Creaky old houses, strangers in the dark, ghostly shadows upon your doorstep. These are all things that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Horror stories are nothing new, and whether they take place in outer space, a haunted mansion, deep in the jungle, or right in your own backyard, there’s something about the pace and the build up that has our adrenaline pumping and keeps us coming back for more.
Nothing makes me more excited than picking up a good scary book. There’s something about the unknown that is innately fascinating, and no other genre does the unknown quite like horror.
Creating compelling characters in horror novels is tantamount to how the story will play out—you need to get the readers invested in the outcome. Some mother figures do their best to provide the horror, while others do their best to prevent it. In stark contrast to menacing mothers like Norma Bates, Pamela Voorhes, and Joan Crawford, some maternal figures become the heroes we root for in horror novels. One of the most basic human instincts is to protect the young, and when children are targeted in horror novels, it’s up to these heroic maternal characters to help save the day. Nothing freezes you in your tracks or speeds up your heart rate like a kid in danger. It’s one of the simplest ways to pull at your heartstrings, while simultaneously scaring the bejesus out of you. Whether a mother, a father, a babysitter, or even an imaginary friend, these five novels are some of the best in which maternal instinct helps to drive the plot.
The Need by Helen Phillips
This one may hit too close for some—especially parents—which is probably what makes it so terrifying. The Need follows Molly, a mother of two, who begins to hear and see things that may or may not be there in her home. But soon her nightmare is realized when she discovers an intruder in her house. This isn’t your typical “someone’s in my house who isn’t supposed to be here” thriller. Instead it plays on reality and forces readers to imagine worse-case scenarios, bringing with it all the kookiness of Stephen King’s The Outsiders and merging it with all the panic in the 2020 film adaptation of The Invisible Man. The story explores the lengths a mother would go to to save her children, the split second decisions that can change your life, how your identity changes once you have children and the immense grief that accompanies you if you lose them.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
Alternating between the past and present day, this novel weaves together two stories that take place in the same old house in a creepy, rural town in Vermont. In the early 1900s, Sara was mysteriously found dead behind her home a few months after the tragic passing of her daughter. In current day, Alice and her two daughters live in Sara’s old home when one day Ruthie, her oldest, wakes up to discover her mother has gone missing. In Ruthie’s search for her mother, she uncovers Sara’s old diary and begins to find out what really happened to her family so long ago. The Winter People isn’t the first novel to explore how far people would go to hold on to the ones they love and it certainly won’t be the last. Like in Pet Sematary and Harry Potter, we find out that bringing people back from the dead never goes as planned. These families, along with others in the story, show their love through desperation and their attempts to spend just a few more moments with the people they love. It’s chilling, relatable and completely unpredictable.
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
The long-awaited second novel from Chbosky is quite unlike his debut The Perks of Being a Wallflower in theme, but has equally appealing characters and fabulous writing. If you’re looking for something to hunker down at home with for days (or weeks) on end, this is the book for you. Fleeing an abusive relationship, Kate and her son Christopher settle down in a new, small town in Pennsylvania. Soon after, Christopher goes missing and miraculously reappears six days later seemingly unharmed. But now he’s hearing and seeing things that no one else can and intent upon completing a mission to save his mom and his town. Like any mother, Kate worries about her son and does whatever she can to figure out what’s going on. In an equally heartbreaking and exasperating scene, Kate is confronted with the reality that her son is either mentally ill or reality is the complete opposite of what it’s always seemed. She has to decide whether to trust her son or trust everything she’s been taught about the universe. “A lifetime of motherhood flooded through her. Every pillow turned to the cool side. Every grilled cheese sandwich she made just the way he liked them… Kate Reese was not a terrible mother. She was great. Being Christopher’s mother was the only thing Kate Reese was ever great at.” And that’s when she decided to trust her son. Is she the only one looking out for him, or does Christopher have other friends trying to steer him in the right direction?
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
20-something year old Rowan finds an ad in the paper looking for a live-in nanny in the Scottish highlands. The house is an odd mix of old and new, with plenty of complicated hi-tech features. The book begins with Rowan writing to her lawyer from jail, where she’s awaiting trial for murder of one of the children she nannied in the house. Rowan maintains her innocence, and as the story unfolds, we learn of appliances going on and off by themselves, a poison garden, and some shady characters that she worked with. Was the house haunted? Or was she being framed? Throughout her time as nanny, she seems to be trying her best at protecting and taking care of the children—from tucking them into bed with goodnight kisses, to exploring hidden crawl spaces to shield them from any potential harm. So how does she end up here? And will she continue to protect them even from a jail cell? This story has classic Ruth Ware twists and will keep you turning the pages late into the night.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
A horror classic, this novel opens when young friends Will and Jim stumble upon a traveling carnival that is anything but normal. Helmed by Mr. Dark, the sinister carnival and its performers have special powers and a fixation on the two boys who witnessed some things that they shouldn’t have. Luckily, Will’s father Charles suspects that the boys are in danger and works tirelessly to save them from a terrible fate and a story that seems to be repeating itself time and again. He stops at nothing to save his son, steering Mr. Dark in the wrong direction, spending countless hours researching the carnival’s past, and putting himself right in harm’s way. As with Stephen King’s It and J.K. Rowling’s dementors, Charles discovers that joy and laughter are forces that drive out evil and overcome darkness. We could all learn a thing or two from that.
Amanda Mactas is a freelance writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Forbes, Greatist, BELLA Magazine, PureWow and more. She’s on a mission to stay in as many haunted houses around the world as possible and is currently reading her way through the Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Despite what it may seem, she’s pretty normal. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @ManhattanTwist.