It was in middle school that the horror genre first dug its claws into me. Before that, my tastes leaned more toward portal fantasy, books that promised magical worlds beyond my own if only I stumbled upon the right passageway. But then I started reading my dad’s books, rows of well-worn trade paperbacks lined up on closet shelves in the basement (an apt place for a horror collection, I suppose). Suddenly, all I wanted was horror, tales of psychological terror and supernatural beasties and pure evil.
I quickly went through all my dad’s John Sauls and V.C. Andrews. His dark thrillers and disquieting sci-fi, too. But when I finally made my way to Pet Sematary and Carrie in 7th or 8th grade, that’s where I found my home. For the next two decades, Stephen King was it (not to be confused with It, though we’ll get to that eventually).
When I first started writing for Book Riot over seven years ago (!), the majority of the horror books I read came from King, with just a few other white male authors sprinkled in. The genre had long been dominated by white men, and I wasn’t familiar with any of the more diverse authors within the genre.
Happily, my seven-plus years of writing with some of the most enthusiastic readers I know has opened me up to a whole new world of contemporary horror, and my list of automatic reads within the genre (Mona Awad, Victor LaValle, Tananarive Due, Rachel Harrison, T. Kingfisher, etc.) is significantly more vast.
If you, too, have noticed that your list of favorite horror authors hasn’t grown much since childhood, this post is for you. By the end, your TBR should be filled to bursting.
If You Loved Mercer Mayer’s There’s Something in My Room Series, Try…
The Closet by James Tynion IV, Gavin Fullerton, and Chris O’Halloran
While fantasy was my jam as a young child, I was still exposed to the mildly creepy in picture books like Mercer Mayer’s There’s Something in My Attic and There’s a Nightmare in My Closet. For a book with echoes of the latter, I recommend the limited comic series The Closet, which you can find collected in a single volume. Sure, Mercer’s book ended on a more wholesome note, with the young protagonist befriending the monster in his closet. But when you grow up, you’re forced to learn that not all nightmares can be so easily pacified.
In Tynion’s comic, a young boy is terrified of the monster in his closet. His father dismisses his fears, telling him that when they move to their new home across the country, they’ll leave all their past troubles behind. But the problems this family has are not so easily outrun, and that includes the monster in the closet. I don’t want to spoil things by revealing more, but I will say that this all-too-brief comic series packed a serious punch.
If You Loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Try…
The Night Parade by Jami Nakamura Lin
We all know Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories series, right? The one with the nightmare-inducing illustrations by Stephen Gammell? The author was a fan of folk horror, which is why so many of the stories in his collections are adaptations of those passed down by various communities and cultures (the one featuring a mythological creature with roots in Indigenous culture has stayed with me years later).
For a more adult read, I’m going to do something unconventional and recommend a speculative memoir I’ve been looking forward to for over a year. In The Night Parade (October 24), Lin uses the yokai and other figures from Japanese, Taiwanese, and Okinawan legends to explore what she once saw as her own monstrousness and to tackle the question of how our fear of all that is different shapes who we are as people.
If You Loved The Dollhouse Murders, Try…
Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi
In Betty Ren Wright’s classic children’s book The Dollhouse Murders, a supernatural thriller, a young girl discovers the dark secret behind her great-grandparents’ death with help from a creepy (haunted?) dollhouse in the attic. So you might expect me to rec something like Grady Hendrix’s How to Sell a Haunted House, with its possessed puppets. But the parallels don’t feel quite right. At the heart of Wright’s book is a 12-year-old who resents her neurodivergent younger sister because she feels that her sister is holding her back from the childhood she deserves.
By the end of the book, she comes to appreciate her and to love her fiercely. Similarly, Malfi’s protagonist disappears from his disabled brother’s life — in this case, for two decades, a fact that fills him with guilt. But when he returns home to reconnect with their childhood friends and hunt down a monster from their childhood, he finds himself able to repair that broken relationship as well. My only caveat here is that, in handling the narrative thread of this relationship, Malfi sometimes leans on the problematic mystical disability trope. It’s a shame, as the bulk of the book is such a fun read, especially with the lingering uncertainty over whether the horrible things the group experienced as children were actually supernatural…or just the acts of a very bad man.
If You Loved Killing Mr. Griffin, Try…
I’m Not Done with You Yet by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Lois Duncan is known for her YA horror, thriller, and suspense novels, and Killing Mr. Griffin — an oft-banned book — was one of my faves. In it, a group of students set out to teach their awful teacher a lesson. In the process, they realize that one of them may be a cold-blooded killer.
