Returning home can be odd. Where you grow up is a complicated place even at its happiest, an odd little slice of history you can never quite close the book on, a place that could surface like the fin of a shark any time you’re back in the area. There’s a sort of odd melancholy to the way the past superimposes on the present whenever you visit a place where you spent most of your early years, and a feeling like you’re being haunted by a period in time you used to know, but can no longer fully access.
All of which makes it no surprise that homecomings are fertile ground for horror stories, where the hauntings of the past can sometimes turn into actual hauntings in the present. As most of us were stuck inside over this past year, we didn’t get that odd feeling of the past quietly sidling up to(or sometimes barreling at top speed into) our present lives, but luckily these six books are here to give you that odd feeling of something you can’t quite grasp, but also can’t let go of for good.
The Blade Between, Sam J. Miller
On the advice of a young model, Ronan Szepessy returns to his hometown of Hudson, New York for some work and a much-needed recharge from the pressures of life in Manhattan. But rather than the dismal-yet-familiar town where he grew up, he finds a gentrified sprawl presided over by a tech billionaire, a main street festooned with antiques shops, and rising rents disenfranchising his former neighbors. He and his childhood friends quickly hatch a plan to topple the gentrifiers and level the playing field, but the efforts to sow discord in the town also attract the attentions of the eldritch and ancient forces beneath the town, who soon co-opt everyone’s plans for their own ends.
But while there’s a wealth of ideas in The Blade Between, the heart of the story is in the ghostly feel of Hudson, the way the past seems to bubble up underneath the squeaky-clean upscale facade, and the interplay that can only come from visiting your hometown after years of change. Miller captures the feeling of a hometown, too, all the complicated love-hate feelings of a place where most of your memories reside, but that you want to leave the first possible second you can.
The Bright Lands, John Fram
Even knowing how big football is in small town Texas, there’s a significant amount of dread right from jump in John Fram’s novel of suburban suspense. It begins with an ominous text chain where the main character’s younger brother talks about leaving his high school football team, and a massive billboard advertising said younger brother as the star player of the team. That ominous feeling only settles further in as the book introduces the town police and the community around Joel Whitley as he comes home to investigate the disappearance of his younger brother Dylan.
Fram gets the atmosphere right, as well as the feel of close-knit small towns where the things that matter become almost a religion, and the way local legends spread. The result is an enjoyable gothic horror novel about small towns, weird traditions, and what the pressure of someone’s hometown can do to shape their experiences and color the rest of their lives.
You Come When I Call You, Douglas Clegg
In the California desert, four teenagers square off against a serial murderer and a dark presence in their nothing trailer park town. Years later, they find themselves stalked by a sinister man who calls himself the “Desolation Angel,” and dreams of a mysterious woman who seems to have a connection to their past. The book flips back and forth between the teenagers and their older counterparts, showing them as the traumatized, self-medicating adults they’ve become and the bored teens who got in over their heads when one of their friends met a woman named Lilith and their town suddenly burned.
While the book comes with some serious trigger warnings and the word “gruesome” is an understatement (there’s a serial killer called “the face-ripper,” and Clegg does not shy away), there’s a definite understanding of trauma and the scars your past can leave on you that gives the book a heart even as it zips back and forth and leaps from one gruesome, squalid scene to another.
Bloodline, Jess Lourey
Inspired by a true-life disappearance of a child and the statement a sheriff made that “there’s something in the community that we haven’t figured out,” Lourey’s sinister suburban thriller begins with Joan Harken moving with her fiance Deck to his hometown of Lilydale, a friendly town in Minnesota with the ominously positive motto of “Come Home, Forever.”
The town itself is no less strange, with Joan’s neighbors being friendly almost to the point of being intrusive, and with rules and archaic town traditions that make it seem a little… off. Then there are the ties between the town and the decades-old disappearance of a small child, still unsolved. Lourey foregrounds the horror right away with a terrifying miscarriage scene, and then uses that stomach-churning opening to immediately make the reader nervous as to what led up to that point, and keep them guessing as to what the town and its sinister undercurrents are really about.
Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
Having survived the grisly murder of her family when she was young, Libby Day lives a shiftless and depressed existence off the money of well-wishers. But as the fund starts to run dry, she’s contacted by a club of true-crime enthusiasts who want to revisit the “Satan Slaughter of Kinakee, Kansas” and for her to accompany them along the way. Needing the money and thinking she’s hit the jackpot, Libby retraces her story through a variety of old haunts and seedy locations at the behest of the Kill Club. But the past might not be as buried as she thinks, and the story of her family’s murder might not have gone quite as she remembers it.
Lily, disaffected and self-interested, might be similar to a lot of literary antiheroes, but Flynn gives her a decent reason for that disaffectedness and imbues her with a certain sympathy as she tries to reckon with her past and perhaps confront it once and for all.
Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel follows Meche, a young woman who, in the 1980s, discovers the true power of music, something that she can wield as a form of magic. She and her friends share this secret, and with it, the hope that they can use their newfound gifts to repair their broken lives. Twenty years later, Meche comes back to Mexico City for her father’s funeral, reopening old wounds and running into Sebastian once again, raising all sorts of old questions about her past, the reason she and her father stopped talking, and the magic they used to share.
Moreno-Garcia excels at creating moods, and conveying the feeling of revisiting a place where you haven’t exactly closed the book on the past, still waiting for it to surface and bite you at any moment.