Top 25 Horror Books with Female Protagonists
In typical horror stories, female protagonists are very rare, and when they’re found, they’re often reduced to screaming and shrinking damsels in distress, waiting to be mutilated or worse by monsters or serial killers. Even the biggest horror fans will admit that the genre is not very kind to its female characters. Despite leaving this stereotypical image behind, female heroines are still shockingly rare in modern horror fiction.
Related genres such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and horror for young adults have all enjoyed a plethora of compelling female protagonists, particularly in recent years. Indeed, several of the titles on this list could fall into these subgenres. Rae in Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is the perfect example. A heroine who falls for a vampire is a staple of the paranormal romance genre. The difference between Rae, and Bella from the Twilight series, is that Constantine, the vampire in Sunshine is neither sparkly nor drool-worthy. In fact, he’s alien and downright scary. Jessica from Tananarive Due’s My Soul to Keep also falls in love with and marries a man with a supernatural and dark past, but what makes her different from other paranormal romance heroines is the fact that her husband is so desperate to keep her safe that he may just sacrifice her soul. The characters from young adult fiction on this list also stand out in their genre. There is Hanna from Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, who is such a compelling and interesting character that everything in the story, even the surreal setting itself, reflects her mental state. Mary, the heroine of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, defies her female-led government in order to pursue her personal passion, risking the lives of her friends and family.
Historically, gothic horror fiction was marketed toward women and written by women. These stories featured plucky and smart female heroines that were always thrown into peril. Though a female writer, Mary Shelley, helped to usher in many tropes of modern horror, female characters are nearly absent from her major work, and any feminist themes are veiled. Instead, her contemporary J. Sheridan leFanu brings a compelling female antagonist, and an interesting female perspective in his vampire tale, Carmilla.
Modern horror fiction owes a great deal to Shirley Jackson, and she heavily influences the roles of women in horror. Women, such as the broken Constance, the twisted Merricat, and the haunted Eleanor Vance are at the heart of Jackson’s work. In the 70’s Ira Levin wrote horror fiction about women and satirized the fear with which second wave feminism was greeted. Though his female protagonists serve in traditional roles, such as housewife and mother, these roles are warped and twisted through the stories. In the 1980’s, it became more acceptable in horror fiction for women to have professional careers. This gave rise to heroines like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
The rise of domestic noir in 2013 saw a return to the traditional roles of wife and mother with stories like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, but like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, these novels underscore the darker nature of a stereotypically perfect life. Other modern horror novels eschew these roles for their female protagonists altogether, and still others have taken traditionally villainous women and turned them into heroes, such as in Cherie Priest’s series The Borden Dispatches.
Both male and female writers are present on this list, as well, proving that compelling and interesting female heroines can be written by any good writer.
Jessica thought she had the perfect life, a wonderful husband, a beautiful young daughter, and one of her newspaper stories has just landed her a book deal. As Jessica researches elder care for her book, one of the cases mysteriously leads to her husband, David. Then, people close to Jessica start dying violently and David reveals a long-hidden secret, a secret that he must protect no matter what. Four hundred years ago, he and several others performed a ritual to make themselves immortal. With Jessica aware of his past, the others demand that David leave his family and return to them, but her husband vows to keep her and her daughter with him forever… and she’s not sure she wants that either.
Why it’s on the list: My Soul to Keep is the Bram Stoker Award nominated first installment of Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series. Jessica is a strong character whose investigative reporting skills set the whole plot in motion. At first, she seems naive, but honestly, it’s pretty hard to believe David’s secret if you come from the rational world where such things don’t exist. It is her journey, dealing with the truths that her husband has presented her, that make this book such a compelling page-turner.
Read if you like: urban fantasy, paranormal, horror romance.
The unnamed narrator meets wealthy widower, Maximillian deWinter while working as a companion for an American woman who is enjoying a vacation in Monte Carlo. After a whirlwind, courtship, the naive twenty year old agrees to marry Mr. deWinter. When they return to his country estate, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, does everything in her power to undermine the young lady's confidence by constantly comparing her to the late Mrs. deWinter, Rebecca, who was supposedly much more worldly and urbane than the narrator. Mrs. Danvers was extremely devoted to the late Mrs. deWinter, who died in a boating accident the year before Mr. deWinter and the narrator meet. Because of Mrs. Danvers's obsession with Rebecca, Manderley is haunted by its former mistress, and so too, the narrator feels her claustrophobic presence.
