YA & Middle Grade Horror 2023: An Essential Guide
In our final YA and Middle Grade Roundup of 2023 we have eleven more books which I struggled to fit into my reviewing schedule. And there were some crackers in the mix!
We’re going to start with the three Middle Grade titles and firstly Daniel Kraus’s They Stole Our Hearts (The Teddies Saga Book 2) which won the 2023 inaugural Bram Stoker Middle Grade Award. Giving the award to a sequel to a book about living breathing teddy bears which was relatively obscure was not a smart move and school librarians who look to major awards for safe tips will be disappointed by this selection. The Horror Writer’s Association (HWA) really needs to cast its net wider in providing stronger recommendations if they wish to be taken seriously in educational and school library circles. JW Ocker’s The Black Slide was a much darker tale and had the creep effect the teddy book totally lacked with a supernatural slide which sends kids to another dimension. Thirdly was the impressive zombie novel, Zombie Season by Justin Weinberger, which has some of the finest worldbuilding and wildly original take on the zombie story. If the HWA are not looking at this book for selection in the Middle Grade Bram Stoker Award category next year it might be an award worth swerving. This was a wild book and bring on the 2024 sequel!
I always been a keen eye out for whatever Erica Waters has in the pipeline and her fourth novel All That Consumes Us was a neat change of direction into Dark Academia and secret societies, as with all her fiction there is also great LGBTQIA+ representation and neat murky supernatural twists. Rebecca Schaeffer is another author I track closely and her conclusion to the City of Nightmares duology with the flamboyantly creative Cage of Dreams did not disappoint. Kristen Simmons is a blast from the past, whom I had not read for a number of years and found Find Him Where You Left Him Dead to be a diverting blend of fantasy computer game landscapes, clashing friendships and Japanese inspired action. Liselle Sambury’s slow-burning Delicious Monsters also impressed me greatly, this was very mature YA about generational trauma, abuse, ghosts and a haunted house threading everything together.
There has been some great fiction coming out of Ireland recently and Amy Clarkin’s What Walks These Halls is a fine haunted house novel to add to the creepy pile. Jennifer Lyle’s Swarm wasthe first YA novel I have come across with giant killer butterflies, but it was a stinger! If you hate insects avoid this novel like the plaque. Maren Stoffels’s Fright Night was originally published in Dutch a few years back and this tale of a scary Halloween show which goes horribly wrong is worth a look with its engaging characters and realistic plot style. Last but not least, Ravena Guron returns with Catch Your Death her second edge-of-the-seat thriller in which guessing the killer becomes great fun. I guessed about three times and got it wrong on every attempt.
The books are listed A-Z by author. Do contact us if you have something we might like to feature on the site.
YA and Middle Grade Horror 2023 An Essential Guide
Amy Clarkin – What Walks These Halls
Plotwise Amy Clarkin’s fascinating debut What Walks These Halls lurks in the same ballpark as Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Co series, but the manner in which the supernatural is presented is refreshingly different from Stroud. This very clever novel downplays the spooky stuff and completely ignores the bombastic approach of Stroud’s extrovert Anthony Lockwood and this low-key approach makes the entity more realistic and threatening. The story is built around a house with such a notorious reputation it does not appear on any ghost hunter maps. Events are set in motion by a YouTuber breaking into the house, looking to spend a night there and is instead terrified out of his wits and ends up in hospital with amnesia. This leads indirectly to the revival of the ghost hunting outfit, Paranormal Surveyance Ireland (PSI) which led a big investigation in the house five years earlier, leading to the death of one of the senior operators.
