Have you read Dan Simmons’s The Terror – and are you looking for more reads which combine gruesome survival horror with a creepy supernatural element? Have you been binge-watching Yellowjackets, and looking for something to tide you over until the next season? Well, this just so happens to be my favourite genre, so let’s dive in.
Ever since I first watched Alive (1993), the seminal film about a rugby team’s desperate survival in the remote Andes, I’ve been drawn to survival stories. The more hopeless and bleak the better; to my mind, we learn the most about our own naked selves when the chips are down and there’s no rescue in sight. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard put it in The Worst Journey in the World: “In Antarctica you get to know people so well that in comparison you do not seem to know the people in civilisation at all.” Some become heroes; some become monsters. And, I’d suggest, in the best stories they become a little of both…
As a horror writer and fan, I’m always looking for ways to increase the tension, terror, and downright awfulness – enter the supernatural element! For some, this is an unnecessary intrusion into the survival story; for me, it’s the icing on the cake. My debut novel, All the White Spaces, pitted a stranded Antarctic expedition against something uncanny lurking in the snow. My second novel, Where the Dead Wait, has a similarly creepy setting, and follows a disgraced Victorian Arctic explorer, haunted by what he had to do to survive.
Baby, it’s cold outside
Road of Bones by Christopher Golden
I absolutely love a cold, snowy, isolated setting, and Christopher Golden is no stranger to blending extreme weather and unsettling supernatural elements. I’m a big fan of Ararat, his 2017 Bram Stoker Award-winning novel, which pits an archeological team uncovering Noah’s Ark atop a snow-covered mountain against something dark and demonic unleashed by the dig.
In Road of Bones, a filmmaker travels to Siberia to collect local ghost stories and legends associated with the Kolyma Highway, a road which represents a massive graveyard for the former Soviet Union’s gulag prisoners. The novel has as many twists and turns as the eponymous highway, with an abandoned town, a pack of supernaturally smart and fast wolves, and the growing presence of something ancient and primal. There’s a tendency for people to try to draw a line between ‘literature’ and ‘horror’, but that simply fails to hold up – Road of Bones, and every other book on this list, is characterised by fine and nuanced prose.
Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
From another well-known horror author comes Echo, which also manages to blend mountain-climbing horror with an impressive variety of supernatural elements. For me, it’s the awe-inspiring vein of cosmic horror which makes this book sing, but you could really take your pick – starting with the terrifying opening scene in which a stairwell fills up at night with silent, staring figures… which slowly start moving closer to the bedroom…
Thin Air by Michelle Paver
Following on from her triumphant Dark Matter – in which a 1930s meteorological observation of a remote Arctic island goes horribly wrong – Michelle Paver turns to the snowy, deadly peak of Kachenjunga. The setting is richly visualised, with the winding journey into the Himalayas set against a horrible feeling of impending dread. It’s such a compelling book, despite its relatively small size, and deftly manages (as with this author’s previous novel) to combine imperial anxieties with a razor-sharp injection of spectral menace. The scenes at Camp Three are some of the most frightening things I’ve ever read – and certainly up there with Dark Matter’s abhorrent bear-post!
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Alma Katsu is a genius at blending real-life history with an extremely creepy, pitch-perfect otherworldly element: in her most recent historical novel, The Fervor, she combines the Japanese-American internment camps with yokai, and The Deep is a retelling of the Titanic story with hints of sirens, selkies, and seances.
It’s no surprise, though, that my favourite is The Hunger, which follows the infamous Donner Party on their disastrous route through the mountains to California. We all know what will happen when the snow falls and the wagon-train gets stuck (spoiler for history: it’s cannibalism), but the author does such a spectacular job of breathing life into her characters that you’re made to feel every inch of the tension and despair along with them. Add to this a supernatural monster – or monsters? – lurking in the woods… and themes of contagion, greed, and persecution. It’s absolutely addictive.
It’s in the trees! It’s coming!
This Wretched Valley by Jenny Kiefer
I feel a bit cheeky sneaking a January 2024 release onto this list, but I promise you it’s well worth the wait. In her debut novel, Jenny Kiefer (an experienced climber herself) touches on the inexplicable geographies of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or Daniel Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and locates them in a mysterious forested valley in the Kentucky wilderness. There is literally no way out of this hellscape for the hapless crew who stumble into the valley’s jaws, and this book is deliciously crammed with nightmare fuel and lingering questions. It’s impossible to discuss this novel without mentioning the real-life mystery of the Dyatlov Pass incident; if you love losing yourself down Wikipedia holes, this is definitely the story for you.