Why it’s on the list: Rebecca is right up there with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for its sheer gothic delight. The novel’s unnamed heroine is a strong female protagonist.. Though she is naive and ill-at-ease at Manderley, she bravely tries to fit in and make her mark. There’s plenty of good old-fashioned gothic romance, but at its heart lurks a riveting psychological thriller. Mrs. Danvers’s maniacal fascination with the former Mrs. deWinter and her manipulation of the narrator are chilling. The atmosphere of Manderley is made increasingly more sinister with each twist of the plot. There are no supernatural terrors here, and the only ghosts are memories. The true horror of this book lies in the depths of obsession and jealousy.
Read if you like: gothic horror, classic horror, psychological horror
Something terrible happened in the town of Quiet, California when Frances Pastan was just a child. Now, a successful children’s author and illustrator, Frances is still haunted by her past. Struggling with alcoholism and estranged from her daughter, Frances decides to return to her childhood home and confront the horrors of her past. Told in flashbacks alternating with France’s present day difficulties, Frances’s childhood with her friend Lucy is revealed, as is the reality of Lucy’s brutal murder.
Why it’s on the list: Conlon portrays the friendship of two young girls with amazing accuracy in this novel that is a splendid mix of emotional coming of age story and crime thriller. This is so much more than a serial killer thriller story. There are moments that will make you angry; moments that will make you laugh, and moments, of course, that will make you cry. The female voice is very well done in the story. The writing is poetic and addictive, and the characters are well-drawn and heartfelt. It’s a haunting, melancholy story that will stay with you long after the last page is turned.
Read if you like: coming of age stories, dysfunctional families, serial killers, and crime fiction.
During an archeological dig in northern Iraq, Father Thomas Merrin uncovers a small statue of the demon Pazuzu and is warned that he soon will confront a powerful evil. Meanwhile, in the small DC neighborhood of Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeill is growing increasingly worried about her daughter Regan, whose strange illness is unexplained by doctors. Regan’s increasingly violent episodes lead her mother to approach Father Damien Karras, the titular exorcist, who is dealing with his own crisis of faith following the death of his mother.
Why it’s on the list: While it’s definitely known for being one of the scariest supernatural thrillers ever, The Exorcist may not be the first book that readers would associate with female protagonists, probably because the exorcist of the title is a male priest, but the female voice is strong in this novel. From the frazzled Chris MacNeill who is unsure of what to make of her daughter’s transformation to the reasons for Father Damien’s personal issues with faith, there is a strong feminine influence on the story. But the most important reason that The Exorcist is on this list is its protagonist, young Regan MacNeill, whose transformation from innocent pre-teen to foul-mouthed hellspawn and the struggle for her redemption is the axis on which all of the other characters and their stories rotate. In the movie, Regan’s possession is explicit. In the book, it is not as cut and dry. The novel leaves room for the interpretation that the change in Regan is not supernatural but psychological, which gives the innocent girl an even more interesting twist.
Read if you like: demons, possession, religious horror, psychological horror.
The FBI is on the hunt for a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, who is known for kidnapping overweight women and skinning them, leaving their bodies in the river. To solicit the assistance of the expert forensic psychiatrist , Dr. Hannibal Lecter, agent Jack Crawford recruits Clarice Starling, a young trainee, to visit Lecter at the mental institution where he is serving nine consecutive life sentence for his cannibalistic tendencies. The pretense for this assignment is a psychological profile, but it soon becomes clear that the FBI needs Dr. Lecter’s expertise in locating another serial killer. Lecter agrees to help with the investigation, only offering cryptic clues in exchange for information about Starling’s troubled past.
