Horror media has always been a form of art made to reflect the anxieties of society at large, providing catharsis for the audience's deepest fears and insecurities. But what about horror that goes beyond social anxieties and has the courage to tackle social issues? With skillful nuance and great authority, there's no shortage of diverse authors telling diverse stories that not only make a big impact on audiences, but bring communities together.
Within the larger literary community, horror can sometimes be scoffed at and dismissed as a lesser form of storytelling, but these remarkable reads have important things to say. From race to gender to sexuality and beyond, these books wield terror as a clever tool to bring the truth of oppression to light. Here are eight essential social horror books for your shelf.
The Only Good Indians
One of the most overlooked historically marginalized groups in media and society is that of the Indigenous people of the United States. This gripping book by Stephen Graham Jones delivers not only sharp social commentary on the experience of American Indians, but an all-consuming psychological horror read. A group of four American Indian men went through a disturbing incident in their youth—one which put their very lives on the line. Though they've since crossed the threshold into adulthood, these childhood friends are being stalked by a vengeful entity. With their culture and traditions lost in the past, they are left helpless in the face of this violent reckoning.
Frankenstein in Baghdad
Drawing inspiration from Mary Shelley's horror classic, Ahmed Saadawi's novel elevates this story like nothing before. A scavenger named Hadi scours the rubble of Baghdad's U.S.-occupied streets, collecting the remains of humans to stitch them together into one corpse. All he wants is for the government to recognize those lost in the fighting so that they may be given a proper burial, but when the assembled corpse disappears, the city experiences a streak of ominous murders. It soon becomes clear to Hadi that he has brought a monster to life—a monster who survives off of human flesh. At first the invincible creation targets the guilty, but it's not long until it lashes out at anyone it its path.
In the fall of last year, this book made its rounds as a popular recommendation on TikTok—and for good reason! Following the death of her beloved grandmother, Lena Johnson learns about her family's extensive debt. The Black millennial makes the hard choice to drop out of college to find a job to support her struggling family. Located in the enigmatic remote Michigan town of Lakewood, the job seems too good to be true, offering free housing, high pay, and no out of pocket medical expenses. The only catch? Lena has to lie about her participation in a secret program, keeping her friends and family from learning about the research taking place.
Changing eye colors from brown to blue, curing dementia, ridding people of harmful thoughts—the advancements made in Lakewood are supposed to change the world. But what are the consequences for the test subjects? And just how much is Lena willing to give up for her family?
Noemí Taboada has lived the life of a glamorous debutante, wrapped up in stunning gowns and perfect makeup as she flits from party to party. But when she receives a concerning letter from her recently married cousin, Catalina, regarding a looming and mysterious doom, Noemí quickly steps into the role of rescuer and sleuth. She heads to High Place, the home in the Mexican countryside that Catalina shares with her husband, an Englishman Noemí knows even less about than the unfamiliar region.
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Noemí won't be cowed by the unknown, though. She's not afraid of anything—not her cousin's new menacingly alluring husband, not his old father who holds a deep fascination for Noemí, and not the house itself, which has slipped into Noemí's dreams with visions of blood and despair. As Noemí allies with the family's youngest son to stand against a dark history, Mexican Gothic explores themes of colonialism, misogyny, and working-class exploitation.
Angela has the kind of life people dream about—the kind of life she's always thought she wanted: a successful husband, a glamorous home, and wealth that never seems to dwindle. When she sees a strange man in the grocery store, however, her dormant sexuality comes to life, propelling her into the world of underground pornography and under-the-table plastic surgery. As she grows infatuated with fetish film performer Reena, she finds old, buried memories rising to the surface. With support from a queer gang called The Waifs, Angela must choose between the familiar comfort of her unsatisfying upper-class life and the dangerous thrills of underground film.
White Is for Witching
In the town of Dover, England sits the Silver family home, a strange monument amidst the closed-off community. Full of hidden passages and buried secrets, the massive home has housed four generations of Silver women, including Anna, Jennifer, Lily, and most recently Miranda, who has lived alongside her twin brother, Eliot, since the house was converted to a bed-and-breakfast.
Related: 10 Essential Books by Black Women in Horror
The strong connection between the Silver women has manifested itself into a pull which defies time and space, and when Miranda's mother, Lily, dies suddenly, Miranda is inflicted with strange ailments. She wastes away to an eating disorder. Her head echoes with strange voices. And when she brings home a friend, the hostility of Dover becomes tangible within her ancestral home, changing the lives of everyone within the four walls.
This collection of captivating horror short stories all relate back to people's perception of their own bodies. It asks the question, what becomes of people under the constant pressure of vanity and low self-esteem? Tapping into a psychologically suspenseful tone reminiscent of the Twilight Zone, each of these five tales related to the body parts they're named after (buttocks, blood, face, hair, and chin) make it very clear you should always be very careful what you wish for.
The Taking of Jake Livingston
Jake Livingston is 16 years old, and the only thing that compares to the utter hell of having to see dead people everywhere is the fact that, as one of the few Black students at St. Clair Prep, his future is in the hands of the racist teachers there. But when another Black student, Allister arrives at school, his walking nightmare might be brightened by the chance for romance.
The downside? His life as a medium is worsening. Most of the ghosts he watches cycle through their last moments are harmless, but Sawyer Doon isn't content with having Jake help him move on to the great beyond. When he was alive, Sawyer was a no-good teen who shot up a high school and killed six kids. As a ghost, he's powerful and vengeful, and he has big plans for Jake.