Growing up is difficult enough. The body changes in odd ways; social dynamics rapidly shift, pulling former best friends in different directions; a new struggle with identity pops up by the day. Naturally, this period existential angst and physical oddity is a goldmine for horror writers, from the trauma inflicted by bullying, to the loss of innocence, to the way maturity seems to inure you to certain feelings. That edge of real, universal emotion, the raw and vulnerable heart beneath the horror, makes it all the more present, and indeed, all the more horrifying for readers. Here are nine novels about the terrors of adolescence.
The Death House, by Sarah Pinborough
The Death House‘s protagonists have it especially rough. The victims of a terrifying genetic testing program that identifies “defectives,” not only are these young people forcibly removed from their homes and sent to a remote place in the countryside, where they are kept isolated and studied until their “abnormalities” result in their deaths, they still must deal with all the usual difficulties of growing up, from the sadistic bullies and uncaring teachers to the complicated relationships that often proliferate at that age. If that weren’t all, they also have to deal with an administration hell-bent on keeping them penned in and the mysterious illness that destroys their bodies and minds from the inside out. In spite of its SF-horror trappings, the book reaches real emotional depths, resulting in a devastating ending that merges the fantastical elements and the teenage emotional turmoil into a bleak, beautiful climax.
Chalk, by Paul Cornell
Combining surreal horror, the real terrors of adolescence, and the most realistic fictional depiction of the struggle to cope with trauma you will read this year, Chalk‘s most terrifying act happens at the beginning, and comes at the hands of a very human tormentor. That act—the mutilation of one Andrew Waggoner at the hands of a truly sadistic bully—begins a chain of events involving evil doppelgangers, murderous acts of revenge, ancient forces bound to a hillside with chalk, and the mystical qualities of pop music. Above and beyond all of this, what makes the book work is the way it creates its world simply by taking existing elements of adolescence and trauma—coping mechanisms, violent fantasia, finding significance and patterns in the things around you, and belief in urban legends—and imbuing them with magical significance, creating a surreal setting that still seems painfully, tangibly real.
IT, by Stephen King
IT follows five people known as “The Losers’ Club,” first as children in the 1950s, and again as adults in the 1980s, as they do battle with an abomination from outside the universe that feeds on the fears of human beings (mostly children) once every 27 years. But beneath King’s gruesome Lovecraftian fantasy lies a downbeat story about the painful journey from childhood to adulthood, and the way people tend to shift and change identities as their imaginations and memories fade with age. This is reinforced by the way the monster feeds—it prefers children (and those who are children at heart) to the adults who don’t believe in monsters, thus lessening It’s hold on them. This is essential King, a novel that displays his affinity for taking deep, hard looks into the characters’ lives even as it pits them against a gruesome monster.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s gothic fantasy novel follows two young boys who must stop a sinister carnival of “autumn people” who feed on negative emotions and the dissatisfaction of the townsfolk in the places they visit. Bradbury sets up a framework that would become more or less conventional, capitalizing on that universal teenage certainty that, well, parents just don’t understand. with the town’s children well aware that Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival (really, why would anyone go to something with that name?) is a terrifying spectacle that sucks the life and souls out of their friends and neighbors, and the adults without a clue. But rather than drop the grownups on the wrong side of a dividing line, Bradbury instead allows the ones who can get in touch with their inner child to fight back against the monsters, and eventually become invaluable allies against the Pandemonium Carnival’s dark delights.
The Blue Girl, by Charles de Lint
Moving to a new place is a tough experience as a teenager. Starting a new school, making new friends, and navigating a new landscape are incredibly rough experiences even without the usual uncertainties of adolesence. Worse still is when the place you’re moving to is located on a criminally thin border with between the human realm and Faerie, and all kinds of bizarre magic is bleeding through. That is exactly what happens to Imogene Heck, who not only has to contend with the usual mean girl cliques and nasty rumors of high school, but finds herself embroiled in a mystery involving ghosts, a soul-sucking evil spirit, fair folk, and her imaginary childhood friends made real. While de Lint’s lyricism, gift for imagery, and deep sense of place are all on display, the true strength of the book comes in his understanding of how teenage characters talk, act, and interact with each other, making them feel like real people even when things reach their most fantastical.
The Glass Casket, by McCormick Templeman
McCormick Templeman’s fairy-tale reimagining begins with a group of mysterious riders coming to the town of Nag’s End for a mysterious purpose. All five of the men die horrible, violent deaths in the snow, with only the cryptic message “it is starting” found on a note near their camp. Rowan and her friend Tom are drawn in by the terrible events, and by coincidence, Rowan’s unnerving cousin Fiona Eira, who appears in town with her guardian around the same time. From there, Templeman weaves a slow-burning gothic horror story about dark woods, wolves, the oppression of small town life, and the restrictive nature of tradition. Templeman’s prose strikes the perfect balance between lurid and poetic, further cementing the eerie beauty of her work.
The Thief of Always, by Clive Barker
Barker’s book shares a lot of DNA with the other entries on the list— it’s a horror novel where the monsters are a metaphor for growing up and dealing with the challenges of maturity— but it’s one of the few that doesn’t represent childhood as an ideal. In Barker’s sweetly sinister fable, children are enticed to the wondrous Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, a place where it’s a different holiday every day, and every possible wish is granted. But the perpetual childhood is a wonderful trap, and Barker’s protagonist Harvey must find a way to escape the House and its machinations, learning to question the ease and false cheer of the House, and even grow up a bit along the way. The Thief of Always treats all of this with a certain melancholic touch reminiscent of Bradbury, but the surreal horror, horrifying transformations—and equally surreal fantasy—are one hundred percent Barker.
Uncle Brucker the Rat Killer, by Leslie Peter Wulff
Wulff’s bizarre fantasy doesn’t so much tackle the personal horrors of growing up as the horrors of how your perception of people changes as you age. We follow a boy named Walt and his Uncle Brucker, as Walt learns the business of being a rat killer—until Brucker is kidnapped by rats (who, it turns out, once ruled the earth, before being banished to an alternate dimension), leaving Walt to take over the business and mount a rescue mission. There are odd parallels to the experience of growing up, from the way Brucker gets less and less human and more rat as he gets older, to Walt’s need to be self-sufficient after his uncle vanishes into the Rat-world, to how Walt’s first major crush makes his special rat-identifying sunglasses fog up whenever he looks at her. Even the way the narrative twists and veers away from its initially stated premise shows the way things tend to be less black and white as you get older. Though let’s be honest, it’s still pretty horrifying when those shades of gray include gigantic rats.
Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon
The best novel by that other ’80s horror headliner, Boy’s Life is as much an exercise in mourning the end of that nostalgic period of sun-drenched boyhood as it is a supernatural thriller about murder and monsters in a tiny Alabama town. In 1964, during a steamy summer feeling the heat of simmering racial tension and the awakening Civil Rights Movement, Cory Mackenson is living the life of a regular 12-year-old boy…until the lonely morning he and his father witness a car careening into a lake, their attempt to rescue the driver from drowning foiled by the fact that he’s already dead, and handcuffed to the steering wheel. That terrible incident marks the start to what turns out to be a quite literally magical summer for Cory—magic both wonderful and terrible, from unquiet ghosts, to bayou sorcery, to the possible appearance of a dinosaur at the local fair. It’s a book that speaks to that part of childhood that is willing to see the strange magic in the everyday—a part of us that rarely survives to adulthood, save in the minds of fantastic storytellers who strive to recapture it and put it down on paper.
What stories of adolescence do you find most horrific?