Urban Legends and Wicked Spells: The Rise of Black YA Horror

There’s just something special about Black horror. Sometimes that means horror with Black people in it and sometimes it means where Blackness is as central to the story as the horror is. But we know it when we see it. With this resurgence of young adult horror has come the rise of YA Black horror. Some of it shares space with science fiction or fantasy, while some leans in on the teen slasher format. Regardless, almost all of it deals with race and racism, with the horrors of being a Black teen in a world that has been designed to crush you at every opportunity, and with the thrill and power of fighting back.


The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass

Jake Livingston can see dead people. Most of the time it’s annoying, but at least they rarely interact with him directly. That is, until Sawyer. It wasn’t that long ago that Sawyer went on a school shooting rampage. Now that he’s a ghost, he wants to use Jake’s body to finish what he started. It’s bad enough being one of only a few Black kids at his prep school (not to mention being gay) without having some undead killer trying to possess his body. I read this book in one sitting. Couldn’t put it down!


The Witchery by S. Isabelle

Logan moves to Haelsford, Florida to attend the Mesmortes Coven Academy. Iris, Thalia, and Jailah, collectively known as the Red Three, take Logan under their wing as they attempt to put an end to an old town curse. Every fall, people are attacked by Wolves as part of the Haunting Season. Two non-witch boys end up working with the witches to try and break the curse before anyone else gets hurt. A kickass debut novel with a creepy take on the magic school trope.


Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

Kids have been going missing in the Bronx for months, but Raquel finally decides to get involved when the cousin of her crush, Charlize, becomes the latest victim. About the same time, her mother comes down with a mysterious disease that may or may not be connected to whatever is happening to the disappearing teens. An urban legend game is at the root of it all, and Raquel and Charlize will have to fight with all they’ve got to survive. Another killer debut from another Black author to keep your eyes on.


The Getaway by Lamar Giles

In a dystopian, not-too-distant future, Jay thinks he’s safe at the ultra exclusive Karloff Country Resort. He, Connie (the Black daughter of the resort’s chef), and Seychelle (the biracial heir to the Karloff estate) spend all their free time together…until Connie and her family go missing. Ominous things are afoot at Karloff, not so coincidentally happening at the same time as the arrival of the cruel Trustees. “But what’s more dangerous: the monster you know in your home or the unknown nightmare outside the walls?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about this book.


White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson

Back in California, Mari’s life crashed and burned with her drug use. Her family relocated to a rundown Midwest town on the promise of great things…but all they get is terror and bigotry. The town’s Black community is dwindling, in part by a robust prison pipeline and in part by racist housing policies and zoning laws. Even weirder, Mari thinks her new home might be haunted. Strange things go bump in the night and her white younger step-sister is talking to someone no one else can see. This is basically the young adult version of Alyssa Cole’s excellent thriller When No One Is Watching except with a horror bent instead of a science fiction one.


Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis

This is much more fantasy than horror, but it’s got zombies and it’s freaking great so I’m keeping it in. Katrell doesn’t know how or why, but she can raise the dead. Or, at least she thinks that’s what she’s doing. She uses her “gift” to make some extra money because her mom and her mom’s deadbeat boyfriend aren’t interested in actual parenting. Of course things immediately go awry and soon Katrell is awash in the undead she can no longer control. It’s a biting (pun!) exploration of poverty, abuse, trauma, and the limitations of resilience.


The Keeper by Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Marco Finnegan

In quick succession, Aisha loses her parents and grandmother, leaving her alone in the world. Before her death, her grandmother summons a strange and malevolent being to protect her granddaughter. It does—but at great cost. The being needs to eat living things, and has its sights set on Aisha’s only friends. The Keeper is not young adult, but the main characters are all teenagers and the content and violence are at a level that most teens could comfortably engage with. The art is chilling without relying on gratuitous gore. And besides, I simply could not in good conscience do a book list of Black horror, even a YA one, and not include the queen of it.


Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).


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