Hinting at foggy graveyards, opulent abandoned houses, creepy religious figures, haunted land, and maybe even an exorcism here and there, the words “Southern Gothic” always send a chill up my spine. As a longtime inhabitant of the South, I can verify the sound of a creaky porch swing at night mixed with the hoot of an owl and the sound of the wind in the trees is enough to make you shiver. But not all Southern Gothics are created equal: their scares can range from gently haunting to full-blown horror. Here are six great Gothics ranged in order of kinda spooky to so chilling you’ll drop your sweet tea.
Compulsion, by Martina Boone
While the first book of Boone’s paranormal series set on a South Carolina plantation has plenty of unearthly frights, the intense and swoony romance between Barrie and Eight makes this more heart-pounding than heart-stopping, and it is thus the least terrifying. On the old plantation, Barrie encounters an ancient spirit who cursed one Watson Island founding family. For the other two founding families, the spirit gave magical gifts, also known as compulsions. While attempting to break from her surprising family legacy, Barrie and Eight begin to fall for each other, though happy endings aren’t exactly a given for anyone in a Southern Gothic novel.
Horror Level: Door-Creakingly Spooky
Beware the Wild, by Natalie C. Parker
What’s the one thing that might be creepier than a haunted forest? A haunted swamp. In small-town Louisiana, Sterling knows to stay away from the eerie swamp near her house. When her brother, Phineas, angrily races into the swamp, he isn’t the one who returns hours later. Instead, a strange girl named Lenora May walks out, and suddenly all memories of Phin are gone, replaced with false ones of Lenora May. Together with classmate Heath, who also lost someone to the swamp, Sterling sets out to find her brother, prove Lenora is an imposter, and battle a swamp so frightening you’ll never look at one the same again. Companion book Behold the Bones is a must read after this one, diving further into the history of the swamp.
Horror Level: Did You Hear Something, or Was That Just Me?
Made For You, by Melissa Marr
If the Compulsion synopsis captured your attention, you’ll love Melissa Marr’s Made For You, though it kicks the fright up several notches. Like Barrie, Eva also has a special gift: she can see a person’s death when they touch her. Eva doesn’t have time to analyze the logistics of her power when multiple murders of her classmates seem to have been committed specifically to send messages to Eva. With a killer on the loose, Eva must pair up with Nate, a guy with whom she has a tricky past, to find out how to keep everyone safe. If you like extra thrills in your reading, this book should be high on your radar.
Horror Level: Don’t Go to the Bathroom Alone
As I Descended, by Robin Talley
Let me break down all the reasons you need this September release in your life: contemporary Macbeth retelling, Southern boarding school setting, f/f romance, diverse cast of characters, and a continuous thread of suspense that will keep you up at night. Maria Lyon and Lily Boiten, our teenaged Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, would do anything to start their future on the same college campus. Delilah Dufrey is the only person standing in their way as the presumptive winner of a major academic award. As Maria and Lily unleash the dark power on their school grounds, a former plantation, to make sure their future together is secure, you’ll be spellbound by this spooky tale, just a fraction scarier than Made For You thanks to one very ominous lake.
Horror Level: Nightlights Are Your Friend
Servants of the Storm, by Delilah S. Dawson
Delilah S. Dawson forever amazes me with her books’ spooky tone and near-impossible levels of romantic tension. In this Southern Gothic story set in Savannah, Dovey is recovering from witnessing her best friend’s death during Hurricane Josephine. For a year, Dovey has been on medication, but now, after seeing something that can’t be real, she has decided to quit the pills cold turkey. Without her medicine, she’s seeing the Savannah shadows in a new, dangerous way, and she discovers something more than a storm wrecked her city. With demons, horror-filled scenes, theater, a hot bartender, and friendship that defies death, you’ll need a nightlight after this one.
Horror Level: Stay Inside, Watch for Demons
The Merciless II: The Exorcism of Sofia Flores, by Danielle Vega
If you’ve read Vega, you know she’s a master of horror, so it’s no surprise her latest novel ranks most terrifying. The Exorcism of Sofia Flores is the sequel to The Merciless, picking up a few months after Sofia’s world was turned upside down. Now, she’s at a Catholic boarding school in Mississippi where everyone seems to be either sinning or making up for past sins. Among them is Jude, who’s convinced Sofia is suffering from possession. And we all know the best way to get rid of an unwanted spirit: an exorcism. We recommend keeping a soft blanket, ice cream, and calming music on hand while reading.
Horror Level: RUN