Why it’s on the list: Though everyone’s favorite cannibal is mesmerizing in the second book of the series that is named after him, Clarice Starling is the breakout star of the novel. A strong woman, Starling is forced to struggle against a cast of unsavory male characters from Dr. Lecter himself to her colleagues and even asylum staff for control over both her job and her mind. The conversations between Lecter and Starling are the real meat of the novel, and as their relationship develops, you will be drawn into, and ultimately haunted by the story.
Read if you like: psychological, serial killer horror, and crime horror
The first in The Lives of the Mayfair Witches trilogy is a saga that spans 500 years and 13 generations of the Mayfair family. Beginning in the 16th century Scottish highlands and sweeping through to present day, the Mayfair family has enjoyed unrivaled riches and power,but at the heart of their fortune is a mysterious, demonic spirit named Lasher who bonds with a chosen female in each generation. Unaware of her heritage, Rowan Mayfair is the latest chosen, a brilliant neurosurgeon who has the added benefit of having the psychic ability to save lives. She rescues a drowning architect named Michael Curry who also develops extrasensory powers and is somehow connected to her past. The attraction between Michael and Rowan is intense, but Lasher has other plans for the Mayfair heir. He wants to enter this world, and Rowan is the only one who can let him in.
Why it’s on the list: This trilogy opener is the family saga of a long matriarchy who draws its power from several strong female characters, who are all protagonists in their part of the family’s story. However, it is Rowan’s struggle against the demon, Lasher, that is the focus of the story. Rowan, unaware of her family’s wealth and power, comes into her own throughout the story, realizing her own supernatural powers. With these and her intellect, she works with her husband to thwart Lasher’s ambitions to take physical form.
Read if you like: horror romance, family sagas, supernatural horror, demons, and witches.
Eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood lives a relatively peaceful and secluded existence with her sister and uncle, her only remaining family after a horrific tragedy. She practices sympathetic magic to ensure that things never change in her little world, and is the family’s only contact with the village outside the Blackwood Manor. Merricat is happy with the steady, unchanging rhythm of her life, until her greedy cousin, Charles shows up and attempts to woo her sister, Constance, upsetting the delicate balance that Merricat had so religiously maintained.
Why it’s on the list: The narrator of Shirley Jackson’s last novel is one of the most compelling female characters in the horror genre. Is she good? Is she evil? The reader never can tell, and we are at the mercy of her unreliable narration. Additionally, there is Constance. While she may not seem like the stereotypical strong female character with her fear of leaving the house, she is the only one who seems to be able to tame her wild sister. This is a story of the power of sisterhood, however twisted their closeness may be. As for the horror, while the scares here are not overt, there is something that is haunting about this story from the mysterious tragedy that destroyed the Blackwood family to Merricat’s eerie but also darkly comic manner.
Read if you like: gothic horror, mystery, sisters, dark comedy, and dark fantasy.
The Yellow Wallpaper is told by an unnamed woman who, after the birth of her child, is put on a “rest cure” by her physician husband. They move to an isolated mansion for a summer to help with her recovery. During this recuperation period, the narrator is not allowed to work or socialize and is basically kept a prisoner in a nursery with hideous yellow wallpaper.She documents her time in the nursery in a journal that she keeps hidden from her husband, and his sister, the housekeeper, for fear that even keeping the journal would be considered too much exertion. At first, the narrator merely hates the wallpaper, but as the days and weeks of her captivity progress, she begins to see patterns, and then shapes. Finally, the wallpaper starts to move.
Why it’s on the list: This story has been held up by women's’ studies courses all over the world as a critique of the repression of the Victorian social construct and its repression of women. At 70 pages, it’s, by far, the shortest book on the list, but that doesn’t mean it packs any less of a punch. The narrator drags you quickly down into her insanity in this diary-style story.
Read if you like: gothic horror, psychological horror.
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are a newly married couple who cannot believe their luck when they land a stylish apartment at the Bramford. Though a friend cautions them about the Bramford’s notorious history, the couple shrugs it off. Rosemary wants nothing more than to start a family with her husband, but Guy, a struggling actor, wants to land his big break before he even thinks about a family. As they settling into their new apartment, they meet Minnie and Roman Castevet, an odd older couple that Guy seems to take a particular affinity to. As his relationship with the Castevets grows, Guy’s career begins to look up. Another actor is mysteriously blinded, and Guy is awarded the actor’s part, which he performs to rave reviews. Guy agrees with Rosemary that it is time to have a baby, and Rosemary gets pregnant, though her recollection of the experience differs greatly from her husband’s.
