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Horror for “Scaredy Cats”: Modern Horror is More than Jump Scares, Chainsaws, and Gore

Exploring beyond cheap scares.

modern horror featured photo

What is horror, exactly? It’s about more than being scared. In its purest form, it’s an emotion, that feeling of being, well, horrified. And any works that engender this feeling can be categorized under the Horror genre, making it one of the broadest genres in all of fiction. I like to think of it as the peanut butter of literature because it goes with damn near everything. Horror-comedy, horror-science fiction, horror-romance? All are well-established subgenres! Horror runs the gamut from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen Graham Jones. It might be gothic, extreme, quiet, weird, or even side-splittingly hilarious.

Horror isn’t just about being scared, it’s about exploring our fears, the things that exist whether we want to acknowledge them or not. It’s about climbing on that roller coaster and screaming your head off, then hopping off at the end of the ride, pulse-pounding but unharmed, and getting in line for funnel cake. It’s a safe place to explore what horrifies us. And because what amounts to scary is such a personal thing, differing from person to person, horror isn’t about being maximally frightening. It can be, sure. It can be gory or bloody. But not often or always. Many “horror” novels don’t begin to approach the blood and gore on offer in war fiction classics like All Quiet on the Western Front or even most books on the true crime shelf. Sometimes there’s a guy with a chainsaw, sure, but more often there’s not. Horror isn’t sadistic or masochistic. Horror is empathetic, and those who’ve read widely in the genre know exactly how powerful it can be as a tool for furthering human understanding.

That’s why we read, don’t we? To understand each other? 

So what is horror, exactly? The answer may surprise you.

Here are a few books for those interested in dipping their toe into the horror genre. These selections illustrate the depth and breadth of horror literature. They’re all “scary,” per se, but they are also thought-provoking and challenging.

stephen graham jones interview


By Stephen Graham Jones

Nominated for both the Shirley Jackson and Bram Stoker Awards, this 2016 coming-of-age werewolf story pushes what horror can be. Mongrels follows an itinerant band of lycanthropes across America trying to survive, understand their own natures, and score some strawberry wine coolers. But the teeth and claws are a window into family, adolescence, and otherness.

Book cover of horror novel Children of Chicago by Cina Pelayo

Children of Chicago

By Cina Pelayo

Crime fiction fans will find this haunting story an accessible way to approach the horror genre. The staples of police procedurals are here, and the story is steeped in both Chicago history and fairy tale myth. Pelayo uses the ancient story of the Pied Piper to interrogate the street violence plaguing the Windy City, and the social commentary is deftly woven into the thriller plot. 

the bloody chamber

The Bloody Chamber

By Angela Carter

It’s a simple matter to draw a straight line between the fairy tales of yesterday and the horror fiction of today. Carter writes bloodier fairy tales than anyone, and her takes on familiar stories like Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast are worthy tributes to the Brothers Grimm. Stories like “The Bloody Chamber,” “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” are particular standouts.  

like real by shelly lyons

Like Real

By Shelly Lyons

Sci-Fi, horror, and comedy collide in the recently-released Like Real from debut author Shelly Lyons.

Wannabe Lothario Vic Moss tries an experimental treatment when he loses a hand to a spider bite but soon finds himself competing with his own twisted clone for the affections of a beautiful woman in this darkly-hilarious tale. Smartly-drawn characters and sharp dialogue boldly answer the question, “what if a rom-com was really, really messed up?”

the fisherman

The Fisherman

By John Langan

This Stoker Award-winning meditation on loss, loneliness, and the lengths one might go to assuage these feelings. Two widowers find temporary salvation in fishing, but they are drawn to a mysterious, cursed stream, where a shadowy figure waits who might just might, be able to restore what they’ve lost. But at what price?

the throne of bones by brian mcnaughton

The Throne of Bones

By Brian McNaughton

If you’re already a fantasy reader, McNaughton’s stories will provide an introduction to horror that’s sort of comfy and familiar, like a tavern fire. This one chills rather than warms, however. McNaughton’s secondary world yarns bring knights and peasants face to face with monsters like ghouls. Winner of the World Fantasy Award, McNaughton lies in that strange, middle distance between Tolkien and King.

Toni Morrison Beloved - a great american novel


By Toni Morrison

Horror as a genre is much more mainstream than people think. After all, what’s more mainstream than the Pulitzer Prize or Oprah’s book club? And make no mistake, Beloved is very much a horror book. Supernatural terrors rear their heads in response to much more human ones—slavery, its brutal aftermath, and what we might do to protect the ones with love.

the immaculate void by brian hodge

The Immaculate Void

By Brian Hodge

If you’re a fan of sci-fi tales that play with ideas so big they boggle the mind, Hodge’s slim novel is a great portal into horror. As a child, Tanner’s sister Daphne survived an encounter with a serial killer. Now, she’s disappeared again, and he’s off on a journey across the country to find her, dogged by sinister forces that threaten the very fabric of reality. A mind-bending journey into the impossibility of creation.

love at first sight books

Romeo and Juliet

By William Shakespeare

I’ll forgive you if you blinked a few times, as most people wouldn’t consider Romeo and Juliet horror. After all, there’s other Shakespeare plays like The Tempest that are explicitly supernatural—not that supernatural is a requirement for horror. But what happens in Romeo and Juliet is horrifying, no? The play is about love, sure, but also about dread. The chorus tells us in the very beginning what will happen to these “star-crossed lovers,” and we have no choice but to sit back and watch everything unfold, powerless to alter the course of events. If that’s not horror, what is?

best clive barker books


By Clive Barker

Adapted by the author as the 1990 film Nightbreed, Barker’s Cabal tells the story of the Tribes of the Moon (or Night Breed), a startling collection of creatures both sub and super-human, who find refuge in the underground city of Midian. Their peace is disturbed when Boone, a troubled young man who believes himself a monster, arrives at their gates, pursued by the police and his psychiatrist, Dr. Decker. With some of the most inventive creatures in horror, Cabal is also a poignant reminder that humans are the worst monsters.