Surefire YA Scares:
18 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 18 creepy books (some old, some new) are sure to haunt teen readers in all the right ways.
Five years ago, five cheerleaders from Sunnybrook High died — two in a car crash, two by murder, and one by suicide. Since then, the school has disbanded the cheer squad. Monica's sister was the last cheerleader to die, and she just wants to forget. But when strange things start happening, it becomes clear that what happened five years ago isn't over. Monica finds herself at the center of it, and just because there are no more cheerleaders doesn't mean anyone is safe...
House of Salt and Sorrows
Erin A. Craig puts an eerie spin on the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Annaleigh once lived with her 11 sisters in a sheltered house by the sea, but four have now died tragically. As she receives ghostly visions, Annaleigh is convinced her sisters were murdered after sneaking out to dance until dawn... but who — or what — are they dancing with? When Annaleigh meets a stranger with his own secrets, and their relationship intensifies, she'll do whatever she can to uncover what's harming her family... before she's next.
The Babysitters Coven
Babysitting might not be a glamorous job, but 17-year-old Esme could really use the money given that destruction seems to follow her everywhere she goes. Cassandra, whose mother left her a mysterious directive to "find the babysitters," is desperate to join Esme's babysitters club. The two girls wind up having more in common than they think as they discover a heroic lineage of powers and magic — realizing that their true calling might be protecting innocents from evil. Book two in the series, For Better or Cursed, comes out in December.
A Wicked Magic
Set on California's northern coast, A Wicked Magic follows witches Dan and Liss who unwittingly unleash dark forces that capture Liss's boyfriend and hold him hostage underground. Though their friendship has been ruined by the darkness they created, Dan and Liss will have to work together if they want to save the mortals this ancient, dark force is taking. A powerful story on friendship, magic, and embracing the darkness within all of us.
After Lola Nox's horror filmmaker father is brutally attacked in their New York City apartment, she's sent to live with her grandmother in Harrow Lake — the location of her father's most famous horror film. The locals are still weirdly obsessed with the film, and there's something more sinister happening as strange disappearances baffle police and someone stalks Lola's every move. Can she escape Harrow Lake before her own demons catch up to her?Preorder from:
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
"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.Preorder from:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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
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
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.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2020.