Happy Friday the 13th to all who observe, a day allegedly plagued with “bad luck.” Typically associated with broken mirrors, black cats, and walking under ladders, this unluckiness is intrinsically linked with horror and terror. We can also (probably) chalk this association up to the famous, classic horror slasher of the same name, Friday the 13th. At any rate, the superstitions of the thirteenth day of the month falling on a Friday are prevalent nearly everywhere, especially the horror community. Even more so this year, this date falls in the month of October, a time best known for all things spooky as we gear up for, arguably, the most wonderful time of the year, Halloween. In honor of this alignment of all things haunted, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best horror stories I’ve read this year. These tales were not necessarily released this year, and I’ve attempted to sort these by sub-genre, but many of these reads span genres. Honestly, trying to pick one area in which these books are focused is quite difficult. So please, take my categorization and selection with a grain of salt here. Now, let’s get into everything wonderfully awful.
Schrader’s Chord by Scott Leeds (2023) – Tor Nightfire
Arguably one of my favorite books I’ve read all year, Schrader’s Chord by Scott Leeds focuses on the rippling effects of loss and grief within a family. Charlie Remick must return home to confront the loss of his father, an emotionally taxing journey given they weren’t on the best of terms prior to his passing. In the wake of this death, Charlie is left a set of vinyl records by his father with some, let’s say, unique qualities. This is Leeds’ debut novel, and if you’ve followed my reviews and socials, you know I can’t shut up about this book. It is an incredibly heartfelt read with such memorable characters all tied in with this fantastic influence of music. In addition to all these great aspects, there’s no shortage of sheer horror. The forces summoned by these records left to Charlie are original and terrifying. The final confrontation with this specific form of evil in the book’s conclusion is certifiably memorable and haunting. There’s just so much to love about this book; I highly, highly recommend this one.
Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin (2023) – Tor Nightfire
If you’re looking for a book that will undoubtedly hurt your feelings and scare the daylights out of you simultaneously, look no further than Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin. This is a vampire book in more ways than one; while there is a focus on the actual creatures of the night, a greater emphasis is placed on the emotional toll this vampirism takes on a person in relation to narcissism. Mia is a girl in her twenties who lives with her life-sucking mother, Izzy. Life is filled with rules: don’t go out at night, be home in time for dinner, and keep our family secret. This suffocating lifestyle leaves little room for Mia to discover who she truly is and where her life is going until something even weirder than normal starts to occur. Izzy starts breaking the rules; why can’t Mia? There is so much creativity and earnestness in Night’s Edge which examines a deeply unhealthy relationship between mother and daughter. The world-building exhibited by Kerin in a rather limited space (the book is only 278 pages) and the level of empathy established from the very beginning really hooked me into this story which results in a cataclysmic set of events. There’s no scarcity of bloodshed to be found in Night’s Edge. Side note: the sequel, First Light, releases in April of 2024, and that date cannot come soon enough.
Best of Luck by Jason Mott (2023) – Amazon
You’ll have to forgive me for this pick being a little on the nose. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t include Jason Mott’s “Best of Luck” in this Friday the 13th, unlucky day list. This was released as part of Amazon’s Creature Feature Collection this year which features stories from authors like Grady Hendrix, Joe Hill, and Paul Tremblay. They all could be listed in this category, but since “Best of Luck” deals directly with bad luck, there was an obvious choice here. This is a story within a story in which friends Will and Barry discuss the tale of the unluckiest man alive. What seems to be a friendly exchange is revealed to be anything but; Will is holding Barry at gunpoint. Why you may ask? Will believes Barry stole all his good fortune, all his good luck. This story is fraught with tension and suspense as we hear Will ramble about this alleged trespass. The ending of this story is truly what makes it so markedly memorable with events taking a turn I’m not sure anyone can predict.
