The Horror of Motherhood: 5 Novels of Maternal Horror

Being a mother is difficult. Not only do you have to manage a life of your own on top of taking care of another human life, but it can be difficult teaching that other human about the concepts of right and wrong, empathy, and how to interact with the big, wide, dangerous world just beyond your reach. In fact, sometimes it can be downright scary. Granted, it usually doesn’t reach the height of what mothers have to face in horror, from protecting their children from violent otherworldly creatures, to occasional body horror, to even terrifyingly unchildlike (and sometimes murderous) children. But to honor mothers and, indeed, offer some more focused fare for those horror fans with a kid or two in their life, here are five books of horror all centered around mothers and those maternal instincts. 

Sealed, Naomi Booth

It’d be easy to say the most disturbing thing about Sealed would be the body horror of a plague that seals up people’s orifices and requires surgical intervention before the victim suffocates, but that’s definitely not the case. The novella, about a young expecting couple who leave for the Australian countryside after a skin-sealing outbreak reaches their city, spends a lot more time on internal conflict and uses its plague as a catalyst. Using this, Booth delves into the paranoia the narrator feels as she tries to have a healthy baby and eat only “clean” food, the fights she has over her husband dragging her to a rural town, people dismissing her perfectly valid fears that the plague might have made it to their little remote corner of the world, and other difficulties. In fact, most of the tension comes between the husband and wife trying to make their relocation and eventual childbirth work rather than outside sources. When everything eventually explodes and the body-horror elements finally make it on to the page, it becomes absolutely squirm-inducing because of the tension that comes before, and the uncertain outcome that comes after. 

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Violet, Scott Thomas

After her husband dies in a car accident, Kris Barlow and her daughter need a change of scenery and a summer to start fresh. Enticed by memories of her family’s lake house and the idyllic town where she spent her summers growing up, Kris takes her daughter to the town of Pacington for what she hopes will be a summer of mother-daughter bonding and cherished memories. But Pacington and Lost Lake aren’t quite the places Kris remembered, and as strange things happen around her family’s Lost Lake property, it unlocks memories of the final summer Kris spent at Lost Lake, memories that aren’t as pleasant as Kris likes. Memories that have to do with a spate of missing children, local rumors about the area around the lake house, and something Kris can’t quite remember. Violet takes its time building the atmosphere and setting up the characters as it methodically unravels its mysteries and sets up the horrifying thing at its core, touching on the melancholy of loss, things changing with time, and ultimately the poisonous hold the past can sometimes have on us when we refuse to deal with it.

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Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage

Stage’s debut novel offers an interesting spin on enfant terrible stories like The Bad Seed. Starting with the rather unnerving birth of Hanna, the creepy child at the story’s center, Baby Teeth lays out the power struggle between a deeply troubled mother and the manipulative and sociopathic daughter trying to push her out of the picture. The alternating point-of-view Stage creates gives the battle for control new texture and Hanna’s voice is the right amount of troubling while weirdly innocent, using childlike terms while plotting her incredibly adult schemes. The result is a tense and sometimes gruesome book, showing the worst-case scenario of a harried woman trying to raise a supremely difficult (to the point of monstrousness) child. 

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Bird Box, Josh Malerman

Malerman’s smash-hit debut follows a mother and two children on a mysterious journey down a river, evading creatures who can “infect” anyone who sees them, driving them to acts of violence and finally suicide. As Malorie and her children (Boy and Girl) take their rowboat down the river, Malerman flashes back to tell the story of how they ended up in such a situation. There’s a slow-building air of menace to the book, beginning the odd customs they have to abide by (Why are they wearing blindfolds? What are all the strange stains on the floor?) and answering those questions as the story moves along while still keeping much of the goings-on sinister and a little mysterious. It’s a fantastic, atmospheric novel with an unusual enough premise and tons of style – and here’s hoping Malerman continues the trend with the sequel, Malorie, out this July. 

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Someone Like Me, M.R. Carey

Carey has explored unusual family dynamics in his other work, and this story of a mother trying to keep her family safe from harm while dealing with an unusual spirit who occasionally possesses her body continues the trend apace. As Liz is being choked by her abusive ex-husband Marc, she suddenly finds her body moving of its own accord to defend herself and save her life. While she’s obviously relieved, at the same time, not having control of her own body makes her nervous, and she starts therapy to process what just happened, putting her in contact with a presence claiming to be an alternate version of herself. Weirder still, a delusional young woman with her own trauma can see both Liz and “Beth,” her alternate, at times. The book balances the mystery well with the difficulties Liz faces raising her two kids and dodging Marc’s increasingly desperate and unhinged attempts to get back into her life, fleshing out both the central character and the darker, more ruthless version of her that might have been. 

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