2021 continued to be a year where real life Horrors dominated the news. Thankfully, our shelves were filled with a fantastic array of fictional horrors, scares that entertained and distracted us from our earthly terrors.
While there are many best lists out there for you to peruse this time of year, in true librarian fashion, I thought I would give you a more researched look at the year by taking you on a walk through the top emerging trends in Horror publishing, accompanied by exemplary 2021 titles that illustrate those trends.
Queer Horror Moves Front and Center
Those who identify as LGBTQ+ have long lived with constant unease, always wary of revealing their true selves to the world for fear of not being accepted [at best] and facing social retribution [at worst]. However, in 2021, Queer authors have embraced the terror in their own lives and bared that raw emotion on the page—with readers reaping the benefits.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke
LaRocca’s menacing and engrossing epistolary story is told in online conversations between two women from a message board, as well as their exchanged emails and IMs from late May 2000 to late August 2000. They meet over the sale of an antique apple peeler and develop a relationship that quickly spirals to viscerally horrifying conclusions. If you enjoy intensely close narrations and watching something go from strange to psychologically terrifying in a blink, this is a tale not to miss. Besides, this novella is responsible for the most memorable [and terrifying] question in horror all year, “What have you done today to deserve your eyes?”
Part Southern Gothic, part Dark, Academia Thriller, with a healthy helping of The Fast and the Furious, Mandelo’s slow burn follows Andrew, who has gone to Vanderbilt to figure out if his best friend Eddie killed himself or if the “malevolent haunts,” which have followed him since the two friends survived an accident as children, finally got him. If you enjoy novels filled with details that magnify and wring out every last ounce of dread, this tale of mortal danger and dark supernatural power will suck you in immediately. The fact that it also contains a sweet romance and a thoughtful grappling with society’s stereotypical notions of “masculinity,” is a nice bonus.
Queen of Teeth
Opening with what may seem like a gimmick as Yaya finds teeth growing in her vagina, Piper goes on to craft a brilliant, alternative history dystopia. It's a visceral, scary, and sensual tale that tackles gender identity head on. Yaya must navigate her status as a mutant chimera, victim of a pharmaceutical company’s proprietary virus, as she watches her body transform—and falls in love. If you like old school science fiction dystopias with a dose of cosmic awe—and a few dashes of Kaiju mayhem—you will be in horror heaven with this mesmerizing, original, and breathtaking debut.
Horror Fiction Framed as True Crime
2021 continued to see true crime books, articles, and podcasts dominating pop culture and vying for readers’ attention, so it should come as no surprise that many horror authors—who already have a corner on the terror market—have been purposely blurring the line between the two genres. Many of these titles seem ripped form the headlines and yet, are completely fictional.
Whisper Down The Lane
Beginning with a ritualistically disemboweled rabbit, Chapman, leans in on the graphic realism of his novel’s inspiration—the trials that launched the Satanic Panic of the 1980s—to create a tale that is both deeply unsettling and unputdownable. Told from two alternating perspectives—adult Richard in 2013 and child Sean in 1983—readers follow Sean’s experiences as a defendant in those trials as well as Richard, living with the repercussions of those events. A great option if you are fascinated by the Satanic Panic or enjoy disorienting psychological suspense, where what is real and what is imagined blur beyond recognition.
Chasing the Boogeyman
Best-selling horror author, Richard Chizmar, takes metafiction to whole new level of creepy. He stages his latest novel as an investigation—by a younger Richard Chizmar (yes, the author!)—into a string of murders, in Chizmar's actual hometown. Every detail about his life is 100% real, but the murders, their details, the newspaper reports, and even the photos included—all of that is fake. With less narrative restraint, this book would be a caricature; however, Chizmar injects just the right amount of self-reflection to forge an undeniable—and ironically honest—emotional connection with the reader. If you like unshakably unsettling, striking original storytelling, and crimes that are almost true, this story is for you.
