Surefire YA Scares:
13 of the Best Teen Horror Books

by Iva-Marie Palmer

As a kid, I Iong questioned why on earth I would subject myself to scary reads — the slightest glimpse of just the cover of a horror movie VHS tape at my neighborhood video store could give me nightmares for days. But I came of age in the era of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine (and, yes, VHS tapes too), and I was routinely subjected to the phenomenon of seeing one of my peers devouring these novels and wanting to do the same. (The garishly Day-Glo covers and scrawling font were also draws.) And, in reading those, I realized that the great thing about scary books is that — unlike with films — you can go at your own pace and imagine the scenes yourself. That’s not to say the stories weren’t scary or that I didn’t read plenty of those books in a single sleepless night, but I liked having that little bit of control as a reader.

As other book trends come and go, horror is a trusty genre, and one that — judging from some of the classics listed here — holds up over time. These 13 creepy books (some old, some new) are sure to haunt teen readers in all the right ways.

  • Carrie

    by Stephen King

    Horror-master King’s first novel (published in 1974) is perfect for teen horror fans. A compact work told through fictionalized news stories, articles, and interviews, Carrie tells the tale of a telekinetic teenage girl so bullied at school that she destroys her entire town to get revenge on her cruel classmates. It’s one of the most frequently banned books in the United States and worth the read just for the pull-no-punches way King handles his subject matter.

  • The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

    by Kiersten White

    Once readers have devoured Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they can turn to this chilling reimagining from bestselling author Kiersten White. White’s version goes back to Victor Frankenstein’s childhood, when his family takes in a girl named Elizabeth Lavenza, and the two become inseparable. Elizabeth endures years of Victor’s anger and depraved whims, trying to keep her life in the process, in this captivating retelling that was named an NPR Best Book of the Year.

  • The Haunted

    by Danielle Vega

    Danielle Vega has been dubbed YA’s Stephen King, and The Haunted is her latest exquisitely unnerving tale. Hendricks Becker-O’Malley’s parents uproot their lives and relocate to a tiny town in New York, settling down in a fixer upper that Hendricks soon learns is notorious for being haunted. But Hendricks isn’t sure if the evil in the house is supernatural or a very real threat that has followed from her traumatic past. There’s plenty more where that came from, Vega is also author of The Merciless series.

  • Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus

    by Mary Shelley

    Many are impressed that Shelley wrote this classic when she was just 18, but even more impressive is that she wrote it as part of a friendly contest between her, her husband (Percy Shelley), Lord Byron, and John Polidori. After pondering horror stories, Shelley dreamt of a scientist who creates life and is then terrified by his own creation. The rest is history, along with years of correcting people who think the monster’s name is Frankenstein. Nope, that’s the doctor’s name.

  • There’s Someone Inside Your House

    by Stephanie Perkins

    We all know the scariest call is the one that comes from inside the house. Perkins’s teen slasher story is reminiscent of Carrie and Scream, and the suspense she manages to build — before bringing it all toppling down — is tangible. Makani Young, a transplant from Hawaii, lives with her grandmother in small-town Nebraska, where students at her high school keep turning up dead. A romantic subplot cuts the tension (no pun intended) for readers hesitant to hop aboard the horror train.

  • A Monster Calls

    by Patrick Ness

    Adapted into a 2016 film, this novel from Carnegie Medal-winner Ness was inspired by an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd and centers on Conor, a boy who has repeatedly had the same nightmare since his mother became sick. But the monster that eventually shows up at his window isn’t the one from his dream. It’s something different, and it demands something of Conor. Filled with darkness, magic, and a haunting message, it’s a fairy tale in the truest Brothers Grimm-sense of the term.

  • Pet

    by Akwaeke Emezi

    Pet is in a genre all its own — part speculative horror, part science fiction, and deeply concerned with social justice — so it has excellent crossover potential for readers of all kinds. Jam lives in the city of Lucille, which ostentatiously celebrates that they’ve rid themselves of monsters. But when a horned, clawed creature emerges from a painting in Jam’s house, having arrived in Lucille to hunt a monster, Jam must figure out how to reckon with a society that’s drowning in denial.

  • Dracula

    by Bram Stoker

    Without Dracula, would the glimmering, crush-worthy vampires of the Twilight series exist? Probably not. Stoker’s seductive, wealthy, and well-bred Dracula comes alive (ahem) via letters, ships’ logs, and diary entries from the novel’s protagonists, including English solicitor Jonathan Harker, who becomes Dracula’s prisoner, and teacher-turned-vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Some young readers may find Stoker’s pacing a divergence from the fast-plotted books they’re used to, but this classic is worth the read.

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle

    by Shirley Jackson, illustrated by Thomas Ott

    First published in 1962, Jackson’s extra-creepy novel centers on the kind of family whose house would make trick-or-treating more interesting (if not more terrifying). Thanks to its character development and lack of gore, the now-classic novel is excellent for those reluctant to read horror. The story of the Blackwood sisters, their fear-inducing home, and a long-ago poisoning that killed the entire family before them earns its thrills through Jackson’s brainy, brilliant prose.

  • The Sacrifice Box

    by Martin Stewart

    "Gremlins meets The Breakfast Club by way of Stephen King and Stranger Things" is a huge promise of a premise, but The Sacrifice Box delivers (even if your teen reader won’t get half the references). In 1982, five friends bury their treasures deep in the woods, and they agree never to disturb their sacrifices again. But four years later, the friends are cursed with the stuff of biblical plagues and realize that one of them has broken their vow. Laced with moments of dark comedy, it’s a gritty, intellectual thriller.

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

    by Robert Louis Stevenson

    Stevenson’s classic tale exploring, in frightening fashion, the two sides of one self has influenced dozens of authors. Perhaps less well-known is that Stevenson wrote the tale in three days, after he had nightmares about his own double life — and then had to rewrite it in three days again when his wife burned the first manuscript because she thought it was too gruesome. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might not strike young readers off the bat as the stuff to keep them up at night, but it raises questions about the duality of human nature that’ll keep them thinking long after they’ve turned the final page.

  • Rules for Vanishing

    by Kate Alice Marshall

    For those who prefer their horror in the setting of a sinister fairy tale, Rules for Vanishing may be just up their alley. Sara’s sister Becca disappeared exactly one year ago, and Sara’s certain that her sister took Lucy’s road: a path that appears in the forest once every year, at the end of which the ghost of Lucy Gallows beckons. Sara convinces a group of friends to join her search, but when Lucy’s road reveals itself they can’t imagine the sort of horrors that lie in wait.

  • The Bad Seed

    by William March

    First published in 1954, the focus of this bestselling novel, which also inspired the 1956 film of the same name, is ridiculously compelling: a child who is also a killer. For those among us who find themselves drawn to literary tales of creepy children (you’re not alone!), March’s novel was the forebear to many of those stories and is a case of one of the first also being one of the best.