From its inception, the horror genre has always been pretty queer, but it can be tricky to find a lot of recent examples. I wanted to find out what’s on offer now in queer horror, what new avenues writers are exploring. This year, I set myself a challenge to read as much queer horror from the last ten years as I could squeeze in and to review the books I enjoyed. The year is drawing to a close, so it’s time to take stock of what I’ve found. It’s time for a listicle.
This is a list of books I would recommend, but if you’re interested to see everything I’ve read, the (almost) full list is included in my Goodreads reading challenge. There are more details about the parameters of the challenge and who I am in my original post.
For a horror reading challenge, thirteen is the perfect number, so here are thirteen of the best queer (LGBTQIA+) horror books I could find published between 2010-2020.
Listed in reading order, not in order of preference. I’ll give my favourites at the end. I’ve included an excerpt of my review under each; you can click on the title for the full text.
A Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Wake of Vultures is a hybrid YA novel, blending western, horror, paranormal, fantasy and adventure genres. Nettie Lonesome lives on Mam and Pap’s farm as their adopted daughter, though they treat her no better than a slave. Everything changes when Nettie has to fight for her life against a monster. Her new-found ability to see the monsters all around her leads her on a quest for vengeance. If you like stories about cowboys fighting monsters, this is the novel for you.
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
After her friend’s suicide, Danielle Cain travels to Freedom, Iowa, the anarchist commune he’d called home, looking for some answers. There she finds a bloody protective spirit tasked with taking down those who abuse power. The beast seems to have turned on its summoners and all is not well in Freedom.
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
Seven year old Wen and her two dads, Eric and Andrew, are holidaying at a remote cabin in a New Hampshire forest when a group of four strangers arrive, bearing weird home-made weapons they claim are tools. They tell the family that they must choose one of them to be sacrificed willingly, or everyone else in the world will die. So begins a nightmare ordeal.
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The novella is a jigsaw of interconnecting points of view and fragments plucked from different points in time, a puzzle concerning the activities of a doomsday cult and the interactions of two agents sent to investigate by shadowy organisations in the US and UK.
The Devourers by Indra Das
The Devourers begins when Alok, a lonely academic in modern-day India, meets a man claiming to be half-werewolf. The story unfolds through scrolls the stranger has Alok transcribe, which take him back to the Mughal India of the Shah Jehan, following the lives of long-lived flesh eaters and the mortals they hunt and love.
The Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline by Andrew Katz
A genuinely original take on an old favourite, with Gideon trying to redeem his undead existence by offering a suicide hotline to mortals in distress. The story takes us through many of his conversations with callers, including Margot, a teenage girl living with an abusive uncle, who Gideon decides to help beyond the hotline. The eccentric title suggests humour, and there is humour, but the book never shrinks away from tackling serious subject matter with frankness and respect, in a way that’s not overwhelming, leaving room for contemplation and even hope.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Ninth House childhood rivals Gideon and Harrow find themselves caught up in a deadly necromantic puzzle, the winner of which will become a Lyctor, an aide to the Emperor in his constant battle against threatening forces unknown. There’s plenty of death and treachery, but the book overall is surprisingly jolly for a tale of necromancy, thanks to its sardonic, take-no-shit narrator, Gideon, and an entertaining cast of weirdos and necro-geeks drawn from the empire’s nine houses.
The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
When India Morgan Phelps (Imp to her friends) picks up a naked woman from the side of the road, her tentative grip on sanity is wrenched away. Or does that happen at all? Truth and fact are moving concepts in this Gothic tale of ghosts, mythology and madness.
A Spectral Hue by Laurance Gidney
A Spectral Hue is a weird ghost story for adults – either a short novel or long novella. Xavier, a post-graduate art student, visits the run-down coastal town of Shimmer to research the history of African-American folk artists inspired by the town’s strange marsh bell flower. The flower’s distinct purple-pink colour appears over and over, across different generations, in the varied art of local artists. From the moment Xavier first sees a quilt by Shimmer artist Hazel Whitby, he’s captivated. And Xavier’s not the only person to be held in thrall by the distinctive artworks and the colour that inspired them.
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Raxter School for Girls has been under quarantine for eighteen months and supplies are scarce. There’s never enough to eat. Many girls and almost all the staff have died of disease or at the hands of the wild, mutated animals, which stalk the overgrown forest on quarantined Raxter island. The remaining girls have banded into small groups to take care of each other and only Headmistress and Miss Walsh remain of the staff.
One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau
This is an odd little adult horror novella about Jackie and Ann, teenage friends each dealing with some pretty grisly mother issues. Jackie’s mother died of cancer and now she reappears in moments of stress, still vomiting over the toilet bowl as she did in her final days. Jackie can’t stop getting into trouble, as she storms through life, a violent mix of yearning and rage. Ann’s mother lives in the basement now, howling and feasting on the flesh of living animals. Ann and her sister are struggling to find enough kittens to feed her.
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
1612, Pendle Hill, Lancashire. A poor, desperate rabble gather for what locals suspect is a dark sabbat. And then there’s wealthy, respectable Alice Nutter, who protects them on her land, who allows them to live in squalor in the notorious Malkin Tower. What’s the connection between Alice and the suspected witches? And with King James’s hunters on the prowl, why will she risk everything to protect them?
Bunny by Mona Awad
Samantha Heather Mackey loved writing until she won one of the limited and much sought-after places on Warren University’s MFA writing programme. Since then, she hasn’t been able to write much at all. Everything about the place sucks the life out of her, not least the group of women who share her tutorial group. Samantha’s named the saccharine-sweet clique the Bunnies, as that’s what they call each other: Bunny. If it weren’t for Warren drop out, Ava, Samantha would have gone crazy. But even though she’s repelled by them, the Bunnies fascinate her and, when she receives an invitation to one of their select gatherings, she’s drawn into their world.
This is a list of recommendations, so I think all of them are worth a look, but some stand out more in retrospect. The Devourers by Indra Das is probably my favourite of all these stories and it pains me that this book has never been published in the UK. I had to buy a second-hand copy to read it. What Das does with the werewolf genre is beautiful, disturbing and thought-provoking in the best possible way. It’s available new in the US and India.
I loved the representation in A Spectral Hue most of all and I wish more queer fiction was as completely queer as this. I think there’s a leap a lot of queer writers have to make to give themselves permission to write queer characters. We can end up doing weird equations about how many queer characters we’re allowed, working out permitted ratios. There’s none of that here; instead, there’s a full cast of queer BIPOC characters, and I love it for that and for its weird inventiveness.
Caitlín R. Kiernan is the only writer with two titles on this list. I discovered her writing through this challenge and I’m so glad I did. Her fragmentary storytelling really caught my imagination. Whilst Agents of Dreamland is only obliquely queer, I stand by its inclusion here. The Drowning Girl is overtly queer with both lesbian and trans characters.
A special mention goes to White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, a masterful tale of a monster house fuelled by racism and xenophobia and the women it poisons. I discovered it was first published in 2009 when I opened the first page, so it falls outside the scope of this challenge, but it’s great and I can’t stop recommending it.
There’s humour and darkness in this list and so many inventive ways of using the horror genre to explore different facets of both human and queer experience. I think the horror genre, with its roots in stories of repressed desire, marginalisation, trauma, transgression and abjection, is uniquely placed to explore some facets of queer experience that other genres can’t or won’t touch. I hope, when we’ve glutted ourselves on happy endings, more publishers will consider taking a risk on the darker side of queer genre fiction.