We’ve all heard them: local legends and small-town rumors, whispers of an eerie abandoned house, a spooky bridge over a dried riverbed, a haunted forest. Some folklores grow from within small communities, other legends span entire cultures and become braided into a way of life.
But how many of these tales are truth and how many are fiction? Where does a harmless winding dirt road through the wood, intersect with a pathway now walked by the dead? And why are we so fascinated by them? Folktales often reflect a shared human experience that become part of a collective memory. Just like The Brothers Grimm tales, which have endured over the centuries, we are still searching for meaning within these folktales, a secret message hidden in their pages.
My latest book, Winterwood, began from local stories I’ve heard about the haunted woods surrounding a remote, mountain lake—tales of a cruel, vengeful witch-like women who wandered the forest, and of beasts who fed on lost souls and slept in the hollows of trees. I wrote Winterwood because I wanted to make sense of these old stories, and bring to life the rumors that have been passed down for generations. To weave together facts with fiction.
The following YA books were inspired by real world myths and legends and unexplained tales—my favorite kinds of stories.
Conversion by Katherine Howe
Inspired by true events, Conversion is the story of several friends attending St. Joan’s Academy who are inexplicably struck by a strange condition which causes the girls to suffer from uncontrollable tics, seizures, hair loss, and coughing fits. In this fictional portrayal, the cause of their condition is linked to Salem, Massachusetts.
But this book was based on the real-life events that took place in a high school in Le Roy, N.Y. where high school students began suffering from similar ailments. The community of Le Roy feared it might be pollution or poisoning of some kind, but it was eventually determined to be a case of “conversion,” a disorder where a person is under so much stress that their body converts it into physical symptoms. Also known as hysteria.
Whatever the cause, this fictional book based on the events in this small town in N.Y. is a perfect read for fans of stories the explore the boundary between fact and fiction. I couldn’t put this one down!
Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall
Written in a faux-documentary style, this book has all the makings of a folklore come to life. Kate Alice Marshall’s latest book is about a strange path that appears in the forest once a year, and a girl who goes missing inside this terrifying wood. Marshall’s inspiration for this book came from a mythical city called Ys, which was flooded after the king’s wayward daughter accidentally opened a gate, allowing the ocean to pour in and destroy the town.
In Marshall’s book, a group of friends will enter the forest, armed with their cameras, in hopes of finding the missing girl. But what they find within this forest, might not be what they expect. I loved this book so much that I blurbed it! It’s a must read.
The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman
Forests create a perfect setting for the dark and unknown, and in Christine Lynn Herman’s debut book, The Devouring Gray, a beast and a sinister gray resides within the surrounding woods, killing off the people who live in the remote town of Four Paths.
This book gave me all the chills, and perhaps it’s because this story isn’t entirely fiction. Herman was inspired by the real-life history of upstate New York, specifically the burned-over district where in early 19th century, an influx of new religions sprouted up at the same time. The Devouring Gray imagines a town where a religion was centered around worshipping something dark and awful within the forest. This local folklore is the perfect setting for an eerie fictional tale.
Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
This unsettling tale, inspired by real-life events, is the story of three girls who are so obsessed with the fictional book The Way into Lovelorn that it results in one of the girl’s death. And while the two surviving girls are blamed for the murder, the lines between fiction and truth begin to blur, and a question arises: what really happened the day Summer Marks died?
This novel examines themes of toxic friendship, and the risk of believing in a fictional story so deeply that your mind is no longer certain where the real world ends and the magical world begins.
This novel is a slow burn, but contains all the richly layered characters and world building that fans of Oliver have come to expect. The friendships read true, capturing the sometimes cringe-worthy angst of relationships.
Teeth in the Mist by Dawn Kurtagich
Dawn Kurtagich is the queen of dark, gothic tales—the kind you don’t dare read after the sun has set—and Teeth in the Mist delivers on this promise in the best way. This story spans several centuries, from present day back to 1583, and it follows three women drawn to the same Mill House in North Wales, and the unholy pact that binds them together—a pact made by a man more than a thousand years later.
Kurtagich drew inspiration for this story from the German legend of Faust, who made a pact with the devil for unlimited knowledge and power, in exchange for his soul. Teeth in the Mist is a feminist bent on an old folklore, and it’s filled with eerie themes and dark imagery on every page. This book may have given me a few nightmares, but I still recommend it every chance I get.
Originally published in November 2019.
Shea Ernshaw the author of The Wicked Deep and Winterwood. She works as a producer for a film production company and shares a home with her husband, a dog named Diesel, and two cats. She is happiest when lost in a good book, lost in the woods, or writing her next novel. You can connect with her on her website and on Twitter and Instagram @SheaErnshaw.