable and in the decades since his passing, hundreds of authors–many being people of color–have tackled themes of his work in meaningful ways. Lovecraft Country already made headway in a Lovecraftian literary adaptation focused on Black characters and narrative–it’s time for a direct adaptation of a Lovecraft work by a Black author to be adapted for screen.
The Ballad of Black Tom sees Lavalle take one of Lovecraft’s most horrendously and openly racist stories (The Horror at Red Hook) and recast it in a totally new light in his deft narrative capabilities. Given its slim page count, this book would make an excellent film adaptation, bringing a much needed, more intersectional view of cosmic horror to the masses.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Night Film is a giallo thriller movie put to the page, and it’s only a matter of time in my opinion before a smart enough studio negotiates the rights to it. A a clear murder ruled suicide myster? A dogged investigative reporter? A reclusive auteur horror director not seen by the public in decades? Pessl’s book is made for the technicolor brilliance of a late 1970s Argento film–or at least for a director who knows how to properly homage the same aesthetic the novel so clearly strives to emulate.
There are scenes in this book that made me full body cringe and pull my legs up under my chin, and I’m not quite that easy to unsettled–through the medium of writing at least. The mixed media approach of the novel also lends plenty of terrifying visual cues to the would-be production team. While Fincher is too overloaded to bring to this the same sensibilities of Se7en (and he needs to make another season of Mindhunter or I will cry), there are plenty of directors who would jump at the chance for an opportunity to adapt a book like this.
The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
Another haunted house story? Oh no. No no, not that, that’s for sure. While the premise of “family moves into now-dead abusive patriarch’s old home and bad things begin to happen” certainly sounds like a set-up for a haunted house story this book is so, so much more than that. With a unique cast of characters, Wendig’s dark (and I do mean dark) sci-fi, horror novel takes its readers through twists and turns one never expects. It also gives us a neurodivergent protagonist, always a welcome bit of inclusion in my book.
This book isn’t hopeless, but it is an emotional gut-punch. Given his past two films, I would say an excellent director to helm an adaptation of The Book of Accidents would be the mind behind Hereditary and Midsommar–Ari Aster. No one captures the genuine devastation of trauma in modern horror quite like he has, in my estimation, and I would love (and hate! But also love!) to see an adaptation of this novel in his hands.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
As someone who cut their teeth on horror comedies as a kid just getting into the genre, I have an intense fondness for the works of Grady Hendrix. Given the massive uptick in 80s fueled nostalgia ( the leader of which right now is Stranger Things), I think the best possible choice of adaptations for one of Hendrix’s many bestselling works is My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Following a pair of besties as they enter the scary world of high school, during the height of the Satanic Panic, Abby notices something is “off” about Gretchen after she tries to contact a boy she met at summer camp. Abby and some other companions soon discover that the only way to save Gretchen is to defeat the power of the devil inside her. Does the group of kids have what it takes?
The vibes of this book are immaculate, blending humor and nostalgic charm with the very real horror of a child in mortal pain and peril. While the children fight back, often with a darkly comedic edge, there’s never any doubt: these are kids in over their head, doing the best they can. Not only would it make an excellent horror comedy adaptation, but also a coming of age film, making horror more accessible to new fans around the world.
Penpal by Dathan Auerbach
Okay so like, I am aware that the phrase “I read this when he first put it on reddit as a creepypasta before he was able to crowdfund enough to self-publish” might not be the most confidence inducing statement to unfamiliar readers, but Dathan Auerbach’s fictionalized epistolary horror tale of his childhood as a stalking victim is one of the hidden gems of self-published horror. It even launched a successful career in mainstream publishing for his acclaimed horror book Bad Man, which is being eyed for adaptation as well.
However, Penpal has something special about it, a rawness that would make it perfect fodder for something particularly dark. I could see it being deftly explored in a similar manner to films like The Poughkeepsie Tapes or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon–gritty and terrifying for their cinema verite qualities. Even if you just pick up the slim book, you’re sure to feel chills for how all-too-real the story plays out.
Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare
The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
The Taker by Alma Katsu
Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
What modern horror tales do you think should be adapted? Do you disagree with any of these choices? Feel free to let me know in the comments!