2020 was one hell of a year. To say that for many it’s been the stuff of nightmares would be an understatement. But if you’re someone who needs to immerse yourself in a world that’s even scarier in order to forget this one, there’re still plenty of books to give you a good fright. As someone who loves to read all things spooky 365 days a year, I’m here to bring you my horror recommendations. And while it was hard to whittle down a list of the many, many excellent horror titles from last year, here are the scariest, spookiest, most sinister six I would recommend to someone looking for a page-turning ride of terror.
Not to be a horror hipster, but I’ve been a longtime fan of Stephen Graham Jones. However, it doesn’t matter when you first read the horror greats as long as you get to their spine-tingling tales, and if you’re looking to start, THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is a killer book. Four American Indian teens kill a pregnant deer on sacred hunting grounds, a crime for which they never pay for (but that’s not to say it has been forgotten). As adults, the spirit of the deer comes back to haunt them, taking its vengeance not just on the four of them but on their loved ones as well. Jones blends dark twists with social commentary, examining how Native Americans are forced to negotiate their heritage in a society that demeans and degrades their culture and identities. The gory ends that come to pass will leave you breathless, if not a little freaked out by ceiling fans, but the ending manages to really shine a hopeful light on the world being put right . . . someday, that is.
“One of 2020’s buzziest horror novels.” —Entertainment Weekly
“The Only Good Indians is a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope….And it gives me hope that this book exists and is now in your hands.” —Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World
“Bloody and brutal at times, but also intimate, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.” —Rebecca Roanhorse, New York Times bestselling author of Trail of Lightning
The creeping horror of Paul Tremblay meets Tommy Orange’s There There in a dark novel of revenge, cultural identity, and the cost of breaking from tradition in this latest novel from the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones.
Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.
Is a horror reads list of any kind ever truly complete without some Stephen King? The master storyteller has continuously pushed out books to delight and terrify, with IF IT BLEEDS coming in to distract us from the nightmare that was 2020. A collection of four novellas, the title-novella is my favorite. The story follows the character of Holly Gibney, the detective from THE OUTSIDER and the Bill Hodges trilogy, as she pokes at the peculiarities in the case of a school bombing. Gibney is such a striking character that it’s hard not to want to follow her everywhere, even when the story ends. However, if you’re really looking for some dark thrills, “Rat” will make your insides curdle. Drew Larson is desperate to write the best book of his career, but his writer’s block is holding him back, among other unfortunate circumstances. When a rat offers to give him the ability to craft his tale in exchange for the life of one of his loved ones, Larson doesn’t realize how much he has to lose. If you’re looking for quick bursts of terror, this is going to fit the bill.
From #1 New York Times bestselling author, legendary storyteller, and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary collection of four new and compelling novellas—Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, Rat, and the title story If It Bleeds—each pulling you into intriguing and frightening places.
The novella is a form King has returned to over and over again in the course of his amazing career, and many have been made into iconic films, including “The Body” (Stand By Me) and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (Shawshank Redemption). Like Four Past Midnight, Different Seasons, and most recently Full Dark, No Stars, If It Bleeds is a uniquely satisfying collection of longer short fiction by an incomparably gifted writer.
The Chilewaukee reservoir, aka the Chill, starts out as a mundane story; in order to help provide water to those living farther south in the state of New York, the town of Galesburg was evacuated and flooded. However, that’s not exactly the truth, and the dark secrets won’t stay underwater for much longer. With grizzly murders, family histories coming to light, and a town on the brink of disaster, THE CHILL is a return to the old-school style of horror that creeps in slowly and is as much about the fallibility of the characters than of the dark spirits themselves. Scott Carson, the pseudonym for thriller writer Michael Koryta, manages to build a sinister mythology and an enthralling cast of characters, as well as teaching readers more than they ever thought they’d need to know about dams. Good thing it’s going to be too cold for a swim since, as this book will tell you, you don’t always know what’s waiting for you in the depths below.
