Another year has passed, delivering us a terrible bounty of new horror books to terrify us on quiet nights. Taken together, 2017’s best horror books were a little more introspective than last year’s, striking at the heart and bringing us visceral scares, from Scott Thomas’s psychologically affecting house of horrors in Kill Creek, to the raw rage and grief at the center of Paul Cornell’s Chalk, to the deeply humanist horror of Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Entropy in Bloom and the deeply feminist body horror of Carmen Maria Machado’s unparalleled short fiction. But beyond just hitting us in the (bad) feels, the year also gave us a new all-star gateway anthology, an eerie pastoral-gothic debut, new novels by returning favorites, and otherworldly delights—both fictional and non-fictional.
These are the best horror books of 2017.
Chalk, by Paul Cornell
Chalk tells the story of Andrew Waggoner, who suffers a horrifying act of violence at the hands of his school’s bullies. In his grief and anger, the boy makes contact with an old and ancient presence, which offers to help make him whole and exact terrible revenge—if he allows it. The occult horror masks a genuine exploration of how trauma can affect a person, cutting them out of the world, instilling violent fantasies of revenge, and leaving psychological wounds that linger long after the physical trauma had healed. It’s heartfelt, surreally terrifying, and utterly wrenching in ways I can only struggle to describe, and worth all the attention you can give it. Read our review.
Kill Creek, by Scott Thomas
If Chalk is a book about the horror of wounds and being wounded, Kill Creek is about the scars that trauma leaves. Scott Thomas’s disturbing love letter to psychological and gothic horror puts four deeply troubled writers in a haunted house that plays on their insecurities and pasts. The book celebrates the tropes of the horror traditions that birthed it even as it interrogates the complex psychological issues woven into the genre’s framework. The result is a terrifying look at confronting past trauma, set against a midwestern-gothic horror house as chill-inducing as the Overlook Hotel or Allardyce Manor. It’s an impressive debut, proving Scott Thomas writes great horror because he truly understands what makes horror truly scary. Read our review.
Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle
A video store clerk in a small Iowa town sees his peaceful life forever altered when customers begin finding unsettling scenes of hooded figures in a dark barn spliced into the humdrum movies at his store. The investigation leads to a house on the edge of the town’s farmland, and into the psyche deeply disturbed individual who inhabits it. Singer-songwriter John Darnielle (Wolf in White Van) has a way of finding humanity in the darkest and strangest of circumstances, turning a standard horror-thriller premise into a meditative story of grief, loss, and the forces that drive us to make bad choices. Darnielle perfectly nails the quiet of small town life in a novel whose subdued, eerie tones serve up scares and shine a light on the characters’ sadness in equal measure. Read our review.
Final Girls, by Riley Sager
Beginning where most slasher films end, Sager’s slow-burning, dread-filled thriller follows Quincy, a survivor of a Friday the 13th-esque cabin massacre. Years later, she has a loving boyfriend, a cooking blog that’s going viral, and support network helping her cope with her memories of the incident—barring one hour of dissociative amnesia. But then Lisa, Quincy’s fellow final girl and mentor, turns up dead, and Sam, the third member of their impromptu support group, drags Quincy back into their shared trauma for reasons that appear increasingly shadowy with every plot twist and turn. In exploring how the past might not be through with Quincy, Sager considers the deeper implications of surviving trauma, how the “final girl” trope might damage those it applies to, and how the past always threatens to rear up and catch you unawares—all of this, within the confines of a dread-filled novel dripping with atmosphere.
A God in the Shed, by J-F Dubeau
For 20 years, the village of Saint-Ferdinand has been stalked by a ruthless serial murderer known as the Saint-Ferdinand Killer who unbroken streak of killings haunts the village. The, finally, the killer slips up and Detective Stephen Crowley is there to catch him red-handed and arm-deep in a refrigerator full of body parts. But what Crowley doesn’t understand is that a darker force is in play in the woods of Saint-Ferdinand—and it’s this twisted, hungry abomination that truly has the small town in its grip. Dubeau grabs the reader from the jump with a scene of two boys whose walk in the woods takes a turn for the terrifying, but the best moments of his debut are in the quiet, eerie intervals between the outpourings of gore, when the village is at its most pastoral. This is a supremely effective, deeply unsettling gothic horror story about small town secrets.
