Five of My Favorite Horror Novels of the 21st Century (So Far)

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (2016)

Grady Hendrix has quickly become one of my favorite authors working today, not only because of the awesome graphic design elements of his books and the fact that he wrote an amazing non-fiction coffee table book all about the horror paperback boom of the 70s and 80s, but also because his fiction is just a lot of bloody fun, finding the absolute perfect balance of scares, humor, and vividly drawn characters that you actually grow to love.

2016’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism has all that and then some; in fact, it seems as though it was very precisely calibrated to my exact tastes and specific demographic. The story is set in the 1980s, and the characters are almost exactly the same age as I was in the 80s, so I could relate to every single thing the kids did, and all of the references made therein really brought me back to my own childhood.

As you might have surmised from the title, the story concerns demon possession, but it’s oh so much more than that. The main protagonists are two young girls, Abby and Gretchen, who live in South Carolina. Abby is more the main character, and comes from a more working-class background, while her best friend Gretchen (as well as most of the other kids at their private school) are more upper-middle-class. The main part of the book begins in 1982, when both girls are ten years old and meet for the first time; the story as a whole is a really heartfelt exploration of these two girls’ friendship, and I’m actually in awe at Grady Hendrix’s portrayal of the girls, as the things they say, think, and do are pretty much spot on for that age and that era. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more accurate account of a very close childhood friendship between two young girls, and during the course of the story, I absolutely believed that I was reading about two living, breathing people, so much so that I admit I teared up some at the bittersweet ending.

After Gretchen and Abby are established, the story jumps ahead to when they’re sixteen years old, and hanging out with a couple of other girls named Margaret and Glee. The four of them are hanging out at Margaret’s parents’ beach house one summer when they decide to drop some acid, and Gretchen reacts to it very strangely. Slowly, she begins to change: she can’t remember things, she no longer takes care of her personal hygiene, and she starts acting really irritable toward her friends. Her behavior escalates to the point where Margaret and Glee don’t want to hang out with her anymore, but Abby is worried and tries to get to the bottom of the whole thing, finally coming to the conclusion that Gretchen is, you guessed it, possessed by a demon. Because she loves Gretchen more than anything in the world, Abby resolves to fix the situation using whatever means necessary.

This is just such a great read, building slowly from the foundation of female friendship to psychological warfare to all-out, completely disgusting body horror. It has everything I could ever ask for in a horror novel: it’s gross, it’s frightening, it’s poignant, and it’s funny, and all of those elements combine seamlessly into a harmonious whole that made me laugh, cry, and gag, sometimes all at the same time.

Drood by Dan Simmons (2009)

I completely fell in love with this hefty doorstop of a novel the first time I read it, not too long after it first came out; I’ve always been a fan of Dan Simmons, and although there is some stiff competition for the crown, this might be my favorite book of his. That said, I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone whose particular tastes I didn’t know; I thought it was brilliant, and I think people who are really into Victorian-era fiction and complex mysteries will also dig it, but if you just want a straightforward, modern horror story with lots of gore and an action-packed plot, you might want to give this one a pass. It’s very literary, but honestly, that’s one of the things I liked best about it.

Drood is mainly a historical fiction novel with horror and mystery elements woven into the narrative. Much like his 2007 novel The Terror, Drood features real historical characters and events, taking great care to get things as period-accurate as possible, and then constructs a fictional story utilizing those characters and events. In the case of Drood, our main protagonists are two real nineteenth-century authors, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. The story is told as a memoir from Wilkie Collins’s point of view; for those who don’t know, Collins was an immensely popular writer back in the day, though his novels haven’t had quite the staying power or cache as Dickens’s have today, and he and Dickens were friends who collaborated on writing projects (such as plays) a great deal. I’m not sure how accurate the book is about Collins as a person, but he comes across as a resentful little bitch much of the time, an opium addict who is in a low-key competition with Dickens, and I have to say, his character, while not particularly likeable, is wildly entertaining.

At the beginning of the story, Dickens is on a train that derails off a trellis into this massive ravine (an accident that is, again, based on a real event). Dickens and the other people in his first-class car survive, but most of the other passengers are killed. While Dickens is trying to help the injured, he spots an intensely creepy man skulking around the wreckage: the dude is bald and ghastly pale, with no nose or eyelids and these tiny little sharp teeth. Dickens gets the impression that this man—if it is a man—is going around to all the wounded people from the crash and basically sucking out their souls.

