It took me years to own my bisexuality. It also took me years to come to terms with my love of horror, for similar reasons. I come from a family harbouring a congenital obsession with a certain cartoon mouse and his media empire, and so my love of all things dark and gothic was not always well understood—even after The Nightmare Before Christmas gave me an outlet. Over the years, writing became my way of dealing with my difference, my stories stashed in hidden notebooks. I have become passionate about the ways dark and brutal stories can reach out to people in the depths of trauma and show them others have been there and that there are ways to cope, and maybe even a way out. I am excited by the opportunity to tell stories that would make another person feel less alone when things seem darkest.
In the past, horror authors often ‘buried their gays’, a practice that dooms queer characters or their partners to die by the end of the story. Think of homoerotic vampires such as Dracula or Carmilla, or the madness and suicide of Nell, Shirley Jackson’s queer-coded protagonist in The Haunting of Hill House. The genre’s high body count has made the death trope pervasive, but horror also has wonderful elements of the Gothic, which delights in the spaces between set categories, including gender and sexuality. As I learned all those years ago scribbling in my notebooks, horror allows us to safely explore our fears, and by doing so, put them behind us. Below, you’ll find five of my favourite horror novels which move beyond burying queer characters and into original narratives that are chilling in all the best ways.
Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Many people have seen the popular film adaptations of this book, but in both films, the queerness of the original book is lost. The book’s story centers around Oskar, a lonely bullied teen, and Eli, an ancient vampire turned as a child who is manipulating a pedophile to murder people on their behalf. Unlike in the films, Eli was assigned male at birth but was castrated, and although her gender identity is not clearly defined by the narrative, the most likely reading is that she identifies as neither a boy nor a girl. This situates her in a non-binary space that defies traditional labels. Despite Eli’s monstrous need to feed on the blood of humans, the two teens develop a forbidden friendship, with Oskar helping Eli to express the childhood they lost, and Eli helping Oskar learn to defend himself against daily beatings at school. This is a chilling and relentless novel with a disturbing premise and it offers lots of gore and creepy moments, but our queer protagonists avoid the body count. Additionally, its take on bullying and the damage it can do to a vulnerable young mind is well worth the read, and very pertinent to many folks in the queer community.
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
From the suburbs of nineteen-eighties Sweden, we now come to the nineteenth century in America’s West. Nettie has spent her whole life working her adoptive family’s farm, being overworked and underappreciated. Half Indigenous and half Black, bisexual and gender non-conforming, she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere, except, perhaps, when she is working with horses. When a vampiric stranger invades the farm where Nettie works and she kills him, it sets her on a strange adventure through a world of mythical monsters and self-discovery in the Old West. This is an exciting and fun tale of monsters and adventure, and although Nettie is a very unique character with a lot of marginalized traits, she is always very well-drawn and relatable. I enjoyed this book for its representation of a non-monosexual hero who is well-rounded and not over-sexualized.
Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk
Every well-rounded top five list needs a good indie pick, and Widdershins is mine. Reclusive scholar Percival Whyborne is forced out of his routine as a museum translator when he is paired with Griffin Flaherty, a handsome ex-detective who is trying to unravel the mystery of a secret cypher. As Whyborne fights his growing feelings for Griffin, and the mystery surrounding the book of cyphers grows more deadly, he must face down the tragic and unrequited love in his past. This is one horror romance that handles death in a more progressive way but still manages to be scary. When his former love interest is brought back from the dead, Whyborne faces a symbolic choice between a life of unrequited affections and something real with Griffin. Overall, it is an addictive and readable book with a Lovecraftian flair. An honorable mention should also go to Restless Spirits by the same author, which also has lots of spooky tension and more of a haunted house vibe.
A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files
In an Old West where certain people can be transformed into barely-contained supernatural time bombs by abuse or trauma, Morrow, a private detective hired by a scientist, joins the gang of the unstable Asher Rook, a former Reverend who transformed into a hexslinger when he was hanged for being gay. The trio is rounded out by Chess Pargeter, Rook’s lover, a character who is charismatic, flawed and angry at life. When a bloodthirsty Mayan deity latches on to Rook based on an ancient prophecy, the trio embarks on a bloody and intense adventure that will change all of their lives. I enjoyed this book for its realistic depiction of the anger and resentment that can poison people when they are brutalized for being themselves. Rook and Chess feel so real given the setting, and yet paired the magic system and alternate history, the story has an entertaining and fast-paced feel. One small caveat: some readers may not care for the frank depictions of racism and other oppressions that were realities in the Old West.
Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite
I saved my favourite for last. Drawing Blood is the oldest book on the list, and I hope that its age means that it’s almost eligible for the designation of ‘classic’. The story follows Trevor McGee, a talented artist whose family was killed by his famous but troubled father. When Trevor returns to the small town where the horrific event happened he is drawn down a dark path as he tries to figure out why his father did not kill him too. The mystery looms over his budding romance with Zach, a hacker on the run from the law. The story is rich and beguiling from the beginning, addressing generational trauma, attachment and healing, and the combined danger and beauty of imaginative work. I would advise any younger horror fans who were not reading during this time period, especially those who love the rich characterizations and slow-burn stories of Stephen King, to pick this one up. This quote from Drawing Blood sums up my feelings on the potential for horror to be a generative force for the LGBT community:
“You could kill someone because you loved them too much, he realized now, but that was nothing to do with art. The art was in learning to spend your life with someone, in having the courage to be creative with someone, to melt each other’s souls to molten temperatures and let them flow together into an alloy that could withstand the world.”
That’s my list, friends! What about yours? Suggest your best picks in the comments.