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Dark Fiction in Young Adult Literature: The Horror of Coming of Age

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Emily Wenstrom

Staff Writer

By day, Emily Wenstrom is a content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstorm, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.. Her Chronicles of the Third Realm War series includes Mud (#1), Tides (#2), Rain (#0), and more to come. Follow her on Twitter @ejwenstrom.

What are dark YA books, anyway? Dark fiction is a broad term that is used to describe many different things, and sweeps widely across many genres. And yet no one can seem to agree on what, exactly, the term refers to.

Among top results for the term, Infobloom describes it as an alternate term for horror, but this ignores a widely and commonly agreed upon use for the term that is much broader.

Crime Reads argues that the core trait of a dark fiction story is a sense of dread. In a Book Riot post about dark romance, Jessica Avery describes the genre as “a catalog of our deepest fears.”

This gets even murkier when you start exploring titles marked as “dark young adult fiction.” Much of YA dark fiction is recently in the fantasy genre, and while the motifs are perhaps edging into dark motifs, I’d hardly call them scary.

Personally I’d take the latter part of Infobloom’s description on its own: dark fiction is a label for books “concerned with fear, death, and the sinister side of human nature.”

Dark Themes for Young Adults

There is often great debate about what is appropriate for teen readers to consume. Do dark themes belong in young adult fiction? Some worry about the potential negative effects.

And yet.

The teen years are a time for reckoning with the darkness within society, others, and even ourselves — it’s part of growing up, and dark YA books that address these themes can help teens navigate through them. Facing this darkness within books help teens to navigate life’s complexities, learn how to empathize with those different from themselves, and face life’s more frightening aspects without any real danger.

“If subjects like these are in YA books, it’s to show that they are real, they have happened to others, and they can be survived. For teenagers, there is sometimes no message more critical than: you are not alone. This has happened before. The feeling that you are feeling, the thing you are going through – it is a known thing,” wrote young adult author Maureen Johnson for The Guardian.

But regardless of whether adults see value in teens reading dark YA books or not, teens themselves certainly seem to. Dark fiction (especially, recently, dark fantasy) has continued to trend and sell well within young adult fiction. Perhaps there is even something uniquely suited to this phase of growing up, when a person is discovering the horrors of humanity and the things we take of taboo, within a coming-of-age story.

What does dark fiction look like in young adult literature? Let’s explore some dark angsty teen fiction.

Dark Literary YA Classics

The concept of “young adult” as a separate audience for literature might be relatively new (emerging with the release of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in 1967), but great literature has been written within this genre for much longer.


The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Is Holden Caulfield the original angsty teen? I suppose probably not, but he’s certainly one of the best known. After being expelled from school and while undergoing treatment in a sanatorium, Holden gives himself leave around the holidays, goes on a date that goes awry, and ends up wandering New York City, with various encounters of varying success.

Cynicism? Check. Underage drinking and smoking? Check. Mental health issues? Check. Yep, this is one of the early dark YA books.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Honestly this is one of the darkest stories of all literature for any age group that I’ve ever read. It’s been debated over the years whether it truly qualifies as a “young adult” novel, but at minimum, it features a young adult cast.

After a set of adolescent boys are the only survivors of a plane crash and lost on an abandoned island, the mood turns quickly from celebration of their newfound freedom, to establishing an order, then descends into chaos and violence.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

I’d never heard of this one before, but it’s been tagged a classic and noted by Amazon as a Teacher’s Choice. Not to mention an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice, and numerous other accolades since its publication in 1977.

