This year’s top horror novels distinguished themselves not only through quality but with their use of metaphor to approach societal ills obliquely. Through the lens of horror, and the examination of monstrosity, we see the many ways that hatred, prejudice, and and the enforcement of conformity warp our communities and our own minds. These novels also function as a graceful way of lifting ourselves out of the traps of circular thinking that are so often the cause of repetitive, unwelcome, and problematic assertions. Some of the selections achieve this project through a hilarious skewering of modern morality, while others go deep into the darkness, only to lead us out with a flickering lantern and a small, but essential, message of hope. I tried so hard to limit this list to 10, but of course, it ended up being 15. The amazing landscape of new releases this year continues to prove we’re living in a new golden age of horror (and 2024 is already shaping up to be just as fabulously full of terrifying tales).
Kiersten White, Mister Magic
What a beautiful and surprisingly affecting novel Mister Magic turned out to be! A reunion for the former child stars of a mysterious television show is the pretense for a gathering of lost souls trying to make sense of their bizarre childhood. Who was Mister Magic? Why did their games on the show feel more like punishments? Why can no one find any episodes preserved on hard copies? And what can the former stars do to make sure the dark presence behind the show doesn’t come back to shape a new generation of young minds? Kiersten White does an incredible job at drawing out the violence behind the lessons of conformity and obedience aimed at turning children into well-behaved adults, and wrote this novel as part of her own journey to process childhood religious traumas.
Liz Kerin, Night’s Edge
Liz Kerin uses the vampire trope as a perfect metaphor for abuse in Night’s Edge, a disturbing and insightful look at the dynamic between a vampire mother and the obedient daughter who does everything she can to keep her mother fed and happy (and, well, not attacking her). Her mother’s alternating emotional manipulation, terrifying violence, and empty excuses showcase the dynamics of DARVO and how love is twisted by those who see only their own need.
Stephen Graham Jones, Don’t Fear the Reaper
Stephen Graham Jones blew me away with the first in his Indian Lake trilogy, My Heart is a Chainsaw, and Don’t Fear the Reaper is, if you can believe it, even better than the first! Jade is back, now in her 20s, as a killer and a snowstorm converge on the town of Proofrock and another massacre looms. Can Jade stop the serial killer Dark Mill South before he finishes taking vengeance for 38 Lakota men killed in the 19th century? The fast-paced novel takes place over only a day and a half, and you’ll want to read it just as quickly.
Eric LaRocca, Everything The Darkness Eats
Eric LaRocca grew up in a stifling small town in Connecticut, so he knows what he’s talking about in this claustrophobic tale of horror and hatred in a tiny community. While the townspeople are distracted by their own problems and prejudices, a mysterious entity known as Mr. Crowley has been steadily kidnapping the most vulnerable residents in town and taking them to his basement for an unholy project. LaRocca came onto my radar with the viscerally disturbing and hugely enjoyable Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, and Everything The Darkness Eats cements his reputation as an essential horror writer for our time.
Carissa Orlando, The September House
Carissa Orlando’s The September House uses hauntings as a brilliant metaphor for abuse, and what people can get used to, as well as a prescient comment on the tight housing market. Orlando’s narrator loves her home, and if she needs to ignore some ghostly children, be served tea by a taciturn housekeeper with a gaping face wound, and scrub the blood off the walls once a season, then so be it. Her husband isn’t so good at tolerating the house, but then, she’s learned how to tolerate much more from his treatment of her than she ever expected. When her daughter comes to stay, and her husband goes missing, it’s up to Orlando to continue saying “everything’s fine” for far too long. But the ghost in the basement may finally spur her to action…I found myself cheering at the end of this book.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Silver Nitrate
Both of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s parents worked in radio, so perhaps that’s part of the inspiration behind this bonkers ode to sound engineering and the (literal magical) power of the human voice. Silver Nitrate features a sound editor and a has-been actor as they befriend an elderly icon from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, only to find themselves drawn into a vast conspiracy to harness the magic of the silver screen and bring an occult-obsessed Nazi back from the dead. This book has everything, and I could not recommend it enough!
Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I’m Worthless
In this intense haunted house story, three girls spend a night in a property cursed by the hatred and violence of those who first occupied its grounds. One is trapped in the house forever, and the other two barely escape, the house’s dark powers having revealed both their vulnerabilities and hatreds to each other. Rumfitt uses body horror and the tropes of the haunted house skillfully to explore the trans experience in an England full of terfs, and Tell Me I’m Worthless contains a strong anti-fascist message for a nation beset by growing prejudices.
Juan Martinez, Extended Stay
(University of Arizona Press)
El Norte meets Barton Fink in this hotel horror. Two siblings flee from Colombia to the United States and end up at a dingy hotel in Las Vegas where strange figures lurk in the corridors and monsters feed off of the sorrow of the most vulnerable. What follows is both a brilliant horror novel and a sharp critique of capitalism and exploitation.
Cassandra Khaw, The Salt Grows Heavy
What if Ariel laid eggs and then her monstrous daughters laid waste to the entire kingdom? A mermaid, her daughters, and a plague doctor (the only creature spared in the massacre) go on a wintry journey in which they encounter a disturbing village that evokes the darkest of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. Khaw’s prose is visceral, disturbing and beautiful in equal measure.
John Milas, The Militia House
In this military horror novel, a rare but hopefully growing subgenre, American soldiers stationed near the ruins of an old Soviet outpost in Afghanistan find themselves in the midst of strange happenings, unexplained disappearances, and disturbing visitors. Milas is a wordsmith, and this novel is as haunting as it is impressive.
Gerardo Sámano Córdova, Monstrilio
Part of a new wave of haunted house horror that continues to expand and redefine the genre, Monstrilio is about a woman who creates a monster from a piece of her dead son’s lung, feeding it bloody sacrifices as it grows into the image of her long-gone child. Her monstrilio is loved, cared for, and wholly monstrous. But are not the monsters among us also capable (and deserving) of love? Read this if you liked Sarah Gailey’s Just Like Home! Also of note: that cover design. It’s just so damn good.
Sam Rebelein, Edenville
A novelist has a very vivid dream. He wakes up and writes a novel. That novel comes across the desk of a mysterious researcher who curses her discovery. She doesn’t want to kill the author—perhaps, she can hire him as an adjunct creative writing teacher instead? And so the author and his girlfriend head to a small liberal arts college where the English department has a strangely otherworldly agenda. This book was a wild ride from start to finish, with a heavy dose of humor thrown into the mix.
Nat Cassidy, Nestlings
A couple with a baby gains access to the perfect two-bedroom in Nat Cassidy’s ode to creepy New York legacy apartment buildings. Ana and Reid are struggling after birth leaves Ana paralyzed, and they worry about moving to a higher floor in terms of emergencies and accessibility, but the apartment is just too nice to say no to. There’s a reason they’re being welcomed into the building, however: their neighbors have sinister motivations. Of note is the novel’s take on antisemitism as horror, in the guise of a hateful former landlord echoing currently rising prejudices.
Elizabeth Hand, A Haunting on the Hill
Elizabeth Hand is one of the coolest writers around, and I absolutely adored A Haunting on the Hill, a Shirley-Jackson-estate approved continuation of The Haunting of Hill House (This time with more hauntings! And more hills! Actually probably just the one hill). Playwright Holly Sherwin and her girlfriend Nisa head upstate with a troupe of actors to stage and rehearse a new play. Sherwin is confident that the crumbling gothic manor of Hill House will bring out their creative sides, but instead, they are joined by their hauntings. This was a favorite book of the year for my colleague Olivia Rutigliano, who also did a wonderful interview with Hand for the site.
Clay McLeod Chapman, What Kind of Mother
I was shattered by Clay McLeod Chapman’s grief horror Ghost Eaters, and in What Kind of Mother, Chapman revisits some of the same themes of loss and absence, this time in the guise of a domestic thriller with supernatural overtones. A palm reader heads back to her hometown with her teenage daughter, only to reconnect with an old flame who is struggling with the loss of his young son. After reading his palm, Chapman’s heroine finds herself convinced her lover’s son is still alive. But where could he be, and who could have taken him?