Lone Women by Victor LaValle (2023) – One World
I’m very hesitant to place this book under this category, but my argument for doing so is the information we are given at the start of the novel, not what is revealed by the conclusion. Lone Women is often classified as a “weird western” since the events of the novel take place in Montana in 1915. Adelaide Henry travels with a massive steamer trunk filled with something allegedly awful as it holds what is responsible for the death of her family, prompting her to move from California. This emotional and physical baggage tied to Adelaide deeply influences her decisions and her life’s path. Half of this book is spent wondering what the hell is in that trunk, and the other half, once it is revealed, is an emotionally devastating examination of community and sisterhood. This is the first work of LaValle’s I have read and the ending he gives us is nothing short of perfection. I honestly can’t think of a more memorable, emotionally dare I say uplifting, conclusion to the events that transpire in this novel.
Maeve Fly by CJ Leede (2023) – Tor Nightfire
If there are two words I could use to classify Maeve Fly, it would probably be unapologetic and depraved. Now, I’m not a typical reader of extreme horror; any books that I do read that fall into this sub-genre are typically at an intersection with another that pulls me in. I am a self-admitted weenie when it comes to all things physically extremely grotesque and vile. With that being said, this novel begs the question, “What if Patrick Bateman (you know from American Psycho) was a woman?” And then of course I wanted to know. The answer CJ Leede gives us is immensely layered and as I mentioned before, unapologetic. By day, Maeve Fly works in the happiest place on earth as a princess and leads what is assumed to be a normal life living with her terminally ill grandmother, Tallulah. However, Maeve has some, uh, interesting proclivities that classify her as a psychopath. Despite all of the truly horrible things Maeve does, this novel left me with lingering questions surrounding identity, authenticity, and loneliness.
Brother by Ania Ahlborn (2015) – Gallery Books
Again, I want to start with the disclaimer here that I am not an extreme horror aficionado. Brother by Ania Ahlborn is also one of those books that may have stuck with me due to the sheer amount of violence, but its lingering effects probably have more to do with how tragic this story ultimately reveals itself to be. Everyone goes through a phase of feeling like an alien, someone who is so unlike their family that they just want to get out and exist outside of that unit. This is no different for nineteen-year-old Michael Morrow; he desperately wants to find something other than the gruesome lifestyle his family lives. Enter, Alice, a girl who works at the local record shop, who opens Michael’s worldview via music, particularly The Cure (I totally get it). This fuels his desire to be something other than what he’s been raised to be. But how on earth can these two realities converge without the loss of life? Ahlborn writes an unrelentingly disturbing and grotesque narrative depicting Michael’s daily life. Despite all the vileness tied to him via his family, I couldn’t help for a better outcome for Michael. At the risk of being repetitive, this is an extremely devastating read, in more ways than one.
Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison (2023) – Berkley
It’s not a day that ends in –y unless I think about this book. Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison follows a very cynical twenty-something named Vesper who returns home for the first time in years to attend her cousin’s wedding. There’s some deeply rooted religious trauma (cult vibes abound) associated with home for Vesper, and staying away has been the best option for her since she’s turned eighteen. Her world is knocked upside-down in the wake of this homecoming for reasons I will not reveal since this is a very spoiler-y book. Let me just say, the gasp I let out at a certain reveal… Nearly everything Rachel Harrison has written has resounded in some way shape or form for me, and Black Sheep is no different. This is a multi-layer read, dealing with the trauma associated with organized religion and the concepts of identity as being tied to your family. Vesper’s choice to place boundaries to protect her emotional well-being years ago is closely examined following the revelation of certain family secrets. The multitudes of familial trauma presented by the end of this book are nothing short of horrifying.
Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig (2023) – Del Rey
You wanna read about an apple cult? Boy, do I have the book for you. Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig starts out with a small-town community gathering at a farmers market to buy some fresh produce. There’s a wide variety of personalities to be found in Harrow, but orchard farmer Dan starts growing a new kind of apple. One that people can’t seem to get enough of. I don’t know that I’ve read anything quite like Black River Orchard before, and I don’t know that I’ll read anything like it ever again. There is a certain uniqueness given to the ability to transform such an unsuspecting food item, an apple, into something so notably sinister. The ways in which the small town of Harrow splinters following the emergence of this new breed of fruit give way to a cult-like formation of those who have indulged in its sustenance. There is a very small number of people who have rejected this fruit for one reason or another who are left fighting against this organized movement of violent, demented apple-eaters. While the concept sounds outlandish, Chuck Wendig writes this story in a way that is entirely grounded, making the realities of this specific horror very, very real.
