Skulls, bones, and skeletons are classic book cover iconography, with symbolism for myriad tones or themes: horror, poison, death, humanity, and, you know, just general coolness. I’d like to think skull imagery became popular in the literary world thanks to our friend Hamlet and his pal Yorick — the exhumed skull Hamlet monologues at — and for that, I’m eternally grateful for the bard.
The real joy in curating this list of books with skull covers is the variety of genre and audience. Skulls are not tied to any one genre, though of course, they tend to be more popular in horror, fantasy, science, and crime books. In the land of middle grade covers, the skulls tend to be subtle or cartoonish, while young adult and adult covers go hard in trying to give you nightmares.
I’m ranking these covers by prettiness to eerieness, because that’s how I roll. We have skulls of all styles here, from floral arrangements and abstract shapes to realistic illustrations and haunting manipulations.
A note: I tried to track down the designers for these gorgeous skull covers, but a few were elusive. Apologies to those designers, and if you find this, let us know to add your name for proper recognition!
Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Nell Barber is an expelled PhD candidate studying poisonous plants. She’s enamored with her mentor, Jane, and soon the two get tangled up in a web of messy relationships and obsessions alongside their partners. Things get chaotic as they all intersect on the university campus in work and play. Since she was expelled, Nell brings home every poisonous plant she can get her hands on and keeps diligent notes on her studies. Hex is told in a winding, stream-of-consciousness way, which makes this delicate floral arrangement the perfect skull cover of the bunch.
Designed by Jason Ramirez, lettered by Grace Han
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
Maali Almeida is a war photographer, closeted gay man, and gambler, and he just woke up in the afterlife. As he looks down from above to see his earthly body slowly sinking in a lake, he has no memory of what happened or who killed him. The afterlife is crowded, chaotic, and full of bureaucratic red tape. He finds out he has seven moons — seven nights — in this in-between space to reflect on his life and lead his loved ones to the box of photographs he took of death, devastation, and lies in the ’80s in Sri Lanka. Along the way, he adventures with ghosts and demons of all stripes on this final journey for exposing the truth.
The Liar’s Crown by Abigail Owen
Meren and Tabra are twin princesses, but Tabra is the one who gets the glory. Meren’s job is to stay hidden and only come in to be her sister’s body double when she could be in danger. When the Queen dies and Tabra is about to be named Queen, Meren is suspicious and slips into place — and is kidnapped by a shadowy figure. But as she tries to escape, the lies of her life begin to crumble, and somehow, that shadowy figure has stolen her heart.
Designed by Elizabeth Turner Stokes
Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda
When horror and sci-fi blend, something magical happens. And when the story is set in space? Even better.
Laura is a shipraider with one goal: find the ship that was blasted across the galaxy and holds promise for saving the human race. Tuck and his crew have been on the USS John Muir in stasis for centuries, and when Laura’s ship crashes into the John Muir, chaos ensues. She has to fight off alien monsters that kill with their voice. It is horrifying and relentless and will keep you up way past your bedtime.
Designed by Kathleen Breitenfeld
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Is it a list of skull covers without Gideon the Ninth? No. It is not.
Gideon is ready to get off this planet and end this life of servitude. But her childhood nemesis, Harrow, Necromancer of the Ninth, has been summoned by the Emperor to the Lyctor Trials against the other House heirs, and she needs a swordswoman. Enter Gideon. The competition turns deadly fast as Gideon and Harrow realize each House has their own secrets.
Designed by Tommy Arnold
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco
Tea didn’t mean to resurrect her brother, but now that she did, she sees that her magic is different from the magic of her family. She’s a bone witch — a necromancer — and ostracized by her community. She joins forces with an elder bone witch who takes in Tea and her brother for training. The worldbuilding is top-notch as we watch Tea grow into the witch she’s meant to be.
Look me in the eye and tell me this cover isn’t gorgeous. Full disclosure that I work for this book’s publisher, but just look at it.
Designed by Jeff Miller, Faceout Studio
The Never King by Nikki St. Crowe
A dark Peter Pan retelling? Sounds fab!
Darling women disappear on the 18th birthday. It’s happened for centuries. Tonight is Winnie’s birthday, and she’s ready to tell her story of being whisked away with the Lost Boys in this dark, spicy romance.
The more I look at this skull cover, the more it haunts me. And I can’t stop looking at it. Creepiest one of the bunch, for sure.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Yadriel is determined to prove he’s a real brujo after his traditional family has a hard time accepting his gender. He performs a ritual to summon the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free — but the ghost turns out to be Julian, the bad boy from school. Julian has some loose ends to tie up, and since Yadriel brought him here, the least he can do is help him out. Except the longer they’re together, the more they enjoy each other’s company. Cemetery Boys is a gorgeous, sad, charming story about coming of age and proving your worth.
The skull here is a little subtle, but also a character. I love it so.
Designed by Mars Lauderbaugh