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The Unsettling World of Family Horror: 8 Terrifying Reads That Hit Close to Home

Blood is thicker than water...

familial horror books
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  • Photo Credit: "Dark Lullaby" by Polly Ho-Yen

When it comes to horror, seeing the familiar become unfamiliar is par for the course. Among the most unsettling and common are themes involving the family, including various family dynamics and domestic issues.

The recently released Finnish film, Hatching, is a prime example of how family becomes a narrative abstraction for more sinister motives. In the film, we are introduced to Tinja, a young gymnast that wants nothing more than to please her mother. She finds a dying bird in the woods and decides to care for the egg, fearing the worst for the unborn bird. Once the egg hatches, she bonds closely to the animal as it begins to reflect her own desperation to gain approval from her mother.

Familial horror is at its best when it abstracts the family in a way that so perfectly presents psychological horrors that cause us to consider the inadequacies of our own lives. We've gathered a number of books that capture the unsettling psychological terrors that twist and contort amid familial horror.

Related: Family Horror Books for the Holidays

The Need Helen Phillips

The Need

By Helen Phillips

Phillips achieves the near-impossible with her book, The Need. She tackles motherhood and family through an intensely unsettling lens that teeters back and forth from physical terrors to surreal threats. Readers are introduced to Molly, a paleobotanist and mother of two. Her husband is absentee, always traveling for work. One sleep deprived day, Molly hears a creak down the hall, a single cause for alarm that sends the book into a crazy daisy-chain of “is this really happening” events, all beginning with the fear of a home invader. There’s also a lot of breastfeeding. 

horror novels in translation

The Graveyard Apartment

By Mariko Koike

Koike’s well-known masterpiece is frequently mentioned on book lists—and for good reason. It’s its own unique slice of supernatural horror. However, The Graveyard Apartment excels at being more than a tale of secrets amid a haunted apartment building; it also examines the institution of family, down to its penchant of continuing to remain clandestine in the face of incoming terrors and hardship if it means getting through the day.

Related: 11 Unforgettable Horror Novels in Translation

The premise is simple: a family moves into a seemingly “too good to be true” apartment for what they hope is a fresh start. However, things don’t quite go according to plan, and it’s as though the building itself has an uncanny knack for unearthing personal and familial secrets. Koike layers the suspicion until the reader sees the family dynamic for what it is—a front and a lie.

lucid screams

Lucid Screams

By Red Lagoe

Lagoe is a master of balancing imagery and plot. In Lucid Screams, she offers 16 vivid portrayals of familial horror. Here we see everything from a woman fleeing her abusive husband for a retreat for survivors to a grieving father listening to a recording of his dead baby’s voice repeatedly, and everything in between. What this collection does best is explore the grief and loss that bubble up during the life of a family. A parent loses a child; a partner loses their mind.

The adage claims that home is where the heart is. Well, in Lucid Screams, Lagoe riffs on it and proclaims that home is also where the heart dies.

brother ania ahlborn female horror writers


By Ania Ahlborn

Time for something outwardly grotesque. Like some riff on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ahlborn’s Brother tells the tale of the twisted minds at the heart of the Morrow family. They live in the middle of nowhere, and, as you can probably guess from a cursory glance at the back cover copy, the Morrows are a family of serial killers. They have preyed on the nearby townsfolk and thrived as an evil menace for seemingly decades. But there is one family member that doesn’t belong. Michael sees his family for what they are, and his heart aches for an escape.

A demented tale of horror examining the depths of a family’s roots, Brother twists the whole psycho killer family narrative on its head.

the little girl who was too fond of matches

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches

By Gaeton Soucy

The most subtle book on this list in terms of horror, Soucy’s novel is like the film Dogtooth if it was even more demented. Throw in some shades of As I Lay Dying, too.

Two children live with their father in a sprawling estate where life seems to be at a standstill. The father ends up killing himself, leaving the two children to fend for themselves. A testament to an isolated mind, the two kids have conjured an entirely surrealistic dimension to live in. The father’s death shatters their world of ritual and superstition as they face a coming-of-age of sorts, expedited by the dire need to buy a coffin and bury their father.

Equal parts puzzle and linguistic exercise, Soucy has written a book that is quite unlike any other.

he started it

He Started It

By Samantha Downing

If you’ve ever gone on a road trip as a family, you’ll quickly find yourself right at home in Downing’s He Started It. Three estranged siblings are called to reconvene when their rich grandfather dies, and his will stipulates that they all stand to inherit quite a bit of money. The catch? They have to do everything he has stated in the will, including the reenactment of a cross-country road trip they all took when they were younger. Naturally, there are plenty of twists and turns, equal parts tumultuous and tense, that lead the siblings into a crazy journey that extrapolates their familial past along with issues they’ve never addressed.

dark lullaby

Dark Lullaby

By Polly Ho-Yen

Ho-Yen’s Dark Lullaby tosses readers into a dismal futuristic authoritarian state where 99.98% of the human population cannot have children. A la Big Brother and 1984, the government keeps a “watchful eye” on everyone. Everything a person does is analyzed and judged. The rich can buy test-tube babies, while those less lucky are forced to try Induction, a risky process aimed to successfully give birth. Kit is about to try the process only to step back, being labeled an “out,” or a person socially shunned and shamed for not going through with the Induction process.

Ho-Yen explores themes of motherhood and loss in a frigid dystopian setting built to inspect the intricacies of childbirth and the importance of bringing life into a dying world.

diverse horror authors

The Changeling

By Victor LaValle

LaValle’s The Changeling has been cited often for its genre-bending tale of fatherhood and family distress—and with good reason. The novel remains a memorable journey, involving a parent seeking his missing wife.

Related: Victor LaValle: Where to Begin with the Award-Winning Horror Author

Apollo is a new father and book dealer whose wife, Emma, suffers from what seems initially like post-partum depression after delivering their child. Emma soon disappears, and Apollo must seek out his wife’s whereabouts, leading him everywhere from unknown corners of New York City to graveyards and everything in between.

The Changeling exhibits the undying love and commitment of a parent for their loved ones, no matter how far it takes them and how much is asked of them to save those they call family.