Dickens tells Collins about this incident, and Collins doesn’t really buy it, but Dickens has become obsessed with this person—whose name is Edwin Drood—and enlists Collins’s help in trying to figure out just who or what he is, and what exactly he’s up to. The mystery leads them down into the slums and underground sewers of London, which are home to all sorts of unsavory and perhaps even murderous characters.

The great thing about this book is that you could totally read it as a mystery with supernatural elements and it works just fine, but it’s actually much cooler if you read it as a chronicle of Wilkie Collins’s deteriorating mental state. How much of the stuff that happens is real, and how much of it can be attributed to Collins’s opium-addled perceptions and his resentment toward his friend and rival?

Whether you like this book or not is largely going to depend upon how you feel about Victorian-era literature, because this very much feels like a book of that time period. I don’t think you would necessarily have to be intimately familiar with the works of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins to appreciate the story, but some familiarity with their lives and work does lend the narrative a richness that you might not get otherwise, since there are so many real people and events laced throughout the narrative.

This is much more a creepy, unsettling mystery that goes off on all sorts of tangents than a straight-ahead horror novel, but it’s legitimately one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read, and I’m still dying for someone to make a miniseries adaptation of it like they did with The Terror.

Penpal by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

When Penpal by Dathan Auerbach came out back in 2012, I feel as though it immediately got really divided reviews; while most people rapturously loved it (like me, obviously), there was also a vocal contingent who really hated it. I had actually missed the whole hype train, as I didn’t read it until 2021 I think, and I was actually kind of surprised that some people had such hate toward it at the time, because I thought it was outstanding.

The novel got its start as a one-off short story called “Footsteps” on the NoSleep subreddit. Dathan Auerbach, under the handle 1000 Vultures, told the tale of waking up on his front porch one night in his underwear without remembering how he had got there, writing as though he was relating a childhood memory. In the story, he claimed that his mother said the incident never happened, but he had a memory of it, and wondered if the whole thing was just a dream. “Footsteps” garnered a very positive response, with several other posters asking Auerbach to continue the story because they wanted to see what happened next. So he just kept adding to it from there, and eventually turned the whole thing into a novel.

The book is told from the perspective of a kid (probably a boy, though I don’t think it’s ever specified) living in a suburb in the southern US somewhere in what seemed to be the 80s or 90s, and it’s told less as a single unified narrative, and more like a series of increasingly disturbing vignettes. Some of the events take place when the narrator was in kindergarten or first grade, some take place when he was fourteen or fifteen, and some are apparently written from the present day, as he’s looking back on his past. The vignettes are not necessarily in order; they’re more thematically linked than told in linear fashion. I actually really liked this approach, as the book slowly added pieces of this much larger puzzle in a way that perfectly mimicked the way human memory works.

The first part of the book is a version of the original “Footsteps” story, where the narrator woke up in the middle of the night and found that he was in the deep woods, though he can’t figure out how he got there, because his feet aren’t dirty. So we’re not sure at first if someone carried him out there and left him for some reason, or if there’s something supernatural going on. As I said, the significance of some of the stories doesn’t really come to light until you’ve read the whole book, which is another thing that makes this such a satisfying experience; you’re constantly having realizations about vignettes you’ve already read, whose whole context shifts once you read one of the later stories.

The second part is called “Balloons,” and the narrator is talking about meeting his friend Josh, and also about a school project they did when they were in kindergarten. What they’re supposed to do is write a little letter telling their name and address and hobbies and stuff, then they’re supposed to attach these letters to balloons let the balloons go, and hope that whoever finds the balloon writes back to them and becomes their pen pal. The narrator is disappointed at first because no one writes back to him, even though lots of other kids in the class get letters in return, but then about six months later, the narrator does get something in return, which is nothing but a creepy, blurred Polaroid that seems to have no significance whatsoever. As the school year goes on, he keeps getting more of these blurry photos that are all just pictures of random shit. It’s pretty disquieting.

Essentially, as you follow the threads of all the vignettes, it becomes clear that someone is stalking this kid, but you don’t really get the full picture of what was going on until all the fragments fall into place at the end. I just loved the structure of this book, as it was scattershot like a series of memories, but filtered through a child’s perception, so many of the frightening things that were actually happening around the kid at the time went completely over his head, as he didn’t have the sophistication to comprehend what was happening, and his mother also kept a lot of things from him that you as the reader don’t learn until much later.

