YA and Middle-Grade Horror Roundup, June 2023
The YA and MG Horror roundup reviews took a slight break thanks to the website hack, but they will bounce back in style with nine new books in this latest feature. Six of the books are YA and the other three roughly Middle Grade. Amongst the latter it was superb to see Hilary McKay making a cool change of direction from drama and historical fiction to Jodie, a quiet contemporary ghost story, from publisher Barrington Stokes which specialises in quality high interest easy read fiction. Christian Francis also caught my eye with The Dead Woods but this novel was much harder to classify muddling from YA to Middle Grade and not really settling in either and might be a tricky book for school librarians to know what to do with. Patrick Reuman suggests his fiction is for both adults and children, I would abandon the adult ‘sell’ as The Monster on Mulligans Hollow which was the first book in the Creepy Little Nightmares series was 100% for kids. It was a fun easy read for youngsters, but it absolutely was not “all age horror” as he advertises.
There are some big names mixed amongst the six straight YA titles, none bigger than the excellent Teri Terry who abandons her usual thrillers and dystopias for a very clever ghost story with Scare Me. Welcome to YA horror Teri! From the other side of the pond Kalynn Bayron pulls the exact same trick with You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight, abandoning her usual fantasy for a slasher horror film inspired romp. Vincent Tirado is another author we have reviewed before, their second novel We Don’t Swim Here is another fascinating read and they are clearly a name to watch, mixing horror with fascinating racial social commentary. The superb Suzanne Young has been featured on the site on a few occasions and In Nightfall is a welcome addition to the vampire genre.
The final two authors make their debut on the site, Kelly McKain’s Green Witch really held my attention, an engaging mix of teen drama and earthy witch magic. Finally, indie horror Ouija from Zoé-Lee O’Farrell wasa fun undemanding read with a group of dumb teenagers wishing they never fooled around with that annoying Ouija board.
The books are presented A-Z by author. Do reach out if you have something we might like to review.
Kalynn Bayron – You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight
- ASIN : B0BH7ZZPH2
- Publisher : Bloomsbury YA; 1st edition (20 Jun. 2023)
Since Cinderella Is Dead arrived in 2020 Kalynn Bayron has made serious waves in the YA fantasy world, following that smash hit with This Poison Heart and sequel This Wicked Fate. All three books have been wildly popular in my school library and I am delighted to see Kalynn neatly side-step away from fantasy into YA horror. This author always features great diversity and LGBTQ+ representation, which continues in You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight with a Black gay teenage girl being the main character (although this is not a significant part of the story). In the acknowledgements Bayron notes that this novel is a tribute to all her favourite slasher films of the eighties and she has great fun playing around with the Final Girl trope. Younger readers might not notice many of the nuances or film references, but it remains a fun and enjoyable read and even thought it has some f-bombs any young teen will be sucked into a page-turner which really picks up the pace in the second half, with the first setting the scene.
Main character Charity Curtis loves her summer job playing a Final Girl at Camp Mirror Lake, where paying customers have the crap scared out of them in a location made famous by an old horror slasher film, Curse of Camp Mirror Lake. The game is incredibly realistic, full contact, and Charity is exceptionally good at it and gets a kick out of scaring people. The first half of the novel builds the tension, Charity’s girlfriend Bezi is another major character and after weird things begin to happen they realise the camp is not what it seems and has a history significantly older than the slasher movie they pay homage to. With real killers on the prowl, Charity’s Final Girl role becomes all too real and she has to fight for survival, with her camp role being well and truly reversed. Although it lacked genuine scares, there were some cool reveals towards the conclusion and an ending which would be go down well on the big screen. Charity was a great central character and I liked the way the novel did add in some social commentary regarding how the victims were chosen. Like the horror films which inspired it, You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight was not an especially deep read, nor did it need to be, but it sure was a fun one.
AGE RANGE 13/14+
Christian Francis – The Dead Woods
- Publisher : Echo On Publications (18 April 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 204 pages
The Dead Woods is Christian Francis’s first stab at writing YA, having previously authored film novelisations for Vamp, Titan Finds and Wish Master, as well as other novels and screenplays. To be completely transparent: I enjoyed The Dead Woods a fair bit and sped through its brief 184 pages in a couple of sittings, but it suffers from an identity crisis. On a number of occasions I felt the book had been miscategorised and it was actually Middle Grade (MG) fiction, rather than YA, but even though it was written at MG level, the content got too dark. Kids having the flesh eaten off their legs would not happen in MG fiction and major characters would not be killed off without barely ever being mentioned again or mourned. On page 157 of 184, I have made some deletions to avoid spoilers: “XXX screamed as he got to the base of the gully that YYY had fallen into and saw the vast collection of vines now piercing YYY deceased body – lifting and pulling YYY apart bit by bit. Limb by limb.” This sort of thing is unheard of in MG and is also fairly uncommon in YA. Even though it was a deceptively easy read it got very dark and the ending was not exactly happy.
