Real-Life Horror: 5 Fictional Horror Books Based on True Crime Stories

Horror has a long history of inventing new ways to terrify readers. But even with all the monsters and ghouls the genre has to offer, there’s something especially harrowing about a story that doesn’t look to the supernatural to deliver its scares, but instead examines the grisly realities of the everyday world, in particular the crimes so devastating we can’t ever quite forget them. So for all you true crime aficionados out there, here are five works of fiction inspired by real-life horror. 

Into the Forest and All the Way Through, Cynthia Pelayo

Horror poetry is having something of a renaissance, and in case you’re wondering why, look no further than the unforgettable Into the Forest and All the Way Through. This devastating collection is up for numerous awards this year, including the Elgin and the Bram Stoker, and for good reason. The writing is achingly honest and beautiful, but it’s the theme of the collection that will really break your heart: each poem in the book is dedicated to a different missing or murdered girl in America, with more than a hundred cases spotlighted in total. It’s a staggeringly bleak collection, but at the same time, an urgent and needed one, making this a must-read for every true-crime fan out there. 

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The Devil’s Dreamland, Sara Tantlinger

I’ve raved about this Stoker-winning horror collection before, but it bears repeating: The Devil’s Dreamland belongs on every horror lover’s bookshelf. Meticulously researched, this exploration of H.H. Holmes, often known as America’s first serial killer, and his reign of terror during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is a bold reimagining of his grisly crimes, told in lush and breathtaking language. For anyone who claims that poetry isn’t scary, just hand them a copy of this book. Not for the faint of heart, The Devil’s Dreamland is sure to get under your skin and stay there, exactly the way the best horror always does.   

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Breaking the World, Jerry Gordon

In Jerry Gordon’s debut novel, the year is 1993, and the Branch Davidians in Texas are already in serious trouble, with the federal authorities closing in on them. As things go from bad to worse, the group’s leader David Koresh keeps insisting the end of the world is near, and Breaking the World asks the deceptively simple question, what if he was right? Since the siege on Waco happened less than thirty years ago, this true-crime tale is hardly ancient history, which means it could hit too close to home for some. But if you’re looking for a supernatural retelling of an unnervingly familiar story, then Breaking the World might be the perfect title to add to your summer reading list. 

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 Maplecroft, Cherie Priest

A list like this wouldn’t be complete without an appearance from one of the original true-crime darlings in American history: Lizzie Borden. In Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft, the first book from the Borden Dispatches series, the story picks up after Lizzie has been acquitted for the double murder of her father and stepmother. But life is hardly rosy for the down-on-her-luck heiress. Rumors plague her everywhere she goes, and that’s only the start of her problems. With an evil force tracking her every step, Lizzie must be prepared to defend herself the only way she knows how: with her infamous axe. A captivating and creative retelling, Maplecroft will appeal to fans who like a side of the strange and the supernatural with their true-crime tales.

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 Saints and Strangers, Angela Carter

Just in case you still haven’t gotten enough Lizzie Borden, then the inimitable Angela Carter has got you covered. In her criminally under-read collection, Saints and Strangers, Carter explores numerous real-life figures including Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. But it’s the opening story, “The Fall River Axe Murders,” that will really stick with you. The tale starts and ends on the morning of the murders, with no actual human bloodshed on the page. Instead, Carter peppers the story with vivid flashbacks and fascinating conjecture, all in her characteristically rich prose. With such a macabrely familiar real-life story as the inspiration, we know what’s coming, and Carter banks on our expectations as she ratchets up the tension until the final devastating page. This is Angela Carter at her very best, and it’s a story—and a collection—you shouldn’t miss.  

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One thought on “Real-Life Horror: 5 Fictional Horror Books Based on True Crime Stories

  1. Robert Bloch:
    PSYCHO (based on Ed Gein)
    AMERICAN GOTHIC (based on H. H. Holmes)

    Others based on Jack the Ripper:
    See Otto Penzler’s THE BIG BOOK OF JACK THE RIPPER, which honestly might just be too much of JtheR

    I’m glad to see Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders” mentioned. It’s been one of my favorites by her for years.

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