Trinity High School is unofficially run by the Vigils, a group of students who bully the others with “tasks” they demand students complete, each intended to create great psychological harm. As the school’s annual chocolate bar fundraiser begins, the Vigils set their sights on Jerry, the new kid.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky cover

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

With a riveting emotional core, this novel told through letters from protagonist Charlie as he struggles to cope with his best friend’s suicide. Charles is drawn into a circle of friends, and also into a wild world complicated by complicated relationships, mental illness, drugs, and more in his quest for belonging.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides By Jeffrey Eugenides

When 13-year-old Cecelia dies by suicide just days after the start of summer break, a group of boys steal her diary and become obsessed with Cecelia’s surviving four sisters as they read it to each other. Over the coming year, the boys watch as the sisters begin to act erratically, and then subsequently also die by suicide, one by one, unable to understand any of it.

Modern Dark YA Books

In the decades since young adult fiction as become more widely recognized and boomed, dark themes have pervaded into every genre.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre 

In this novel released just a few years after Columbine, a teen loner is scapegoated for a murderous rampage executed by his best friend, and sentenced to death. This Booker Prize winner explores violence, materialism and media culture in modern America.

With the years since revealing more shooters and not much in the way of scapegoats, it’s lost some poignance with age, but the satirical edge of the story is sharp, and it’s certainly dark.

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

What’s worse than a poignant death? The not-so-poignant survival — and its consequences.

This story turns the tropes of “sick lit” on its head when Alice executes her entire f-it list only to survive her leukemia and have to face the consequences of her extensive revenges. And then there’s Harvey, her partner-in-crime who doesn’t seem like such a soulmate anymore now that she isn’t dying.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Cas travels the country with his mother and their cat putting the dead to their final rest and chasing one terrible legend after the next. But when he encounters the spirit of Anna in her deserted Victorian home and still dripping in the blood from her violent murder, he gets a heaping of curses and rage he isn’t ready for.

fear me by b.b. reid cover

Fear Me by B.B. Reid

So, this one is described in the blurb as a “bully romance” — yes, romance can be dark fiction, too!

Ten years ago, Lake was responsible for getting her childhood tormentor put away in juvi. Now, as she starts her senior year, Kieran is finally getting released. And she’s sure he’ll be out for revenge.

Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves book cover

Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

After Hanna’s father dies, she high-tails it to Texas, where her mother moved after abandoning them. Her mother agrees to let her stay — but only if Hanna can figure out how to fit in at her new school within two weeks.

But due to struggles with her manic depression, Hanna’s never figured out how to fit in anywhere. While Hanna struggles with hallucinations and violent urges, Wyatt observes something else entirely — a perfect new member for his demon-hunting organization.

The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway

Think Groundhog’s Day, but with your own suicide.

Every day, Adam comes back to life again, and tries to end his life in a different way. He’s not even depressed, he’s just bored. But, as he’s brought back again and again, he’s finally forced to face the reality of the ways he is intertwined with the other people around him, and the ripple of consequences he would cause in response to the impact.

Wintersong cover

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

You want dark, you say? How about a story about an underground kingdom of goblin creatures hungering for life?

The Goblin King steals Leisl’s sister in his hunt for a bride, Leisl chases them back to the goblin kingdom and negotiates a deal…but the path to freeing her sister is full of deception and trickery.

Dark Notes by Pam Godwin

When Ivory’s instructor Emeric turns overbearing, the 17-year-old’s passion for the piano starts to spill over into their relationship. Their romance develops amid a story that hones in on a study of power imbalance and privilege.

Think Whiplash meets 50 Shades.

Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Jude’s best friend was found dead in a swimming pool, and she’s the only one who seems to know it’s a murder. So, Jude does the only thing she can, and starts digging into who did it.

As she uncovers dark secrets and is forced to face a few of her own, this dark noir story draws everything out into the bright Pasadena sunlight.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Connor, Risa and Lev all have distinctly different pasts, but the same reason for running away: Once you’ve been dropped at an Unwind center as an unwanted teen, your days are numbered. Unless they find a way out soon, they’ll be harvested for parts.

Through haunting quirks left behind by organs’ previous owners, and one horrific look behind the curtain of an unwind on progress, this novel takes a dark, cringe-inducing exploration of what it means to be alive, and where it starts and ends.