The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, by Nate Crowley
The story of a man executed for a crime he might not have committed, then raised as a zombie to work aboard a trawler ripping apart sea monsters on a bottomless oceanic hellworld, only to regain his sapience—Schneider Wrack is well on the weird part of the scale. The book opens with the stuff of nightmares—gigantic “whales” and “sharks,” body-horror overseers, strange mites, corpses in various states of decay—and keeps building from there. The pacing is breakneck, touring Crowley’s nightmare imagination with ample opportunity for, er, interesting turns of phrase (“…its swim bladder burst like a bad prophylactic when those brave boys reeled it up,” describing a four hundred year old sea creature). The result is what we imagine you’d get if Herman Melville, China Miéville, and Hieronymous Bosch decided to collaborate, and it’s definitely one the the best bizarro reads of the year. Read our review.
It Devours! by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
The second companion novel to Welcome to Night Vale, the Lovecraft and David Lynch-inspired podcast exploring small town terrors and the dangers of community radio, It Devours! deals with the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a semi-corporate cult that worships a many-toothed Lovecraftian deity and has upsetting designs for existence as a whole. When a government scientist named Nilanjana Sikar is given the job of investigating a mysterious rumbling in the desert outside of town, she discovers the Congregation and its most dedicated member, Darryl, are doing something unnerving to bring their God’s plans to fruition. It Devours! continues Night Vale’s trademark style of reporting the horrifying in the plainest, most commonplace terms possible, a tactic that will unnerve even first-time visitors to horror’s favorite quiet desert town. Read our review.
After the End of the World, by Jonathan L. Howard
Howard’s second novel featuring bookstore owner Emily Lovecraft and detective Daniel Carter finds them in the Unfolded World, an alternate universe where things have gone much differently—beginning with Germany still in power in the wake of World War II and the Soviet Union having collapsed after the detonation of an Axis atomic bomb. Another result of these events: the Elder Gods are more or less present, the Necronomicon has been found, and the world is in the iron grip of fascism. Our heroes try to continue their lives as best they can in this new land, until events set them on the trail of madness, insanity, and occult forces once again. Despite the bleak premise, Howard’s trademark sardonic wit, fully realized characters, and gift for dialogue make this what passes for an escapist horror read.
Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero
The Blyton Hills Summer Detective Club were once teen sleuths who spent their vacations busting pirate sheep smugglers and money-grubbing crooks in rubber masks all through their quiet hometown—until they investigated the mansion on the island in Sleepy Lake. The inexplicable horrors they experienced there haunted them for 13 years, driving one to suicide, another into an asylum, and two more to drink. When new evidence suggests their traumatic shared hallucinations in the mansion might actually be true, the surviving members, their dog sidekick, and the ghost of their former friend head back to Blyton Hills for one last crack at the case. Cantero weaves a fascinating web of mystery, but in amongst the hordes of fishpeople is a heartfelt novel about closure, maturity, talking dogs, and a villain who weaponizes a knowledge of horror tropes to plan around the heroes’ designs and level the playing field. This is snarky, genre-savvy horror that doesn’t forget to be scary. Read our review.
Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King
A small town in Appalachia is invaded by a mysterious woman who calls herself “Evie,” and whose powers somehow relate to a worldwide pandemic causing women to becomes wrapped in cocoons when they fall asleep. Evie sets herself up in the women’s prison overlooking the town and gives the resident psychiatrist an ultimatum: keep her alive, and she frees all the women; let her die, and the women of the world will never wake up, leaving the men to soon go extinct. Within this framework, the Kings examine the toxic side of modern gender dynamics, increasing the pressure on the town and letting the characters’ darkness ooze out. The co-authors remain true to their characters, creating a host of men and women with agency and intriguing character arcs to operate within their fantastical, otherworldly framework. Read our review.
