Stories of reanimated corpses have circulated for centuries, but it wasn’t until George Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead that zombies became a staple of horror fiction.
Horror tropes play on our most primordial fears, so it’s easy to see why zombies have taken root in our consciousness. They represent our pasts coming back to consume us, our friends, and our loved ones, rising up as dumb monsters driven by the single goal to eat brains. Throw in a little apocalyptic seasoning as society collapses during a zombie outbreak, and you’ve got all the necessary ingredients for an exciting story. Authors have used these elements for decades to craft some of the best tales the modern age has to offer.
But which zombies books are best? Keep reading for a list of the most terrifying, creative, and enjoyable stories about the undead coming to crack your skull open like a can of tuna. From terrifying to romantic, thought-provoking to hilarious, you can’t go wrong with any of the zombie tales on this list.
1. Feed, by Mira Grant
Mira Grant (better known as Seanan McGuire) threads an interesting needle in her 2010 novel Feed, conjuring up a viral zombie epidemic that is horrifying but ultimately survivable. While most zombie stories depict a world toppling under the weight of dead bodies and focus on only a few desperate survivors, Grant envisions a world where we all carry on, just in a vastly different way.
2. The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey
Zombies are so embedded in the horror and sci-fi genres that it’s easy to forget there is zombification in the real world. Carey takes a real phenomenon—a fungus called ophiocordyceps unilateralis that takes over the brains of ants and makes them into zombie slaves—and brings it to life under human circumstances. Relating that plausible premise to a little girl with a huge secret reminds us just how powerless we’d feel in a similar situation. You’re sucked in, and you feel the anxiety in your bones as you read.
3. Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion
One question every zombie author has to ask themselves is, just how dead are their zombies? The mindless, ravenous hordes are terrifying, but zombies who retain some spark of life, a vague memory of their human selves, can be even more powerful and unsettling. R is a zombie plagued by these echoes of humanity, echoes that are amplified when he captures a young girl and finds himself reluctant to devour her. Instead he opts to protect her. A zombie love story might seem ridiculous at first, but it raises the idea that if our primal reaction to the unknown was less violent, a zombie apocalypse might not be quite so… apocalyptic.
4. Patient Zero, by Jonathan Maberry
Maberry’s story crosses horror with a thriller as a secret law enforcement agency tackles a horde of zombies. Maberry’s zombies aren’t a natural phenomenon, though—they’re a weapon developed by terrorists, a prion disease (like Mad Cow Disease) they intend to unleash in the West, sparking a zombie plague. Focused on tension and action, this is a great departure from the usual zombie tropes, and is one of the rare books that both horror and thriller readers can enjoy in equal measure.
5. World War Z, by Max Brooks
Brooks’ postmodern take on the zombie genre is a classic because it flips the script on the zombie concept. Most zombie narratives focus on individuals trying to survive. Brooks instead pulls back the narrative lens to look at how the world would react to a zombie uprising, and the end result is mesmerizing. Too often in these stories, the end of the world is sudden and yet somehow captured by television cameras, but Brooks imagines a chaotic oral history that feels real enough to send chills down your spine.
6. The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman
Kirkman’s graphic novel and the television series it inspired is the modern zombie touchstone. While Kirkman uses tried and true tropes to explore the best and worst in human nature amidst a world overrun by old-school, shuffling ‛walkers’, he does so in the service of a lushly-detailed story with moral stakes. In this universe, civilization has collapsed, and the only true safety lies in replicating that civilization. His episodic exploration of how people mirror aspects of the old world in strange and sometimes terrifying ways is relentlessly entertaining while offering brilliant flashes of insight into human nature. Plus, it’s often scary as heck.
7. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith
A joke? Maybe. But a brilliant joke. Taking Jane Austen’s novel and re-imagining it as a tale of zombie battle and female independence was a masterstroke, and Grahame-Smith’s original warping of a literary classic remains the best example of the genre. The genius of this mashup story is the assumption that once the shock of zombies wears off, society would simply resume business, arranging marriages and worrying over fortunes even as your daughters train to be zombie killers and the army retools to fend off hordes of undead.
8. The Rising, by Brian Keene
Keene’s 2006 novel plays with your expectations as a desperate man named Jim ponders suicide in his bomb shelter after a particle accelerator accident launches the zombie apocalypse. A desperate call from his young son jolts him out of despair and he sets out to rescue his boy. He discovers that the undead aren’t your typical shuffling zombies, but are intelligent, capable of operating machines and weapons, and thoroughly committed to killing the living. Some purists might object to superpowered zombies, but Keene’s brutal look at a world of intelligent undead makes it stand out in the field.
9. Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
Pulitzer Prize winning Whitehead brings the intelligence and style of his more literary work to this cerebral zombie story. After a zombie pandemic brings civilization to the brink, humanity claws its way back. When the U.S. military establishes a relatively safe zone in lower Manhattan—Zone One—civilian teams head into to root out the zombies hidden around the city. These are mainly short-circuited types which endlessly repeat the routines of their former lives. The story takes a dark turn, and the mundane disaster-recovery scenario applied to the zombie concept is a thrilling reinvention with its own unique pleasures.
10. The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan
Ryan’s novel explores an aspect of the zombie apocalypse that The Walking Dead gets a lot of mileage from—the micro-societies that spring up in the wake of disaster. A young girl named Mary lives in a walled village surrounded by a forest infested with zombies. Little is known about the outside world or the history behind civilization’s fall, so Mary finds a way out of the village to get answers. What makes this work is the dystopian nature of the village, which eventually forces Mary and the reader to wonder if survival is worth the price.
11. Raising Stony Mayhall, by Daryl Gregory
In another brilliant subversion of the trope, a family stumbles upon a dead girl at the tail end of a zombie pandemic in 1968. The baby in her arms is also dead—and also awake. The family takes the little zombie in and raises it as one of their own. This exploration of a being that isn’t quite as human as those around it is surprisingly touching as the child named Stony can’t fit in anywhere. When Stony runs away, he discovers that he’s not alone after all, and all assumptions about zombie stories are turned on their heads.
12. Day by Day Armageddon, by J. L. Bourne
Bourne originally wrote this novel in longhand and uploaded it to the web where it became an underground hit. The story is standard zombie survival fare — a U.S. Naval officer keeps a journal as the zombie apocalypse spreads around the globe and he and a growing band of allies try to stay alive. The story’s presentation makes it worth checking out over other books; the intimate journal style is rendered perfectly, making this almost a real-time walkthrough of the end of the world. The style also allows for detailed observation that elevates the verisimilitude of the story. The result is a remarkably polished zombie tale.
13. I am Legend, by Richard Matheson
Okay, yes, the creatures in this story are vampires, not zombies. Fair. But Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel about the world’s lone survivor realizing that he’s the true monster is more of a zombie story than a vampire story. An infection ravages the population, transforming people into creatures that hunt and eat other people. A solo man doggedly works to stay alive, only to be eventually overwhelmed by the monsters that have taken over the world. Every zombie story that involves the collapse of society owes this book a debt.
14. Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess
If you slept on this amazing novel, wake up. The zombies in Burgess’s story aren’t created via bite or physical infection — the infection is verbal. When victims hear an infected person, they lose their ability to understand or use language, driving them into mindless rages. The zombies become fixated on certain words, repeating them over and over again. The psychological exploration of obsession and devolution makes this a challenging but rewarding—and wholly original—read in the zombie genre.
15. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
When you think of Martin’s legendarily unfinished book series, you think of epic fantasy, but it’s a zombie story at heart. The White Walkers and the army of the dead massing in the north is the ultimate end to the game of thrones, and they make this one of the most innovative zombie narratives of all time. Typically, zombies and the fall of civilization happen at the beginning of a zombie narrative. With Martin’s genre-changing work, they emerge at the end of the story, putting the seemingly epic power struggles of the characters into petty perspective.
16. The Loving Dead, by Amelia Beamer
As with any trope, the zombie story has evolved—there’s an initial template, a period of refinement to that template, and then there’s a lengthy period of experimentation. Authors play with the tropes of the zombie story, finding new ways to make it fresh and exciting again. Beamer accomplishes this with some simple questions: Why is it that zombies are always hungry or angry? Why wouldn’t they be driven by other — possibly sexier — instincts and urges? With the zombies just as interested in sex as they are in sweet, delicious brains, a huge field of narrative possibilities arises, some of which we might not want to explore.
17. Ex-Heroes, by Peter Clines
Clines made a career out of twisting expectations. In Ex-Heroes, he combines zombie apocalyptic fiction with superhero narratives. When zombies come for Los Angeles, the city’s super-powered defenders band together to defend humanity. But as the hordes grind on, the number of survivors shrink, and the superheroes break down mentally and spiritually. With the remnants of humanity holed up in a makeshift fortress, the last heroes standing must continue fighting the zombies as well as their rogue colleagues. It’s a thrilling combination of concepts, and Clines pulls it off perfectly.
18. Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
In another example of crossing fictional streams, Lawrence offers epic fantasy with zombies at the heart of the story’s universe. What Lawrence introduces in The Broken Empire series is control; the zombies of his universe can be directed by The Dead King, instantly turning them from a rampaging horde into a seemingly unbeatable army. Imagine the undead acting in a coordinated, intelligent fashion without losing any of their horrifying hunger. Lawrence doesn’t waste the potential. If you love epic fantasy and a good zombie story, this is a must-read.