Why it’s on the list: Rosemary Woodhouse is not a strong female character, not a feminist icon. She is a typical 1960’s housewife. Nevertheless, despite her passivity, Rosemary is a compelling female protagonist. Readers cannot help but feel for her, root for her, and hope for her escape, even as she is manipulated on all sides. Rosemary is an interesting character. She is portrayed as a typical 1960’s housewife, but she is smart. It is her struggle between her suspicions and what she believes is her role as a wife and mother that make her such a dynamic character. Though this may seem like a simplistic story and scares are not in-your-face, the tension is ratcheted up as feelings of unease increase throughout the story. It’s a hauntingly creepy read.
Read if you like: gothic horror, satanic horror, satanic bargain horror.
When Beth Ortiz is offered a job as a theater director by her friend, Eric, she thinks it’s a dream come true. The small theater, the Castle, has a long history of murder and madness, but Beth is not fazed by this. When she meets, Linda, a teenaged prostitute who falls asleep on her car and discovers the journal of a 19th century serial killer, Beth is inspired to write her first production for the theater company. However, Beth’s dream job soon turns into a nightmare as life begins to imitate art.
Why it’s on the list: Morton’s Stoker award-winning debut novel is full of interesting female characters from Linda, the teenaged prostitute, to the artist who lives upstairs, Jessamine,and the filmmaker Miki. The protagonist, Beth, is undaunted by the tales of horror surrounding the Castle, even as she begins to find evidence of its existence. This modern haunted house story ratchets up the tension as the mystery unfolds and life imitates art, but there’s a modern edge to this ghost story, exploring the creative process, the camaraderie of the theater, and the harsh realities of teenage prostitution.
Read if you like: haunted house stories, gothic horror, serial killer horror, ghost stories, theater.
Hill House is a menacing old house that is infamous for the supernatural activity that takes place there. A paranormal investigator, Dr. Montague, gathers a group of people together to spend the summer investigating the truth of the rumors surrounding the house. Luke, the heir to Hill House, Theodora, a bohemian clairvoyant, and Eleanor, a shy and reclusive young woman, make up the group that ventures into Hill House. The story is told through Eleanor’s eyes, and slowly, terrifying things begin to unfold in the house. Oddly, many of these events seem to be focused on Eleanor herself.
Why it’s on the list: Two female characters dominate this classic haunted house story. Theodora is a vivacious tour de force, but it is the unassuming Eleanor Vance who truly steals the show. As the events in the novel progress, told from Eleanor’s point of view, the reader becomes unsure whether these supernatural events are actually taking place or if Eleanor is slowly losing her grip on reality. Is the house possessing this shy young woman, or is the paranormal activity that she describes a result of her lonely and warped mind? It’s never fully clear, which is what makes Eleanor herself such an interesting and compelling character, if not a necessarily reliable narrator. It is this unease which creeps across the pages of the story that make The Haunting of Hill House a horror classic.
Read if you like: haunted house stories, supernatural horror, psychological horror, unreliable narrators, and gothic horror.
Carrie White is a pathetic teenaged girl who is bullied at school by her classmates and at home by her religiously fanatical and domineering mother. When her first period begins in the shower after gym class, her classmates surround her, throwing tampons at her and humiliating her. They are punished by a well-meaning gym teacher. Carrie, meanwhile, discovers that she has latent telekinetic powers, which she begins to practice in secret. Out of guilt over her behavior in the showers, nice girl, Sue Snell, convinces her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the Spring Dance where everyone is shocked to discover that she is actually charming and funny… until all hell breaks loose.
