I have been a fan of coming-of-age horror since, well…forever. My favorite author when I was a middle-grade reader was John Bellairs. He wrote a series of books with a young child as the main character/narrator who gets involved with all kinds of spooky, eerie, mysterious business. The books had covers and interior illustrations by Edward Gorey. They went out of print and were re-released with new artwork but they’re not the same. Of course, I have hunted the originals down and own the whole lot as they were when I was a child. Nostalgia is everything.
In high school, I read The Lord of the Flies for the first time and it became my personal gold standard for coming-of-age horror. A bunch of adolescent boys crash land on a remote island and must find a way to survive without any rules or authorities. This book opened my mind to the absolute horrors young people could be subjected to and maybe or maybe not make it out with their life.
I used The Lord of the Flies in a list of comps for a new coming-of-age book and someone pointed out that The Lord of the Flies was not coming-of-age horror so I’m going to define the genre as I understand it to ensure clarity for my list of recommendations.
Coming-of-age denotes a season of growth and maturity in a young person’s life. In coming-of-age fiction, the story focuses on one or several young adults as they journey through life’s challenges. Sometimes the book follows the young adult(s) all the way through to adulthood as we see in Stephen King’s IT. Other times, there is a life-threatening event or heavy trial that forces a child or children to grow up faster than they would during normal circumstances, like The Lord of the Flies. In either case, there is an emphasis on fortitude tested under extreme duress, which we identify as character-building.
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Also, coming-of-age horror is not just a horror book with teen protagonists. My recommendations have a vibe. There’s a nostalgia about these books because they emphasize what it was really like to be young, carefree, unsure of who you are, falling in love for the first time, and still straddling that line between feeling like a child and becoming independent.
Now that we’ve established some parameters, let’s get into the recommendations, shall we? I’d like to start off with what I’m going to call,
These are the books you expect to be on a list and I’m not going to explain why they’re here in order to convince anyone to read them. They simply are on the list of coming-of-age horror and they, together, make up the cornerstone upon which all other coming-of-age has been built. But also, this list is a bit of a man-party and this is as a result of a lot of reasons that we’re not going to get into today, but I’m going to showcase/ highlight some coming-of-age horror that is unique to the genre and needs more attention.
- A lot of Stephen King books: Carrie, IT, The Body, The Long Walk, The Eyes of the Dragon, Later, The Talisman with Peter Straub… a lot.
- Boy’s Life, Mystery Walk, Gone South, The Listener by Robert McCammon
- The Bottoms, Edge of Dark Water, Moon Lake by Joe R. Lansdale
- The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- Summer of Night by Dan Simmons
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
- Ghoul by Brian Keene
Can’t Miss List.
If you love this subgenre, these are the books you cannot let pass you by. They are the new quintessential coming-of-age horror books. These stories have informed my understanding of the genre, setting the bar higher than ever. Get your wallets out and make room on your nightstand. You need them all.
Boys in the Valley
This book was a limited, exclusive release through Earthling Press and it’s currently out of print. Look for it to get a big re-release through Tor Nightfire soon. There’s an orphanage, a home for boys. They’re being raised up by some priests-some are good father figures and some are not. One night, the orphanage is visited by some strange men and bad things happen. After this night, some of the boys exhibit strange behavior. This escalates in unexpected ways. I have not read a book this compelling and actually terrifying in a long, long time.
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There are fourteen stories and a novella. Each story showcases Tananarive Due’s ability to draw readers into a provocative narrative across a variety of genres. What especially stood out to me is that Due has a love of history—it doesn’t matter if she is writing a dystopian, science fiction, or apocalyptic tale-historical elements are present and accounted for. Even her young protagonists seem to have a special curiosity about historical events. This aspect of her storytelling adds a special authentic flavor.
Hearts Strange and Dreadful
Tim McGregor introduces his readers to Hester Stokely, a capable young woman orphaned at an early age. She has been adopted into her aunt and uncle’s family to help care for the Stokelys’ modest home and farmland. There is an ominous dread building behind the scenes; something sinister and evil. At the core of this novel is a love story between two young characters. Prepare to be hopelessly invested in this book.
A coming of age story set in the 1990s against the backdrop of something evil happening in a small town. Five friends set out to uncover the truth so they can catch a killer preying on the people in their hometown. My favorite scenes were whenever all of the boys were together for pages of dialog—it’s like you’re right there as a fly on the wall witnessing real boys in the summer of their youth—all their struggles, joys, attitudes, emotions are expressed realistically by an author who clearly lived it and can pull from a deep well of knowledge and experience.
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Mapping the Interior
Junior is 12 years old, raised by his mother, a widow, who lives outside of the Indian reservation to "save her boys from drowning”. Junior's brother, Dino, has special needs. Jones pulls the reader into Junior’s headspace effortlessly. Full of everything that makes me tick as a reader. Symbolism, foreshadowing, suspense, tension, fear, concern, and an emotional tidal wave that sucks you out to sea and spits you out.