The narrative takes in several third person characters, the most prominent being nineteen-year-old Raven O’Sullivan, who is the daughter of the investigator killed in Hyacinth House five years earlier. Early in proceedings we find out that her younger brother Arthur intends to revive the family business PSI and return to the house and solve the mystery which led to the death of his father. One of the strengths of What Walks These Halls was the banter between these older teen characters, their relationships, LGBTQIA+ representation and the bonds they make in the latest incarnation of PSI. Éabha McLoughlin was another highlight, a university student who has grown up seeing and hearing things no one else does, and after being cut-off by her possessive family joins the team and helps in the investigation of the ghost which threatens anybody who gets close to Hyacinth. I also smiled at the fact that whilst Arthur is the new boss of PSI he also has a daytime job working in a coffeeshop! This was quite a slow-moving book which is aimed at older teens as the characters are more mature and I also enjoyed the fact that everybody already believed in ghosts and the manner in which it completely non-sensationalises them. On the downside I would have enjoyed spending more time inside the haunted house and with the ghost itself, this was a great debut though and I cannot wait for the whispered about sequel. AGE RANGE 13+
Ravena Guron – Catch Your Death
Usborne Publishing Ltd
I was a major fan of Ravena Guron’s debut This Book Kills and was interested to see if the author could pull off another ‘who-dunnit’ winner. She certainly can, cleverly switching the action from posh boarding school to a snow-swept stately home cut off from its surroundings by atrocious weather. There was not much horror in Catch Your Death, but do not let that put you off, the spirit of Agatha Christie was alive and kicking in this engaging and lively locked-room style thriller. The story centres around a wealthy family who continually snipe at each other, a housekeeper and her assistant and two teenage girls who end up stranded due to the weather, staying overnight. There is no mobile phone signal, the power fails and at some point in the evening there is a murder and every character is a suspect. This was one of those books where you will have fun guessing who the killer is, then change your mind a couple of times and has a great ending with a wacky number of plot swerves.
To say much more about the narrative would head into spoiler territory. But expect twist and turns a plenty, big revelations with nobody being what they seem, even the most innocent looking characters. The story unfolds over ninety-one short chapters/extracts, seen from multiple perspectives, which grips the reader moving backwards and forwards in time, including the police interrogation. There are a couple of breaks in the text when the reader is encouraged to guess who the murderer was (I got it wrong) but had a blast along the way. Think of the most unlikely character then think again! In many ways the location was stereotypical for a rather old-fashioned murder mystery but it worked perfectly for this type of thriller. Great fun. AGE RANGE 12+
Daniel Kraus – They Stole Our Hearts (The Teddies Saga Book 2)
Henry Holt and Co.
We recently reviewed the first book in The Teddies Saga (2020) as its sequel They Stole Our Hearts was the winner in the Middle Grade category of the recent inaugural Bram Stoker Award. It is great that the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA) has created this new category to back up the longstanding YA section. However sadly, this year the winner of the YA category was particularly weak and is not a great advert for the HWA, this Middle Grade winner is perfectly readable, but as a sequel adds little to the original. The HWA has virtually no pull or influence in the school or educational book world and the reason is simple; all too often the winners are mediocre and their shortlists do not give an accurate reflection of the best in YA horror. Back in 2020 Daniel Kraus wrote a fantastic YA horror novel called Bent Heavens, which was shortlisted for the Stoker Award, it was a worthy winner, They Stole Our Hearts is not.
The action picks up shortly after the end of They Threw Us Away, which was about a group of unsold teddies finding themselves dumped in a giant rubbish-pile and undertake a dangerous odyssey to either get back to their store, find a kid who will love them or discover the meaning of teddy life. Book two develops the story of what happens next when Reginald, Sunny, Sugar and Buddy find themselves in the home of a child, but things do not go to plan and soon they are on the road again, unloved. Ultimately the story centres around the bears trying to find out who they truly are, with their journey taking them to dangerous places and crossing paths with other toys which they realise are different from them. This was an easy undemanding read for the top end of primary school which lacked much in the way of horror and reading book one first is recommended. The Teddies Saga story continues with book three, They Set the Fire (2023). AGE RANGE 8-11
Jennifer Lyle – Swarm
Over the years I’ve read more than my fair share of creature features, for both adults and kids, but I think giant killer mutant (one to around two foot long) butterflies is a first! Swarm hits the ground incredibly fast, teenager Shur, who narrates in the first person, is daydreaming in school looking out the window and spots a HUGE butterfly. Shortly after the emergency sirens alarm, similar to an active shooter situation, all the kids head for the sports hall. Instead Shur and her twin brother Keene break away from the crowds with two other friends and grab their little brother before running home. What followed was a very quirky, atmospheric and restrained apocalyptic tale where most of the action takes place in the family home (with no adults present) with little information about what is going on outside. It quickly becomes apparent that these butterfly monsters are vicious and the group witness others being killed by the creatures. Slowly but surely the plot reveals more about the beasts and we realise that a bit could lead to horrific side effects and a clever variation on the zombie story.
