Well, this certainly has been a year. It’s the holiday season. Did you realize that? Or did you too think yesterday was September?
Regardless, as you’re planning your safe, socially distanced holidays, please consider that there is no better gift to give in this hellscape of a year than some high-quality horror, one of the things not in short supply right now. Need some help in picking gifts for the horror lover in your life? Check out our personalized recommendations below.
If they liked Netflix’s adaptation of Rebecca, get them Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Without a doubt, 2020 was a grand year for Gothic horror. The latest screen update to Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca is Exhibit A. Meanwhile, Exhibit B is certainly Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel, which features its own version of a sinister family estate and a willful heroine caught in its clutches. As it turns out, the best trip you can give someone in pandemic lockdown is one to High Place, a decaying blight upon the 1950s Mexican countryside.
If they sped through HBO’s adaptation of The Outsider, get them The Return by Rachel Harrison
When initially planning this post, I was gobsmacked to learn that HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider aired THIS YEAR. But debut it did in January 2020, a month both of this year and of the Before Times. If you know folks who like that particular brand of horror, The Return has a similar flair for the impossible made eerily possible. One member of a group of four friends goes missing on a hike, only to reappear two years later, undoubtedly changed, both physically and mentally, and with no memory of what happened while she was gone. Her friends are left to wonder: is the person who came back her? Or something else?
If they liked HBO’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country, get them Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
One of the best trends in horror right now is the reclamation of Lovecraftian horror tropes to pillory Lovecraft’s own racism. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (and its TV adaptation, helmed by Misha Green) did it masterfully, and so too does Clark’s jaw-dropping novella. In a deeply disturbing and tragically timely story, Clark paints an early 20th century in which racism is a plague, the KKK is made up of literal monsters, and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is dark spellwork. But a small group of women are fighting back with all they’ve got.
If they’re mourning the loss of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix, get them Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
While the final episodes of the latest Sabrina adaptation will air later this year, they do not have to be the end of wickedly funny horror on your radar. Clocking in at over 600 pages, Plain Bad Heroines will last a lucky recipient for some time. The setting is the Brookhants School for Girls in New England, with the story flashing between 1902 and modern day. Cursed books! Secret societies! Narratives within narratives! Haunted schools! Queer love! What’s not to like?
If they liked Shirley on Hulu, get them Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any horror book written by a woman will be called a readalike for Shirley Jackson. But I really mean it this time. If you know someone who was put under the spell of Josephine Decker’s hazy, dreamlike adaptation of Shirley, this sly Australian novella is the perfect gift. Flyaway is a gauzy, Gothic story that turns a small Queensland town into an eerie fairy tale.
If they won’t stop quoting What We Do in the Shadows, get them The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
Hendrix has been melding horror and humor for years, and his latest is no exception. It’s also the perfect pairing for fans of the goofy, dark wonder that is What We Do in the Shadows. Hendrix’s tale of a ‘90s housewives’ unusually gruesome book club should tide fans over until the show’s third season, but you should know it does have a fairly dark undercurrent with a nasty… bite.
If they liked The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix, get them It Will Just Be Us by Jo Kaplan
Bly Manor, the follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House amped up the overt spookiness of its source text, The Turn of the Screw, and created some ghosts I will never unsee. That’s the same feeling produced by Kaplan’s modern Gothic horror novel. Wakefield Manor is a haunted house genuinely like none I’ve seen, and Kaplan has penned one of the creepiest child ghosts of this or any other year in her faceless boy.
If they’ve played Parasite on repeat all year long, get them The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller
People are often too narrow-minded about what makes horror scary. Yes, monsters and ghosts and the like are terrifying, but more often than not, what gives those ghouls their power are our own mundane fears. Horror holds up a mirror — sometimes a funhouse mirror — to our society and picks away at its seams. Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning class parable Parasite is an excellent example, as is The Blade Between, which wields social commentary (specifically the pains of gentrification) like a knife in its ghost story.
If they liked You Should Have Left, get them Wonderland by Zoje Stage
Never leave the city. That’s the lesson I took from You Should Have Left, David Koepp’s psychological Kevin Bacon vehicle. It’s also the theme of Stage’s latest novel, which finds the unfortunate Bennett family packing up and moving to a rural upstate New York farmhouse. Things quickly go awry, with strangeness emanating from the nearby woods. Bonus: Wonderland is also a great snowy, wintry read.
If they couldn’t look away from His House, get them The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
It was a big year for Remi Weekes’ horror movie about a South Sudanese refugee couple, which started the year with a bang at Sundance and ended it streaming on Netflix. If you’re shopping for a horror fan who likes social thrillers, Jones’ dark and harrowing The Only Good Indians (one of his two new books from this year) is a perfect fit. It’s a classic story of revenge in which one fateful night comes back to haunt four friends, but it’s infused with Jones’ Blackfeet culture and supernaturally enhanced social commentary.
If they liked Netflix’s adaptation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, get them The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig
Sometimes you just want something to screw with your head. That’s certainly what you want if you dug either the Netflix adaptation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things or Iain Reid’s original novel. While more Gothic and grotesque, Pohlig’s novel is equally psychologically unsettling and unsteady. In Iseult, we have a main character whose mind is slippery and difficult to maintain hold of, not least because it’s filled with the voice of her dead mother. Content warning: graphic self-harm.
If they re-watched Contagion as a coping mechanism, get them Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
Many of us looked for escapism this year, but some found comfort in leaning into our pandemic reality instead. In the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, I knew a number of folks who took solace in watching the misfortunes of Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion on repeat. Tremblay’s latest may provide a similar kind of catharsis. In this not-zombie zombie novel, Massachusetts is on lockdown to contain the spread of a virus that turns people into rabid, wild biting machines. While the premise may be familiar, what isn’t is how plausible the situation and characters’ behavior feel.
If they liked Locke & Key on Netflix, get them The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Though we don’t know when, a second season of Netflix’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s comic series is coming. No one should have to wait, however, for creepy houses that open portals to other dimensions. It’s one of our rights as horror fans, and The Hollow Places obliges. In it, Kara discovers such a portal in her uncle’s rural North Carolina museum of oddities that leads to an in-between place full of terrors. This is horror with a heart, and it’s delightful (and frightful).
If they haven’t been able to focus on anything since March, get them Tiny Nightmares edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto
Whoo boy, it’s been a hard year to do just about anything. COVID brain is real, and it’s often not conducive to reading long, complex works. The solution: this collection of 40 works of horror flash fiction. Tiny Nightmares has something for just about every kind of horror fan: creature features, ghosts and demons, serial killers and human monsters, and one ominous 1994 Gateway 2000. The frights are delights, and they’re penned by a diverse assemblage of authors, including literary stars like Samantha Hunt and genre masters like Stephen Graham Jones.