When I left a screening of Sam Mendes’s World War I epic 1917 last week, I found myself thinking that, more than anything else, he’d made a horror movie. So many of the hallmarks are there – jump scares, a protagonist whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, brutal body horror, and so on (for more on this, I strongly recommend you take a closer look at the last book on this list).
The shared DNA between war stories and horror stories is pronounced, and while military horror isn’t the largest or most popular subgenre of horror fiction, its fanbase is strong. If you’d like to venture into the genre, I’ve rounded up a few good places to start.
A note: admittedly, the majority of these books focus heavily on American and European perspectives, and I had a really tough time finding any full-length works written by women – if you have any recommendations for military horror from women authors or from non-western points of view, please let me know in the comments!
Burning Sky, Weston Ochse
Ochse has made his name as one of the premier writers in this subgenre – in Burning Sky, an American tactical support team stationed in Afghanistan executes a dangerous mission. But when their deployment ends and they start having visions, they find out the mission isn’t quite finished with them yet.
Dragon of the Mangroves, Yasuyuki Kasai
This novel is based on purportedly real events, though from what I can find those events seem to be apocryphal at best (and aren’t the most fun stories always a little apocryphal, anyway?): at the end of World War II, a Japanese battalion stationed on an island off Burma falls is told to evacuate – but to do that, they have to make their way through a waterway the locals claim is home to a number of very large, very hungry saltwater crocodiles. There’s nothing supernatural about this one, but if you loved Crawl, it’s absolutely for you.
SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror
These 16 short stories cover a range of conflicts, from the American Civil War to Vietnam to contemporary Iraq. Jonathan Maberry and Weston Ochse are the marquee names here, but story highlights include Christine Morgan’s “Little Johnny Jump-Up,” a creepy, contemplative Civil War ghost story, and Curtis C. Chen’s “Making Waves,” an alternate-history World War II tale with one foot firmly planted in the Cthulhu Mythos.
I Am the River, T.E. Grau
Nominated for the Stoker Award for First Novel, I Am the River follows Israel Broussard, an American soldier who left the Laotian jungle after the end of the Vietnam war haunted by something that’s never really left him – and if he wants to be finished with it, he needs to return to the jungle where it started. If you like stories that blur the boundary between reality and fever dream and a narrative that relies on deliberate disorientation, this is absolutely for you.
World War Z, Max Brooks
I would be remiss not to include World War Z here for an entirely imagined wartime narrative that covers the effects of the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath from all angles – socioeconomic, political, personal, environmental, medical, and, of course, military. The portion of the book dedicated to the devastating Battle of Yonkers section is a fan favorite – it depicts in brutal detail how the American military was profoundly unprepared to deal with the enemy they found themselves facing. And then there’s the deeply memorable interview with Air National Guard pilot Christina Eliopolis, who survived parachuting into a zombie-infested Louisiana swamp with the help of someone who may or may not have been there at all.
Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
In American-occupied Baghdad, Hadi, the neighborhood eccentric, collects body parts from around the city, stitching them together into one complete corpse as a way to express his grief and anger over the violence his community is subjected to. But when the corpse disappears and Hadi hears murmurs of a wave of brutal murders, he knows his creation has taken on a life of its own. A smart, devastating, creepy, and often darkly funny depiction of life under occupation.
The Devils of D-Day, Graham Masterson
Horror legend Graham Masterson takes on World War II horror in one of his early novels. Near the turning point of the fighting in France, 13 black tanks broke through Axis lines and massacred entire companies of Nazi soldiers. 35 years later, one of those tanks remains buried in the mud in Normandy, sealed tight, emblazoned with a crucifix. When an American cartographer opens it, all hell may literally break loose…
Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, W. Scott Poole
Poole’s 2018 work of cultural criticism is a must-read for any horror fan with an interest in the history of the genre. In Wasteland, he argues that the vast majority of what we consider modern horror has its roots in the all-too-real terror and trauma of the first World War. It’s a compelling examination of a number of authors, directors, and artists who served in the trenches and then went on to exorcize their demons through their art, and Poole writes with an enormous amount of empathy and bitterness.