Ugh, 2021 has been a hell of a year. It seems like no matter how far ahead we get, the farther we’re behind. We’re all looking for a port in the storm. For me, that port has always been books. I love to get lost in a story. It’s like finding my way into someone else’s mind if only for a few hours. There’s power in the written word, especially when it’s used to terrify and make us uneasy. The best horror books are the ones that stay with us long after the final page is turned.
Despite its worst, 2021 brought us a hell of a selection of great horror books, especially where the independent presses were concerned. Small presses showed up and showed out this year with everything from haunting ghost stories to body horror potent enough to make your skin crawl right off your body.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Here are my top seven horror books of 2021 in no particular order. Let me know yours in the comments on social media!
Waif by Samantha Kolesnik
Author Samantha Kolesnik turned pages and our stomachs with her sophomore novella. Waif is a treatise on queer love, body modification, extreme underground porn, and chosen families. It is the kind of book you’d expect from the author of True Crime if she threw caution to the wind and gambled on the sheer weight of her talent to make readers take a journey designed to make them squirm.
It worked. I’ve read it once. I may never go there again, but I read it once and I’m glad I did.
Dirty Heads by Aaron Dries
Aaron Dries is the kind of storyteller whose worlds are so real they border on harmful to the reader and Gods I love him for it. Dirty Heads is no different. Dries flips the script on coming-out-coming-of-age horror by focusing inward instead of outward.
Heath had an almost perfect life as far as he knew until an interaction with a girl changes the course of his life. The sheer terror of his worldview being ripped from under him summons a voracious creature from another dimension that will destroy his family and set him on the run. Set in a world of VHS horror and classic terror art, Dirty Heads is a one-sit read that will turn your stomach and make you think. Read it. You’ll thank me later.
Shelter for the Damned by Mike Thorn
Mike Thorn like to push his readers buttons in surprising ways. I’ve never read two stories by him that were really alike and yet there exists a quintessential Mike Thorn story. Shelter for the Damned is a prime example of his artistry.
Young Mark is a troubled teen who can’t seem to stop causing chaos. When he and his two best friends stumble upon an abandoned shack, they sneak inside to smoke cigarettes. They emerge, but something inside the shack is alive and it has recognized the darkness within Mark. It draws him back again and again and soon he learns that he must feed it to maintain the euphoria it provides.
This bold character study of adolescent rage and the pressures of “being a man” on the young is as harrowing as it is enlightening and deserves a place on any horror fan’s bookshelf.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones continues to impress with My Heart is a Chainsaw, an homage to the classic horror we love. The story centers on Jade Daniels, a half-Indian teenage girl on the precipice of adulthood. Her life was saved in a sense by horror movies and slashers especially.
Soon Jade begins to see signs around her. Could she be living in the buildup to a real-life slasher? Is there something really haunting the lake? Is the pretty new girl from across the lake a legit final girl? If she is and if they are, then Jade is going to make sure everyone is prepared whether they like it or not.
There is a brutality and gore-level to this book that will draw in even the most hardcore horror fan, and will them to finish. But, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself!
Immortelle by Catherine McCarthy
Welsh author Catherine McCarthy crafts a gothic horror tale worthy of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier with Immortelle, the story of a mother, Elinor, whose daughter is found mysteriously poisoned. After the girl’s death, Elinor, a ceramic artist by trade, crafts a gorgeous immortelle to sit atop her daughter’s grave.
Captivated by its beauty, villagers begin requesting she make immortelles for their own lost loved ones. The more she makes, the closer to her daughter and her daughter’s killer she feels.
It’s one of the most captivating, unnerving novellas of 2021 and should be at the top of your reading list if you haven’t already partaken of McCarthy’s stellar work.
Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
It amazes me that so many people have heard of Summer Sons, the debut novel of Lee Mandelo, and yet so many people have slept on it. It is easily one of the most gut-wrenching, genre-blending books of the year wrapped in the beautiful and atmospheric southern gothic tradition that is uniquely American.
Andrew and Eddie were more than mere best friends so when Eddie leaves Andrew behind to begin his graduate studies at Vanderbilt, the rift between them is intense. Moreover, when, just days before he was supposed to join his friend in Nashville, Eddie shockingly kills himself, Andrews’s world is shaken to the core.
What lies beyond that premise will challenge you as a reader and test your spine. It is easily one of the most awe-inspiring, fear provoking books of 2021 and has rightfully appeared on numerous “Best of” lists because of it.
In Darkness, Shadows Breathe by Catherine Cavendish
Catherine Cavendish may be the greatest British ghost story writer of the 21st century thus far. Her novel, In Darkness, Shadows Breathe is a testament to her gifts as a purveyor of horror, but it also proves her ability to keep her audience on its toes.
It’s a novel that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling so I’ll only say that it revolves around a hospital where unspeakable horrors once took place and where the lines between one dimension and the next have been permanently ripped open because of them. Beautifully non-linear in places with twists born of the most clever plotting, In Darkness, Shadows Breathe will prick at every emotion from fear to rage as you turn its pages. It is easily one of the best horror books of 2021. Read on, readers, read on.