When it comes to night dwellers of the supernatural variety, there’s something singularly unnerving about demons. They’ve always been the creature that scared me the most; Paranormal Activity had me sleeping with the lights on for weeks, and my genuine fear of demons is so well-documented (and mocked) in our family that my brother specifically advised me to never watch Hereditary, in case it utterly broke my psyche.
Maybe it’s because demons are invisible, yet make themselves so eerily known; an insistent scratching or rapping or knocking designed to drive you mad. Maybe it’s that they’re multifarious by nature, capable of taking on gorgeous, familiar, or grotesque forms at will. Or maybe it’s the notion that sometimes, summoning a demon is much easier and more tempting than arcane lore would have you believe. No pentagrams, candles, or rituals necessary; very little active participation required, in fact, besides the willingness to let one in.
For me, the idea that a demon could pick you, court you, become fascinated with you like the most insidious kind of stalker—or that you could inherit one without ever having asked for it, like a particularly nasty piece of generational trauma—is easily the most horrifying take on possession.
Come Closer by Sara Gran
This is one of the most terrifying books on demonic possession I’ve ever read, because it feels so uncannily real; like something that could actually happen to you, or to almost anyone. The main character, Amanda, is a successful architect in a seemingly solid marriage, when she becomes plagued by a demonic entity named Naamah. Naamah initially manifests as repetitive noises that occur only when Amanda is in her loft, followed by sensual, almost hypnotic dreams in which she and the beautiful demon grow increasingly closer; the entity bears an uncanny resemblance to the “imaginary friend” Amanda invented for herself to cope with a difficult childhood. What happens next is a gradual possession that leaves the reader wondering how much of Amanda’s casual new brazenness, deception, violence, and unbridled sexuality is simply a result of her own frustrated desires, rather than the demon’s dark whims—until it spirals into the kind of grotesque and utterly gripping horror show that leaves no doubt as to what’s happening.
The Good Demon Jimmy Cajoleas
In The Good Demon, Jimmy Cajoleas explores a uniquely compelling concept—what if an exorcism was performed against the possessed’s will? What if you loved your demon, and missed her fiercely, would do anything—and sacrifice anyone—to get her back? Here, again, the main character’s traumatic childhood in the rural south—particularly witnessing her father’s death by overdose—rendered her susceptible to a demonic possession, as opposed to any elaborate summoning ritual. However, there’s plenty of creepy arcane lore here, too, along with stunningly gorgeous, lyrical writing and an atmosphere that is so eerie and evocative it almost makes you wonder if the author knows a little too much about demons. He also draws compelling parallels between addiction and possession that add even more depth to the story.
The Possession by Michael Rutger
The second in the author’s The Anomaly Files, this book is equal parts absolutely horrifying and hilarious, largely due to Rutger’s incredibly deft and droll first-person narration. The Possession follows American myth and legend “explorer” (with only an underfunded and relatively unpopular YouTube show under his belt) Nolan Moore—the wisecracking, thoughtful, and genuinely delightful Indiana Jones we all need—as he and the gang explore the phenomenon of unexplained, freestanding walls in a picturesque small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’ve never seen this extremely clever take on demons before, and I don’t want to spoil it, but it relies on the notions that 1), these mysterious walls function as a barrier, keeping demonic entities out of our world; and 2), reality is fundamentally an illusion, a constantly shifting amalgam pieced together by our brains rather than anything concretely real. So, what if demons could manipulate this perception, and entirely alter what reality even means to us? It triggered every phobic fear I have about not being able to trust my own mind, and I loved it. (So much that I had to stop reading the book at night.)
Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher is hands-down my favorite urban fantasy author, and his legendary Harry Dresden, Chicago’s wizard-for-hire, is an unparalleled fan favorite. As part of Harry’s incredibly impressive character arc across the Dresden Files, the wizard picks up a fallen angel—one of my preferred types of demon, because of hotness combined with ancient deviousness—in order to keep her power from falling into the wrong hands. The epic (and very sexy) struggle of wills between Harry and Lasciel—or rather, Lash, the copy of the fallen angel that lives in Harry’s mind—is a fascinating character study in temptation, resistance, and the work it takes to maintain personal integrity. This is also a more traditional depiction of a summoning, in which the demon resides in a tainted object before possessing their victim.
The Devil You Know by Mike Carey
Another urban fantasy favorite, an exorcist noir! Felix Castor is a professional exorcist working in a supernatural London plagued by were-creatures, revenants, and all flavors of the possessed. He’s able to cast spirits and demons out with the help of a tin whistle, which allows him to functionally lure creatures out of their hosts by describing their truest natures with music—a very creative take on the idea that demons can be compelled and bound by their true names. Felix’s best friend is in an institution for the magically insane, possessed by a particularly vicious demon due to a dark-magic ritual gone wrong—an instance of a more traditional summoning—and Felix’s guilt for having inextricably bound his best friend to Asmodeus is a constant torment. (The story also features one of the hottest succubi of all time, Ajulutsikael (Juliet for short), second only to Lara Raith in the Dresden Files.)
Lana is the author of four YA novels about modern-day witches and historical murderesses. Born in Serbia, she grew up in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria before moving to the US, where she studied psychology and literature at Yale University, law at Boston University, and publishing at Emerson College. She recently moved to Chicago with her family.