Related: 7 Novels that Read like True Crime
The Last House on Needless Street
Ted lives in a boarded up house at the edge of the forest. It is the anniversary of the disappearance of a young girl—for which many still believe Ted is responsible. Disguised as a straightforward serial killer story, Ward unveils the plot in layers. She employs multiple narrators—vivid characters who give the reader honest (but clearly incomplete) information, drawing you deeper into the mystery with each twist and turn. If you like stories that blow your mind, then take a trip down Needless Street—but trust Ward to guide you. Your reward will be a magnificent example of Psychological Horror that is terrifyingly real, physically upsetting, and yet, she still manages to allow hope to shine through.
Related: An Interview with Catriona Ward
Final Girls Fight Back
At the 2021 Bram Stoker Awards Ceremony, a Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Carol J. Clover, a professor of American Film at the University of California, Berkeley. Clover is widely credited with coining the term “final girl.” The term refers to a common trope in slasher films—as the movie comes to an end, it is often a lone teenage girl left standing to confront the killer. Within weeks of Clover receiving this honor, two of the best-selling, most critically acclaimed horror novels of the year were released—with both taking a new look at this important trope.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw
Jade finds her only solace in the slasher movies of the 1980s. She is failing high school, but working on extra credit—writing essays for her teacher explaining the history of the horror subgenre. Soon, Jade starts to notice signs in her secluded hometown that a slasher is preparing for a July 4th massacre. Jade pins all hope on the rich and beautiful Letha—the town's obvious Final Girl. This is a story where every detail matters and tensions are barely contained—until it all explodes with violent action. If you want a story that reimagines the Final Girl as one who isn’t “pure” and may not be totally innocent—and yet, can still be a vessel for all of our hope—you need to meet Jade.
Related: Stephen Graham Jones: Where to Begin
The Final Girl Support Group
Lynette is part of a small club of six young women—real life final girls. Their lives have been immortalized in your favorite horror movies, but after the credits roll, in reality, they live in constant fear. For the past decade, they have found some peace in their special support group. Peace, that is, until a new killer begins picking them off one by one. Now Lynette, an imperfect final girl, needs to make her last stand. The story is a must-read if you like slasher films, but where Hendrix shines is in the details, ephemera, and clever chapter titles that bring the story and its characters to life.
Related: Grady Hendrix: Where to Start
Marginalized Voices Reclaim the Tropes of Old
Horror is being enthusiastically embraced by those whose voices have been previously marginalized from the mostly-white world of publishing, as they probe the genre’s long-standing tropes using their lived experience as inspiration. The result: fresh, surprising, and fun takes on stories seasoned horror vets thought they knew.
Goddess of Filth
Boldly—and blatantly reclaiming the possession trope from Christianity—Castro introduces readers to four friends: proud Chicanas, about to begin their adult lives. These four have a séance, resulting in one being possessed by a powerful Aztec deity who eats sin, steals secrets—and champions female sexuality. The girls must work together to figure out if they should oust this demon or embrace the Goddess, with her knowledge and power to take control of their lives—despite the limitations race, class, and gender have placed upon them. Give this sensual, terrifying, and thoughtful novella a try, but beware, it may have you questioning everything you thought you knew about this popular trope.
Nothing but Blackened Teeth
Four friends gather at a Heian-era mansion in the Japanese countryside to celebrate a last-minute elopement by two of their group. But this beautiful house has an ugly and violent history. 1,000 years ago a bride was awaiting her groom, who never arrived. She asked her guests to bury her alive, in the building’s foundation, to wait for him. Every year since, it is said, a young woman is sacrificed to help the lost groom find his way back to his beloved. Happily ever after this is not. If you enjoy ghost stories dripping with unease and oozing menace—with a historical connection between past and present—this engrossing haunted novella is a sure bet.
Children of Chicago
Detective Lauren Medina works tirelessly trying to stop an epidemic of violence against Chicago’s children. But there is a dark force stronger than any gang, powered by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, stalking its young victims—and Medina unfortunately knows the Pied Piper, his strength, and the great cost of wielding his power personally. If you enjoy superior world building, a relentless pace, a complex heroine, and a harrowing story that preys off of current events as much as its well-developed monster, spend some time with this inner city fairy tale retelling that we didn’t know we were missing.