The Vein by Steph Nelson (2023) – Dark Matter INK
The Vein by Steph Nelson starts out as what seems to be a crime novel but slowly spirals into something much more sinister. A detective with a questionable track record, Syl Dixon returns home to sort out the affairs of her now-deceased grandmother, the woman who raised her. In addition to the emotional trauma associated with this task, Syl is asked to help investigate some rather unusual deaths around the small mining town of Pate, Idaho. This of course gives way to the seedy, dark history of the town and some personal family revelations for Syl. Added to this is the idea that everyone in town, including the police, is hiding something sinister. Featuring multiple timelines and points of view, it is a very involved novel with multiple characters feeding into the central mythology of Pate. I am such a sucker for the tortured detective character type, and The Vein really delivers in that aspect. By far, Syl’s characterization and personal struggles stole my attention. She’s trying to redeem herself as not only a detective but as a person who is feeling rather untethered at this point in her life. All around, this novel just worked so well for me on so many levels.
Becoming the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar (2023) – Gallery Books
Calling all fans of true crime. In the sequel to Chasing the Boogeyman, Becoming the Boogeyman brings back the same mash-up of fictional true crime and horror. One of my most anticipated reads of this year, the story follows present-day Richard Chizmar (the character, not the author) as he navigates the complexities that his life presents now that he is a best-selling true crime author. This set-up may sound pretentious, but there is a lot to be said for the closer examination of the role of monetization of true crime. Chizmar is met with constant criticism, the public partially blaming him for somewhat making “The Boogeyman” as big as he is now. On top of that, Chizmar and his family are catapulted into the public spotlight even further after he makes a gruesome discovery on his property. There’s so much to love about these novels, specifically the authenticity Chizmar (the author) brings to the table. Despite being very layered, meta reads, the execution and formatting of these books are nothing short of amazing. Complete with crime scene photos, these books could truly be mistaken for those of genuine true crime. The structure only lends itself to elevate the sense of horror, making all these events feel all too real.
What Kind of Mother by Clay McLeod Chapman (2023) – Quirk Books
It’s been approximately 30 days, 708 hours, 42,507 minutes, 2,550,468 seconds since I read Clay McLeod Chapman’s What Kind of Mother, and I am still asking myself, “What the hell??” Perhaps the most emotionally and physically gruesome book I’ve read in some time, What Kind of Mother is a Southern gothic horror novel following a palm reader, Madi, as she reconnects with her high school flame, Henry. Tragically enough, Henry’s infant son, Skylar, has been missing for years, grief and desperation markedly apparent in Henry. Together, Madi and Henry set out to potentially locate Skylar using Madi’s “psychic” abilities. The result of these efforts is monstrous and catastrophic. When I say this book takes a turn, this book takes a TURN. From the outset, this seems like a mystery of finding Skylar, potentially some kind of kidnapping gone awry or maybe even something darker. But nothing, and I mean truly nothing, will prepare you for where Chapman leads you with this story. It’s an incredibly visceral study of grief, manifestation, and denial. I want to recommend it to nearly everyone I talk to but also with the disclaimer that this will emotionally wreck your soul.
What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher (2022) – Tor Nightfire
A retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher is a short, sweet, horrific view into the world of Gothic, decaying houses and characters. There’s something so terribly wonderful about this fungal take on the demise of the Usher family. Once a soldier, Alex Easton reports to the house of Usher at the behest of their childhood friend. Maddy has fallen ill and her brother, Roderick, seems to be slowly losing his mind. The dilapidated conditions of their living situation provide this sickened, rotting atmosphere for characters who are already clearly unwell. This is my first T. Kingfisher novel, and I loved the hell out of it. Her writing style is fluid and subtly humorous. Despite the dire conditions she places her characters in, the voice she gives Alex is so likable and easy to read. I was thrilled to learn there would be a sequel to this story and cannot wait to revisit Alex Easton’s character following the events of this novel. Masterfully crafted in less than 200 pages, What Moves the Dead was such an outstanding retelling of a rather haunting tale as T. Kingfisher breathes new life into a Gothic classic.