There’s an element of tension in so much Southern Gothic that stems from America’s fraught history of slavery, violence, injustice, and class inequality. It hangs over the genre like the humidity before a storm. The ingredients are all there—disillusionment, ennui, macabre details—they’re often inherently horrifying, and you really don’t have to tinker with them all that much before you’ve tipped over into full-blown horror.
All of these books dwell in the space where youth and history intersect (there’s that tension again, the full weight of the past pitched against young lives, full of promise), and many grapple with issues of race, slavery, sex, and poverty. And since horror often works best when it’s tempered with realism, that grounding makes these books that much scarier.
Read on for five deliciously creepy Southern Gothic horror books.
The Toll by Cherie Priest (Tor)
Cherie Priest is perhaps our premier living writer of Southern Gothic horror, and her forthcoming standalone, The Toll, is a delightfully chilling small town tale, with prose so tactile you’ll feel the humidity sending beads of sweat down your neck. When a woman disappears on State Road 177, the residents of nearby Staywater are immediately placed on high alert. This isn’t the first disappearance on that stretch of pavement—every thirteen years, like clockwork, a bridge appears on the road through the swamp, and something emerges from the water below to collect its toll.
Daisy and Claire thought they’d vanquished the creature decades ago—when, as Daisy says, “We were two spinsters with shotguns, granny magic, and no goddamn plan.” But this time, their teenage ward Cameron is in danger, and it brings an end to what they had hoped would be their twilight years of peaceful gardening and knitting.
If you’re looking for a summer read featuring swamp monsters, haunted bar stools, a creepy doll museum, a town populated with charmed weirdos, and two absolutely badass old ladies, well, welcome to Staywater.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Knopf/Vintage)
The Bigtree family is a mess. Hilola has died, her father is in a nursing home, and Hilola’s widower doesn’t know what to do with his three teenage children. Their family-owned gator-wrestling park is in terminal disrepair. And Osceola, the middle daughter, is engaged to a ghost.
We learn all of this through the eyes of our protagonist, 13 year-old Ava. With her father distracted and grieving and her older brother trying to make enough money to keep the family afloat by working at the new theme park on the mainland, Ava knows she’s the only one who can bring Osceola back from the brink. When an itinerant stranger called the Bird Man offers to help, Ava ventures off on a dangerous odyssey through the mangroves and humid swamps of coastal Florida. While it’s not as overtly scary as the other books on this list, Swamplandia bursts at the seams with flora, fauna, sadness, and unease—it’s an enchanting, creepy, elegiac novel that will haunt you well beyond the final pages.
The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell (Tor)
This is the zombie apocalypse made dreamlike and humid, Homer’s Odyssey with wicked blades, mannered soldiers, and grotesques at every turn. Temple, barely 16 and born into a world overrun by the dead years before, sees beauty everywhere—in schools of fish, in abandoned towns reclaimed by nature, even in the masses of the undead around her. She’s a wanderer with a hungry mind, traveling as much of the country as she can, running from a tragedy that devastated her years before—and from the man who’s hunting her.
Temple and her pursuer travel the American south from Florida to Texas, a landscape filled with desiccated walking corpses, moss-hung mansions, mutant hillbilly dynasties, refugee trains, and incandescent beauty. Bell has a knack for writing indelible imagery, and the prose here will haunt you well beyond the last page.
Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due (Prime)
In this debut short fiction collection, grandmaster Tananarive Due weaves a broad range of horror tropes—zombies, ghosts, lake monsters, creepy mines, the apocalypse—into the tapestry of everyday life. These stories bend both genre and reader expectation, highlighting the horror of the mundane, and the ways in which American history is anything but.
The stories here are broken into four sections, and the stories in the first section, Gracetown, take place in a sultry corner of rural Florida. The ghosts of Gracetown are both literal and metaphorical, and the titular novella takes center stage here. It’s about a young boy who loves to visit his grandparents each year because it means he gets to hunt ghosts around town—but this year, the ghosts are a little more forthcoming than they have been before. It’s a heartbreaking and utterly creepy novella.
If you’re not familiar with Due’s work beyond literature, I strongly recommend you set aside some time to watch Horror Noire, a documentary about the history of Black Americans in the horror genre, of which Due is an executive producer.
Those Across The River by Christopher Buehlman (Ace)
Christopher Buehlman has been writing world-class horror for years now, and if you haven’t read him yet, it’s time to change that. Those Across the River is a book that never went where I expected it to go, but I loved where it ended up.
Frank Nichols and his not-yet-wife Eudora arrive in Whitbrow, Georgia, in the hopes of a fresh start. Frank has been left the remains of his family’s old estate, where he plans to write the history of his family, particularly his great-grandfather, a slave owner of legendary cruelty and brutality who was killed when those he enslaved rose up and revolted.
But the legacy of the Nichols family’s brutal past lives on in the forest across the river, on the original site of the plantation, and before long, Frank will find out why the townsfolk of Whitbrow send a couple hogs off into the woods every full moon.
Read if you love: Spanish moss, insular small towns with dark secrets, shifters, grappling with the demons of American history in an often literal manner, and stories that will send chills down your spine like condensation down a glass of sweet tea.
Originally published in July 2019.
Emily Hughes talks about books, both professionally for Tor Books and for fun everywhere else. You can find her elsewhere in Electric Literature and Brooklyn Magazine. Formerly the editor of Unbound Worlds, she now writes a newsletter about scary books and tweets bad puns @emilyhughes.