Shur was a great lead character, suffering from severe anxiety she is balanced by her considerate brother Keene. Keene deserved his own narrative, YA horror is totally dominated by female voices, and considering they were twins and the story was predominately set in one location a second perspective might have broken the narrative up and we could have seen his sister’s anxiety attacks from the brother’s perspective. Even though it was a very creepy novel and there were lots of terrific scenes with the teens (I loved the two friends Jenny and Nathan) as the survival aspect to protect the house from predators increased blending into home invasion. Lurking in the background was further worry about where their absent mother was. Swarm was great character driven entertainment with the monsters giving the serious yuck effect, but it did end rather abruptly and I felt there more explanation might have been beneficial. AGE RANGE 13+
JW Ocker – The Black Slide
JW Ocker has some pretty varied fiction on the market, back in 2019 his adult haunted house novel Twelve Nights at Rotter House was critically well received, which he followed with the excellent Middle Grade horror The Smashed Man of Dread End (2021) which we previously reviewed. I’m surprised I missed The Black Slide when it was initially released back in 2022 but hopefully this belated review of what was another original Middle Grade fantasy horror will rectify that. I have read horror novels based around numerous inanimate haunted objects, but never a children’s slide, so I started this book with great interest. The action starts with a great opening line “The black slide appeared on the playground of Osshua Elementary on a clear day in late September.” The kids are all in grade five, aged nine or ten, with a story which also takes in bullying, domestic abuse and an absent father. After the new slide appears in the playground none of the older children are particularly keen to use it, particularly main character Griffin Birch who tries to avoid the playground due to bullying. What is it about the slide what makes the kids uneasy? It is hard to put your finger on it, but the author does a superb job of creating an unsettling atmosphere and threat like the slide is some kind of boogieman.
One by one kids fail to turn up for school and the teacher does not seem to notice and Griffin, who has a view of the slide from his classroom chair, suspects the slide has something to do with it. Bad dreams follow and soon he is dared to go down the slide by the class bully and things get even stranger. The Black Slide got very dark for a Middle Grade novel as those who use the slide are transported to a very bleak, scary and dangerous parallel hell world where they are held prisoner and experimented on by demon-like creatures. Although much of it happens off screen, the power of suggestion is great, with the threat of torture lurking around the corner. Griffin ends up trying to defy his naturally quiet behaviour and help his best friend Laila, also teaming up with the bully Ozzie, and escape this dangerous other world. I thought the worldbuilding was very clever and vividly drawn and if you put yourself in the shoes of a ten-year-old this is wild, fantastic, outlandish and highly creative entertainment. AGE RANGE 10+
Liselle Sambury – Delicious Monsters
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Considering Delicious Monsters pulled in at a very hefty 500-pages it held together fairly well, however, I wonder whether it would have been more accessible to a wider range of teen readers if it had been shorter? Overall, it was a very mature read dealing with abuse, trauma, mental health, neglect, gaslighting and other very tough themes which emotionally push it into the 14+ age group bracket. Interestingly, the split narrative is told from ten years apart and I loved the manner in which the two stories mirrored, complimented and foreshadowed each other. In the end, one of the narratives ended dominating the other which functioned as part of the resolution and I thought more could have been done with this. As both main characters were seventeen and nineteen I would not be surprised if this book is pitched at the New Adult age group (or even adult) as right from the start the story is very mature, with main character Daisy, sleeping with a guy in his twenties who is just about to dump her.