Related: Stephen Graham Jones: Where to Begin with the Award-Winning Horror Author
Cutter reminds me of Stephen King in the way that he can make you fall in love with his characters through in-depth, detailed backstory and character development. He's brilliant at it. But all of this character development creates risk for you the reader because you don't want what is happening to these young boys on their camping trip to happen. It’s painful. This book will absolutely disgust and upset you.
S. P. Miskowski's narrative seamlessly tracks all three, main characters through childhood, teenage years, and on into womanhood. Each woman is unique and identifiable. Most noticeably to me is the author's ability to explore a variety of personal issues and struggles that the women face and translate them to the readers in a way that feels authentic and intimate. I'm recommending this to horror fans that love the following: Coming of age, occult, small-town drama, paranormal/demonic activities.
As a horror lover and a mother of two boys the authenticity and risk factor comes through in spades. The main character, Baker moves around a lot with his single mother. He's desperate to fit in and make friends at his new school.
What begins as a healthy, fledgling friendship between new friends, Seb and Baker is suddenly altered with the introduction of Cass. Watching the toxicity she introduces subtly and insidiously was terrifying. I was so nervous for the boys but mostly Baker.
I devoured this story. *currently out of print with a now-defunct indie publisher.
The Dead Girls Club
In the story from 1991, four friends form a Dead Girls Club where they get together to talk about true crime stories, serial killers, and, well...dead girls. They also talk about parents, music, movies, and their changing bodies. It felt authentic as several of the discussions hit on topics that concerned me and my friends when we were in junior high. Becca becomes fixated on telling her friends stories of The Red Lady at their Dead Girls Club. Ultimately, it's her obsession with The Red Lady that leads to a tragic and mysterious event-ending club meetings and friendships.
30 years later, Heather—Becca's best friend—is suddenly haunted by the past. I recommend this book to fans of coming-of-age stories, authentic female protagonists, rich-detailed storytelling, fast-paced thrillers with horror elements, and unreliable narrators with a big mystery to solve. I had a fun time with this one.
My Best Friend's Exorcism
What you're signing up for when you read this book is the general plot of The Exorcist paired with Carrie vibes but lightened up with Hendrix's unique brand of iconic cultural identification/nostalgia that looks a lot like a blender smoothie of Stranger Things, My So-Called Life and every 80s sitcom. Overall, I recommend this book for anyone—not just fans of 80s pop culture (although they would love this!) and not just fans of horror books, but everyone who likes a good story with witty dialog, great characters, and a well-crafted horror plot, with few laughs. How does that *not* sound like a good time?
Related: Grady Hendrix: Where to Start With This Wickedly Humorous Horror Author
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock
Paul Tremblay can write teens. He's got them down. I loved all the teens in this story almost too much. I loved the mother, Elizabeth in the same way I loved Winona Ryder’s character in the first season of Stranger Things when she’s hell-bent on finding her missing son. This book wrecked me. This story draws you in, grabs you by the heart, and gut-punches you. Hurts so good.
John Boden's storytelling voice comes from a place of quiet introspection, a knack for remembering details, and a rare talent for expressing emotion. It's authentic and genuine. Jedi Summer is a semi-autobiographical telling of a memorable summer in a boy's life. Each chapter is a vignette or stitch in time that when read in one sitting is woven together to create a warm, nostalgic blanket for the reader to snuggle up under. Highly recommend although it is currently out of print and looking to be re-released with Cemetery Dance Paperbacks.
Of Foster Homes and Flies
Chad Lutzke has a unique brand of storytelling. This is a poignant story about a child who wakes to find his mother has died while watching TV. In shock, he decides to just go about his life so he doesn’t miss out on a spelling bee at school.
It's actually amazing to me what he managed to do in less than 200 pages—the depth of character he developed with the protagonist, a 12-year-old boy named Denny, is actually a powerful testament to Chad's ability as a writer.
My favorite thing about this novella is the overwhelming control it had over my feelings. Just in a few short paragraphs of a scene, I laughed, cried and raged reading Denny's reactions to his unfortunate circumstances.
A House at the Bottom of a Lake
Don't pick this up expecting to be scared-but first love is scary.
And don't think this is a horror novella...although a house underwater is horrifying.
Just enjoy this fairytale-like tale of two young lovers who discover, adventure, explore, and dream in A House at the Bottom of a Lake, where the only one who sees them, is you.
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The protagonist is best friends with a boy who becomes her boyfriend when they are about 13 or 14 years old. They are neighbors, they ride the school bus together and their parents are friends.One day, Bobby gets into a van with a strange man and never comes back.
The rest of this story is for YOU to discover for yourself.
I devoured this little, dark, twisted book.
The Saturday Night Ghost Club
The Saturday Night Ghost Club is EVERYTHING. It's EVERYTHING you want in a story. It's nostalgic, it's magical, it's supernatural, it's emotional wreckage on your heart—like you can take your heart out of your chest and slowly squeeze it for 275 pages worth of time and that's how this book *feels*. This book smells like your childhood, if your childhood had a smell and you took the essence of it and bottled it up and then sprinkled it out onto a page in the form of words.
