Autumn means pumpkin spice, warm clothes, and scary books. The evenings are getting darker in Edmonton/amiskwaciwakahegan, and colder. It’s a perfect opportunity to snuggle down into my pillow fort and scare the pants off myself.
Even if you don’t get to ALL of them, you can at least put some on your TBR list. They are all backlist titles, some mainstream and some maybe more obscure? Who knows. I have no idea what’s trending right now or ever. However, they should be available everywhere books are sold and at your local library. Do everyone a favour and support your local indie (BIPOC owned if possible) bookstore.
Now, on to the list! Additional content notes beyond “scary” are indicated where applicable.
I am not an avid horror reader, but I manage to find a few each year to scare the crap out of me. Body horror freaks me right out, but it always manages to sneak through my filter. Gadammit. Mostly atmospheric and haunting. That seems to fit my tastes more these days.
Monster of Elendhaven (2019) by Jennifer Giesbrecht. Death, decay, murder and mayhem. A bit of a twisty plot, but worth it in the end. CN for
Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djeli Clark. But what if the Ku Klux Klan were actual, literal monsters? A crafty story that weaves horror alongside low-key commentary on racism in our society and history.
Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Morena Garcia. I started out not loving this book, but it slowly snuck inside my brain and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Vibes like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – super isolated setting, strange cadre of secondary characters, a confused narrator who doesn’t know what to believe. Some gross body horror in this one, and attempted rape.
Middle Game (2019) by Seanan Mcguire. Gore, time travel (sort of), weird ass power dynamics. This was my favourite book read in 2020. There is a sequel coming out in 2022. Hold my calls.
What Big Teeth (2021) by Rose Szabo was not my favourite, but it hits a lot of recommended lists, so I guess I will include it here. After being sent off to school, our narrator returns home to her family of weird monsters. They don’t seem very happy to see her and you can tell right off the bat that there is something bigger going on. Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t follow her grandma’s instructions and weirder stuff starts happening. It takes a lot of teen angst to solve the problem and save her family. I want to include a content warning here for “non-consensual body contact” because I don’t know what else to call it.
This next one hits a lot different from What Big Teeth and feel much more grown up while still tracking a teenage monster. Mongrels (2016) by Stephen Graham Jones is similar with the family vibes, but instead of following a wealthy legacy family, you’ve got an impoverished one living out of their car and whatever shady rentals they could find. Moving from town to town because they’re werewolves and that isn’t considered neighbourly. The main character is a kid who may or may not grow up to be a wolf like his aunt and uncle. The angst is real my friends, and it was precious and fearful. I enjoyed the family dynamics in this one immensely, and continually caught myself holding my breath for how they would get in trouble next.
I wasn’t sure where to sort this next one, but I guess it kind of fits under monsters and that is only sort of a spoiler! Sawkill Girls (2018) by Clare Legrand starts out with the favoured trope of “unsolved missing girls”. The setting is very relevant and very perfect, and the shape of the story feels like a creepy-ass fairy tale. But much, much better. Bonus points for a super diverse cast.
“Girls hunger. And we’re taught, from the moment our brains can take it, that there isn’t enough food for us all.”
Horror is a sub-genre in science fiction, but sometimes there are books that are mostly science fiction with a bit of horror. Where do those get sorted? Here, they get sorted here.
Black Sun (2020) by Rebecca Roanhorse is the start of what is going to be an epic series. Heavy in fantasy, it follows the imaginary Indigenous people of a south-american inspired world. There are warring clans, a failing priesthood, richly detailed rituals, and enormous crows you can fly upon. Lots and lots of gore in this one, holy crap.
Six Wakes (2017) by Mur Lafferty. A locked room murder mystery, but the locked room is a space ship. A crew of clones wakes up in a mess of blood and gore and their own murdered bodies. Their recent memories have been wiped and the ship’s data is inaccessible. The book switches between unreliable narrators, and you are left guessing at every turn. There is a BIG reveal that was very satisfying.
The Dread Nation series by Justina Ireland is a YA duology. I preferred the first title (Dread Nation 2018) to the second in the series (Deathless Divide 2020), but both are very well done. The American Civil War is over, but geez those zombies wreaked havoc on the entire country and most folks are just doing their best to rebuild their lives. Black girls are trained to be body guards for the white ladies, and the tenuous “okay slavery is bad, but can I introduce you to our indentured servants” is a whole mood. Shit hits the fan soon after the book starts, and the location swiftly changes to a creepy town way out west, where folks are hoping to escape the hoards that have swept through the cities of the east. But things are weird out here too, what’s a zombie killer to do? Lots of action and a mystery, but also really sweet friendships and characters you really give a shit about. And terrifying, terrifying zombies.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (2019) by P Djeli Clark. Y’all, I put P Djeli Clark on all of my book lists. Sometimes twice. This felt like a buddy detective movie, with the more experienced Agent from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities showing the new guy how it’s done. But this time they’ve got a haunted tram car that seems to defy their skills. It’s a novella set in a beautifully crafted world that you will be craving more stories from.
If you want a little bit of fright in small doses, might I suggest grabbing a short story collection. Here are three of my recent faves. Unfortunately, I don’t have exact content notes for these ones, so reader beware.
If you liked Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and want more stories set in this universe, Tales of the Peculiar (2016) by Ransom Riggs is literally that. The story that stuck in my brain was about wealthy cannibals who strike an arrangement with peculiars whose limbs grow back. Shocking and delightful. Creepy more than scary, it offers a deeper look into the world and history of Peculiars.
Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite (2020), edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C Parker. Even the scardiest cat enjoys vampires, I know it. An assortment of stories by a variety of authors offers up something for everyone. A bit of haunting, gore, psychological, campy, it’s all in here.
And to close out the fiction show, let’s tip our hats to one of the masters of the creepy book, Edgar Allen Poe. His Hideous Heart (2019) edited by Dahlia Adler is filled with spectacular re-tellings of Poe classics.
This is a section I didn’t think I needed until I remember the precious gift to humanity that is Mary Roach. She has written two glorious titles that deserve a mention on the creepy list:
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
I read a handful of scary and creepy books every year, and I consider this a sub-genre that I thoroughly enjoy. While I might never be into the slasher stuff, there are still a lot of horror titles to choose from that offer up a story I can get behind. Ask your questions in the comments, or include some of your favourite scary books!
Writer’s note: the original version of this post included the word “spooky” which I have recently learned originated as a racist slang for Black folks. So I have replaced all instances of it. Know better, do better.