Why it’s on the list: Carrie is a novel that is full of examples of female power. The most obvious example is Carrie’s developing telekinesis, but her supernatural powers are not the only examples of female power on display in the novel. The popular queen bee, Chris Hargensen who challenges authority and furious at being punished, uses her sexuality to convince her boyfriend to help her carry out her revenge. Carrie’s mother who fears her daughter’s approaching adulthood, and does everything in her power to squash Carrie’s independence. Carrie, herself is a compelling character, whom readers can’t help but feel sorry for, even as the body count rises in her wake. Though seen from the outside, she could be viewed as weak, once readers get inside her head, you understand the true horror of her situation, even as she becomes a monster.
Read if you like: supernatural horror, high school stories, mean girls, and psychic powers.
Twenty years after the cure for the common cold and the cure for cancer combined to create a dreaded virus that infected humans and animals alike, turning them into zombies, bloggers provide most of the remaining world with their news and entertainment. Georgia “George” Mason, her foster brother, Shaun, and her best friend Buffy are three such bloggers who run the site, “After the End Times”. In the chance of a lifetime, the three are asked to cover the presidential campaign of Senator Peter Ryman, but they soon discover that this may just be the most dangerous assignment of their lives.
Why it’s on the list: Part zombie novel, part science fiction, and part political thriller, Feed is the first in the Newsflesh trilogy, and it is the characters that truly make this novel great, particularly George and Shan’s relationship. Through George’s cynical and sarcastic eyes, readers are thoroughly immersed in the world after the zombie apocalypse. When George succeeds, the reader succeeds; when George is helpless, so is the reader. The tension mounts as the mystery unfolds around the team of bloggers, and they are put in ever increasing danger. But these bloggers are undaunted by the risks and will expose the truth at any cost.
Read if you like: zombies, science fiction horror, political thrillers, incredibly detailed world-building.
Rae Seddons, nicknamed Sunshine by her stepfather, is a baker at her stepfather’s wildly popular cafe in the small town of New Arcadia. Seemingly content with her tiny world, Rae secretly indulges in stories about the dark Others, namely vampires. In Rae’s post-apocalyptic world, vampires, demons, and werewolves are all real, and all dangerous, as she learns firsthand when she is kidnapped by a group of vampires. She is chained to the wall in an abandoned house and left with another vampire, Constantine. As the two talk, Rae realizes that not all vampires are created equal, and when she helps Constantine to escape the mansion, their lives are forever changed and intertwined.
Why it’s on the list: Sunshine is a unique vampire romance in that Rae is not an ass-kicking heroine like Anita Blake or a shrinking violet like Bella Swan. Rae is powerful, though she doesn’t realize it at first, and self-deprecating. It is through her eyes that this new world is revealed at a blinding pace. Constantine is not the typical vampire of paranormal romance, either. He is not described as dark, brooding, and handsome, but instead is alien and strange. Their relationship is not one of immediate romance, but develops out of a mutual need to escape a situation into which they’ve been thrust, and it’s this carefully unfolding romance that is at the heart of the novel.
Read if you like: Vampires, supernatural, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy.
Rachel Watson becomes obsessed with the perfect couple that she sees through the window of the train each morning on her commute to London, even going so far as to naming them, Jess and Jason. It’s the life that she could have had with her now ex-husband Tom, who lives a few doors down from the couple. But alcoholism destroyed their marriage. When the woman that Rachel knows as Jess goes missing, Rachel believes that she knows what happened and does everything in her power to involve herself in the investigation.
Why it’s on the list: This domestic noir is very similar to Gone Girl in that it explores the idea that you can never really know about a person on the surface. It’s narrated by the three principal female characters. Rachel is the protagonist and primary narrator. Her life is a wreck, and her narration reflects this as her alcoholism leads to drunken blackouts. Megan, who Rachel thinks of as Jess initially, is another narrator. Megan’s seemingly perfect life hides a dark tragedy that she is still struggling to deal with. The third narrator is Anna, the new love of Rachel’s ex-husband. All she wants is the perfect life with Tom, but Rachel keeps ruining it. Each of these women is flawed, despite their sometimes perfect appearance, and each is entwined as the novel progresses and the mystery deepens.
Read if you like: Dark mystery, noir, domestic noir, and British fiction.
