Zombies, ghouls, and all the rest of the night’s ilk might be the least frightening things about 2020. I, too, have an approximately once-monthly freakout and want to howl at the moon. I, too, want to dissolve into mist or frantically flap around squeaking at frequent intervals. And I, too, shuffle around mindlessly in search of food, one of my remaining sources of novelty and pleasure. The other is books, so in that vein (hah), here are the 13 creepiest, goriest, or just plain most unnerving books from this year.
The Boatman’s Daughter (Andy Davidson) – Lightning flashes and something wails in the night. But in the bayou, nothing is as solid as it seems. Miranda knows this, having lost her father to a midnight errand when she was young, but she’ll still have to venture its secrets and its dark depths to protect the life she knows. Though the topic is frightening the prose is lush and exquisite.
The Invention of Ghosts (Gwendolyn Kiste) – Bram Stoker award-winner Kiste followed up her spectacular The Rust Maidens with a novella about a haunting. But can the living haunt you? It’s time to find out…
Looking Glass (Christina Henry) – This collection of novellas follow up on the unanswered questions and unexplored characters from the Alice duology (Alice and Red Queen). All four stories are equally excellent, and Henry shows off her mastery by giving each a very different feel, keeping the horror fresh and urgent.
Harrow the Ninth (Tamsyn Muir) – Please do yourself a favor and read these books. Necromancy in space is already spooky, but then add haunted palaces, murderous plots, and enormous beasts bent on devouring the universe and you have a cataclysm of awesome the likes of which have never been written before.
Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) – Slow, creeping horror permeates this tale of isolation and madness as vivacious heiress Noemí clashes with old money—and even older things—in order to enact a daring rescue.
Ring Shout (P. Djèlí Clark) – Definitely one of the best books of the year, this action-horror novel pits a Chosen One with a magic sword against a horde of monsters—only the Chosen One is a Black woman and the horde is made up of people whose KKK affiliation has literally turned them into monsters. And if that’s not enough, there’s cosmic horror on top of all of it, threatening to bring down the whole world.
When Villains Rise (Rebecca Schaeffer) – This series is not for the squeamish, but for those who don’t mind a little blood it’s a nail-biting survival story of two ‘inhuman” teens trying to survive (and maybe to thrive) in a world that would readily see them sold, killed, and worse. When the whole system is bad, who exactly is a monster anymore?
The Only Good Indians (Stephen Graham Jones) – Jones writes like he’s in a fight, throwing down quick jabs and ducking back from saying too much, which makes for a breathless story of four friends, each haunted, each desperate even before the haunting begins. The dread comes slowly but very, very assuredly.
Hollow Places (T. Kingfisher) – I started this and literally could not put it down, nor could I bring myself to turn out the lights once I had finished it in the wee hours of the morning. T. Kingfisher shows us cosmic horror at its finest yet again, following up last year’s equally unnerving The Twisted Ones with a story about what you would think would be a completely innocuous topic. Not so. You will be wary of trees (yes: trees) for days.
In the Shadows of Men (Robert Jackson Bennett) – This small press offering from Bennett says exactly as much as it needs to and not one word more, a perfectly economical ghost story. Reflecting on toxic male entitlement and abusive masculinity, it asks important questions about how men are haunted, and how they perpetuate horrors.
Yellow Jessamine (Caitlin Starling) – Wealthy widow Evelyn hides much behind her black veil: her feelings, her secrets, and her many plans. But when plague strikes her already-struggling city, she has to become all the more ruthless and cunning. A book I savored like very fine whisky, Starling’s prose is a match for her otherwise peerless character.
Horrid (Katrina Leno) – Jane is already unsettled: her father’s death meant a serious financial hit to the family as well as an emotional one, and her mother has been forced to relocate them both to her old hometown in Maine. This small town has a couple of big secrets, one of which might be the very house Jane is living in. If the atmosphere doesn’t draw you in, the strong, smart narrative voice surely will.
Beyond the Ruby Veil (Mara Fitzgerald) – An lavishly gothic world filled with black gowns and bloodred roses sets the scene nicely for its main character: an equally lavish young woman named Emanuela who desires luxury, power, fame, and any number of other whims, and plans to get them by any and all means. Her brazen manners are a bright light that makes the shadows in the story all the darker.