Such a Pretty Smile
DeMeester’s storytelling is ferociously and unashamedly feminine. She explores themes of mother/daughter relationships, sexuality, body image, gender norms, and biases—and the way society/culture informs or complicates/frustrates the female experience. Showing up to read Such A Pretty Smile is to expect these themes. Horror that answers the call for more stories from a woman’s perspective and detailing the issues we face, the predatory world we exist in, and the uniquely feminine horrors we go through.
Clown in a Cornfield
It’s no surprise that Clown in a Cornfield, Cesare’s debut New York publishing novel, already has movie adaptation buzz surrounding it. It’s this reader’s opinion that his stories have always been ready for the big screen. There’s just something about his writing style and his passion for horror movies that translates onto the page. Clown is no exception and reads like a teen-scream, retro-slasher film but with social commentary relevant to today’s audience. The best of both worlds.
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Children of the Dark
The pace of the story is damn near perfect—Janz brings us back to a nostalgic time in our lives, a season where summer nights were long and full of so much magic and potential. He spends time developing relationships and backstory, just really building on the layers of story so that when we get to the point where the conflict starts brewing, this book is IMPOSSIBLE to put down.
In the Scrape
James Newman and Mark Steensland somehow and in some way, collaborated on a coming-of-age story that will forever stay nestled in my reader's heart. There was a complexity to the characters, especially the father that created this conflict in my heart and in my mind—like, I loved my little protagonists so much but there were times when I wondered about their perceived reality and it made for a rich reading experience.
I love this book.
The Year of the Witching
In the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Year of the Witching is a horror-adjacent, dystopian fantasy. Definitely a must-have if you have an affinity for folk, cult horror, witches, rituals, racial, and sexual commentary with a strong historical fiction flavor. An eye-catching debut from Alexis Henderson.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
The main protagonist, Elizabeth, is complicated. In some ways, her flaws irritate the reader. She seems preoccupied with her own self-preservation to the point of playing the fool for Victor just to keep her good standing with the Frankenstein family. But in other ways, I admire her resolve and her determination to boldly pursue that which she truly wants.
Victor Frankenstein is a gothic horror lover’s dream character! I absolutely devoured all the scenes he was in. His character arc is expertly evolved over the span of the novel. This is a delight. I just recently finished Hide and loved it!
This book has some serious ability to hook readers into the story immediately. Sonora Taylor has chops. She is an author on the rise. Her storytelling voice is so smooth and accessible, readers just fall right in step with whatever pace Taylor sets. Abby embarks on a road trip with her folks to go stay in some seaside, beach town with her Uncle and help him do some low-key renovations of the childhood home he lives in. She has some supernatural gifts that come into play as soon as she arrives in the new sleepy, seaside village. This book will whisk you away—recommended for a light, summer, horror!
The Ghost Tree
Wrapped in this compelling coming-of-age story is something more insidious than teenage boys. Two girls Lauren’s age are found murdered, their bodies mutilated, in the backyard of one of her neighbors. The chapters are short and sweet, unraveling bits of mystery or diving headlong into Lauren’s teenage drama with a juicy hook at the end of every break, practically begging for readers to keep going. If you’re looking for something you can devour over a few days, something scandalously entertaining with teeth, this is it!
The Bone-Weaver's Orchard
First and foremost, this book is gothically atmospheric in the best possible way. The Old Cross School for Boys is a horribly delicious setting for all sorts of wickedness and secrets. As soon as we meet our protagonist, Charley Winslow (I love you, Charley!!) he is dumped on the steps of the most intimidating building one could imagine. The author’s prose is noticeably rich as she takes her time on all the interesting details. The character development is another level! I found myself falling in love with Charley and then his unlikely friend Sam—like dangerously in love with them. My reader’s heart was bound and tethered to them, making all the suspense and terror that much more threatening and heart-pounding!
The Devil Crept In
Ahlborn is an amazing storyteller. Her writing style is very fluid, natural, and interesting. She expertly switched narratives with a deft hand--in the mind of a ten-year-old boy and then a grown woman in the next. Both narratives are believable. I have an 11-year-old boy so I appreciated the specific details and nuances that made Stevie so realistic.
This story runs the full scope of emotions you want from horror: Unsettled, curious, shocked, scared, that sense of panic and urgency. I loved every minute of it!
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A Plague of Gulls
I love how Stephen Gregory took this boy's coming-of-age story and mixed it with some psychological horror—my favorite combination.
As we watch David Kewish go through some pretty serious events and transitions, we also feel this growing tension building. Each chapter brings the reader closer and closer to a boiling point—that feeling where things can't keep going the way they're going—something has to give.
I could have read this book forever and ever.
The ending, while totally satisfying and wonderful was bittersweet. I'll definitely be looking for more from this talented author.