Summertime is almost here, and as temperatures rise, it’s a great time to lean into some chilling reads by BIPOC writers. There’s nothing like a good work of horror or a contemporary thriller to keep you refreshed through the long days of summer.
In putting together this list, I was thinking about Spike Lee’s 1989 (non-horror) film Do the Right Thing, which portrayed the ways an extreme summer heat wave can exacerbate existing tensions. I think horror can sometimes accomplish what the uncomfortable weather and relentless heat accomplished in Lee’s movie: to burn away the oh-so-thin veneer of civility and cause the underlying problems to boil over.
With all of the books on this list, at least some of the darkness simmering just beneath the surface is tied (however abstractly) to racism. The racism underpinning so much of the fear emerges in a huge variety of ways in these books: a serial killer’s preoccupation with crimes committed against Indigenous peoples over a century ago, a haunted house’s history with colonial violence, a disease that magnifies racial hatred. The list goes on.
So whether you’re looking for a book to give you goosebumps at night or one that’ll set your nerves tingling, the books on this list will give you plenty of darkness to counter the lengthy daylight hours.
The Wishing Pool and Other Stories by Tananarive Due
This book is amazing. It’s been several years since Tananarive Due, one of the great voices in speculative fiction and horror, published a book, and what a book it is! Ranging from the fantastically frightening (I literally had to put the book down after reading “Last Stop on Route 9”) to the darkly disturbing (like “Migration”), Due’s second collection of short stories is worth the wait. I love that the collection is divided into four parts, which are connected by characters, locations, or themes. While the stories vary greatly in terms of character, plot, and style, they all have in common a rumbling undercurrent of fear that’ll have you biting the nails on one hand as fast as you’re turning the pages with the other.
Walking Practice by Dolki Min
How can you not love a thriller featuring an extraterrestrial whose need for food — humans, of course — leads to a clever use of dating apps, constantly shifting gender performance, and lots of alien angst? Oh, and did I mention that the novel also has some fascinating b&w illustrations (the cover gives you a preview of what’s inside) sprinkled throughout? The narration is fascinating, delivered in an almost clinical style that perfectly complements the protagonist and plot. As you might expect with a novel featuring an alien being, Min also delves into some humorous and insightful social commentary. It’s an unusual read, for sure, but one I highly recommend.
Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones
Don’t Fear the Reaper is book #2 of Jones’s Indian Lake trilogy (which began with My Heart is a Chainsaw), and what a welcome installation in that series it is! It only took a handful of pages before I was completely hooked (pun totally intended — the book’s escaped serial killer has a hook for one hand) on this one. The book opens with Jade Daniels’s release from prison four years after the bloodshed in Chainsaw, but her homecoming turns out to be just as bloody. Jones works his terrifying magic yet again with a cast of brilliantly rendered characters, a deadly blizzard, and a series of murders so disturbing in their imaginative detailing that you’ll be glad to have to wait for the next book to come out so you can recover your wits.
The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro
I love a good La Llorona story, and V. Castro’s book is definitely a good one! It’s about Alejandra — affluent mother, wife, and adoptee. Despite appearances, Alejandra is struggling hard. She’s maybe losing her mind? Because, well, wouldn’t you think you were losing it at least a little bit if you kept seeing apparitions of a weeping woman in a white dress? Luckily, Alejandra teams up with therapist and curandera Melanie Ortiz, and before too long it becomes apparent that there’s more to the situation than Alejandra could have guessed. It’s a psychological kind of horror novel that, at its heart, is about family, gender, and trauma.
Not so Perfect Strangers by L.S. Stratton
I love a good reworking of a well-worn tale, and L.S. Stratton delivers just that in Not So Perfect Strangers. Deftly reshaping Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, in which two men on a train devise a clever murder plot to kill each other’s wives, Stratton’s thriller delivers a far more insidious plot that unspools the myriad dynamics and far reaches of gendered violence. Well-to-do Madison Gingell has a truly depraved side to her character (which is perfect for this book). When she stumbles into Tasha Jenkins’s car on what’s supposed to be Tasha’s last night in town as she flees her abusive husband, the encounter kicks off a series of events that quickly spiral out of anyone’s control. In addition to being a really good read, Not So Perfect Strangers is a smart criticism of the intersections of racism, patriarchy, and privilege.
The Fervor by Alma Katsu
If you’re a history buff, then this is the perfect horror novel for you. It delves into a not-distant-enough chapter in U.S. American history characterized by intense anti-Asian hatred: the Japanese American incarceration camps of WWII. But this isn’t your typical incarceration tale. In the 1940s of Katsu’s imagining, Meiko Briggs and her mixed-race daughter Aiko are incarcerated…and then the really bad stuff starts happening. With demons on the loose and a sickness gripping the camps, Meiko, Aiko and an unexpected ally are running out of time to save the nation from the hateful fervor the sickness brings to the surface.
She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran
Jade may think she’s playing her deadbeat dad for a college tuition paycheck, but when she heads to Vietnam to help him on his summer real estate project, she realizes she may be in over her head. It’s not just that her dad is renovating a super creepy old French colonial manor in the middle of nowhere…it’s that the place is obviously haunted. The links binding Jade’s family to the house and its violent role in colonial rule are slowly unearthed, but the more Jade learns, the harder it gets for her to make it out unscathed. Besides having a beautifully unnerving cover that’ll freak you out just by sitting on your nightstand, Tran’s novel is an engrossing and visceral read. If you like haunted house novels, this is a real treat.
Jackal by Erin E. Adams
This book is creepy. Which, okay, it should be since it’s on this list, but still. This takes the trope of a monster in the forest to a new level, and it’s one of the best works of horror I’ve read this year. The story follows Liz during a truly horrendous week. Not only did she have to come back to her small hometown in rural Pennsylvania for her best friend’s wedding, but then her best friend’s daughter went missing in the woods on Liz’s watch. Turns out, the town’s long and hidden history of Black girls going missing in the forest has its roots in racist fear, and Liz is about to discover just how much of the small community is implicated in these very not random acts of violence.
You’re Invited by Amanda Jayatissa
This thriller has really spectacular mystery elements to it. Like Jayatissa’s first book, My Sweet Girl, You’re Invited delivers a female protagonist who’s struggling with her mental health. However, that’s where the similarities end (except, of course, the excellent storytelling that prevails in both books). Amaya has decided to accept the invitation to ex-best-friend, Kaavi’s wedding, and it’s pretty obvious from the start that things are not going to go well. One very angry Sri Lankan family, a hotbed of interfering aunties, and a ginormous secret later, the climax will have you flipping pages as fast as you can to see what happens. I love it when I think I have a book figured out, only to discover I’m wrong and the author has taken me somewhere unexpected — and that’s exactly what happened with Jayatissa’s latest read.
Seeking More Scares?
Look no further! You can find lots of great horror reads on this list of 20 must-read horror stories and fantastic thrillers on this list of compulsively readable suspense novels. If you want to go a little more niche, there are some amazing survival game horror novels on this list.