Black Mad Wheel, by Josh Malerman
In a hospital bed in Iowa, Private Philip Tonka slowly recovers from injuries sustained in an accident in the desert. Philip, the former lead singer of Detroit rock band the Danes, was a washed-up recording engineer when the army decided to bring his band back into their service, tracking down a mysterious sound in the African desert. The horror in Malerman’s unusual novel of conspiracies, ghosts, and strange aural phenomena mainly comes from things not fully revealed until late in the narrative; doctors are wreathed in shadow, that mysterious sound has an almost physical effect; Philip’s apparent ability to recover quickly from injuries that should have left him trapped in a broken body. As the gap between Patient-Philip and Past-Philip closes, the tension only ratchets up, propelled forward by a sound that’s more felt than heard, and by those who wish to control it.
Little Heaven, by Nick Cutter
A modern take on ’80s horror, with shades of Robert McCammon and F. Paul Wilson, Nick Cutter’s third novel is perhaps his strongest yet, a twisted narrative of three mercenaries who team up to rescue a woman from a cult and instead encounter something unexpected in the wooded mountain compound of Little Heaven. Cutter builds suspense by introducing the three protagonists in their broken, post-Little Heaven states, then flashing back to show how they were undone by the deals they made with the horrifying evil residing in the huge obsidian monolith the cult worships. He also fills the book with mix-and-match creatures, creepy undead children, sinister occult practices, and more horrors to keep you up nights, just wondering if that noise outside was made by the wind, or by a bear with six bird heads stuck to its shoulders. (Probably just the wind…right?)
Lost Boy, by Christina Henry
Told from the perspective of Captain Hook looking back on his relationship with Peter Pan, Lost Boy wastes no time in painting J.M. Barries’ Boy Who Never Grew Up as anything less than a narcissistic child abductor who doesn’t blink at leaving a 5-year-old boy to fend for himself near a crocodile pool. Henry reimagines Neverland as a place of strange gods and brutal power structures, none more brutal than Peter’s, as it paints the future pirate captain in a sympathetic light—at first, he’s the long-suffering friend of someone stuck perpetually in the low-empathy haze of childhood; slowly, he grows more and more fed up with his rooster-crowing friend’s fostering of a hostile environment where children fight one another viciously, go on dangerous raids against pirate crews, and suffer severely diminished life expectancies, all thanks to their merry leader. Henry’s mythology carves out an interesting notch in the subgenre of dark fairytale reimaginings, allowing her characters true sympathy and empathy while riffing on a keystone text in a way that never feels exploitative. Read our review.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Drawing on fairy tales, urban legends, and other cultural touchstones, Machado’s collection weaves together stories of women and women’s bodies. From a shop where disappearing women are sewn into dresses, to an unsettling take on those “black ribbon” campfire tales, to a fake episode guide for what sounds like the most interesting run of Law and Order: SVU episodes never produced, Machado’s stories are wonderful, lyrical, and dark, touching on issues of body image, sexuality, and the portrayal of women in fantastic fiction itself; in some ways, it is a challenge to the genre to do better by women, in all respects. Machado walks the line between the beautiful and the disturbing, wringing arresting images out of green ribbons, girls with bells sewn over their eyes, and yet more bizarre plot elements. Standout Stories: “Real Women Have Bodies,” “Especially Heinous”
Entropy in Bloom, by Jeremy Robert Johnson
Johnson has been a name to know in bizarre literary circles for a while, and this collection includes some of his best work alongside several new stories and an utterly disturbing novella titled “The Sleep of Judges” that is worth the cover price all by itself. “Judges” is a cosmic horror story about a father trying to keep his home and family safe as his world crumbles around him, but Johnson’s imaginative situations, and his protagonists’ easy-to-follow (if sometimes insane) motives, create a compelling interplay between parasite invasions or horrifying cult activity and very human needs: to belong, to be safe, to care about something bigger than oneself. Johnson is an essential author for anyone exploring what modern horror can do, and Entropy, which collects the highlights from more than a decade’s worth of disturbingly heartfelt tales of the bizarre, makes an ideal starting point. Standout Stories: “When Sussurus Stirs,” “The Sharp Dressed Man at the End of the Line,” and, of course, “The Sleep of Judges.” Read our review.
