As you might have noticed if you’ve spent any time at all on the internet this month, Elden Ring is out. From Software’s newest frustrating gothic fantasy-horror offering (and collaboration with George RR Martin) brings its… unique brand of cryptic storytelling and punishing difficulty to an open world, allowing for even more bizarre landscapes and body horror than the average FromSoft slashfest. But whether you’re fighting a man with thirty limbs and an attack pattern that means he’s always hitting everything or a gigantic undulating tree-dragon, after that sixtieth death, it might be a good idea to take a step back and do something else–like pick up a book. While medieval horror is occasionally lumped in with dark fantasy (that’s an argument for another day), there’s a wealth of amazing books set in the Middle Ages chock full of the gothic darkness and bizarre horror that FromSoft is known for. We’ve found seven for when you need a break after that thirtieth loss to the Serpent King.
Armed in Her Fashion, Kate Heartfield
Bruges is under siege. The Chatelaine of Hell and her army of flesh-and-metal chimeras will attack the walls at dawn. Her Revenants, undead servants who spread a dangerous plague, wander the streets and turn more citizens into monsters, growing their numbers. In the midst of this chaos, a wetnurse named Margriet is confronted by the revenant of her deceased husband, who barges into her house and steals treasure and weapons from under the floorboards. Incensed by this violation, by the reappearance of her lying undead bastard of a husband, and offended on behalf of her daughter Beatrix (whose inheritance her undead husband just stole), Margriet sets off with Beatrix and a former soldier named Claude to wrest the inheritance back from the literal jaws of Hell itself. Heartfield strikes a nice contrast between darker fantasy and outright gothic horror, and between the gruesome conflict with the Chatelaine and a dark, sardonic wit. Margriet and her friends snipe at each other on the back of a giant river snake, Hell’s chimera siege unit explodes from too much gunpowder, and two characters even argue with each other over whether “til death do us part” matters when the dead person is still walking around. It’s an impressive and punchy medieval epic, with an innovative world filled with odd monsters.
Berserk, Kentaro Miura
Miura’s relentless, pitch-dark epic is practically the work of medieval horror, with its anti-heroic protagonist hurling himself into conflict after conflict with cosmic horrors, demons, evil faeries and gods, often getting utterly wrecked in the process. The story of Guts, a scarred, one-armed man with a massive sword waging a very personal war against a variety of monsters (human and otherwise) across medieval Europe, has delighted and disturbed countless fans since it first thundered onto the manga scene in the ’80s. Miura’s blend of deep pathos, excellent fight direction, utterly squirm-inducing violence lovingly rendered in detailed artwork, and an exhaustive but somehow cryptic mythology rivals both the best of epic fantasy and the best of cosmic horror. It speaks volumes (literally–check out the phone book-sized treasury editions Dark Horse puts out) to the singular vision of Berserk that when Miura unfortunately passed last year, the series concluded with him, leaving a distinct magnum opus and an influence felt throughout the genre.
Content warnings for: Rape, animal cruelty, extreme violence, child endangerment, excessive and disturbing nudity
The Raven’s Table, Christine Morgan
Horror’s been part of medieval mythology for a while now (check out Beowulf sometime), and the Norse were especially good at it. Viking tales are filled with brutal tales of gods, violent murder, genital torture, the undead, ghosts–and that’s just the funny ones (which are, let’s be fair, pretty funny). But the best horror manages to mix something older with something newer, and that’s exactly what makes Christine Morgan’s horror collection of nasty Dark Ages tales such an excellent read. Spanning about a decade of Morgan’s Viking works and told in the voice of the Norse epics, The Raven’s Table mixes modern gore and guts with the tone of myth, with stories of vengeful bards, undead armies, giant spiders, and monsters all striking that perfect balance. The images are striking, the stories are unsettling, and all of it is an amazing collection, the perfect thing for those who want a little more high fantasy in their horror.
The Enterprise of Death, Jesse Bullington
Jesse Bullington’s historical novels revel in the grotesque of the era. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart bordered on splatterpunk in its twisted tale of two German grave robbers murdering (and worse) on their way towards Egypt. While The Enterprise of Death features a (vaguely) less awful cast, it still opens with a sickening description of the conquest of Iberia before plunging into the story of Awa, a Moorish lesbian slave-turned-necromancer who kills her former owner and then must find a way to keep him from reincarnating in her body after ten years. While Enterprise might be toned down from Grossbart, that in no way means it’s any less ribald, vulgar, or grotesque. With a wry and incredibly dark sense of humor so far into profanity it turns into hilarity, Awa and the motley band she accrues face off against mercenaries, the Inquisition, cannibalistic healing spells, vampires, an undead Moorish princess, and other twisted denizens of the world in an effort to save their lives and their very souls.
Between Two Fires, Christopher Buehlman
The year is 1348, the Black Plague is in full swing, and a war is raging over control of Earth between Heaven and Hell. None of this is any concern to Thomas, a former French knight who has turned to banditry in the aftermath of the English victory at Crecy and the total collapse of society. That is, until his roving gang of bandits finds a little girl in the ruins of a farmhouse. Upon saving the girl’s life, the two embark on a quest, guided by the girl’s seemingly divine visions, much to Thomas’s chagrin. The Mad Max-style story of a grizzled antihero and a kid making their way across an apocalyptic landscape translates beautifully and the designs of demons include a gigantic catfish-eel with a human hand for a tail, but what truly makes this one stand out are the relatively mundane depictions of how horrible the world gets when society collapses and God has more or less abdicated responsibility.
A Mortal Glamour, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Yarbro’s bibliography is a trove of excellent historical gothic horror, but it’s this slow-burning and deeply disturbing novel of temptation and repression at a doomed monastery that deserves to be the standout. Sometime after the Plague, a convent in France receives a new Mother Superior, Mere Leonie. Instantly, she sets about dispensing order and bringing the convent back in line, doling out harsh penances to the sisters for their failings in her eyes, none more so than Aungelique, a young sister who escapes to the house of a courtesan, only to be dragged back and punished. But with her recapture, strange things start happening–a strange man keeps appearing to nuns in the field, crops die, and an infectious madness spreads from nun to nun. There’s an air of the sinister and disturbing even without the devil’s presence that drives the book, with the nuns forced to deal with flagellants, warring Popes, and Leonie’s “penances” that sometimes border on torture, with the more disturbing influences creeping slowly into a world already driven mad and forced to survive on the brink of apocalypse.
The Thin Executioner, Darren Shan
In a distant and brutal Middle Eastern region, famed executioner Rashed Rum hopes for one of his two sons to win the annual contest of strength and become his successor. This is news to his runt of a third son, Jebel, who wishes to make his father proud and gain honor by making a sacrifice to the god of violence in exchange for great strength. Acquiring a man who wishes to exchange his life for his mother and daughters to serve as his sacrifice, Jebel and his sacrifice Hesani set out on their journey, only to be almost fed to hungry crocodiles, get captured by numerous death cults, and constantly run afoul of two sociopathic con men. Shan somehow hits the right balance between terrifying and broadly comic in his fable about violence and empathy, and the nasty situations the two protagonists find themselves in rival the most brutal of fairy tales (looking at you, “The Goose-Girl”), making this one a weird but always welcome combination of light read and very dark horror.