You may be thinking, lately, “what’s with all the horror content on CrimeReads? This is a crime fiction site!” And yet, like obscenity, genre fiction struggles to mold itself to any particular definitions, instead resting on the principal of “I know it when I see it.” I organized a roundtable discussion with some of the many horror fiction writers crossing over into thriller territory (to be posted next week) and many of the respondents described horror not as a genre, but as a feeling. And as well they might, for horror seems particularly difficult to *ahem* nail down. The following list is composed of horror titles that are very much of interest to crime fans, and were pitched to me by publicists as such, but there the similarities stop. Some are slashers, some draw from the gothic tradition, some are steeped in body horror, some delight in ancient folk traditions, some evoke the impending doom of environmental apocalypse, and some are high-concept horrorshows where a new twist on reality brings new terrors.
But whether hell is other people, the mounting despair of loneliness, or the fiery furnace of classic tropes, these 2021 releases all tap into profound anxieties while delivering exhilarating entertainment.
Stephen Graham Jones, My Heart Is a Chainsaw
What It Is: Slasher fiction
Why It’s Perfect for Crime Fans: Slashers = Murderers. Obvi.
Teenage delinquent Jade Daniels has a fixation on final girls, and she’s sure that the new housing development across the lake is the catalyst for a coming nightmare—one only her beautiful new classmate has a chance to survive. Her town hates her, her Indian father mistreats her, and her white mother has abandoned her. She’s ready for a slasher to unleash chaos. But it’ll take some time for her to realize that she’s the one to stop it. Stephen Graham Jones has written the ultimate summer horror thriller in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, a deliciously self-aware melange of horror criticism, slasher fiction, and social thriller, all tied together with a strong message of female empowerment.
Lee Mandelo, Summer Sons
What It Is: Supernatural Southern Gothic
Why It’s Perfect for Crime Fans: Gothic atmosphere + investigation-driven plot = win-win.
In what is perfectly described a “sweltering, queer Southern Gothic,” Andrew heads to Nashville to search for answers after Eddie, his adopted brother and wealthy benefactor, is found dead of a suspected suicide. Eddie had been deeply immersed in studying the supernatural, and now Andrew must confront his own fraught relationship with ghostly specters or risk leaving his companion’s spirit restless.
James Han Mattson, Reprieve
(William Morrow and Custom House)
What It Is: Haunted House Thriller
Why It’s Perfect for Crime Fans: Falls perfectly into the category of “social thriller”—and there’s a shocking twist that upends everything you thought you knew about the characters.
A disparate group of strangers attempt to make their way through six increasingly terrifying rooms in a full-contact horror house, for a complex and multi-layered novel that speaks to the meaning of fear itself. If they reach the end, they win a substantial cash prize. But something goes terribly wrong. As we leap in time between impending doom and disastrous fallout, Reprieve reveals harsh truths about what it means to seek fear in an unequal society.
Cassandra Khaw, Nothing But Blackened Teeth
What It Is: haunted house thriller meets folk horror meets locked room mystery
Why It’s Perfect For Crime Fans: It’s a destination wedding thriller. But with ghosts. What’s not to like?
Cassandra Khaw’s latest is a haunted house mystery steeped in Japanese folklore. When a group of friends staying in a Heian-era mansion for a destination wedding awakens the bones buried beneath its foundations, a murderous ghost bride takes her revenge. Not only have all the guests been lying to each other, but as night falls and ghosts emerge, no secret will remain safe, and perhaps, no guest will be left alive.
Caitlin Starling, The Death of Jane Lawrence
What It Is: Gothic mystery
Why It’s Perfect For Crime Fans: Gothics were the OG psychological thrillers! (And there’s a strong mystery element.)
A gothic alternative history of an England that lost the Crimean War, The Death of Jane Lawrence follows its titular heroine, a young woman with few prospects, as she forms an alliance with a doctor in possession of a great talent and even greater secrets. Their arrangement is to be practical—Jane will sleep in the surgery, and her husband at his ancestral home—yet love soon grows, and with it, suspicion of the doctor’s secrets and worry for his declining health. Magical ailments and strange witchery add atmosphere and horror to this fresh take on old traditions.
Josh Malerman, Pearl
What It Is: Horror thriller
Why It’s Perfect For Crime Fans: Come on. You know you want to read about a murderous telepathic pig.
Pearl, the Bird Box author’s latest uber-creepy tale, begins with the brutal killing of a pig, sending shockwaves through a small farming town. Even more upsetting is the perpetrator’s claim that he was compelled to violence by a voice in his head, a voice belonging to another pig, Pearl. And Pearl is very, very, angry. (As well Pearl should be; pigs are so sweet and intelligent and deserve their vengeance against humanity).
Gus Moreno, This Thing Between Us
What It Is: Haunted house, grief-stricken noir
Why It’s Perfect for Crime Fans: The beauty of this book is in how devastating grief can be, and we all know the best noir is the bleakest.
Thiago and Vera buy a condo and soon discover that their starter home is full of supernatural surprises. A few years later, Vera is dead, Thiago is in mourning, and their smart speaker is possessed by a malevolent ghostly presence that may or may not have been responsible for Vera’s death. Thiago goes into seclusion in the mountains to mourn, but the otherworldly forces that haunted the condo follow him to his Colorado cabin, where a devastating confrontation looms between living and dead, man and machine, and civilization versus wilderness.
Catriona Ward, The Last House on Needless Street
What It Is: A psychological thriller in which the truest horrors lie in the deepest recesses of the mind….
Why It’s Perfect For Crime Fans: See above.
Ted lives on a quiet street with his daughter and his cat, drinking each night away and hoping to avoid his own memories. There’s a lake nearby where a girl once vanished, where several children went missing in fact. When a woman moves next door who suspects him of an unimaginable crime, Ted must finally learn what it inside his own head, or he and his whole family may die in trying.
Andy Marino, The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess
What It Is: Time loop thriller
Why It’s Perfect for Crime Fans: An unreliable narrator is framed for murder, and the answers to the crime can only be found in the depths of her own mind.
Sydney Burgess is attacked in her home, and goes to report a dangerous person on the loose. Instead, the police tell her that not only is her attacker dead in her guest bedroom, but she’s a suspect in what appears to be a deeply personal murder. Sydney is sure she’s incapable of killing, but the whispers in her head and the dark memories resurfacing from her past would beg to differ. Perfect for those who, like me, have found psychological thrillers to be a gateway drug into appreciating the world of horror.
Cadwell Turnbull, No Gods, No Monsters
What It Is: According to its BISAC category, magical realism…but only if magical realism has a different definition here and means, book that examines the realistic social concerns of magical creatures.
Why It’s Perfect For Crime Fans: Evil conspiracies against werewolves are really just SPEKTR in fairy tale clothing
Aside from the pitch-perfect title (a play on the classic anarchist slogan, No Gods, No Masters), Cadwell Turnbull’s latest has everything. As the book opens, the world has just learned of the existence of werewolves from a bystander video of a police shooting, and monsters begin emerging from the shadows, hoping the world’s newfound knowledge of their existence will protect them from falling victim to a murderous conspiracy.