Strange Weather, by Joe Hill
Hill collects four short novels about forces of weird nature in this book: from summer thunderstorms and a mysterious “Solarid” camera that eats memories, to spring rains and horrifying crystalline nails that fall from the sky during them, to a chilly sapient cloud, to Florida hurricanes that accompany mass murder. These four short novels share a connective thread: despite the bizarre natural phenomena they explore, it is the human monsters that truly terrify. Like thunderclouds gathering, each novel forms a cloud of dread and foreboding, until the terrible events finally rain down on the hapless, imperfectly human characters. These are four tightly plotted, unnerving examples of the talents of a dark fiction master at his best, even with a much smaller page count. Read our review.
New Fears, edited by Mark Morris
It’s about time for a new contender to enter the anthology game. In his introduction, Mark Morris writes that he was inspired to create his own anthology series by the annual horror anthologies he grew up reading, works showcasing the best of the genre, packed to bursting with well-crafted stories from the masters of horror all over the country, and perhaps, all over the world. It’s a bold ambition, but with a diverse assemblage of relatively new talents (Allison Littlewood, Josh Malerman), contemporary greats (Christopher Golden, Adam L.G. Nevill), and established masters (Brian Keene, Ramsey Campbell) Morris delivers an unusually powerful slate of stories that hopefully signal the start of a brand new trend in horror fiction. New Fears is a collection of dark corners, and perfect for cold, dark nights; its showcase of talent makes it an excellent gateway drug for the genre as a whole. Standout Stories: “The Boggle Hole” by Allison Littlewood, “The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers” by Sarah Lotz
Paperbacks from Hell, by Grady Hendrix
Horrorstör made clear Grady Hendrix’s eye for design, and in this non-narrative, full-color history of paperback covers, he lets that talent run free, weaving the lurid covers of vintage horror novels in with the stories of the era’s trends and the illustrators who brought them to our eyes. Paperbacks from Hell also serves as a general history of the period’s horror literature, charting the rise and fall of authors and subgenres alike through the splashy and eye-catching wrappers that made them stand out on crowded book- and drugstore shelves. Exhaustively researched, with a tone hovering somewhere between reverence and wry reconsideration of tropes (the “women running from houses” meme is skewered, among many others), this book is a must for horror fans—and not just because of the lavish, detailed covers showcased throughout.
Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon, by Kim Newman
Author, historian, and film critic Kim Newman has a talent for discussing B-movies with the reverence, care, and understanding other writers devote to art films. This book collects his Video Dungeon column from the pages of Empire magazine, which turns his focused gaze to the best and worst of direct-to-video and TV filmmaking, offering well-read opinions on everything from Aussie horror to ypur various Sharknadoes, and everything in-between. It’s a fascinating look at trash cinema from someone who treats them with the respect (or sometimes lack thereof) they deserve, and a must for anyone interested in horror, SFF, and genre film criticism.
Are You In The House Alone? by Amanda Reyes
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the small screen was host to a special event: the telefilm. As the name suggests, these were movies made specifically for TV, designed to air once or twice and never been seen again. But, as Reyes explains, they were also a gateway into the wilds of genre cinema for those who didn’t live in major areas with theaters that screened B-movies, as they often went in for plots that would titillate audiences even as they indulged in social commentary (and worked around excessively tight budgets). Reyes’ retrospective book offers essays and reviews of key entires in this pivotal format in horror and genre-film history, blending an accessible tone with a deep knowledge of the subject matter, going well beyond the greats like Duel and Trilogy of Terror.
What’s the most terrifying book you read in 2017?
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