In Sutanto’s most recent release, the protagonist, who identifies as a sociopath, becomes obsessed with another young woman in her creative writing program. But a blood-soaked incident (not revealed in full until later in the book) tears them apart. A decade later, our protagonist spots the woman’s name on The New York Times Best Seller List. Is fate bringing them back together? Can our protagonist finally get the ending she’s been craving? I’ve always loved Sutanto for her comedic rom-com thrillers like Dial A for Aunties and Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers. But her most recent novel is a whole different type of effed-up fun.
If You Loved The Face on the Milk Carton, Try…
The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters
Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton wasn’t marketed as horror, but it read as such to me. Imagine discovering — completely by accident — that your parents weren’t who you thought they were. That, in fact, your real parents had been desperately searching for you for years. Oh, hell no. For me, Peters’s book (out at the end of this month) brought all similar feels: horror, anger, heartbreak. In it, a Mi’kmaq family travels to pick blueberries for the summer, but before the season ends, their 4-year-old goes missing. Years later, a young girl feels as if her affluent white parents are keeping something from her. Will she ever figure out their secret?
If You Loved Stay Out of the Basement, Try…
Farmhand by Rob Guillory, Kody Chamberlain, and Taylor Wells
By the time I began to read horror in earnest, I had already aged out of the Goosebumps and Fear Street books, though I occasionally borrowed them from my younger brother. But I feel as if a post based upon childhood horror favorites is incomplete without at least a quick mention of those two popular series. R.L. Stine’s Stay Out of the Basement is from the Goosebumps series and features two siblings who become concerned about all the time their father is spending in the basement, conducting scientific experiments on plants. When they notice their father seems to be developing plant-like characteristics himself, their concern morphs into horror.
When I think back on this book, Guillory’s Farmhand immediately comes to mind. A horror comic series with a hefty dose of humor, Farmhand is about a man who travels home to the family farm to repair his relationship with his estranged father. But the farm (where his father and sister grow fast-healing, highly customizable human organs) remains a point of contention. And that’s before something even more sinister begins to emerge from the soil…
If You Loved The New Girl, Try…
What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
Standing in for the entire Fear Street series is its first installment: R. L. Stine’s The New Girl, about a boy who falls in love with a girl who is not what she seems. In fact, when the boy calls her house, her parents insist the girl he’s asking for is dead. Is he dating a ghost??? (Spoiler alert: No. But the reality is still shady AF.) Similarly, when a retired soldier learns that their childhood friend is dying and rushes to her bedside (in this reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”), the woman they find is not the woman they once knew.
If You Loved Suffer the Children, Try…
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
John Saul’s Suffer the Children was the first horror book I ever plucked from my father’s shelves. About a spate of child disappearances, I’m not spoiling much when I reveal that a young girl is luring these kids into a cave where she has tea parties with them, alongside the skeleton of a dead girl and the corpse of a cat. All before she eventually kills them. Her younger sister, mute since a childhood trauma, eventually takes the fall for the whole mess. This is the book that sparked a lifelong love of horror. My god, what in hell was wrong with childhood me??
Anyway. For a contemporary readalike, I recommend Tremblay’s book about a 14-year-old girl who begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia, only for her father to eventually believe she is possessed by a demon. He agrees to have his daughter’s exorcism recorded for a TV reality show. But things only escalate, and the whole shebang ends in tragedy. Fifteen years later, the girl’s younger sister breaks her silence and agrees to be interviewed about this incident from her family’s past. What really happened all those years ago?
If You Loved It, Try…
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
For me, Stephen King’s It marks the dividing line between the horror I loved as a child and the horror I came to love as an adult. Putting aside the problematic sex scene that’s been written about many times over, It was it for me. I loved this story about a group of kids whose deepest fears were brought to life by an evil entity that sought to terrify and then feed off of them. There is no book in the world I have re-read as many times as I’ve re-read It. My paperback edition has entire sections falling out of it from over-use. I’ve read many books since then that have sought to tap into that same vibe (including the Malfi book I mentioned above), but Cantero’s Meddling Kids also hits the spot (though it’s more of a play on Scooby-Doo). In this horror satire, a group of teen detectives closes up their final case before scattering into young adulthood. Over a decade later, they come back together to face their childhood fears, hopefully ending their nightmares forever.
And there you have it. My childhood faves and some grownup recs. If you dug this list, be sure to check out my previous post on the adult versions of my favorite childhood fantasy novels.