From the monster under the bed to monsters on the big screen, critics have long argued that monsters are reflections of society’s anxieties. But monsters are also fun. Characterized by their non-humanness, monsters are the perfect candidates for the horror genre because they let readers explore fear in a safe environment.
Whether you’re dealing with a sexy monster (think Twilight or True Blood) or a terrifying one, the fact of the matter is that people love their monsters. Why?
Well, there are lots of theories, but some of the most prevalent revolve around Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s ideas in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, where he talks about monsters as the embodiment of society’s deepest fears. According to Cohen, we create monsters (on screen, in literature) again and again to help us explore our anxieties. They’ll never die because we just keep bringing them back. Fellow Rioter Jessica Yang has written about the cultural significance of monsters in her essay on monsters in fiction.
Here’s an example. Remember how zombies used to be slow-moving, brain-hungry creatures? Then something happened (some have argued that something was 9/11) and they got all fast and differently-terrifying. That’s the sort of thing Cohen was talking about: that society recreates monsters in order to think through its fears.
Then there’s that interesting phenomenon that saw vampires go from being all gross and semi-decayed to, well, hot. I’m not alone in pointing to Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire as the beginning of that trajectory. Lyndsie Manusos talks about this phenomenon in her post on romance and monsters.
So whatever monster you’re in the mood for, here are some books to get your heart rate up. Maybe you’re working through some of those cultural anxieties and maybe you’re not, but these books will thrill and entertain in equal measure.
Horror Books About Monsters
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus
In 1968, George A. Romero wrote and directed what has become probably the single most influential zombie flick of all time: Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later he delivered Dawn of the Dead, followed by other zombie films in subsequent years. And wouldn’t you know it, he was working on a zombie epic when he died in 2017. This is that book, faithfully completed by Daniel Kraus at Romero’s heirs’ invitation. If that’s not enough of a description for you, I’ll say this: The Living Dead is an updated zombie epic for the contemporary moment, as imagined by the man who gave us the modern zombie. You should read.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Vampires + Aztec mythology + an unlikely love story = Certain Dark Things. Originally published in 2016, this riveting novel about warring vampire clans is finally available again! With her usual skillful navigation of genre and her flair for romance, Moreno-Garcia somehow brings a large cast of very different characters together in a heart-pounding thriller you won’t be able to put down. (And if you enjoy this one, you’ll probably like her dark fairytale Gods of Jade and Shadow for its engagement with Mexican folklore. Plus, you know, Mexico in the Jazz Age, an unruly Mayan god, and another unexpected love affair. How can you go wrong with that recipe?)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
“If monsters are your subject, writing like an angel helps.” So wrote Jennifer Senior in her NYT review of The Changeling. And it’s true — LaValle’s writing is as beautiful as it is horrific in this tale of parental love and a fairytale bait-and-switch. Apollo Kagawa is a deeply smitten new father who can’t get enough of his baby. He unabashedly posts floods of pictures of his new kiddo on social media and happily inhabits his fatherhood until things go awfully, terribly wrong. The characters in this novel feel like real people, and the dangers of the otherworldly horrors lurking in Apollo’s corner of New York City feel frighteningly close. If you’ve recently had a child yourself, this may not be the right book for you just now, but otherwise it’s a thrilling read.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
Did you know Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Colson Whitehead penned a zombie novel some years back? That’s right: Zone One follows Mark Spitz over three fateful days as he works to help clear Manhattan of its remaining zombies. Because, you know, pandemics. (Which reminds me, you might want to think about whether reading a pandemic book while we’re in the middle of our own pandemic sounds like something you want to do.) It’s a page-turner with a cliffhanger ending that will have you thinking about where the lines between humans and so-called monsters lie. And also, the collapse of society and all that.
Seven Deadly Shadows by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani
Perhaps you’re in the mood for a YA book. Try this on for size: A battle between a demon king and a 17-year-old girl with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. A retelling of The Seven Samurai. Hooked yet? You should be — Seven Deadly Shadows is the terrifying tale of Kira Fujikawa, an unpopular high schooler who can see yokai. This turns out to be a good thing, since she’ll need their help to save all of humankind when the demon king, Shuten-doji, comes to destroy the world in a couple of weeks. What’s a little world-saving when you’re the teenage victim of bullying? It’s a surprising read, but given who wrote it it’s also unsurprisingly good.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
Ever heard of a Rougarou? Empire of Wild is a monster story about this werewolf-like creature. In an interview with CBC Radio, Dimaline discussed the ways this Métis monster can be different depending on one’s community, but explains that the Rougarou she grew up knowing about is “a big black dog who also kind of looks like a man,” has a seductive quality about him, and is what those who break the rules of the community can turn into. And for a master storyteller like Dimaline, writing a horror novel about a Rougarou means delivering an amazing treat for readers. The story begins with Joan’s unrelenting search for her husband, who has been missing for nearly a year. They had a tiff, he left to clear his head, and he never came back. That’s the beginning of a complex and terrifying book about love, betrayal, and community.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (Translated by Polly Barton)
Ghost stories, anyone? NPR has hailed Aoko Matsuda’s collection of short stories as “spooky, original, and defiantly feminist,” calling it “perfect Halloween reading.” It’s horror that asks readers to think about what’s really horrific and who’s actually a monster. For instance, are the ghosts the monsters, or are the circumstances that rendered them ghostly? In their thoughtfulness, Matsuda’s stories surrender some of the pulse-quickening effects that attract many horror fans, but these stories are eerie and satisfying regardless.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
If you’re looking for a good vampire tale, Grady Hendrix’s book is an unexpected and interesting one. It starts out with protagonist Patricia Campbell and her book club. These Southern suburban women might seem like unlikely candidates for a horror novel, but before you know it the sleepy suburbs have turned into a vampire hunting ground. Not only that, it’s a racially charged hunting ground where young Black children have become the targets of the vampires and Patricia needs the help of her book club to stop things from going too far.
Almost Anything by Stephen Graham Jones (seriously)
I can’t even begin to decide where to start with Stephen Graham Jones’s oeuvre. I mean, the guy is prolific, and almost all of his writing is teeming with monsters. Want a zombie novel? You really can’t go wrong with Gospel of Z or the slightly more comedic Zombie Bake-Off. Want a good old fashioned werewolf tale (with Jones’s characteristic wicked spin, of course)? Read Mongrels. Looking for a monster of a different variety? The terror-inducing, heart-pounding climax of The Only Good Indians — where the awkwardly-named but absolutely horrifying Elk Head Woman stalks a teenage girl across the frozen midwestern landscape — won’t disappoint. This guy. He just gives and gives. His cabinet of inventive horrors may take years off your life, but they’ll be years spent engrossed in his gory story worlds. (And if you want a horror novel that is bound to make waves, but is a little less monsterly, check the shelves of your local bookstore for his latest novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw.)
If you still need more monsters to satisfy you as the nights grow longer and autumn draws near, here are some more lists to get help you on your way: