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 nuanced look at the year that was by taking you on a walk through some of the most interesting horror trends I have noticed accompanied by 2023 titles that illustrate them best.
Siblings Steer Some of the Best Stories of the Year
In 2023, many of the very best novels focused on sibling relationships, but not as the cause of the terror, rather as the very reason that the characters were able to triumph over the monsters, ghosts, or evil puppets.
Jim Crow Florida, 1950. Gloria and Robbie Stephens Jr, 16 and 12 respectively, are left behind after their mother dies from cancer and their activist father is forced to flee North to Chicago. When Robbie kicks a local white boy in the knee to protect his older sister, he is sentenced to 6 months at the Gracetown School for Boys, a reformatory with a notorious history. Told in the alternating perspectives of Gloria and Robbie, readers follow the action, set over two weeks, as Goria works to set Robbie free.
The timeline may be short but the history of the horror that imprisons Robbie is long and the ghosts who live on the school’s grounds are unwilling to wait any longer for justice. An engrossing and heartbreakingly beautiful story that speaks to all situations where injustice occurs and compels its readers to act.
How to Sell a Haunted House
Perennial horror bestseller Grady Hendrix’s early 2023 release navigated the well-worn haunted house trope, inserting fresh horrors into its pantheon (including a terrifying puppet), while also crafting an emotional and thought-provoking story about trauma and loss. Louise, a single mother, lives in California with her 5-year-old daughter Poppy, a continent away from her hometown, Charleston, SC. She has spent her life trying to keep as much distance, physically and emotionally, as possible from her family, especially her overly indulged brother, Mark.
But when their parents die suddenly, Louise is forced to return home and reckon with the secrets that have been haunting their family for generations, secrets that not only may be responsible for her estrangement with Mark, but may also be actively trying to kill them.
The Insatiable Volt Sisters
B.B. and Henrie, the Volt Sisters, are the last in the line of the founding family of Fowler Island in Lake Erie, macabrely famous for the mysterious disappearances of its female visitors. Opening in 2000, as B.B. contacts Henrie about the death of their father. Henrie agrees to return home with her mother, Carrie. Told in two-time frames, 2000 and 1989—the year Henrie and her mother escaped the island—and from the perspective of four realistically flawed women—B.B. Henrie, Carrie, and the island’s museum curator, Sonia, readers will be immediately hooked by their voices, the place, and the dark, mysterious history that surrounds it all.
Horror is a genre that purposely provokes terror in the reader. These are stories where terrible things can and do happen, but these three books excelled at invoking palpable fear while also allowing love, and the hope that stems from it, to blossom at the heart of these emotional tales.
The year is 1915. Adelaide Henry, 31 has lived her entire life in a California, Black farming community with her parents, but as the novel opens, Adelaide places her murdered parents in bed, burns the house down, and heads to catch a train to Montana, a territory that allows unmarried, Black women, the opportunity to claim a homestead. Taking only an overnight bag and a heavy, securely locked trunk containing her family’s curse, one that she is now solely responsible for controlling, Adelaide attempts to flee her past while still literally shackled to it.
Readers follow Adelaide to the edge of civilization, Big Sandy, Montana, to meet its marginalized and outcast citizens, feel the wide open, unforgiving landscape, and watch the captivating drama, both real and supernatural, unfold. This horror-western hybrid will grab readers from the start and threaten to never let them go.
It is also my personal pick for the best horror novel of the year.
A Light Most Hateful
If Neil Gaiman, Mary Shelley, and Shirley Jackson could birth a book baby, this stunning novel would be the outcome. Olivia, 18, lives in Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania, the small town she settled in three years ago, after running away from home when her father caught her kissing a girl. Even though the town is not fond of outsiders, she has found her place living in her best friend Sunflower’s orbit.
As the novel opens, a fierce storm brings torrential rain and what sounds like human screams from the hills. Olivia is working at the drive-in theater when an angry monster emerges from the ground and most of the townsfolk enter a zombie-like trance. Olivia runs for her life, looking for Sunflower, trying to save them both, but what exactly is she running away from, and where is she running to? Olivia is about to have the longest night of her life; one that will change her world forever.
Rose, a senior in high school, is a member of the Kingdom of the Pines, a church with deep ties to her local community and a national reputation for running Camp Damascus, an LGBTQ conversation camp with a 100% success rate. While hanging out with friends, Rose sees a decaying woman at the edge of the wood, wearing a red polo and nametag, staring straight at her.
Engaging, curious, kind, and proudly neurodiverse, Rose carries the story as Tingle meticulously introduces distrust and confusion, even going so far as to sew unease with single word choices. As Rose’s situation gets more dire, she gathers her found family, embraces love, and fights against the monsters threatening to destroy everything Rose holds dear.
While an author could write many books over their career, they can only have one first novel. Some are good, some meh, and then there are those that shine so brightly, it is hard to believe this is their first go at it.