Right from the start we are told that Daisy (seventeen) sees ghosts and she has problems with her single parent mother. Early in the story Daisy’s mum inherits a remote mansion in northern Ontario which has been in the family for years and there is murky history the daughter is unaware of with various family members blanking each other. In the second narrative Brittney (nineteen) is interning at a media company and is responsible for a successful haunted house web channel and for her latest feature interviews those connected to an incident ten years earlier which led to a death. Brittney, is desperate to find out what happened in the house and give the dead girl a voice by interviewing as many of those she can track down. This was one of those books where (at least in the Daisy narrative) where it was exceedingly difficult to tell who was telling the truth as there were secrets layered upon layers, heading back to when the mother was a teenager. The house and its ghosts were a living breathing monster, but it was all subtlety managed via a train-wreck of a family and the failure to escape the past. You will have to be very patient with this novel and even though I found the final Brittney sections slightly underwhelming it was a powerful story for strong readers. AGE RANGE 14/15+
Rebecca Schaeffer – Cage of Dreams (City of Nightmares book 2)
I am a massive Rebecca Schaeffer fan and have read all five of her YA novels and she is one of my top tips for teens who like dark and highly imaginative fantasy, but if you are going to read Cage of Dreams make sure you tackle City of Nightmares first, which was one of my favourite books of 2023. This is a duology, it might even have been written as one book which has been split in half, and reading Cage of Dreams first is going to confuse the hell out of you! It is also very difficult to review without giving away major spoilers, but by way of brief recap is set in a land that when anybody has a nightmare the manifestations in the dreams become real in our world and stay real, so if somebody is turned into a giant scorpion then they stay that way and cannot become human again. There is also a police commando style organisation, which hunt and kill nightmares which become real. The story revolves around teenager Nessa (who returns in Cage of Dreams) who lives her life in total fear and of becoming a nightmare. However, her life takes an unlikely turn when she is a bystander in a suspected terrorist explosion and befriends a vampire (turned in a nightmare).
Cage of Dreams picks up the action a few months after the events of City of Nightmares with Ness hatching a plan of shaking off her fear of nightmares and has come out of her shell slightly, lodging with friendly vampire Cy. The first novel dealt with Ness’s special ability with dreaming and this plays a major part in this second part with one of the villains, the Nightmare Phantom, returning to offer Ness a new proposition which unless tricked will be beneficial to both of them. I loved the setting of Newham, where dangers lurked around every corner, with it reminding me of Gotham City. Having a dinosaur as a mayor was pretty funny and I winced at the indestructible cloth which could crawl inside and push your eyeballs out from the inside. Ouch. This was another fun read which nicely blended far-out urban fantasy with horror and the Nightmare Phantom was so cool he is worthy of an origins story of his own. And if you have never read Rebecca’s Market of Monsters trilogy (2018-20) which begins with Not Even Bones, that is unmissable also. AGE RANGE 13+
Kristen Simmons – Find Him Where You Left Him Dead
I had not read Kristen Simmons for a decade, since her excellent dystopian Article Five trilogy (2012-14) so was happy to read Find Him Where You Left Him Dead which Kendare Blake has said was “Jumanji but Japanese-inspired”. Blake’s assessment is a fairly accurate one and ultimately this book reminded me of many others, including Marie Lu’s Warcross and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Although it was a very solid read, its major problem was the fact it is not as good as the other novels it has been namechecked against. It deliberately has a computer game feel to it (with the characters completing levels) and like many computer games it got repetitive and the horror action sections to be too similar. The basic concept of the novel is also derivative of the classic Lois Duncan I Know What You Did Last Summer as the four former best friends the story is built around cover up the disappearance of their best friend four years earlier. As Ian ends up getting trapped in a game which transports him to another dimension then Owen, Madeline, Emerson, and Dax cannot exactly tell the truth to the police.
