Dark times often call for some sort of escapism and, for many people (myself included), that escapism comes in the form of reading the most terrifying book you can get your hands on. Scary stories are a space where you can practice being brave and learn how to cope with internal and external worries and fears.
From time to time you might come across a book that is too scary, and you have to put it in the freezer like Joey Tribbiani does with his copy of The Shining in that one episode of Friends (my freezer book is A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay), but horror can be fun too! Shouting “you idiot” or “oh no” or “absolutely not” out loud while reading a book can be cathartic.
To encourage everyone to read more scary books, I have compiled a list of horror novels, novellas, and graphic novels that, in my opinion, are well worth the scares.
People don’t often consider horror and romance to go hand in hand. With Our Wives Under the Sea, Julia Armfield has crafted a modern fairy tale that is as deeply heartfelt as it is unsettling and strange.
After the deep-sea mission that she’s on takes a disastrous turn, Leah returns to dry land a changed woman. She drifts aimlessly around her apartment, doesn’t eat or drink, and runs the tap in the bathroom for hours at a time. It’s up to Miri, Leah’s wife, to seek out answers. What happened to Leah at the bottom of the ocean? Why won’t the company that Leah worked for answer Miri’s phone calls? And most importantly — is the woman who returned to Miri the same woman she fell in love with all those years ago?
Space is, undeniably, terrifying. The idea of being trapped on a haunted spaceship filled with horribly mutilated dead bodies that have been missing for decades is even more chilling. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been chasing the high of Aliens and Event Horizon since the first time you watched them, and Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes might be just what you’re looking for.
The Aurora, a luxury space liner, has been missing for 20 years, so naturally it’s the last thing Claire and her scrappy and instantly lovable crew expect to find after picking up an emergency signal deep in outer space. Once on board the Aurora, it becomes clear that something deeply sinister has happened to the ship and its passengers, and a lucrative endeavor soon turns into a fight for survival. I dare you to not hold your breath while Claire and her companions are navigating the haunted halls of the Aurora. Dead Silence will have you questioning every bump in the night that you hear.
In P. Djèlí Clark’s America, demons wear white hoods. Literally. Hell opened up and spat out the Ku Kluxes who, for years, have spread fear and violence across the country. Standing in their way is a Black woman named Maryse Boudreaux, a magical sword, and a group of tough-as-nails resistance fighters who you will be rooting for from the first page to the very last. Ring Shout is a nonstop action thriller that doesn’t pull any punches; it’s fun as hell and packed with some seriously gruesome body horror (this one isn’t for the faint of heart), and Clark doesn’t shy away from the terrifying history and nature of racism.
This is, genuinely, one of my favorite horror novels that I’ve read in years, and I hope that more folks seek it out and enjoy it as much as I did.
Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey, Gavin Fullerton
Set in the remote mountains just outside Dublin, Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey and Gavin Fullerton is a brutal and gorgeously illustrated survival story that will have you biting your fingernails to the quick. When a young Irish gangster — badly injured, unarmed, and on the run from a job that has gone wrong — encounters a woman who has gotten herself lost in the woods, they are forced to band together to survive the desolate bog that lies between them and safety.
Bog Bodies thoroughly pushes the boundaries of its genre. It’s a relentless tale of violence, regret, and ghosts that will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading it. It feels like only a matter of time until A24 discovers this comic book and adapts it for the big screen.
If you’re a fan of stories that feature cult-like religion, examinations of race and misogyny, and — you guessed it — terrifying and extremely powerful witches, then The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson is the perfect book for you.
Set in a puritanical society, Immanuelle Moore’s existence alone has brought shame to her family. For years, Immanuel has kept her head down and followed the rules, but when the spirits of the nearby Darkwood bestow her with an unexpected gift, she swiftly discovers complacency is no longer an option. Henderson has crafted a terrifying, heart-pounding, and surprisingly romantic feminist fantasy that you’ll tear through in a day.
What do you get when you cross a transient anarchist, a bloodthirsty demon, and hypocritical cult-like ideologues? The answer is Margaret Killjoy’s totally kick-butt novella, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion.
In the wake of an old friend’s suicide, Danielle Cain — a queer, punk traveler — sets her sights on Freedom, the utopian squatter town that he called home, in search of answers and, perhaps, some closure. What Danielle finds instead is a blood-red, three-antlered spirit that was summoned by the townsfolk to serve as their judge, jury, and executioner. No good ever comes from inviting a terrifying demon into your home, no matter how punk rock it is, and Danielle soon finds herself in a fight for her life when it turns on the people of Freedom.
They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but The Grip of It by Jac Jemc has, hands down, one of the most unsettling covers I’ve ever come across. A picture alone doesn’t do the terrifying, half-hidden faces on it nearly enough justice, so you’ll just have to trust me here and pick up a copy to see it (and them) for yourself.
When James and Julie move into their new home, strange, monstrous-looking images (not unlike the ones on the cover) begin to appear on the walls, and hidden rooms within rooms appear and disappear during the night. Stranger and more alarming still are the bruises that appear on Julie’s body, and how they seem to mirror the stains on the walls of their home.
Like all good horror stories, the closer they get to the truth of what is happening, the more disjointed and dangerous James and Julie’s lives become.
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
Don’t let the fact that you’ll find this book in the kids’ section of your local indie bookstore fool you. Kenneth Oppel’s terrifying novel The Nest might be one of the best horror stories ever written. It is a pitch-perfect examination of what poorly treated, or entirely untreated, anxiety and trauma can do to a person, with a heaping helping of the uncanny and supernatural thrown into the mix.
The Nest’s young protagonist, Steve, can count his worries on both hands. Most of all, he worries about his newborn baby brother, who is too small and weak to fight the devastating illness he is stricken with. Steve also worries about his parents, who are understandably struggling to cope with the thought of losing their youngest family member. When a mysterious and beautiful (and, to readers, instantly sinister) angel appears to Steve in his dreams and offers to “fix” his little brother, he begins to think that his nightly prayers have been answered. All Steve has to say is yes, a powerful and dangerous word that cannot easily be taken back, and all his worries will go away.
Like in all great Gothics, the beautiful and remote estate that is at the heart of The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas is harboring a malevolent presence. Set in the wake of the Mexican War of Independence, The Hacienda is as much a work of historical fiction as it is a ghost story. After Beatriz’s father is brutally executed and her home is destroyed, she finds some solace in the handsome and charming Don Rodolfo Solórzano’s marriage proposal. She ignores the rumors about his first wife’s sudden death and chooses the security of his estate instead. Things quickly take a turn when Beatriz is plagued by violent nightmares upon her arrival. Desperate for answers, she turns to a local (hot) priest who is closely guarding his own secrets.
The Hacienda is a gorgeous and horrific tale that dabbles in folklore and religion, and will leave you with a massive book hangover. If Isabel Cañas’ first book is this gripping and terrifying, then I cannot wait to see what’s in store for us next.
I didn’t think it was possible to make “The Fall of the House of Usher” stranger or more twisted than it already is, but T. Kingfisher has done it (and done it extremely well). What Moves the Dead is an expert reimagining of an unsettling horror classic that will make your skin crawl.
When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, hears that a childhood friend is dying, they mount up and make way for the Ushers’ estate to be with her in her final moments. What Alex discovers upon arrival is a house that is falling rapidly into disrepair, nightmarish fungal growths (fans of Mexican Gothic, another spectacular horror novel, will adore this book), a nightmarish lake, and dead rabbits that don’t always stay dead. Kingfisher’s writing is deeply unnerving and incredibly clever. You’ll never look at fungi the same way again.