10 Scary Books for Queer Teens to Feel Empowered Reading

Apr 17, 2024 | LGBTQIA+ Voices, Novels

We’d like to thank Rob Costello for this blog post! Rob is faculty, along with Anna-Marie McLemore, for Writing with Pride: A Two-Night Mini for Young Adult Horror Writers. Thanks, Rob!

It’s scary out there for queer teens. From book bans to Don’t Say Gay, and the constant drumbeat of attacks on trans rights and health care, millions of LGBTQIA+ kids feel under siege by bigoted politicians, school boards, and church leaders.

It’s hardly a surprise then that queer YA horror is flourishing. Historically, horror fiction has always thrived during times of social strife and unrest. That’s because horror is the Worst-Case-Scenario genre. Scary books enable readers to safely project themselves into the most terrifying situations in order to imagine how they might survive them. When daily life itself feels like a struggle to survive, living vicariously through characters who have it even worse than you do can offer a kind of solace and escapism.

A brutal serial killer on the prowl…

A demonic spirt hell bent on destruction…

A bloodthirsty creature stalking its next victim…

In horror fiction, plucky and resourceful protagonists are constantly marshaling hidden reserves of strength and bravery to confront these gruesome threats, enduring and even thriving in the process. Is it any wonder then that horror has become the genre of choice for so many queer and marginalized readers? After all, there’s something deeply cathartic about identifying with a character who looks like you, thinks like you, and loves like you as they battle (and vanquish) the monsters out to destroy them. It suggests the possibility that you can summon that same fortitude against the monsters in your own life.

How exhilarating… How empowering.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of all-too-real monsters out there for queer and trans teens to face down nowadays. But at least these ten recent YA horror books offer a chilling refuge where readers can safely engage their worst fears while imagining ways to overcome them:

Book cover: The City Beautiful

The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros

While I love all of the books on this list, none of them hits quite as hard as the Sydney Taylor Award-winning The City Beautiful. Two years after first devouring it, I’m still struggling to describe this indelible novel. Is it a gorgeous and heart-pounding YA gay romance/coming-of-age story? A searing exploration of the Jewish Diaspora and the trauma of antisemitism? A meticulously researched and crafted historical saga set at the turn of the last century? A moving chronicle of found family and the struggle of immigrants to achieve the American dream? A riveting thriller about a sadistic killer stalking the fabled White City (aka, the Chicago World’s Fair)? Or a spine-tingling horror tale of a terrifying possession rooted in Jewish folklore? Yes! The answer to all of these questions is a great, big, glorious YES-and so much more. If you read only one book on this list, make it The City Beautiful. It’s a straight up queer horror masterpiece. 😉

Book cover: Burn Down, Rise Up

Burn Down, Rise Up, by Vincent Tirado

Like The City Beautiful, this Pura Belpré Award-winner is also rooted in the historical trauma of marginalized communities in a major American city. A nightmare version of the Bronx, to be specific, where a series of mysterious disappearances are linked to a horrifying urban legend called the Echo Game. When queer, Afro-Latine Raquel and her sapphic crush Charlize go in search of Charlize’s missing cousin, they find themselves drawn into a sinister underworld beneath the city where they must confront the malevolent legacy of racial oppression that lies at its core. A compelling mix of cosmic horror and antiracism (with a splatter of gore), this book is a must-read for fans of Get Out and Stranger Things.

Book cover: The Dead and the Dark

The Dead and the Dark, by Courtney Gould

Courtney Gould’s unnerving debut is set about as far from the bright lights of the big city as you can get: Snakebite, Oregon. That’s where Logan Ortiz-Woodley finds herself stuck when her two dads—TV’s most popular ghost-hunting duo—return to the backwoods town they fled years ago to investigate a series of disappearances that bear all the hallmarks of the supernatural. Logan soon finds herself butting heads with local popular girl, Ashley, whose boyfriend was the first to go missing. But when the pair are compelled to team up, their mutual attraction complicates an already dangerous investigation into the sinister force that’s stalking the town. Soon they uncover long-buried secrets and confront the scourge of racism and homophobia festering in Snakebite. Smart, scary, and socially aware, this is a stellar debut from a writer to watch.

Book cover: The River Has Teeth

The River Has Teeth, by Erica Waters

Winner of the Bram Stoker Award for a young adult novel, this sophomore outing from YA horror maven, Erica Waters, is gritty, angry, and impossible to put down. When the search for her missing sister goes cold, Natasha’s rage heats up. Determined to take matters into her own hands, she undertakes her own search of the remote nature preserve called The Bend where her sister’s abandoned car was found. There she meets Della, who has deep and magical roots in The Bend and a painfully personal connection to the monstrous creature that stalks its woods. Sparks fly when the two are forced together to put an end to the real threat hunting young girls there. This is a thrilling read that examines the fraught state of economic class and social justice, queer and feminist rage, and the power of young women to take charge of their own destiny.

Book cover: She Is a Haunting

She Is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran

Gothic horror is all about the setting, and there are few settings more compelling than the haunted house at the center of Trang Thanh Tran’s captivating debut, She Is a Haunting—another book steeped in the repressed rage of its protagonist. In order to pay for college, Jade Nguyen is forced to spend five weeks in a rundown French colonial villa in Vietnam with her estranged father, who plans to fix the place up to rent out to tourists. Swallowing her anger at the man who abandoned her years ago, and made to feel not Vietnamese enough (or straight enough) to satisfy his expectations, Jade soon finds herself terrorized by frightening bouts of sleep paralysis, disturbing sounds emanating from the walls, a skin-crawling infestation of bugs, and the vengeful spirits that inhabit the property. Examining themes of racism, colonialism, family dysfunction, homophobia, shame, and the destructive force of bottled up emotions, She Is a Haunting is a tour-de-force of a haunted house novel.