This was easily one of the most insidiously creepy things I have ever read, and the fact that it was not only grounded in reality but also largely ambiguous and hemmed in by the limited awareness of its protagonist made it much scarier to me. It had that immediacy that people love so much in creepypasta stories, but is also cryptic enough to keep you interested and keep your imagination working overtime.

Revival by Stephen King (2014)

I’ve read a pretty significant portion of Stephen King’s enormous volume of work over the years, but I admit that I haven’t kept up with a lot of his 21st-century stuff; not necessarily because I think it isn’t as good as his classic work, but mostly because he writes too much for me to read it all, and I have a bunch of other non-King novels that I’m excited about reading too. I only have so many hours in the day, after all.

I came across his 2014 novel Revival completely by accident; I actually hadn’t even heard of it until I spotted it while browsing through a used bookstore. It sounded pretty cool from the synopsis, and even King’s mediocre work is still pretty damn good, so I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. And to my utter shock, it ended up being one of my favorite King books ever.

Revival definitely has elements of Frankenstein, plus some Lovecraft and Bradbury thrown in for good measure, and aside from all those incredible influences, it also ends up being kind of a heartfelt meditation on aging and the loss of faith in an afterlife, how grief can warp one’s perceptions, and the risks inherent in pursuing forbidden knowledge.

The book follows the character of Jamie Morton, starting in the 1960s when he’s just six years old. At the beginning of the story, the small town where Jamie lives gets a young, hip new pastor named Charles Jacobs, a genuinely nice man with a beautiful wife and an adorable baby son. Pastor Jacobs is really into electricity as a hobby, and builds a lot of his own little gadgets to use in his sermons, such as a tiny, battery-powered Jesus who travels along a track so that it looks like he’s walking on water. So right away, we’re getting at one of the themes of the book, which is the parallel between religious miracles and carny tricks or magic tricks.

Not too long into the story, there is a horrible random car accident which kills Pastor Jacobs’s wife and son, and from that point on, he completely loses his faith to a point where he just doesn’t believe there’s any purpose to anything anymore. He gives a sermon saying as much, and after that, he gets fired and almost everyone in this very religious little town shuns him, though Jamie sticks by him.

We then jump ahead several years to Jamie as a teenager, finding his identity as a musician and joining bands, and then we follow him on his downward spiral into heroin addiction. Sometime in the 1970s, when Jamie has sunk as low as he possibly can, he goes to a county fair to score some drugs and ends up running into his old friend Pastor Jacobs, who’s now on the carny circuit, selling what he calls “Portraits in Lightning” that seem almost supernatural. Jamie goes into withdrawal and Pastor Jacobs, now just going by Charlie, rescues him, using the “secret electricity” that he’s discovered to rid Jamie of his addiction, or so it seems.

The book then skips ahead again, and starts going in a decidedly more Lovecraftian kind of direction, as Charlie’s experiments with electricity yield stranger and stranger results, up to and including piercing beyond the veil of death, to a point where the guy almost becomes like a supervillain, and Jamie feels obligated to find him and stop him before he causes any more harm.

The title Revival, I have to say, is the absolutely perfect title for this book, because over the course of the story, the word takes on multiple meanings: not only does it refer to a literal, religious tent revival, but it also refers to revival from the dead, and revival from hitting rock bottom in your life and finding your way back into the light, as it were.

Though the first two-thirds of Revival are less a cut-and-dried horror novel and more like the story of one guy’s trials and tribulations throughout the years, it absolutely goes full-on existential horror in the last third, describing all these horrific visions of what could possibly be out beyond the boundaries of the universe. This was really an unexpected treat of a novel, with a likeable, relatable protagonist and a story that not only kept you engaged, but went off in all sorts of surprising directions. If you haven’t read much of King’s newer output, this is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (2020)

Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica’s second novel Tender is the Flesh, which came out in Argentina in 2017 but didn’t get an English translation until 2020, won a metric fuckton of awards and ended up on so many people’s year-end “best of” lists that you could be forgiven for believing that the book was totally overhyped. It wasn’t, though; it’s absolutely every bit as good as advertised, at least in my opinion.

