I’ll be honest, this is a chaotic list that has a little something for everyone to celebrate spooky season. We broke down some classic sinister themes and gave a few book recs for each, varying from romance to fantasy to mild horror to deeply disturbing. Don’t forget to check under the bed before you climb in to enjoy one of these chilling reads 🙂
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole: Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block–her neighbor Theo. But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: Our story begins in 1902, at the Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it the Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, the Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever–but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way. Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer Merritt Emmons publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled–or perhaps just grimly exploited–and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: The story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a haunting; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers–and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor: Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing–she is a free agent with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too.
The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin: For centuries, witches have maintained the climate, but now their control is faltering as the atmosphere becomes more erratic; the storms, more destructive. All hope lies with Clara, a once-in-a-generation Everwitch whose magic is tied to every season. In Autumn, Clara wants nothing to do with her power. It’s wild and volatile, and the price of her magic–losing the ones she loves–is too high, despite the need to control the increasingly dangerous weather. In Winter, the world is on the precipice of disaster. Fires burn, storms rage, and Clara accepts that she’s the only one who can make a difference. In Spring, she falls for Sang, the witch training her. As her magic grows, so do her feelings, until she’s terrified Sang will be the next one she loses. In Summer, Clara must choose between her power and her happiness, her duty and the people she loves…before she loses Sang, her magic, and thrusts the world into chaos.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna: As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules…with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos pretending to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously. But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat. As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility.
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass: Sixteen-year-old Jake Livingston sees dead people everywhere. But he can’t decide what’s worse: being a medium forced to watch the dead play out their last moments on a loop or being at the mercy of racist teachers as one of the few Black students at St. Clair Prep. Both are a living nightmare he wishes he could wake up from. But things at St. Clair start looking up with the arrival of another Black student–the handsome Allister–and for the first time, romance is on the horizon for Jake. Unfortunately, life as a medium is getting worse. Though most ghosts are harmless and Jake is always happy to help them move on to the next place, Sawyer Doon wants much more from Jake. In life, Sawyer was a troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school before taking his own life. Now he’s a powerful, vengeful ghost and he has plans for Jake. Suddenly, everything Jake knows about dead world goes out the window as Sawyer begins to haunt him. High school soon becomes a different kind of survival game–one Jake is not sure he can win.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas: When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free. However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo: Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price? Night after night, Li Lan is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, where she must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family.
This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron: Briseis has one chance to save her mother, but she’ll need to do the impossible: find the last fragment of the deadly Absyrtus Heart. To locate the missing piece, she must turn to the blood relatives she’s never known, learn about their secret powers, and take her place in their ancient lineage.But Briseis is not the only one who wants the Heart, and her enemies will stop at nothing to fulfill their own ruthless plans. The fates tell of a truly dangerous journey, one that could end in more heartache, more death. Strengthened by the sisterhood of ancient magic, can Briseis harness her power to save the people she loves most? Bestselling author Kalynn Bayron continues the story of Briseis and her family’s unique magic in the sequel to This Poison Heart
What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher: When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania. What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves. Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide; the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition. The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers–they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding–but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obessessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara: For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area. Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called the Golden State Killer. Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark–the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death–offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic–one which fulfilled Michelle’s dream: helping unmask the Golden State Killer.
American Predator by Maureen Callahan: Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. The names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known; they echo in the news and in public consciousness. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as a force of pure evil, Keyes was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried kill kits–cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools–in remote locations across the country. Over the course of fourteen years, Keyes would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger’s house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home to Alaska, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter. When journalist Maureen Callahan first heard about Israel Keyes in 2012, she was captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for the next several years–uncovering the true story behind how the FBI ultimately caught Israel Keyes, and trying to understand what it means for a killer like Keyes to exist. A killer who left a path of monstrous, randomly committed crimes in his wake–many of which remain unsolved to this day.
Mindhunter by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas: In chilling detail, the legendary Mindhunter takes us behind the scenes of some of his most gruesome, fascinating, and challenging cases—and into the darkest recesses of our worst nightmares. During his twenty-five year career with the Investigative Support Unit, Special Agent John Douglas became a legendary figure in law enforcement, pursuing some of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers of our time: the man who hunted prostitutes for sport in the woods of Alaska, the Atlanta child murderer, and Seattle’s Green River killer, the case that nearly cost Douglas his life. As the model for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs, Douglas has confronted, interviewed, and studied scores of serial killers and assassins, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, who dressed himself in his victims’ peeled skin. Using his uncanny ability to become both predator and prey, Douglas examines each crime scene, reliving both the killer’s and the victim’s actions in his mind, creating their profiles, describing their habits, and predicting their next moves.