The story is a familiar one: something nasty lives in the local Cromwell Woods, which has been hushed up down the generations, but resurfaces every few years. In a terrific prologue a little boy (James Petrie) opens his bedroom window to let in his pet dog (who died shortly before) and is killed. The story then picks up a group of inseparable young teens who were classmates of the dead boy some years later, James Tran, Findlay Scott, Emmie Hanson, Hamish Flynn and Philip Kaminsky. The story also takes in various adult characters, such as the sheriff, but might have been better concentrating on the children’s story, it also includes a couple of time jumps back to the eighties and earlier which showed how the supernatural activity in the woods impacted earlier generations. After one of the five kids approach the mother of James Petrie, the evil in the woods reawakens and the rest of the group try to help their friends, whilst coming up against resistance from other members of the town. As I said I enjoyed this book, but its unsettling nature might upset younger kids, even if it was an easy read.
AGE RANGE 12/13+
Kelly McKain – Green Witch
- ASIN : B0BX7HYD5W
- Publisher : Lodestone Books (28 April 2023)
- Language : English
Kelly McKain has a substantial number of junior/primary school novels to her name going back two decades and if Green Witch is anything to go by she is most definitely a YA voice to watch out for. Although the plot does include supernatural elements it was also nice to see this balanced against the ‘magic’ of the earth, nature and the power of healing. When the novel kicks off main character sixteen-year-old Delilah could do with some healing, arriving at the dilapidated and remote country home of her great aunt who she has not seen for many years and lives with dementia. Delilah is spending the summer helping her relative before heading off to sixth-form college. She has a strained relationship with her wealthy property developer father and still struggles with the loss of her mother a decade earlier. Delilah was an outstanding lead character, with all the usual insecurities of a normal teenager who is new to village and desperate to make new friends, which she does very quickly after attending a party in the woods which is close to her family’s property. The friendship dynamics was very convincing, as compared to Mae, Cal and Milly, Delilah with her private school education, would be considered ‘posh’ in comparison.
At the party Delilah meets Tol and there is an immediate attraction, but the same night he crashes his motorbike and ends up in a coma. Following that incident Delilah is attacked by two owls in the forest and begins to see Tol in her dreams, but they are so vivid she is certain she is still awake and these visions begin to threaten her and her friends. Things get considerably darker when Delilah investigates the disturbing presences, including the Green Witch, who is supposed to live in the forest, but nothing is quite what it seems. Even readers who do not like dark fantasy or horror will find much to enjoy in this intense coming-of-age tale of a teenager who must learn to be independent whilst coming to terms with her own peculiar destiny.
AGE RANGE 13+
Hilary McKay – Jodie
- Publisher : Barrington Stoke (18 May 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 96 pages
I am a huge fan of both publisher Barrington Stokes and author Hilary McKay, who does not normally write ghost stories, so I just had to read Jodie and was not disappointed. Barrington Stokes specialise in ‘High/Lo’ books which are a combination of dyslexia friendly and have high interest plots but are aimed at children with slightly lower reading ages. In recent times they have published some outstanding novels and two of their novels reached the later stages of the 2023 Carnegie Medal and even won it a couple of years ago with Anthony McGowan. Jodie is a ghost story with a light touch and is more of a character study or a young girl who has a lot of personal (and family) problems and is very isolated at school and is supported by a kind teacher. As the whole story is set on an overnight school trip, any genuine child reader would quickly tap into the nervousness and anxieties Jodie feels, especially when she realises the supportive teacher will not be there due to a family emergency.
Once the class arrive at the field centre Jodie immediately isolates herself from the rest of the group, feeling trapped and alone she wanders around on the salt marshes. Whilst avoiding the girls’ dormitory, her idea of a nightmare, she hears a dog barking but is unable to pinpoint where it is coming from and sees nobody apart from a strange old woman. This was an eerily atmospheric ghost story, with Jodie unaware of the dangers of the tide and sucking mud as she tries to locate the obviously scared dog. I really enjoyed how the resolution of this played out on both levels, both supernatural and Jodie coming out of her shell. It’s amazing how a book which can be read in an hour can be so satisfying, but that is exactly what Jodie does.
