Horror can be found anywhere. Urban streets, suburban malls, rural fields, outer space — it doesn’t matter. Fear exists everywhere, and monsters can breed in any climate.
But there’s something particularly unsettling about horror stories that lurk in small-town settings. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the experience, the knowledge that some of those familiar faces around town may not be who you think they are and the place you know like the back of your hand has hidden facets.
That’s true of the following books, which explore the many horrifying things that stalk the byways of small town USA.
The Toll, Cherie Priest
Honeymooning in the swamp may not have been the brightest idea. This Titus learns quickly as he and his wife, Melanie, reach the Okefenokee. One minute, he’s driving on State Road 177. The next, he’s waking up in the middle of the road with no Melanie in sight. This sort of unexplained disappearance isn’t exactly unusual in the nearby town of Staywater, Georgia. Melanie’s not the first person to go missing along that stretch, and she likely won’t be the last. The ensuing investigation dredges up long-buried town secrets in a steamy, swampy southern gothic tale.
Bleeding Violet, Dia Reeves
Bipolar, biracial, and bicultural, Hanna is a teenager who’s never fit in neatly anywhere. That doesn’t change when she runs off to Portero, Texas, hoping to find a new home with the mother she’s never known. For the first time in her life, Hanna’s hallucinations are far from the strangest things in her proximity. Portero is a town of literal monsters, something she discovers on her first day of school when she’s urged to avoid the windows. Demons, monsters, and devils — they’re all here. But the hardest battle Hanna may face is chipping away at the stony heart of her estranged mother.
Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky
Don’t go into the woods. How hard is that lesson to learn? Seven-year-old Christopher learns it in a most unfortunate way when he and his mother move to Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. As his mom, Kate, watches behind every corner for her abusive ex, Christopher goes missing for six days in the nearby Mission Street Woods. When he returns, he remembers little save for the “nice man” who helped him home. In his mind, though, he also has a vague but urgent mission to build a treehouse in those woods. Interspersed with real-world scenes are horrific glimpses at an “imaginary” world that haunts the boy and compels his mission.
Universal Harvester, John Darnielle
As I said, the disturbing things of this world can find you anywhere, including the aisles of the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. In the late ‘90s, Video Hut customers start returning tapes and complaining about mysterious spliced footage on their copies of She’s All That and Targets. Jeremy and his manager Sarah Jane start their own investigations into the unsettling black-and-white scenes, and the story jogs between three related timelines. But what’s most chilling is the air of mystery that hangs over the novel from start to finish.
The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World, Brian Allen Carr
Don’t be fooled by this novella’s petite page count; it introduces enough of Scrape, Texas, to let you know you don’t want to be anywhere near this little border town. On your average day, Scrape is a place of little virtue and many vices. But this is not a normal day. The end of the world is coming to town, and it’s an apocalyptic horror show filled with figures from Mexican folklore — notably, La Llorona — and Carr’s own fever dreams. The story is at once bleak and funny, with a tone reminiscent of Tremors reimagined and retold by Guillermo del Toro.