Everything the Darkness Eats
Henley’s Edge is that kind of small New England town where everyone knows each other, but it is also a place where evil, both human and supernatural, has taken hold. Senior women have been disappearing without a trace. The local cop, Malik, is unable to find any leads, while simultaneously facing violent, homophobic attacks in his own home. Heart Crowley is a rich, funeral plot salesman who wants to help people find everything they are looking for in this life, if only they will go into his basement first. And then there is Ghost, an unlikely hero, a young man grieving a huge loss, literally stalked by guilt.
Eric LaRocca doubles down on everything that has made his shorter works a viral success, enhancing the dread with scenes of palpable fear, deep-seated trauma, and visceral villainy, using his expertly built, messily realistic characters to move readers through every possible emotion.
Maeve spends her days performing as the famous ice princess at “the happiest place on earth,” while her nights are spent brazenly murdering people and hiding her crimes in plain sight. But when Maeve meets her best friend’s gorgeous brother, she begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself.
Unapologetically dripping with graphic sex and violence, Leede is actively working every angle in an attempt to disgust and disturb her readers, balancing extreme scenes with dark humor and Maeve’s engaging narration. As sympathy builds for Maeve, readers will squirm even more, realizing just how much they are enjoying this illicitly alluring tale.
Speaking from adulthood, Ren recounts the pivotal year, when she exchanged her life as a good Chinese daughter, working hard to get into a top college, competing as an elite swimmer, for a life without terrestrial concerns, as a mermaid. No longer human, Ren shares her memories with a direct, confessional narration, effortlessly drawing readers in from the first lines. As Ren struggles with the pressures of her sport, the obsession of her coach, her feelings for her best friend Cathy, and her experiences as an immigrant, the rawness and pain are familiar, but it is Ren’s insistence on becoming a mermaid, where this tale leaves a lasting mark.
Full of contractions, magnificently balancing, and remarkably sustaining wonder and dread, magical realism, and harsh reality, this is a story that will hold readers in its thrall, squirming with discomfort, yet, unable to look away from the page. This first novel is also one of the most spectacular novels I have read in recent years.
WTF for the Win
Maybe it is because we have all lived through some wild times recently, but this past year, there were a handful of books that took a left turn, sending the story down a path that—in less talented and imaginative hands—could have been disastrous. Instead, in these novels, it is exactly the authors’ willingness to take those risks that made them some of the most memorable reads of the year.
The Dead Take the A Train
Richard Kadrey, an urban fantasy mainstay, and Cassandra Khaw, a horror rising star, team up for a cinematic and immersive “eldritch whale” of a duology opener. Julie, 29, is starting to feel the aches and pains of her job, using her small, magic-packed body to help keep NYC clear of monsters. She recovers with booze and drugs, barely making enough money to cover the rent. But when an old flame, the head of “Excision” for one of the top Wall Street firms, comes asking Julie for help, she starts a chain of events that threatens to eat up the whole world in its wake.
Filled with monsters, action, and situations that are bonkers in all the right ways, this is a crowd-pleasing, visceral, Cosmic Horror tale worthy of a wide audience.
One of the most beautiful and moving novels of the year is disguised as a riveting, cinematic, survival thriller. Jay is a high school senior dealing not only with the loss of his local hero and diving legend father, Mitt, but also his unresolved anger with their complicated relationship. In an attempt to come to terms with his grief, Jay attempts a dangerous, solo dive that is cut short when he is swallowed by a sperm whale. Told from Jay’s point of view in short, alternating chapters set in the present from inside the whale’s stomach with chapter headings that note how little air is left in his tank, and the past, mostly between 2015 and 2021.
The pacing is relentless, the awe, astounding, and the tension, palpably constricting, even as Kraus takes time to add the necessary scientific details. However, it is Jay’s growth throughout the story where this novel shines, allowing its beauty to emerge, and leave its mark on all who encounter it.
What Kind of Mother
Madi, a palm reader in Brandywine, Virginia, may have just returned to town with her 16-year-old daughter, after fleeing as a pregnant teenager, but her roots run deep in the Chesapeake Bay region. While plying her trade at a local farmer’s market, she sees her high school boyfriend, Henry, who has spent the last five years searching for his missing infant while mourning the suicide of his wife. When Henry, still a person of interest in these cases, gives his palm to Madi, she experiences disturbing images of the water and the boy, visions that have physical manifestations. Chapman immediately introduces suspense, hooking readers with Madi’s engaging but increasingly unstable narration, confidently and deliberately steering the tone from uneasy to weird to absolute terror with a twist so shocking, no one will see it coming.
A disorienting, immersive, and thought-provoking contemplation of hope, grief, and guilt, Chapman traps readers in a net of visceral horror from which they cannot look away no matter how much detritus bursts forth. But beware, readers may never look at a crab the same way again.