I don’t remember the exact moment I acquired an interest in the dark side. Was it the time I unearthed my mother’s childhood witchcraft kit, in which I learned that the mandrake plant screams when you pull it, killing everyone within earshot? Was it the time I watched the film adaptation of The Exorcist on TV, swear words, levitation, projectile vomiting, and all? Was it the time I first pulled one of my dad’s John Saul books down from the shelf in the basement closet, learning that the greatest darkness may actually lie in human hearts?
Maybe it’s that last revelation that really got me: the fact that horror explores our darkest impulses.
In a world in which girls are raised to be “good,” whatever that means (and I was such a goody-goody), horror allowed me to indulge my darkest self, the ugly thoughts and the hateful impulses so many of us are forced to keep hidden.
And demons? Well, they feel like a physical manifestation of that darkness and that ugliness and that hate. What’s not to love?
Whether served up in films about Satanic cults (as in Hereditary) or in television series like Archive 81 (give us a second season, Netflix!), or in the books below, I love me some demonic horror.
Here are a few I’ve enjoyed.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
I can’t not include one of my favorite books about demonic possession. In this ’80s-tastic comedic horror, the protagonist’s bestie starts acting weird after a skinny-dipping session goes sideways. She soon begins to suspect that her BFF has been possessed by the devil. Can their friendship survive?
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
One of my favorite brands of horror is of the is-it-supernatural-or-is-there-a-logical-explanation variety. The ones that keep you guessing all the way to the end. In Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, the protagonist’s sister begins to display signs of what may be acute schizophrenia. When doctors can’t help, however, her parents turn to the church, at which point a priest diagnoses their daughter with demonic possession. When he suggests they let the ensuing exorcism be filmed for a reality show, they agree…but only because it will allow them to pay the mounting medical bills. The show becomes a hit. The protagonist assumes it’s all a farce, played up for ratings…but could she be wrong?
Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, Sami Kivelä, and Jason Wordie
In this limited comic series — eventually followed up by Abbott: 1973 — one of the few Black reporters in 1972 Detroit investigates a series of crimes that are being ignored by the cops, only to find that there may be supernatural forces at work. Oh, and she has powers. Badass demon-fighting powers, which she decides to use in order to wrest control of the city back into the hands of those who deserve it most. But the secret occult society made up of the city’s elite doesn’t intend to make it easy for her.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
In one of Katsu’s earlier works of historical horror, she takes one of the deadliest occurrences in Western history — the catastrophic wagon train journey of the infamous Donner Party — and adds a supernatural twist. Starvation causes the body count to rise. Members of the party are pushed to the brink, inevitably turning against each other. But as people begin to disappear, they start to wonder if something even more malevolent is at play. I’m sorry to inform you that this book’s inclusion on this list may or may not be a spoiler.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
In this very different historical horror, which takes place in 1915, around the time The Birth of a Nation is released, members of the Ku Klux Klan are literal demons, and members of the resistance have trained to literally send them back to Hell. But new demons are created as quickly as the resistance can take them down, and it soon becomes clear that if these hellspawn are to be beaten, they need to think bigger.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp
As unpleasant as Arnopp’s characters are, they’re also incredibly entertaining. In The Last Days of Jack Sparks, journalist Jack Sparks is researching a book on the occult. Sparks being the asshole he is, he ends up going viral after mocking an exorcism. Soon after, a creepy video shows up on his own YouTube account, and after that…well…no one is quite sure. This book purports to be his accounting of what may or may not have been his final days.
Specter Inspectors by Bowen McCurdy, Kaitlyn Musto, and Jim Campbell
This all-ages comic series is about a group of young ghost hunters, one of whom manages to get possessed by a demon while out on the job. Can queer romance still bloom under these circumstances as they race against time to solve an ages-old mystery that will (hopefully) set their friend free? The horror here is sweet and light despite the full-on demonic possession.
Proctor Valley Road by Grant Morrison, Alex Child, Naomi Franquiz, and Tamra Bonvillain
This series came out around the same time as Specter Inspectors but is clearly intended for a slightly older audience. It features four high school misfits who stumble upon a vengeful ghost in the middle of the desert. Pissed off that they have dishonored her domain, this ghost plucks victims from amongst those who happen to drive through her stretch of desert along Proctor Valley Road and repurposes them as grotesque, gory demons. Can they bring an end to this ghoul’s horrific reign?
Goddess of Filth by V Castro
Five best friends hold a séance that goes horribly wrong when one of them begins chanting in an ancient Aztec language and climbing up the walls. Could they actually have opened the door to demonic possession? As her behavior grows weirder and weirder (well, not climbing-up-the-walls weird, but weird for her usual personality), the local priest posits that she’s been possessed by a demon. But her friend suspects it’s something even worse.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Finally, I’ll end with one that’s still on my TBR (but I have high hopes because, well, it’s Emezi). In this YA novel, our young protagonist spills a drop of her own blood onto her mother’s painting, and a strange creature (which sounds very demon-like) emerges. This creature, whom she comes to call Pet, is apparently a monster hunter. But monster hunting is a hard thing to do when no one will admit that they actually exist…
Still hungry for more? Check out this list of 8 horror books about demons.