Laura is an unassuming nineteen year old girl who lives alone and friendless with her father in a castle in remote Styria. She is excited by the prospect that her father’s friend is bringing his young niece to stay with them, until the girl dies of a mysterious sickness. Later, a carriage accident brings another young girl to her doorstep, the enchanting Carmilla. Laura is desperate for a friend, and quickly becomes attached to Carmilla despite the girl’s strange habits, such as sleeping until dusk and disappearing around the castle and grounds. Carmilla, for her part, is also deeply attached to Laura, but her attentions seem to hint that she wants something stronger than friendship. When Laura has strange nightmares of being attacked by a large black cat and wakes up with puncture wounds on her chest, Carmilla’s dark nature begins to be revealed.
Why it’s on the list: Both of the main characters of the story are compelling females. Though Laura may come across as a bit weak, her loneliness and desperate need for companionship explain away much of her naivete. Carmilla, though the antagonist, is just as lonely, despite or maybe because of her monstrous nature. Laura is both repulsed by and attracted to Carmilla, and the strong bond that develops between the two hints at much more than friendship in what could be read as a tale of female sexual awakening in the Victorian age.
Read if you like : vampires, gothic romance, classic horror, gothic horror, paranormal romance.
- This is the story of India Morgan Phelps (Imp, for short) as she tries to tell it. Coming from a long line of women with mental problems, Imp, herself, is being medicated for schizophrenia. She tries to puzzle out her own ghost story. She is haunted by Eva Canning, a girl who looks mysteriously like the woman in a painting titled The Drowining Girl. Eva appears to Imp as both a mermaid and a werewolf on separate occasions, and Imp is not sure if these hauntings are real or the product of her obsessions with the girl. Imp is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and this story is as much about her discovering her own truths as it is about her relationships: her relationship with herself, her relationship with Eva, and her relationship with Abalyn, her transgendered lover. It is, at times, dark and unnerving: perfect for fans of ghost stories and gothic horror. At others, it’s magical, perfect for fans of fairy tales.
Why it’s on the list: Imp, though an unreliable narrator, is an extraordinarily compelling female protagonist, and readers cannot help but want to untangle the threads of her story. She is flawed, but she’s aware that. She’s whip-smart, but also incredibly vulnerable. As interesting as her relationship with Eva is, her relationship with Abalyn is just as rewarding. Abalyn is in some ways the mirror opposite of Imp. She’s a total geek girl who reviews video games.
Read if you like: surreal horror, psychological horror, fairy tales, and unreliable narrators.
Joanna Eberhart is a photographer who moves with her husband, Walter, and two children from the bustling city of New York to the quiet, picturesque suburb of Stepford, Connecticut. Trying to integrate into life in their new home, Walter joins the local men’s association, and Joanna converses with a housewife to discover if anyone else shares her passion for tennis, photography, and the women’s liberation movement. She soon discovers that all is not as it seems in the peaceful little town as all of the women are submissive, docile, and seemingly perfect. With the help of her friend Bobbie, Joanna investigates the history of Stepford’s wives and finds policital activists and successful businesswomen among the women who now view polished floors and neatly stacked shopping carts to be the height of feminine achievement, and as her independent-minded friends are transformed into similar zombie-like housewives overnight, she begins to realize that something sinister may be going on in Stepford.
Why it’s on the list: The events that take place in The Stepford Wives are a feminist’s worst nightmare. Since the novel’s publication in 1972, the term Stepford has become synonymous in modern pop culture with all that is submissive and docile, and written during the height of second wave feminism, the story is a satire that exposes how chilling the irrational hatred of liberated, free-thinking women really was. As the tension mounts, Joanna begins to doubt her own sanity and is conflicted about her own opinions regarding housework and her husband when faced with the Stepford Wives. She begins to wonder if her suspicions are delusional. It is these moments of doubt that are the most chilling aspect of the story.
Read if you like: psychological horror, domestic noir.
