Scares Across America Part V: South Dakota to Washington D.C.

Our travels are at an end. We are at the fifth and final installment of our cross-country journey to discover the true horrors of this great land. Can you believe we’ve survived? Neither can I. 

Let’s tempt fate one more time. To close out our travels, we’ll visit all the rest of the remaining states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Fare thee well, friends. And if you missed any other leg of this road trip, you can find all 50 States of Horror posts here.

South Dakota

Black Hills, Dan Simmons

By itself, this beefy book gives you a brief tour of the United States, hitting Montana, Chicago, and elsewhere, but the heart of this book is in South Dakota. Main character Paha Sapa’s name translates to “Black Hills,” and Mount Rushmore plays a critical role. I feel confident, though, that all I’ll need to tell you about this book to whet your appetite is this: Paha Sapa is 10 years old when he rides with Lakota warriors to Little Big Horn in 1876. And he’s 10 years old when the ghost of George Custer enters his body. 

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Revelator, Daryl Gregory

Appalachian gothic vibes? Appalachian gothic vibes! This dark ride in the Smoky Mountains takes place on twin tracks: one in 1933 and one in 1948. Both timelines find Stella Wallace, first a child and then a young woman, navigating her family’s unusual church and shadowy ancestral heritage. There is a god in these mountains, and Stella is the latest in a long line of Birch women who can commune with it. Whether that’s a gift or a curse is something Stella must learn. 

Read Nicole Hill’s review of Revelator here, and Daryl Gregory’s essay on the southern gothic here.

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Slice of Cherry, Dia Reeves

With a state as big as Texas, there’s no shortage of scary sights and Lone Star frights. While you could certainly check out classics like Joe R. Lansdale’s The Drive-In, I rarely go a day without recommending the unnervingly under-recognized Portero Universe books from the late Dia Reeves. If you too are a sucker for strange small towns, Portero, Texas, is a location you should know. The stars here are Kit and Fancy Cordelle, the unusual daughters of an infamous serial killer who prove that the apple may not have fallen far from the tree. 

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The Association, Bentley Little

It seems a gaping genre hole that so few have dared to take on one of the most sinister bogeymen of our time: the homeowner’s association. Little does just that with zeal here. Barry and Maureen have left behind their hectic California lives to move into Bonita Vista, an exclusive gated community in Utah. On the surface, all seems well. But there’s more to worry about with the HOA than neighbors’ judging looks over your landscaping. The smallest infractions are punishable — sometimes by death!

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Home Before Dark, Riley Sager

One of Sager’s more recent jaunts into the horror-thriller space takes us deep into the Vermont woods and features one of my favorite devices: books within books. Maggie Holt’s father wrote a best-selling nonfiction account of their family’s brief life and dramatic escape from Baneberry Hall. Maggie herself doesn’t remember much about the strange happenings (or believe what her father wrote), but when she inherits this clearly haunted house, she just might become a believer after all. 

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It Will Just Be Us, Jo Kaplan

I haven’t shut up about this book since I first read it, and I don’t plan to do so now! In my opinion there just aren’t enough Gothic horror novels set in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. In many ways, Wakefield Manor is the classic setting for a ghost story: decaying, ancestral home filled with generations of secrets. But the hauntings themselves — the recursive patterns of ghostly trauma — are utterly unique. 

Read Nicole Hill’s full review here.

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The Good House, Tananarive Due

The haunted house tours continue on the opposite coast. The titular house here sits imposingly in Sacajawea, Washington, and holds within its walls many painful memories for the Toussaint family through four generations. Following the most recent tragic death, Angela Toussaint returns to her ancestral home with the intention of getting rid of it. But the malignancy of this “Good” House isn’t finished with her or her family just yet.  

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West Virginia

Krampus: The Yule Lord, Brom

If you read and loved Brom’s latest folk horror, Slewfoot, published in fall 2021, do yourself a favor and get into the horror-day spirit with his West Virginia-set take on Santa Claus’ enemy: Krampus. If you prefer to keep your Yule traditions Pagan, this recounting of the high-stakes blood feud between Krampus and Saint Nicholas should get you in the spirit. At least, it does the trick for down-on-his-luck musician Jesse Walker in a small Appalachian town. 

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The Totem, David Morrell

Morrell unleashed the character of John Rambo onto the world in his novel First Blood. This book isn’t a Rambo story, but it has a grimly similar purposiveness informed by the post-Vietnam era in which it was written. Here, the tiny mountain town of Potter’s Field, Wyoming, is beset by gruesome, strange killings of livestock and townspeople. There is a virulent strain of rabies. There are rogue hippies. There is much to enjoy. 

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Puerto Rico

Five Midnights, Ann Dávila Cardinal 

I know I promised this would be a tour of horror through every state, but it seems a shame to exclude two potential states. So here’s the first bonus rec to help future-proof this list should Puerto Rico accept statehood. This action-packed YA horror takes place in San Juan and offers a modern interpretation of the El Cuco myth. Someone or something is killing teens one by one, and Lupe the “Gringa-Rican” from Vermont is drawn into a desperate quest to stop the slaughters and save her cousin. 

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Washington, D.C.

The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty 

For one last scare, I leave you with a classic set in another potential state: our nation’s capital city. If you’ve only watched the movie, try a spin through the original material, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. You may think you know the pop-culture prototype for demonic possession tales, but I guarantee there are plenty of chills left to discover in the harrowing story of young Reagan MacNeil. For example, did you know Blatty based his novel on a purported real-life exorcism in the 1940s? 

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2 thoughts on “Scares Across America Part V: South Dakota to Washington D.C.

  1. For Wisconsin there’s Peter Straub and Stephen King, Black House. You could make a good argument for American Gods as well.

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