7 Contemporary Horror Novels that Push Boundaries

Brian James Gage, author of "The Nosferatu Conspiracy," recommends stories that will terrify you

Photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash

The grocery store of all places was my initial indoctrination into the world of horror. As my father shuffled up and down the aisles, dutifully stacking groceries in the cart for our family, I would sneak away to the magazine section and my eye was always drawn to the shiny paperback display brimming with such creepy covers as Salem’s Lot, The Legacy, and Flowers in the Attic

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At first, I was too frightened to even touch the books. My young mind was convinced whatever horrors lurked behind those monolithic and terrifying covers would surely emerge from the pages and follow me home to stalk me at night. But as I grew older, just as Lucky Charms were a staple of my grocery booty as a kid, mass market horror novels found their way into my diet as an early teen.

My love for the genre has only grown in time, and my tastes in horror have become vast. Lately, I have been craving new voices and favoring authors who are not afraid to take risks, push boundaries, and speak bravely from their own unique perspective. 

More importantly, I enjoy reading from voices that have a unique or daring tone that breaks the mold and pushes the horror genre into interesting and new paradigms—everything from classic monster scares, to psychological horror, to shivering Gothic tales. These are my seven favorite horror novels from boundary pushing authors with bold and unique voices. 

Blanky by Kealan Patrick Burke

A quick and biting read from one of my favorite contemporary horror authors. The amount of grief, despair, and dread Burke manages to cram into 79 pages is a feat in its own right as we follow the tale of a father coping with his recently deceased infant daughter. The revelations are beyond disturbing and if you’d ever told me that someone could make a baby blanket frightening, well, then welcome to the world of Kealan Patrick Burke.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

A powerful Gothic tale that strikes at the heart of male-female binary issues. An unnamed narrator’s home is invaded in the middle of a storm as two mysterious intruders proceed to question the host’s identity. Our protagonist grows increasingly frantic as he fails to satisfy the strange intruders’ harassment to the point where his own sanity begins to crack. A stand out and original tale on the horrors of gendered violence. 

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun

A South Korean bestseller and winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, The Hole tells the tale of a man who wakes from a coma after a horrific car accident that killed his wife and left him paralyzed and disfigured. Enter the caretaker, his mother-in-law, who is awash with grief over the loss of her daughter. This is a deeply unnerving tale that teeters between brutality and boredom, exploring themes of loss, isolation, and grief. 

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

A Lambda Literary Award-winning novel, this vanguard of a vampire novel tells the tale of Gilda, an escaped slave who finds her way to a brothel before given the gift of eternal life. Using the vampire as metaphor we are taken on a 200 year journey as Gilda attempts to find her place in the world while exploring themes of race, family, and queer identity. 

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Wearing its Lovecraftian influences on its sleeve, Ring Shout thrusts readers into a wild ride that includes demonic KKK members and hits all the high notes of melding metaphor and horror. Ring Shout is a fun horror romp, but it’s also far deeper in its messaging without being preachy. In addition to the subtext and symbolism, the pacing is a stand out feature in this tight 176-page banger.

Anoka: A Collection of Indigenous Horror by Shane Hawk

An excellent short story collection from an emerging Cheyenne & Arapaho author that offers a fresh perspective on several horror tropes including: werewolves, clones, witchcraft, and even bone collectors. Set in the eponymous small Minnesota town, dubbed “The Halloween Capital of the World,” the book also works as supernatural historical fiction as the author weaves in some history, making the reader question reality itself.  

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred tells the tale of a modern-day African American woman who becomes involved in a time-loop with her past ancestors during the time of slavery. One minute the protagonist, Edana Franklin, is in her apartment conversing with her boyfriend, the next she is transported back to a slave plantation and her plight between the past and the present becomes more dangerous with each leap between time periods. It works as sci-fi due to the time travel element, but the contrast between her present day life versus the terror she must confront to aide her ancestors certainly qualifies as horror. 

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