When Hanna’s father dies, she is left with her Aunt Ulla who cannot handle her bipolar niece and wants to have her committed. This leads to an argument where Hanna bludgeons her aunt with a rolling pin and flees to the town of Portero, Texas where she hopes to find love and acceptance from the mother that she’s never known. But Portero is nothing like Hanna expects. The city is strange and filled with nightmarish monsters that come from the numerous portals to other worlds that are scattered throughout the town. Her mother is also not what she expects, cold and unwelcoming. Hanna is undaunted, however, and ultimately she and her mother reach an agreement. If Hanna can fit in at the local high school within two weeks, she can stay. The only problem is that Hanna has never fit in anywhere.
Why it’s on the list: The town of Portero is deliciously dark and surreal, but it perfectly mirrors Hanna’s inner turmoil. In fact, Hanna is not only the protagonist, but also the heart of this character-driven story. Much like Portero, Hanna’s bipolar state is given surreal and given to violent outbursts. For instance, she converses with her dead father on how best to approach her mother. Nevertheless, Hanna is courageous and determined to fit in, no matter the cost, in this violent and sensual story. Ultimately, this is a tale of a young woman who is searching for a relationship with her mother, and the strange, nightmarish world-building give the story a fresh, yet horrific quality.
Read if you like: surreal horror, character driven stories, young adult fiction.
When Lennart, a washed-up rock star, finds an abandoned baby left for dead in the snow, he is captivated by her amazing voice. He brings her home to his wife, Laila, and convinces her to care for the child in secret. Little One, as they call her has a strange upbringing in the basement of the Cedarstrom home and grows up to be detached and otherworldly. After a violent incident in which both Lennart and Laila are killed, Little One is taken to Stokholm by her adopted brother, Jerry, who renames her Theres and enters her into a televised talent competition. There, her voice draws the attention of a shy and lonely girl named Teresa and a sleazy talent agent named Max. Max attempts to take advantage of Theres, but Teresa is utterly devoted to her and helps her to make music and garner a large following of other girls. These girls are nearly as devoted to Theres as Teresa, following her every violent whim.
Why it’s on the list: This creepy and disturbing tale of psychological horror will sneak up on you and not let go. It’s a story of loneliness and ugliness and being an outsider. Theres and Teresa’s relationship is poignant in that each are outsiders and find community together. Though their community is chilling and violent, and their relationship is a twisted idolatry, they are still sisters, in a manner of speaking, and the terrible and violent bond that can be.
Read if you like: gothic horror, psychological horror, crime horror.
Area X is a stretch of coastline where a disaster involving secret research has created a nightmarish landscape that is fast encroaching upon our own. A government agency, known as the Southern Reach, has been sending expeditions into this region for decades, with horrifying and unsuccessful results. This trilogy opener follows the journey of the twelfth team of explorers, all female and all identified only by their jobs: surveyor, psychologist, anthropologist, and biologist. Through the biologist’s field journal, readers will journey with the team into Area X, but no one leaves this ecosystem unscathed.
Why it’s on the list: All the characters in this surreal weird tale are female, but this is not a story of sisterhood. An eerie sense of wrongness pervades the novel from the beginning. Each of the characters are on the expedition for their own purposes and none of them are very forthcoming. The protagonist, the biologist, is a smart, but not endearing character, who is more in love with her work than anything else. From the start, readers are aware that this expedition, like so many before it, is doomed to fail, but that does not stop you from feeling for and rooting for the character.
Read if you like: surreal horror, weird tales, and science fiction horror.
In Detroit, a city of broken dreams, one dark dream takes hold of several of its residents. Detective Gabriella Versado thought she had seen it all, until two bodies are discovered. The body of eleven year old Daveyton Lafonte is found grotesquely fused with that of a deer. Police are disgusted, but the case gets under Versado’s skin. She is obsessed with catching the killer. As the bodies start piling up, the serial killer is dubbed the Detroit Monster, and Versado is racing against the clock to catch him. Meanwhile, her teenage daughter is playing a dangerous game of enticing pedophiles online and threatening to reveal their true identities. As the mystery unfolds, their stories weave together with the nightmarish world of the serial killer, the fortunes of a pretentious reporter, and the life of a homeless man.
