I know, I know, you’re thinking: a holiday horror book list? What kind of sick person are you, Ann Cardinal? Is nothing sacred? Well, in my defense, I have a numerical explanation for you: 2020. As I was reading through a year-end list of holiday novels filled with romance, hot chocolate, warm hearths, and evergreen trees (a Pagan symbol, by the way), it occurred to me that checking out some holiday horror stories might be the most apropos ending to a bizarre and terrifying year. And since it is the season of giving, I’m here to share that list with you! So, buckle up, Blitzen, and allow me to take you on a merry tour of holiday horror…
Krampus: The Yule Lord, Brom
This is one of those fascinating novels that takes a well-known myth and turns it on its horned head, like John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which retells Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. If your family has central European roots, you’ve probably heard of Saint Nicholas’s slave, the half-goat demon who punishes kids who have not been good, putting them in his sack, possibly for a late-night snack. But Brom’s reimagining of Krampus is one that paints the pre-Christian being in a more… empathetic light.
Virginian songwriter Jesse is struggling with a failing marriage, an all-but-dead career, and a good ol’ boy system that seems stacked against him. That is, until he crosses paths with the titular character, Krampus The Yule Lord. Though Krampus has a demon-hooved, glowing-eyed, going-to-eat-your-firstborn kind of look, he’s really just a misunderstood creature, struggling with his irrelevance as a Pagan god (small g) in a Santa-obsessed, material modern society. Together with his band of undead minions, he looks to regain his top-of-mind status with today’s children.
Oh, and Santa Claus? You’ve never seen him like this. Brawny and self-righteous, he is convinced he’s doing God’s work (capital G) and will do whatever is necessary to get his magic sack back. I love any story that makes you rethink something you’ve always taken for granted, to wonder halfway through the book if the character you’re rooting is the villain or the hero. This is unflinching horror—there is much beheading and disemboweling and enough shooting for a Tarantino film—but I found it to be fun from beginning to end.
The Ancestor, Danielle Trussoni
While The Ancestor is not a holiday book in the strictest sense, it sure feels like it is. After you spend three hundred pages on that snow- and ice-laden mountainside, you will rethink the desire for a white Christmas. Alberta Monte discovers through a DNA test (this book makes you rethink those too) that she is a countess and the sole heir to the Montebianco Castle in the Italian Alps. Sounds like a dream come true, yes?
What she discovers while marooned on that frigid mountaintop is that some legacies are best left undiscovered. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I can tell you that halfway through, if you think you know where this story is going, you’re mistaken.
Trussoni takes readers on an anxiety-filled journey of monsters real and imagined, uncovering the worst-case family secrets. A perfect story to bring us into the 2020 holiday season and make us glad we don’t have to sit next to bizarre uncle Phil and worry about those genes we share…and where they might come from. (Though it could explain a lot.)
Secret Santa, Andrew Shaffer
I inhaled this novel. A horror novel set in the publishing world during the 1980s horror boom? Hell yes! Take my money, now!
Lussi Meyer’s editorial position has just been eliminated (a little too close to reality this year) and she is interviewing with a stuffy literary publishing house run by the old-school white male founding publisher, Xavier Blackwood. He tells her that he has already chosen his candidate and is only interviewing her because his editorial director insisted he interview a variety of candidates. But during the interview, Xavier drops dead, and Lussi lands the job and embarks on a quest to infuse some speculative bestseller energy into the house’s offerings. When she receives an anonymous secret Santa gift, dark things begin to happen, and she realizes something is seriously wrong within the publishing house.
There’s a cursed German doll, a terrifying basement, a killer (literally) slush pile, and oh…the poor interns. This book is more humorous than terrifying, but it’s smart and dark and fabulous. I particularly enjoyed Lussi’s fight against the genre bias she encounters, which is sadly authentic but, in the end, very satisfying.
The Stupidest Angel, Christopher Moore
What you’d get if Sam Raimi had written and directed a Hallmark Christmas movie. You have a small town, a child with a wish, an archangel determined to grant it, and a church Christmas party. Can’t you just picture Candace Cameron Bure in this one?
But this particular story also has a talking fruit bat named Roberto, a sword-wielding naked Xena-like character who’s off her meds, a zombie evil developer in a Santa suit (complete with his shambling undead neighbors), and the dim-witted, titular angel, Raziel (who first appeared in Moore’s best book: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal). The Stupidest Angel is classic Christopher Moore. I love his dark and over the top humor.
NOS4A2, Joe Hill
And finally, I cannot do a holiday horror book list without including NOS4A2. This truly terrifying best-selling novel from Joe Hill tells the story of Vic McQueen, a bad-ass woman who fights a supernatural serial killer, Charles Manx. Manx is an immortal “vampire” who feeds off of children’s souls and lures them to Christmasland, a world he’s created where he drops them off after draining them.
The depiction of the world where it’s Christmas year-round to lure small children with candy and snow and brightly wrapped presents is quite a statement on the commercialism of the holiday. And there are some images that will stay with me forever. (I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll just say this: children with fishhook teeth. Shudder!) Even if you’ve seen the AMC series, do yourself a favor and read the book. Hop in the Rolls Royce Wraith and let Joe Hill drive you to the place where “every day is Christmas Day, and unhappiness is against the law.”
Okay, here’s the deal: if you’re looking for a remedy to the cloyingly gingerbread saturated cuteness of classic holiday tales, I guarantee that these novels will make you feel better about your locked-down pandemic holiday. So, make your list and check it twice to be sure it includes these terrifying tinsel tomes.
And remember: he sees you when you’re sleeping…
A note: for Jewish horror fans, though I was unable to find any Hanukkah horror novels, I was excited to find the Eben McGarr film Hanukka, which follows a serial murderer called… wait for it… the Hanukiller and his son Obadiah, who is thought to murder people who he believes are not affording proper reverence for their faith (no pressure, or anything). If you know of any Hanukkah horror, please share in the comments below!