Book cover: You're Not Supposed to Die Tonight

You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight, by Kalynn Bayron

A thoroughly entertaining and knowing homage to the slasher genre, You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight shows Kalynn Bayron at the top of her horror game. Charity Curtis works a summer job managing what’s billed as an immersive, “full-contact horror experience” at Camp Mirror Lake, the site where a cult 1980’s slasher movie was filmed. But when strange things start to happen and staff begin to vanish, Charity must fight to survive as the slasher simulation transforms into deadly reality. What’s most fun about this book is appreciating all the brilliant ways Bayron both utilizes and undermines the slasher tropes that will be familiar to fans of film franchises like Friday the 13th and Scream. It’s particularly gratifying to root for a Black queer final girl. This is an edge-of-your-seat read, abounding with twists and turns you won’t see coming and an absolutely killer ending.

Book cover: Night of the Living Queers
Night of the Living Queers: 13 Tales of Terror & Delight, edited by Shelly Page and Alex Brown

The only anthology on this list, Night of the Living Queers assembles a baker’s dozen of highly enjoyable Halloween-themed stories from some of today’s leading queer YA writers of color (including a couple of folks already mentioned here). There’s a wide range of styles and voices to enjoy, from darkly spooky thrillers to light and campy chillers. Like all good anthologies, part of the fun comes from appreciating the way different authors—old favorites and new voices alike—approach the unifying theme of the book. Standouts include Kalynn Bayron’s “The Visitor,” in which the annual Halloween ritual between a grieving father and daughter is shockingly disrupted; Kosoko Jackson’s rawly powerful story of queer rage and revenge, “Rocky Road with Caramel Drizzle”; “Welcome to Hotel Paranoia” by Vanessa Montalban, in which a girl determined to finally kiss her ex-best friend attends a Halloween party at a creepy hotel (I’m a sucker for creepy hotels!); and Alex Brown’s frolicsome delight, “The Three Phases of Ghost Hunting,” which finds two best friends (who want to be more) staking out a mall food court in search of a pizza-thieving ghost pirate. There’s something to savor for every reader here.

Book cover: These Fleeting Shadows
These Fleeting Shadows, by Kate Alice Marshall

Kate Alice Marshall is one of the most exciting horror writers working in YA today. Although her novel Our Last Echoes is my personal favorite (I’m an even bigger sucker for a creepy island setting!), These Fleeting Shadows is the most unabashedly queer. Helen Vaughn can’t remember why she and her mother fled their ancestral home, Harrow, when she was a little girl. In fact, there’s a lot of terrible stuff she can’t recall. But when her grandfather dies and leaves her everything in his will, she no longer has the luxury of avoiding the past or ignoring the motley crew of conniving relatives out to secure her family’s wealth and status no matter the cost. But her return to Harrow revels a diabolical connection to the house and its blood-soaked history that threatens everything she loves-—ncluding Bryony, the moody young witch who’s the only person she can trust. Gorgeously written, tense, and claustrophobic, this gothic/haunted house/cosmic horror mashup reads like the love child of The Haunting of Hill House and Knives Out by way of Lovecraft (sans the racism). A big thumbs up.

Book cover: Hell Followed With Us

Hell Followed With Us, by Andrew Joseph White

Hell Followed With Us answers the question of what you get when you mix apocalyptic horror with religious militancy, white supremacy, and trans rage. When a group of white evangelical eco-fascists called the Angels release a deadly plague to kill the unfaithful, they inject Benji, a trans boy raised in their cult, with a horrific mutation that will eventually give him the power to unleash an ultimate doomsday. Yet Benji rebels at being made a tool of destruction and escapes to find refuge with a ragtag band of LGBTQIA+ teens determined to defeat the Angels and salvage what’s left of humanity. Graphic, gripping, and utterly unflinching, this novel does not shy away from confronting the profound trauma inflicted on so many queer and trans people by Christian extremism and its evil counterpart, white supremacy. This book is not for the faint of heart, but while the CW’s abound, the finale offers a satisfying and cathartic resolution that leaves readers with the hope of overcoming the terrible legacy of religious trauma.

Book cover: Clown in a Cornfield

Clown in a Cornfield, by Adam Cesare

The final book on this list (another winner of the Bram Stoker Award) is both the most overtly political and the least overtly queer. In fact, it doesn’t reveal the beautiful gay love story beating inside its cold, black heart until almost the very end—but when it does, oh boy! Clown in a Cornfield has got everything going for it: angsty teens; a tragic backstory; a wild kegger in the eponymous cornfield that quickly turns bloody; and a sadistic killer clown named Frendo, who is absolutely the stuff of all your nightmares. Like You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight, this book is a love letter to the slasher horror genre and its many tropes, though it undermines them in its own wickedly fun and socially aware way. In particular, the critique of our current political climate and the encroachment of MAGA extremism into small town America is as sharp here as the chainsaw Frendo wields. By turns riveting, gory, enraging, surprising, funny, and unbearably tense, Clown in a Cornfield is pretty much everything you’d ever want in a YA horror novel with a swoon-worthy queer twist that makes for a supremely satisfying finish.

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