AGE RANGE 8/9 TO TEEN.
Zoé-Lee O’Farrell – Ouija
- ASIN : B09CGFXKN4
- Publisher : Independently published (12 Aug. 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 187 pages
There are plenty of Ouija board-based stories on the market and Zoé-Lee O’Farrell’s debut Ouija is well worth a look should you be after a fast-paced teen read which includes a surprising number of deaths. The narrative is told from multiple perspectives in a tight friendship group which includes twins, a couple and regularly dips into mobile text lingo with the friends contacting each other out of school. The Ouija board part of the story follows the usual pattern, with one of the teens daring the others to fool around with the board. Reluctantly, they break into the abandoned Rayner High School, where the previous year there were some shocking deaths. This was absolutely not the place to be fooling around with a Ouija board!
Ouija gets dark very quickly when the teens realise they have woken or attracted something nasty from the other side. The dynamics between the group was authentic, moving from grumpy, to having punch-ups, to sacrificing themselves for the rest of the group. Six was a nice number for the narrative to move between, with the relationship between the twins a highlight, and I was surprised by the high numbers of casualties. Much of the deaths and violence happens off-screen, but I did wonder about the manner in which the kids were able to name the demon and wondered whether it was entirely necessary as parts of the story descended into cliché with sentences referencing “evil” rather too quickly. Ouija was an entertaining gateway style horror novel, which was written in an engaging and easy to read style, which could grab young readers and easily hold their attention for its 180 pages.
AGE RANGE 12/13+
Patrick Reuman – The Monster on Mulligans Hollow: (Creepy Little Nightmares – Book #1) (All-Age Horror)
- ASIN : B0BLTCK6Y6
- Publisher : Wicked House Publishing (12 Dec. 2022)
- Language : English
The Monsters on Mulligans Hollow was an entertaining easy-to-read kids horror novel which the author calls ‘All-Age Horror’ and he claims, “are scary enough for adults to read.” I do not agree with this statement, if an adult randomly picked this book up, they are going to think they’ve chosen a kids book in error. I would recommend marketing the Creepy Little Nightmare series solely to children, as it is just too juvenile for anybody else. For the correct audience, The Monsters on Mulligans Hollow is a fun spin on small town horror, coming-of-age friendships and the realisation that horrible things can happen to nice people and those you know. The story is built around the disappearance of a kid called Timmy Collins; however, we quickly realise he was a rather non-descript boy who had few friends and nobody knew well. Soon the whole town of Winderbrook is out looking for him, but with no trace of Timmy, even after extensive searches in the local woods, parents stop their kids going out at night for fear they might be next. Then another young teen does disappear, the local bully, and the town goes into a fearful lockdown.
The story is built around a group of best friends, who love nothing more than hanging out, reading comics, watching tv and playing videogames. The dynamics between these kids was great, especially when they realise they all ignored Timmy when he was at school and vow to try and find him, thinking there was something suspicious about an area of town called Mulligans Hollow. This was a simply told story about friendship and facing fears and although the ending was decent enough the reader deserved to find out more about the creature. Genuine younger readers will enjoy the powerful friendships, the thrill of the chase, but those older have expected a bit more from the ending. In Grandma’s Room is the second Creepy Little Nightmares book and is out now.
AGE RANGE 10+
Teri Terry – Scare Me
- Publisher : Hodder Children’s Books (22 Jun. 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 448 pages
I have been a huge fan of TT for a number of years and the fact that I have all thirteen of her YA novels in my school library certainly backs up that point! This author is a master of dark dystopian thrillers, which often have a science or speculative fiction edge to them (Slated 2014-19, Dark Matter 2017-18, and Dark Blue Rising 2018-20), however, her latest Scare Me is her first out-and-out YA horror novel. I hope she decides to spend some time in the supernatural world as this was a highly entertaining page-turner which would be brilliant for young teens looking for a good scare, with a strong plot and convincing characters told through a neat split narrative. Set predominately in the Brighton area, fifteen-year-old Liz has seen the ghost (or something) of her dead twin who died at birth and has spent her entire life keeping this secret from her mother. The relationship of single-parent mother and daughter is a key part of the story, as the mother is flaky, dates younger guys and can pretend Liv is her younger sister rather than her daughter. Early in the novel Liv meets a boy called Echo, who is the second part of the split narrative, but at the same time she has become close with classmate Bowie. The ghostly Molly sees all this and can drift in an out of Liv’s life and even offers relationship advice! This four characters: Liv, Molly, Bowie and the mum built a very entertaining story, with Echo taking the narrative in a different direction.