“Wow! This is one terrific horror/suspense/disaster novel. Characters you root for and a story that grips from the first page.” —Stephen King, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Institute
“Horror has a new name and it’s Scott Carson. The Chill is an eerie dive into the murky depths of the supernatural. A story that has you looking back over your shoulder on every page.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Night Fire
“A creepy tale of supernatural terror.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
In this terrifying thriller, a supernatural force—set in motion a century ago—threatens to devastate New York City.
Far upstate, in New York’s ancient forests, a drowned village lays beneath the dark, still waters of the Chilewaukee reservoir. Early in the 20th century, the town was destroyed for the greater good: bringing water to the millions living downstate. Or at least that’s what the politicians from Manhattan insisted at the time. The local families, settled there since America’s founding, were forced from their land, but they didn’t move far, and some didn’t move at all…
Now, a century later, the repercussions of human arrogance are finally making themselves known. An inspector assigned to oversee the dam, dangerously neglected for decades, witnesses something inexplicable. It turns out that more than the village was left behind in the waters of the Chill when it was abandoned. The townspeople didn’t evacuate without a fight. A dark prophecy remained, too, and the time has come for it to be fulfilled. Those who remember must ask themselves: who will be next? For sacrifices must be made. And as the dark waters begin to inexorably rise, the demand for a fresh sacrifice emerges from the deep...
Grady Hendrix has a way with characters, especially female protagonists, that makes them come alive. Never was there more proof of that than THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB'S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES, his latest book about suburban housewives fighting back against the paranormal and the patriarchy. Patricia Campbell tries to be a good wife, mother, and neighbor, which is why she’s so kind to new neighbor James Harris. But when she sees that her neighbor might not be human and is coming for their children, Patricia will have to try and rally her true-crime-loving book club to fight him and his allies, which include their husbands. This book is dark and infuriating in all of the right ways. I’m not kidding when I say I wanted the protagonists to leave their husbands, burn down the town, and rebuild it as a feminist utopia. As these characters face the deeply embedded land mines of sexism and racism, and often watch them detonate in their face, there is still a truly unnerving vampire story lurking within. The book might take place in the early 1990s, but its themes still hit home hard today.
You know what’s really spooky? Reading about a malignant haunted house when you’re trapped in a small space for days at a time. That’s bound to get the heart racing! No book this year manages to encapsulate that eerie, trapped feeling better than MEXICAN GOTHIC. Noemí Taboada is a young woman looking for freedom and education in the strict world of 1950s Mexico. She’s allowed to continue with her studies if she visits her cousin and her new husband in High Place, their elaborate home. But soon Noemí finds that there is something sinister happening in High Place, and it might be looking to devour her next. Author Silvia Moreno-Garcia is no stranger to the horror genre, and she flexes those terrifying muscles perfectly in this book, saturating every page with dread and grimness. It’s a fantastic exploration on not just the historic oppression of women, but also empowerment and finding inner strength in ways both traditional and radical.
Paul Tremblay is one of those authors who is a master of hiding the truly horrific parts of the story until the perfect moment to nearly give you a heart attack. Though perhaps this year the plot hits close enough to him that it’ll make your hair stand on end regardless. Massachusetts is under lockdown after a version of the rabies virus begins infecting people, leading to a quarantine and a curfew. It could almost be exactly like 2020, except for, you know, the zombies. In a race-against-the-clock plot, the action focuses on Dr. Ramola "Rams" Sherman as she desperately tries to save her friend Natalie and Natalie’s unborn child after Natalie becomes infected. This is no fairy tale, and if you’re coming into this book expecting a happy ending, you best look elsewhere. And yet as terrible and gruesome as the action gets, it is impossible to look away. Tremblay’s descriptions of the panic, fear, and chaos of an outbreak are gripping, making you feel every bite, scratch, and even tear as this horrific odyssey plays out.
Photo credit: iStock / Maya23K