The weather may not be cooperating, but in our minds it is already autumn, when a young reader’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of horror… But what if you’ve already pored over everything the horror shelves have to offer? To satisfy even the most jaded of appetites, we’ve rounded up a list of 9 sci-fi, literary fiction, and even non-fiction titles that will still leave you chilled. Let us know your own favorite horror-adjacent titles in the comments!
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Maybe don’t read The Road if you’re a parent? Or ever want to become a parent? McCarthy’s book follows a man and his son as they try to navigate a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland. They push an old shopping cart loaded with stuff, they scavenge food, and they have to look out constantly for other survivors—if other scavengers find them, they might become food. The man keeps a single bullet in his gun, not for himself, but for the boy, in case they truly run out of things to eat, or become someone else’s prey. This book is unrelenting in its exploration of the horror of waking up each day in a world that can no longer support you.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
This novel is scary in an existential sense that you may find hard to shake. A scientist is left alone in the Antarctic after a disease begins wiping all of her colleagues out, and her attempts at communication with civilization are met with silence. She sets off across the ice to try to find anyone left alive, but begins to suspect that she may be the last person on Earth.
Her desolate journey is intercut with chapters set in the City, a bustling metropolis where people go after they die. There’s a catch, though: you only stay in the City as long as people on Earth remember you. And since the mysterious plague seems to be wiping humanity out, the City is beginning to empty, too. It’s also starting to shrink. As the dead explore the new boundaries of their City, they try to figure out what’s going on back on Earth, if there’s anyway they can control it, and, most urgently, what will happen as more and more of them are forgotten.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
This is a ghost story, but it’s also literary fiction, and it’s also a reckoning of our country’s history of slavery and exploitation of African and Indigenous Americans… so it’s not getting shelved next to Stephen King and Clive Barker.
After escaping Sweet Home, an enslaved woman named Sethe tries to build a new life for herself and her family in Ohio. But when a posse shows up at her door, ready to drag her back to the South, Sethe makes a terrible choice that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Years later, Sethe is still trying to make things work in Ohio when a woman shows up who may or may not be a ghost. The story turns into a gothic romance but at all points it is careful to keep its horror based in history, not any supernatural elements. As main character Sethe grapples with her past and tries to create a future for her family, we realize that as many problems as the ghost causes, she’s nothing compared to the terror wrought by the men around her.
The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
The Sparrow and its sequel are solidly sci-fi—there’s space travel, first contact, relativity-based shenanigans—but there is also a palpable sense of horror throughout the book. The novel begins with the knowledge that something went terribly wrong with the first human mission to the newly discovered planet Rakhat, and the book unspools through a relentless account of hope, cultural misunderstanding, and tragedy.
The book flirts with the idea that the horror lies in humans’ overreach—our seeking to learn too much, too quickly about the universe. The sequel, Children of God, takes the characters in a new direction that’s far more interesting… and even scarier.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
While this book has been classified as sci-fi, literary fiction, and even as a coming-of-age story, horror expert than Ramsey Campbell named it one of his top five horror novels since 2000, saying it’s “a classic instance of a story that’s horrifying precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is.” To avoid spoilers, we’ll just say that three kids grow up together at a fairly strict, health-obsessed boarding school. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they have petty squabbles and real disagreements—all the typical things that happen among a group of young friends.
One thing these kids don’t do, however, is plan for the future. There’s a heartbreaking reason for that, and as the book follows them on their journey through school and beyond, the true horror of their world is revealed.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Unwind is young adult science fiction… but it sounds plenty horrific to us. In a dystopian future US that fought a Second Civil War where parents can opt to “unwind” their children—basically they sign them over to the government, so between the ages of 13 and 18 their bodies will be harvested. And in order to get around anti-abortion laws—100% of the bodies have to be used. But some kids choose to go on the run to avoid their fate. If they can stay ahead of authorities until they each turn 18, they might be ok…
The novel follows three runaways—Connor’s a malcontent who planned his getaway as soon as he learned of his unwinding orders, Risa, a ward of the state who’s just unlucky enough to get downsized, and Lev, who believes its his religious duty to go along with the unwinding—as they hop from safehouse to safehouse. Will they make it to safety? And even if they do, how can they last until they reach adulthood?
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
One of the scariest books of recent times is this non-fiction work about the history of several filoviruses, including Ebola. Preston details a few cases in Africa, and tracks the history of outbreaks in Africa and Europe. He then devotes a section of the book to a 1989 incident in Reston, Virginia, in which a shipment of monkeys were found to be infected with a virus that lead to rapid death. Fearing it might be either the Ebola or Marburg virus, researches raced to isolate the monkey’s symptoms and contain the infection before it could spread beyond the facility. This outbreak is made all the more terrifying because Reston is about fifteen miles outside of Washington D.C., which would have been devastating to the Eastern Seaboard if it had gotten out.
While some of the accounts of Ebola’s effects are a bit over the top, this is still real-life horror at its best.
Résumé with Monsters by William Browning Spencer
Sure, updates on the Cthulhu Mythos are all the rage now, but William Browning Spencer’s Résumé with Monsters mashed the eldritch gods up with the horrors of corporate America before it was cool. Philip Kenan was raised by an abusive man whose one kindness was reading him Weird Tales before bed. Now Kenan works an endless office job during the day, and by night keeps updating his own Lovecraftian tome, The Despicable Quest, because he believes the constant revision is keeping the Old Ones at bay. Plus he’s trying to patch thing up with his ex, Amelia, who may have just started work for a monster disguised as a corporation.
Spencer’s novel balances humor and weird horror with the every day horror of the 40-hour work week.
Originally published in October 2016.