The holidays are a lot of things but one thing’s for certain, many of us end up in a wave of social and familial obligations that often stress us out. What better way to relieve some of it than through horror books that turn crowds and social-centric predicaments into the monster and the threat? Like any great slice of horror, we find what we’re afraid of staring us back from the page.
We gathered up eight of the best books that delve into the particular breed of social horror that we all so often stress about.
The Final Girl Support Group
You basically can’t go wrong with a novel by Grady Hendrix. In his latest, The Final Girl Support Group, he tackles the oft-used trope of the final girl, i.e., literally what it sounds like, the lone female survivor of a slasher story, and how they endure the trauma and PTSD of having to be the one that survives the terror. Our dear final girl is named Lynnette who had a massacre reshape her life so many years ago. The group hinted in the title is a support group Lynnette has been taking part, the group of six all final girls working together to rebuild their lives. Of course, the thing about final girls is that you’re the only one… so when members of the group go missing, things fire back up and the distrust and worry that comes with being so close to a group of people kick in while Lynnette fights to stay alive and stay true to herself.
Under the Dome
Stephen King takes some of the atmosphere of the Mist and even a little bit of the same conceit that was used in the Simpsons Movie to concoct a social horror spectacle involving the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine being mysteriously closed off by the rest of the world by an invisible force field. The entire town falls into a familiar chaos recognizable to many in natural disaster narratives, however what makes King’s rendition so very interesting and effective is how the town becomes divided by way of proximity; some townsfolk had ventured out of the town on errands only to be cut off from their loved ones and friends. It makes for a wildly inventive take on the complexities of our social bonds, including our dependencies on others.
Another novel focusing on a small town, but dramatically different in every way, Joan Samson’s lost masterpiece, The Auctioneer, was recently given new life by Valancourt Books. In this novel, we are introduced to Harlowe, a New England town that, like most towns, go about life according to their days. The small-town balance, complete with hard-working farmers and shopkeepers, persist unabated until a man named Perly Dunsmore ventures into town. He entrances townsfolk with his looks and confident stride; of course, he isn’t just here to go “slumming.” He has something in mind. Perly’s agenda starts off kind and kind of surprising, only to grow into the titular auctioneer making his rounds demanding that townsfolk sell more and more of their belongings, eventually to the point of selling their own homes and land. Dunsmore represents so much of the greed found in modern society that sends horror-ridden rifts through any community.
Many have compared Wendig’s dystopian tome to Stephen King’s The Stand, and with good reason! Wendig takes a lot of the same themes but manages to incorporate a world that has not yet given itself completely to certain hell. Our cast of characters includes the endearing Shana whose little sister is among the first to suffer from a virus that sweeps the nation. Shana wakes up one night to find that her sister is sleepwalking. She won’t stop. Shuffling down a darkened street, her sister is joined by others, the group of sleepwalkers increasing by the day. Shana joins an impromptu group of people—dubbed “shepherds”—that follow the sleepwalkers all the while America watches in horror. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wanderers was one of those novels that people turned to for solace and relatability.
Related: 13 Pandemic Horror Books
There’s always something dark happening in the underbelly of a small town. In Yeager’s bleak masterpiece, Negative Space, the epidemic sifting through a town’s adolescence is suicide. Told by way of an oral history, the novel offers us first-hand testimonies from three main characters, Ahmir, Jill, and Lu, the latter of which often shifts genders and subsequently their name swaps between Lu and Lou. They talk about the odd, cult-like charismatic and self-destructive Tyler, who often is at the center of all the suicides and oddities transpiring throughout town. Negative Space so deftly drops readers into a town’s underbelly it gets you thinking about the secrets of any group, no matter how honest and/or transparent and trustworthy they might be.
By the time Ballard turned his attention to explorations of high society and the effects of modern technology on the human psyche, he had already given us controversial cult classics like the Atrocity Exhibition and the symphorophic (sexually aroused by car crashes) Crash. High-Rise is Ballard’s best foot forward in examining class warfare, social mores, and the inherent primal selves that we hide behind hyper-commercialism. In this novel, the battleground is a high-rise apartment building stretching into the 40-50 floor range, divided naturally by way of the rich living at the top, the middle living in the middle, and the poorest living towards the bottom. The high rise has its own shopping mall and accommodations, effectively making it unnecessary to leave. And that’s what eventually happens to much of the society brewing within its sleek walls. High-Rise depicts a society crumbling by way of its immorality and its lustful indulgences.
Perhaps one of Palahniuk’s lesser-known novels, the Fight Club author has always made a point to shock and entertain. Be it a marathon gangbang or terrorists on an airplane, he’s been able to comb through society’s worst to provide apt commentary. In Rant, Palahniuk takes his experience with mischief societies like the Cacophony Society and uses it as fuel for a mysterious counter-culture DIY society living in the night, going around partying by way of death-defying acts like destruction derbies on city streets and more. Rant centers around Butcher Casey, the man that influences an entire society to create this Temporary Autonomous Zones for peak-thrill. We see the aftermath at the beginning, the novel told as an oral history about Butcher Casey and how the entire party crashing lifestyle came to be. It’s really irresistible reading, and among Palahniuk’s best.
Eggers struck gold with The Circle, a novel that was as timely as it was prescient in its telling of the various pitfalls of an elite society formed entirely around a single employer. Anyone going into the book will know it’s a thinly fictionalized version of Google, Facebook, and any number of tech companies that have not only built a highly lucrative empire but also fostered employee culture that often feels cultish and insular. Readers gain access to the Circle by way of Mae Holland who is hired by the company and, typical of any new hire, feels as though this is a lifetime opportunity. Mae encounters all the enticing accoutrements of bustling free-wheeling tech companies—insane parties, brunches and all kinds of pleasing social activities—only to soon discover that it all arrives at a price. Working for a company like the Circle isn’t just selling your time and energy, it’s about selling your life.
Dennis Cooper has built an impressive oeuvre over the decades since he published this book. However, for many, The Sluts was the novel that changed their life, the one book Cooper wrote that managed to leave a lasting mark. Not to say his others didn’t, it’s merely the sheer magnitude of The Sluts’ intensity that makes for a representative work. At its core, The Sluts is a narrative about a troubled male sex worker as told by the many clients that encounter him. They leave reviews on a sex worker board and through those ratings and reviews, we begin to see a through line of disgust and self-destruction. It also acts as a look back (nowadays anyway) at the early days of the internet, back when being social wasn’t Twitter, it was a clunky message board full of typos and labyrinthine threads.
Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner was ahead of his time. He wrote books like the Sheep Look Up, which was climate change fiction (or cli-fi) long before it was a buzzy trendy genre, and the Shockwave Rider, which explored how technology would become a necessary vein of our lives. His biggest novel did the same for overpopulation. Stand on Zanzibar tells the tale of one Normal Niblock House, a heavy hitter executive for one of the worlds most powerful corporations, General Technics. His roommate, Donald Hogan, is a meek and seemingly harmless bookish man, but is actually an undercover agent looking to break open the case on General Technics and their impending pursuit for global domination. All of this intrigue is set to a backdrop of a world so very crammed full of poverty and overpopulation that in many streets you can’t even move. Stand on Zanzibar imagines a world so overpopulated there no longer is any concept of personal space.