Adolescence is a weird time. It’s a transitional phase, when you’re independent enough to have some freedoms, but at the same time still have a whole bunch of adults telling you what to do and where to go. You have responsibilities, but you’re also treated like a child with reduced accountability. And the entire time, you’re dealing with a changing body and weird interactions with your friends as everyone’s tastes and personalities change, trying on new things as they grow.
It’s a lot to take in, which of course makes this a time of life full of disaffection and constantly changing ideas perfect for the horror genre. In these seven books, you’ll find teenage psychopaths, Twin Peaks-style suburban horror, and adolescent relationships, all wrapped around some absolutely terrifying horror premises.
Negative Space, B.R. Yeager
There are very few authors whose teenage protagonists sound like it. Even among teenage authors, there’s often something either older- or younger-sounding about the characters, some kind of artifice.
Negative Space might be about a group of disaffected teenagers smoking an off-brand version of datura known as “WHORL” and dealing with a robust suicide epidemic (the two being more connected than one would think), but the narrators have such distinct voices and such a ring of authenticity that no matter how bizarre the story gets (and it gets really bizarre), it still maintains the feeling that these are real teenagers trying to alleviate suburban banality by holding seances and smoking something they really should have stayed away from. It’s that authenticity that also makes Negative Space a lot more disturbing, keeping it partly in “the real” as things get worse for the youth of Kinsfield.
What Big Teeth, Rose Szabo
After an incident at a boarding school, Eleanor Zarrin returns to her family’s isolated gothic estate in the woods. After eight years of distance, her family readily welcomes her back, but they seem like outsiders to Eleanor, especially when her sister greets her with blood and bits of rabbit still stuck in her teeth from a recent hunt. The Zarrins aren’t just any ordinary family, after all, and something about Eleanor’s accident at boarding school and a similar accident she had as a child only reinforce that.
Putting aside the fact that they can “become the wolf,” as they put it, the family isn’t doing as well as they’d like to think. With the patriarch and matriarch in failing health and the family’s traditions binding them as much as protecting them, it falls to Eleanor to help keep her family together and defend them from the threats they face.
Szabo’s novel comes on slow and strange, revealing its elements slowly and in a manner that makes them feel commonplace, driving home the dissonance between the outside world and the insular Zarrins. Combined with the creeping dread of the isolated, wooded atmosphere and the sheer weirdness of Szabo’s concepts (even the familiar ones), the result is a perfect mix of modern weird and gothic dread.
Read Rose Szabo’s guest essay here.
Inspection, Josh Malerman
At an odd boarding school housed in a tower, a group of twenty-six boys (each named for a letter of the alphabet) is led through an intensive education by “Father,” a mysterious man in a red jacket. J, one of the more inquisitive students, wonders what’s beyond the trees of the orchard and courtyard, past the ominous woods enclosing his school. But it isn’t until an outsider, a young woman named K, climbs in his window and tells him of an opposite tower with twenty-six young women, all of whom are ruled over by a woman named “Mother.” Soon, J and K find themselves unraveling the mysteries of the two Towers and their educators, uncovering a system of control and experimentation that someone is be willing to murder over.
The mysteries of Inspection become more and more mundane as the book goes on, but that doesn’t mean the horror lessens over time–the mundanity just underlines the quiet, benign face that the book’s evil wears. As the tension heightens and the book transitions from a sterile Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia towards something more like Children of the Corn, the mundane underpinnings only serve to make it that much more strange and disturbing.
The Wasp Factory, Iain M. Banks
One part Edward Gorey, one part A Clockwork Orange and one part extreme-horror buffet. The Wasp Factory is the story of an enterprising young psychopath named Frank who gets it into his head to start executing his family in accordance with a series of unnerving shamanistic rituals he carries out around his insular Scottish home. When the “sacrifice poles” he keeps around his family’s estate tell Frank his even more sadistic brother, Eric, has escaped from a mental institution and is making his way back home to confront him, Frank’s campaign of terror begins in earnest, delving into the past and the reasons for his dysfunctional family life as well as the horrible thing that caused Eric’s breakdown.
Anyone familiar with Banks from his science fiction work knows the author has a certain imaginative zeal and gift for impossibly disturbing imagery, but his later work is tame compared to this early novel, which manages to have moments of pathos amidst the almost systematic catalogue of atrocities committed by its sixteen year old narrator.
It also comes with a strict content warning for transphobia (the infamous ending), misogyny, and scenes of animal cruelty on top of that. You will not sleep soundly after reading The Wasp Factory, but rest assured, you will not forget the experience of reading it.
Night of the Mannequins, Stephen Graham Jones
In a rambling stream of consciousness, Sawyer, the narrator of Night of the Mannequins lays out the basic premise: a group of teenagers decided to play a prank on their friend, Shanna, and now most of them are dead. The prank involves a mannequin named Manny that the group dresses up and seats in a theater, but things don’t go as planned: the teens get in trouble with theater management, Shanna gets perp-walked out of her job, and… Manny gets up and walks out with the rest of the moviegoers.
As friends and family start to suffer bizarre accidents, Sawyer begins to wonder: is Manny behind it all, getting revenge on the teens for abandoning him, or is Sawyer slowly losing his mind? The elliptical narration only heightens the terror, too, as the Sawyer’s friends start to die and he starts making the kind of connections and leaps of logic someone makes as they go off the deep end.
And then things get really disturbing.
This novella is a tangled tale of mental illness, mannequins, and murder that only gets weirder chapter by chapter. Jones has a talent for taking a premise you might have seen before and making it infinitely stranger, and Mannequins plays that dread to the hilt.
Read Tonia Ransom’s review here.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence, Jack Womack
Random Acts is up there with the most disturbing of dystopian novels, but has an added advantage over the rest of the pack because it’s significantly more plausible. In an America ten to fifteen minutes into the future, a young woman named Lola receives a diary for her birthday. In it, she chronicles her family life, school, and her annoying little sister. But the economy quickly takes a bad plunge, throwing Lola and her family into a downward spiral as they’re forced to make ends meet and survive as best they can.
There’s a horrifying dissonance to Lola’s innocent tone as she’s describing things like her friend going to “Kure A Kid” camp and riot police raiding her family’s apartment, and Womack has a gift for being imaginatively gruesome while at the same time keeping it just plausible enough that no one can say “this can’t happen here.” It’s dark, and definitely a gut-punch, but it’s a twisted work of dystopian horror perfect for our tumultuous modern era.
The Ghost Tree, Christina Henry
The town of Smiths Hollow is rocked when two teenagers are found brutally murdered, torn apart in an animalistic fashion and left in a backyard. At the same time the bodies are discovered, Lauren, whose father died in a similar incident when his heart was removed by “a drifter,” sees a vision of the two young women in the woods. As the town reels from the loss, Lauren begins to investigate the deaths and finds her small town has several dark secrets lurking under its pastoral surface.
Henry’s story of suburban terror is unique in that Smiths Hollow is depicted as more “real” than most towns of its type–it’s far from idyllic, and its characters start off flawed (the old woman who finds the bodies in her backyard is known in her neighborhood as “the Old Bigot” for example), reacting further to the pressure of the two deaths.
The realism here also places a stronger focus on the relationships between characters, giving the book a more authentic feel, with scenes between neighbors and friends reading like they actually do spend time around each other, creating a town where everyone really does know everyone.