Why it’s on the list: This eerie blend of suspense and supernatural horror is so much more than a simple serial killer story. There is biting satire of many social issues, such as online life, the art scene, and the state of Detroit, and there are haunting elements both in the supernatural descriptions as well as the setting. The protagonist, Gabriella, is a smart, tough, and dedicated cop, though she shows moments of tenderness and humor, and her relationship with her precocious teen daughter is explored as her daughter is inadvertently drawn into the case.
Read if you like: supernatural horror, serial killer horror, haunting horror.
In this trilogy opener, zombies roam the forest outside the fence that surrounds Mary’s small village. The village is run by the Guardians, who enforce its strict rules, and the Sisterhood, who impose these rules on the villages, driven by fear of the unknown and of the undead. Mary’s mother prowls the fence searching for Mary’s father, who went missing several years ago; Mary’s brother is a Guardian. Mary, herself, has grown up with tales of the world before the Return, or the zombie apocalypse, and is fascinated by the ocean, believing if she sees it, she will finally be free. When a stranger, hidden by the Sisterhood, turns into a zombie, Mary may finally have her chance to break free and explore the world beyond the fence.
Why it’s on the list: The Forest of Hands and Teeth is very much Mary’s story about her struggle to escape a world riddled with fear, no matter what the cost. She is a strong female protagonist who is driven by her desire to explore the world outside her village, more specifically, to find to the ocean. This desire is the driving force of the book, and it is so strong that she convinces her brother and their friends to cross the fence and live each day with their steps dogged by zombies.
Read if you like: zombies, post-apocalyptic settings, dystopia, young adult fiction.
Amanda has the perfect life. She is a happy, successful architect who is in love with her husband, Ed. Then, odd things start happening. They start as unexplained noises in her apartment, a memo to her boss replaced with obscene insults, a book on demon possession delivered to her door instead of the book on architecture that she ordered. Amanda is haunted by strange dreams of a seductive woman with dark hair and pointed teeth, a woman whom she remembers as a childhood imaginary friend. Amanda’s perfect life slips out of her control. She turns to the book on demon possession and finds that she fits every description in the book. As the tension escalates and more and more eerie things start happening, Amanda isn't sure who to trust. She turns to doctors and therapists, but even they seem sinister. Soon, the reader, like Amanda, is seeing demons everywhere.
Why it’s on the list: Amanda is a genuinely likable character in this compelling mix of supernatural and psychological horror. Her reactions to her possession are completely understandable... unless she's not actually being possessed. Naamah, the demon that may or may not posses Amanda, is pretty much an evil badass, but Amanda is so relentlessly normal that readers will begin to wonder just what exactly is lurking under the surface of the person sitting next to them. Amanda’s unraveling is riveting, and readers will fly through the pages teasing out whether she has truly been possessed or she has truly lost it.
Read if you like: demons, possession, supernatural horror, psychological horror, and domestic noir.
Maplecroft is the first in a series to blend the true life story of Lizzie Borden, a woman accused of axe-murdering both of her parents, and Lovecraftian monsters. In this tale, Lizzie Borden did, in fact, murder her parents, in self-defense, as they were turning into monsters. After she is acquitted, she and her sister, Emma, live in isolation and research the cause of their parents’ mysterious transformation, only to discover that creatures from the deep are slowly invading the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Why it’s on the list: In this series opener, Lizzie Borden is transformed from a monster herself. Historically reviled, the reader now sees Borden as a kickass heroine saving the world from a supernatural menace. It’s sort of like a more subtle and gothic version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The role of women in Victorian society is also explored as Lizzie hides her romance with actress Nance O’Neill as well as takes on the role of care-taker for Emma, who suffers from consumption. Emma and Lizzie are both compelling characters who attack the invaders from the sea in vastly different ways. Emma, writing under a male pseudonym, approaches the scientific community for answers, fearing that her gender will cause people not to take her seriously. Lizzie, on the other hand, takes up her axe and bashes away at the problem. The novel plays up these differences and explores the relationship dynamics between the two sisters who both resent and care for one another. It’s a slow boil of a page turner that will leave you creeped out as the tension slowly mounts.
Read if you like: Lizzie Borden, historical horror, Lovecraft, gothic horror.