The Ritual by Adam Neville
For me, this is the big one: the classic lost-in-the-woods novel. While the 2017 film adaptation certainly delivered – its epic monster design! – the book is an absolute masterclass in lingering unease, as Adam Neville’s group of ineffectual British hikers become gradually lost, injured, stalked, and separated in the Scandinavian wilderness. The evocative writing perfectly conjures up the misery of a multiple-day hiking trip going wrong. It’s damp, claustrophobic tree-horror in which the characters could die from simple accident many times over.
And while The Ritual starts slow, it becomes a completely different – and frankly unhinged – horror novel part-way through. If you haven’t experienced Moder, don’t let me spoil it for you, but suffice to say that the book is unlike anything I’ve ever read before or since.
The Dark Between The Trees by Fiona Barnett
This one, for me, hits close to home – because the setting is a small patch of woodland in England. It’s no less creepy and enticing for its unflashy setting, however, because Moresby Wood has a strange reputation, and Fiona Barnett’s novel weaves together the stories of a small group of soldiers during the English Civil War and a contemporary research expedition. It’s a fascinating piece of folk horror and folk storytelling, wrapped up in something which feels perilously close to ‘found footage’. Deeply, deeply strange.
Nowhere to run
The Ruins by Scott Smith
To ask a big question: are sentient, hostile, cannibalistic plants supernatural or not? The antagonists here (if plants can be antagonists) are the vines covering an ancient Mayan sacred site, which quickly becomes the prison-slash-tomb of a group of curious tourists. And this book is deliciously, undeniably gruesome: one of the protagonists sustains terrible, life-changing injuries even before the plants show their true colours – and it only gets more horrific from there.
I found it chillingly easy to imagine myself making some of the extreme decisions that are required in the name of survival. This novel captures the essence of extreme-condition horror, and is a welcome riposte to the snowy, cold, bleak settings which form the majority of this genre!
Black Tide by KC Jones
Black Tide has the smallest setting of any survival horror on this list, and yet it still feels like a huge novel, because the threat is chillingly, existentially cosmic. After a meteor shower, two near-strangers are trapped in a Jeep on a beach – and outside the world is ending. What follows is cinematic, fast-paced, pedal-to-the-metal storytelling that riffs off kaiju films and Lovecraftian monsters, proving once again that the supernatural doesn’t have to be ghostly in nature.
The White Road by Sarah Lotz
Sarah Lotz is too good to survival-horror fans: she treats us to two extreme settings in this rollercoaster of a book. The first part deals with a hapless internet listicle writer (should I be looking over my shoulder here?) who gets stuck in the wet, dark, confined space of an underground cave network in Wales. It’s intensely claustrophobic, and the author’s writing is superb: you can really experience the Stygian darkness down there. The second part is set on the snowy, corpse-littered slopes of Everest, and yet – in this wide open space – manages to be every bit as tense.
I first read this book when I was querying All the White Spaces, and I knew instantly this was the sort of book I dreamt of writing – so much so that I immediately looked up Sarah Lotz’s agent (Oli Munson). Delightfully, he’s now my agent too.
If you’re looking for more creepy Everest fiction – there’s something about that mountain which lends itself to nightmare fuel (perhaps it’s all those bodies?) – you’ll want to check out Neverest by T.L. Bodine, from Ghost Orchid Press. And if The Descent gave you nightmares, you’ll definitely enjoy The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling, a unique sci-fi horror in which an industrial caver on a distant planet encounters something more than the preternaturally dangerous worms she’s been led to expect…
I ain’t afraid of no ghost
Finally, if you’ve worked your way through this list and are hungry for survival horror that doesn’t include any supernatural elements, there’s a wealth of it out there. I’d like to highlight two of my favourite reads, neither of which need spooks to keep you on the edge of your seat (or the mountain). The first is Getaway by Zoje Stage, in which a group of female friends find themselves in a dizzying cat-and-mouse game on a weekend hiking trip deep in the Grand Canyon’s backcountry. Their friendship and physical endurance get tested to the limit, and Zoje Stage delivers some of the most painful characterisations I’ve ever seen, especially when dealing with her less traditionally sympathetic characters. The second is Breathless by Amy McCulloch (another accomplished climber), which plunges us headfirst into the high-stakes, high-tension world of competitive mountaineering. It’s incredibly immersive, and – yes – there’s a killer on the summit too. Who could ask for anything more?