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler: This is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly unhuman needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: She is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted-and still wants-to destroy her and those she cares for and how she can save herself.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized. Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in. Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?
The Passage by Justin Cronin: An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival, The Passage is the story of Amy–abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape–but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.
Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier: Welcome to Wonderland. By day, it’s a magical place boasting a certain retro charm. Excited children, hands sticky with cotton candy, run frenetically from the Giant Octopus ride to the Spinning Sombrero, while the tinkling carnival music of the giant Wonder Wheel—the oldest Ferris wheel in the Pacific Northwest—fills the air. But before daybreak, an eerie feeling descends. Maybe it’s the Clown Museum, home to creepy wax replicas of movie stars and a massive collection of antique porcelain dolls. Or maybe it’s the terrifyingly real House of Horrors. Or…maybe it’s the dead, decaying body left in the midway for all the Wonder Workers to see. Vanessa Castro’s first day as deputy police chief of Seaside, Washington, is off to a bang. The unidentifiable homeless man rotting inside the tiny town’s main tourist attraction is strange enough, but now a teenage employee—whose defiant picture at the top of the Wonder Wheel went viral that same morning—is missing. As the clues in those seemingly disparate crimes lead her down a mysterious shared path of missing persons that goes back decades, she suspects the seedy rumors surrounding the amusement park’s dark history might just be true. She moved to Seaside to escape her own scandalous past, but has she brought her family to the center of an insidious killer’s twisted game?
It by Stephen King: Welcome to Derry, Maine. It’s a small city, a place as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown. Only in Derry the haunting is real. They were seven teenagers when they first stumbled upon the horror. Now they are grown-up men and women who have gone out into the big world to gain success and happiness. But the promise they made twenty-eight years ago calls them reunite in the same place where, as teenagers, they battled an evil creature that preyed on the city’s children. Now, children are being murdered again and their repressed memories of that terrifying summer return as they prepare to once again battle the monster lurking in Derry’s sewers.
Hide by Kiersten White: The challenge: Spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park and don’t get caught. The prize: enough money to change everything. Even though everyone is desperate to win–to seize a dream future or escape a haunting past–Mack is sure she can beat her competitors. All she has to do is hide, and she’s an expert at that. It’s the reason she’s alive and her family isn’t. But as the people around her begin disappearing one by one, Mack realizes that this competition is even more sinister than she imagined, and that together might be the only way to survive. Fourteen competitors. Seven days. Everywhere to hide but nowhere to run. Come out, come out, wherever you are.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark: In America, demons wear white hoods. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation cast a spell across America, swelling the Klan’s ranks and drinking deep from the darkest thoughts of white folk. All across the nation they ride, spreading fear and violence among the vulnerable. They plan to bring Hell to Earth. But even Ku Kluxes can die. Standing in their way is Maryse Boudreaux and her fellow resistance fighters, a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter. Armed with blade, bullet, and bomb, they hunt their hunters and send the Klan’s demons straight to Hell. But something awful’s brewing in Macon, and the war on Hell is about to heat up. Can Maryse stop the Klan before it ends the world?
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica: Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans–though no one calls them that anymore.His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat–“special meat”–is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing. Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost–and what might still be saved.
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley: When people shed their skin every seven years, it’s just a fact of life that we will cast off all the attachments of our old life. And when our loves are part of us, those memories of love can be bought, if you know the right people. Introducing the new drug, Suscutin, that will prevent the molt. Now you can keep your skin forever. Now you never need to change who you are. But it’s not so simple for celebrity bodyguard Rose Allington, who suffers from a rare disease. Her molts come quickly, changing everything about her life, who she is, who she loves. Meanwhile, her former client, superstar actor Max Black, is hooked on Suscutin, because he knows molting could lose him everything. When one of his skins is stolen, and the theft is an inside job, he needs the best who ever worked for him on the job – even if she’s not the same person.
“Get Out” vibes
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé: When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too. Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures. As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust. Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW. It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.
The Black Queen by Jumata Emill: Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating. Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy–her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition. No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t fact the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova–and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk. Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her. But Tinsley has an agenda, too. Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.
Ellen Whitfield is senior publicist at Books Forward, an author publicity and book marketing firm committed to promoting voices from a diverse variety of communities. From book reviews and author events, to social media and digital marketing, we help authors find success and connect with readers.