Unlike the previous books I’ve listed, this one probably needs a big ol’ content warning, because this whole entire novel is packed to the ribs with the grimmest shit imaginable and it literally never pulls back from the misery for even a single second. There’s industrialized cannibalism, there’s rape, there’s horrific animal cruelty, and all of it is laid out in very graphic, matter-of-fact detail, so if anything like that bothers you, this might not be something you want hanging out in your brain. Also, if you’re a meat eater, this might make you skip the burgers for at least a few days, and if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, then this story will likely validate your life choices.

Tender is the Flesh is a dystopian fable in much the same vein as George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and as such it contains absolutely no humor or levity whatsoever, but is rather a litany of unrelenting horror and tragedy and sadness. Like many fables, it isn’t exactly supernatural, but it is exaggerated to make a point, so some of the events are not necessarily supposed to be entirely realistic.

The story takes place either in our near future or in an alternate future where an epidemic similar to rabies has spread to all the animals on Earth, making the animals’ meat no longer safe for consumption by humans. And not only that, but through propaganda, everyone has become so wigged out by the idea of animals spreading the virus to people that even representations of animals, such as pictures or drawings, are now illegal, since the higher-ups apparently want all idea of animals (as well as the animals themselves) eradicated.

Unfortunately, though, people aren’t willing to forgo meat even though they can’t get it from animals anymore, so the government decides to bring in a program where humans will be farmed for consumption. The society in which this is taking place is clearly very stratified, with the middle class and above able to purchase this “special meat” from regular shops, while the poor are basically feeding on dead bodies.

The main protagonist of the book is named Marcos, and he’s a manager at a human meat processing plant, which, as you might imagine, is set up pretty much just like an animal processing plant would be nowadays. The book is divided into two parts, and in the first half, the reader is mainly following Marcos around on his job at the processing plant. Most of Marcos’s day-to-day duties entail going around to various companies like hotels and schools and so forth, and picking up their orders and figuring out what kind of humans they want for whatever their meat needs happen to be. The way this part of the novel is laid out is actually a really effective way to introduce the world, because you get to see different aspects of the society, and understand how this legalized and industrialized cannibalism has affected the populace, partly by diminishing their sense of empathy toward other human beings. This has come about due to a campaign of dehumanization of the humans bred for food, which are referred to as “head” and branded like cattle, have their vocal cords removed to prevent them from screaming, and in some cases (like pregnant women), have their limbs cut off to keep them from harming their fetuses (since baby meat is naturally a popular delicacy).

Oh, and fair warning, if it wasn’t clear from the paragraph above: the story very explicitly describes every single stage of the slaughtering and butchering process, so I wouldn’t recommend reading this while you’re eating, unless you’re into that sort of thing.

While we’re following Marcos in his workaday capacity, we’re also getting a little bit of back story as to what’s going on in his personal life. His wife Cecilia has left him, mostly because she couldn’t deal with the fact that the baby they had tried so hard to conceive died in the crib; Marcos is also having a rough time dealing with the loss of his beloved son. Marcos’s father is also declining from dementia, and Marcos feels obligated to keep working at the barbaric job that he hates, simply so he can afford to give his father the most comfortable twilight years possible.

At about the halfway point in the story, Marcos receives a valuable gift in the form of a “head,” a woman who has been bred for meat. She is what this society calls FGP, or “first generation pure,” which means she was organically born and not genetically engineered or stuffed full of hormones like the slightly lesser grades of meat. Marcos keeps her tied outside and debates whether he should take her to the butcher to have her slaughtered; like everyone else in this world, Marcos has been conditioned to see this woman as food and not as a person. But slowly, his perception of her begins to change, and for a while, you think the novel is going to go in a more hopeful direction, as Marcos learns that the head are people too and he needs to grow a pair and fight the system, but this book is much more ruthless than that. Honestly, the end of this thing made me feel like I’d been punched in the stomach, and though I’m not going to spoil it, I will say that it doesn’t necessarily end well.

One of the main themes of the book, similar to some of Orwell’s themes, is that language forms thought, and if you can be convinced to feel okay about something, then things can get pretty horrific and you’ll be fine with it, because you’re justifying the events by your use of language and euphemism. This novel is also, obviously, a polemic against factory farming, showing in vivid and revolting detail how animals are killed and butchered, and then kinda rubbing the reader’s face in the fact that we’re more grossed out and horrified by it when the same thing is happening to a human being. I’m not saying this is a pleasant book to read, because it’s really not, but it does have a sort of sick power all the same. It’s not for everybody, but if you’re in too good of a mood one day and want to wallow in despair for a bit, then this is a great piece of literature in that regard.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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