Echo investigating the death of his mother who drove her car off a cliff the previous year, also almost killing him in the process. Somehow he figures out Liv can see the ghost of her dead sister and believes she can use this strange ability to help him contact his mother from beyond the grave. With friend/potential boyfriend lurking in the background Liv goes slightly off the rails with Echo, who she does not trust but does like, taking the plot into darker supernatural areas. There were some particularly good twists along the way and there was a major subplot development in the last 10% of the book which went beyond the Liv/Echo/dead mum story. As well as being a clever ghost story Scare Me was a terrific teen drama which I am sure could be enjoyed by those who might not normally read horror or ghost stories.
AGE RANGE 12/13+
Vincent Tirado – We Don’t Swim Here
- Publisher : Sourcebooks Fire (2 Jun. 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
Last year I was impressed by Vincent Tirado’s debut Burn Down Rise Up and their follow-up We Don’t Swim Here was another entertaining supernatural thriller. Like with their debut, although predominately a supernatural thriller, does also contain elements of racial social commentary and LGBTQ+ representation. The story opens with Bronwyn being uprooted and moving from Illinois to a small town in Arkansas, where his grandmother is dying. The family intend to remain there for a year, with Bronwyn who is a gifted swimmer, being expected to put her Olympic aspirations on hold for the good of the family. But not only does her new home have no swimming programme or school team, it strangely has no swimming pools at all. We quickly realise this small town is pretty weird and has its own rituals and customs, which play a major part of the book, and even though this was interesting it could have done with fuller explanations and less dead ends. For example, there are numerous mentions to the ‘Ghost Bus’ which has nothing to do with the main plot, does not really go anywhere, and ultimately adds little to the theme revolving around why We Don’t Swim Here.
Although We Don’t Swim Here was an enjoyable page-turner the big reveals came too early in the plot and this limited suspense somewhat in why nobody swam. The story is presented as a split first-person narrative between Bronwyn and her cousin Anais, the girls were close when they were younger but have seen little of each other in recent years. Anais, of course, is aware of the local customs and rituals and does her best to watch out for her cousin, who as an outsider is a target. As both girls are Black the story also has a racial element, as the school and wider community is predominately white with a dark racial history. Even though there were other unanswered questions We Don’t Swim Here was an engaging supernatural thriller with an unsettling small-town vibe.
AGE RANGE 13/14+
Suzanne Young – In Nightfall
- Publisher : Random House Inc (28 Mar. 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 384 pages
I was a massive fan of Suzanne Young’s Program series (six books between 2013-18) and her Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy (2019-21) but recently read in a viral Twitter post about one of her author events flopping with absolute zero attendees. There is no such thing as bad publicity! As this sad post encouraged me to buy her latest In Nightfall for my school library, which was a highly entertaining YA horror novel, many of her other books have a heavier dystopian twang. Although In Nightfall is clearly a vampire novel with the blurbs referencing both Lost Boys and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is limited vamp action until well into the story. However, do not let that put you off as the involving and engaging teen build up to be entertaining in itself and even readers who don’t traditionally read horror novels might enjoy this.
The action takes place in the small coastal town of Nightfall (Oregon) with Theo (the narrator) and her older brother Marco heading to Nightfall for the summer with their dad. This is their dad’s hometown and they stay with the grandmother they had never previously met. Neither teen questions why they have never previously visited and are dreading their boring stay in a town where it rains a lot and only has a population of 846. Their grandmother is superstitious and strangely antisocial and upon their arrival she lays out the one house rule: always be home before dark. This is a tricky rule to follow as Marco and Theo quickly make friends and realise there are nightly beach parties leading up to a big event the following week. However, nobody is quite what they seem and Theo gets sucked into a complex mystery, ropes in two successful true crime podcasters, whilst her father hooks up with an old flame. There was a lot going on and Nightfall (terrible phone reception and all) was a terrific location. Although it lacked scares In Night Fall was a great dark teen thriller where the beautiful people really are too good to be true.
AGE RANGE 13/14+