I don’t remember how young I was when I first plucked my father’s John Saul novels from the basement shelves. Too young, probably.
But those dark, pulpy paperbacks got their hooks in me and, to this day, there’s nothing that gives me greater pleasure than a good horror novel.
I mean, this is my pinned Twitter post:
You know, I would be totes cool if publicists stopped sending me ARCS about friendship and love and rebirth and started sending me books that kept me up all night with face-melting nightmares.
— Steph Auteri (she/her) (@stephauteri) July 25, 2018
About five years ago, however, it occurred to me that each and every one of the tiny nightmares on my shelves was written by a white man. And, well, that wouldn’t do.
In recent years, I’ve fallen in love with the works of Victor LaValle. Pornsak Pichetshote. Rob Guillory. But the ladies of horror… they’re something else. So, because it’s spooky season, here are my favorite female authors who are kicking ass and keeping me up at night.
My favorite works of horror are those in which the greatest sources of terror are the things inside of us. The greatest monsters: ourselves. Kanae Minato’s Confessions — which came out six years ago — straddles the lines between suspense and thriller and everyday horror in its tale of a middle school teacher seeking vengeance for the murder of her young daughter. I gulped the whole thing down in two days and can’t wait to read her followup: Penance. Where Minato shines is in unveiling our darkest impulses. There may not be ghosts or ghouls in her pages, but things are scary enough without them and her characters will stick with you.
Jac Jemc isn’t exclusively a horror writer. Her earlier books fall more squarely into the realm of psychological literature. But The Grip of It veers more closely into horror territory with its story of a young couple trying to start afresh in a new home that may or may not be haunted. Or is it all in their heads? Jemc recently contributed a chilling tale to the recently-released Tiny Nightmares, so fingers crossed she settles even more deeply into the genre.
T. Kingfisher is the pen name for Ursula Vernon, who’s well known for her children’s book series and her works of fantasy. Under the name Kingfisher, she creates amazing works of horror aimed at adults. My only complaint is that there aren’t more of them. Earlier this year, I read both The Hollow Places and The Twisted Ones back-to-back. They were sooo much fun. Yes, Kingfisher delivers on the creep factor. But I think what she does best is create characters you can’t help but love. These characters have such a great sense of humor that, even when faced with the sorts of things that should make their minds snap, they are able to keep it together. This dynamic also helps cut the tension for readers. I’m waiting with bated breath for whatever comes next.
I read Rachel Harrison’s debut novel, The Return, while on a solo trip to Lancaster for a writing conference. Alone in my hotel room, my skin crawled as I read this supernatural horror told from the point of view of a woman who is alone in a hotel room. The book is about a woman who goes missing and then returns two years later… somehow changed. Harrison does an amazing job of slow-motion upping the tension in a way that has me questioning the authenticity of the horrors she hints at. Is there something supernatural going on? Am I jumping to conclusions? In addition to the supernatural horror, this book also provides uncomfortably authentic commentary on female friendships. The paperback just came out, so it’s a great time to pick it up.
Pessl’s Night Film is another one I read while home alone because, apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment. This mixed-media supernatural thriller is about the daughter of a cult horror filmmaker who is found dead of an apparent suicide. Did the daughter dabble in witchcraft? Was she possessed by a demon? Was she cursed? A disgraced journalist investigates but gets more than he bargained for. I, meanwhile, got nightmares. Pessl’s followup, Neverworld Wake, was also a lot of fun.
Carmen Maria Machado
Have we all read Her Body and Other Parties yet? Blatant horror takes a backseat here in this collection of speculative fiction, which picks apart what it means to be a woman, and who is allowed to claim ownership of women’s bodies. In a world that lays claim to women’s sexuality while simultaneously shaming them for it, Machado’s world of sexually voracious women is one I wouldn’t mind living in, despite the terrors that tend to lurk in dark corners. And she edged deeper into horror with the limited-series comic The Low, Low Woods. More, please!
Rory Power excels at writing girls who are especially strange and unusual. The odd situations into which they’re thrust only heighten the tension. In Wilder Girls, a group of girls is quarantined at their island boarding school — they’ve just about gone feral after 18 long months — with no word from the outside world. And then their caretakers begin to lose control of the situation. In her latest, Burn Our Bodies Down, Power’s horror game is even stronger. A young woman seeking out answers about her mother’s past finds something she didn’t expect. Each unearthed secret confuses our protagonist more. It’s only at the end that she realizes how unnatural her bloodline really is.
Alma Katsu’s most recent book, The Deep, came out earlier this year. But it’s her previous book, The Hunger, that really made me a fan. Katsu mixes historical fiction and horror, taking infamous incidents from the past and twisting them into something darker. After tackling both the harsh journey undertaken by the Donner party and the sinking of the Titanic, I wonder which historical event she’ll play around with next.
Mona Awad is not a horror writer on the regular, but her most recent book, Bunny, gets dark fast. About a student who feels out of place in her MFA program, ostracized by the clique-ish “bunnies,” the book quickly veers into supernatural horror. To say more would be to give too much away. But… it’s a strange one.
Momplaisir’s debut novel, My Mother’s House (cw: sexual violence, child abuse, predation), is billed as a literary thriller but also has shades of magical realism, mystery, and full-on horror. Sure, it’s about a Haitian immigrant and the home he’s built for himself and his family in America, and for the other immigrants in his community. But it’s also about the house that observes his every move, passing endless judgment, until the protagonist’s darkest secrets are fully revealed. Spoiler alert: The monster in this story is not the sentient house. This disturbing story will stay with you. If Momplaisir is this strong right out of the gate, she’ll be one to watch.
And then there’s Alexis Henderson, who wrote our book of the month, also a debut novel. The Year of the Witching is about a young woman raised in a puritanical society who discovers dark powers within herself. Witches. Secrets. A powerful church that must be torn down… even if she has to do it herself. What’s not to love? Henderson bills herself as a speculative fiction writer with a love of dark fantasy, witchcraft, and cosmic horror, so I’m sure she has a lot more to offer to the genre.