This list of historical horror books was originally published in our horror newsletter, The Fright Stuff. Sign up for it here to get horror news, reviews, deals, and more!
This week we’re going to be time traveling with some hair-raising historical horror (say that three times fast, huh?). I love historical horror. It’s a sub-genre with unlimited potential. I know that, in some cases, there is definitely a certain aesthetic that pulls me in. You can sell me on any book that oozes gorgeous gothic architecture, Victorian velvets, and crumbling, haunted estates in the middle of wild, sweeping, isolated locals. But that’s only a fraction of what historical horror has to offer.
There’s also the fact that history is horrifying in its own right, and many of the most horrible parts of history still negatively impact the world in which we live today. From the evils of racism, to the bottomless maw of capitalism, to the terrors inherent in just existing in a world designed to despise everything you are, historical horror investigates the dark corners of history and interrogate the roots of our modern fears.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
Set partly in 1902, Plain Bad Heroines tells the linked stories of two sets of girls whose lives are entwined in the history of a mysterious New England boarding school (It’s always New England, right? All we have up here are creepy small towns and creepy, isolated boarding schools, apparently). There’s Flo and Clara, who were students at the school and died tragically, and over a century later, there’s Harper and Audrey, who are playing Flo and Clara in a horror film about their gruesome deaths and the supposedly haunted and cursed Gilded Age school. When past and present get tangled up during filming what is real and what is fiction becomes increasingly uncertain.
The Factory Witches of Lowell by C.S. Malerich
Set in the famous (or, in many ways, infamous) Lowell Textile Mills in 19th century Massachusetts, Malerich’s horror novella is about two young women embroiled in a worker’s strike at the mills. The success of the strike means fair wages, safe working conditions, and decent room and board for all the mill girls. So Judith, a newcomer to Lowell and ringleader of the strike, and Hannah, her best friend and possible love, will do whatever it takes to to make sure this strike does not fail. Thankfully, they’ve got witchcraft on their side to make sure the picket line holds.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Set in Prohibition Georgia, Ring Shout imagines an alternative history of the South in which D.W. Griffith’s terrible The Birth of a Nation is actually a spell that gathers its power from the dark thoughts and wishes at the heart of the country and raises the Klan into a place of prominence as they spearhead a plot to unleashed a terrible evil. But whiskey bootlegger and magic sword wielder Maryse Boudreaux — along with her companions, a foul-mouth sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter — is ready to fight back. Her mission is to destroy the monstrous Klan members, she’s damn good at it, and she’ll do whatever it takes to stem the tide of hate that threatens to consume her entire world.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Ah, the Victorian Age. Era of extravagance. Era of invention. Era…of fucking creepy dolls. Now, I’ll grant you, the painted wooden figure in Purcell’s The Silent Companions is not exactly one of the terrifying porcelain faced dolls of my nightmares. But it’s still creepy. Terrifying really. And it looks uncannily like our heroine. Elsie was widowed almost as soon as she was married, her dreams of a luxurious life are in danger, her servants are resentful strangers, and the local villagers are downright hostile, making her a prisoner inside the home she once coveted. But she’s not alone in this prison, because behind a locked door she finds the strange wooden figure. One that terrifies the locals, though she doesn’t know why. One that has her face. And though she tries to dismiss it all as superstition and the strain of grief, there is something deeply unsettling about the way it follows her with its eyes.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
1926, Shanghai. Two gangs locked in a bloody feud have submerged the city in chaos in this Romeo and Juliet–inspired dark tale of vengeance and monsters. Eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai is heir to the Scarlet Gang, a powerful criminal network and the rivals of the White Flowers, with whom they have been at war for hundreds of years. Roma Montagov is, you guessed it, the heir to the White Flowers. Roma is also Juliette’s first love and the one who brutally betrayed her. Is there any thing better than lovers-to-enemies? So much loathing mixed with longing. So much unresolved sexual tension. But when a strange contagion starts to spread through both gangs, causing members to go mad and claw their own throats out in the end, Roma and Juliette have no choice but the try and put their past aside and work together to fight this unknown evil before all of Shanghai falls victim.