The novel has a great opening, a ghostly vision of Ian starts appearing to his former best friends who reunite when they realise he might not be dead. Together they return to the place where their friendship ended with one goal: find Ian and bring him home. So they restart the deadly game they never finished, an innocent card-matching challenge called Meido. Much of the book concerns the tense friction and guilt between the teens, also four split narratives, who have followed completely different paths since they parted company four years earlier abandoning Ian. The setting for their challenges was a threatening (but still cool version) of a creepy Japanese underworld, even if many of the creatures they faced did not really hold much fear or went much beyond the light Jumanji level of fear. The four have one night to complete seven challenges or they’ll all be stuck in this world forever. The Japanese references were interesting, but never really went full in and if that catches your attention then check out Courtney Alameda’s Seven Deadly Shadows (2020). This was a solid read but never truly captivated me. AGE RANGE 13+
Maren Stoffels – Fright Night
Fright Night is a Dutch novel originally published in 2018 and picked up by the YA Underlined range in the USA, which have published a number of horror novels over the last few years. The story develops around the very American idea of a themed ‘Fright Night’ where teenagers get scared out of their wits by actors pretending to be serial killers, chainsaw murderers or creepy clowns. However, in reality this very entertaining page-turner might have been set anywhere and maybe these Halloween style attractions are big business in Holland also. Coming in at less than two-hundred pages, this was a solidly paced novel which builds up tension nicely by running timelines leading up to ‘Fright Night’ with many questions being asked about the main character Dylan, who has serious baggage but the reader is kept in the dark. The three characters in the main friendship group are Dylan, Sofia and Quin, the latter strangely does not have a narrative. It is clear from the start that Dylan and Sofia like each other, with Quin teasing, but nobody makes a move and these interactions were quite cute.
Part of the intrigue surrounds why Dylan lives with Quin’s family, this is part of the baggage and mystery element which is revealed slowly and in backstory. I liked the way that this backstory (when the revelations come) were very realistic and non-sensationalist and also the fact that there was a further POV narrative from one of the Fright Night actors which was kept deliberately vague. Once the big night gets going the tension builds steadily, but again does not go over the top with a couple of other characters being introduced which fit into other parts of the narrative. There was some swearing and some violence, otherwise this was an easy-to-read horror thriller, with twists and engaging teenage characters to get behind. AGE RANGE 12+
Erica Waters – All That Consumes Us
I am a huge fan of Erica Waters and she is fast becoming one of the leading lights in YA horror and dark fiction, with her fourth novel All That Consumes Us highlighting her increasing versatility. As well having a fantastic range her novels often shine a light on characters who come from poorer or disenfranchised backgrounds and always have outstanding and very natural LGBTQIA+ representation. If you have never read her previously, every school library should find a home for Ghost Wood Song (2020), The River Has Teeth (2021) which also won the YA Bram Stoker Award and The Restless Dark (2022). Her latest is another change of direction, moving into the realms of Dark Academia, being set in the prestigious (and expensive) Corbin College. Coming from a poor single parent background Tara struggles to settle at the college, holds down two jobs to help pay tuition, barely talks to her roommate and lacks confidence in her own writing skills. The story revolves around the fact that Tara is rejected from ‘Magni Viri’ an elite and secretive academic society, which runs its own academic programs, with its members keeping themselves aloof from the rest of the student body. And with good reason, much of the fun of the novel is in finding out why, and it really was not what I was expecting.
There are lots of references to other literary works such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and if you enjoy novels set around universities, classic literature, secret societies or boarding school environments then this book will be right up your street. For a large part of the narrative the reader is unsure whether anything supernatural is going on at all and you will need to be patient whilst the story unfolds. It is not overtly horror but is both subtle and atmospheric as Tara’s anxiety increases; there seems to be a secret everybody is in on except her. After a popular member of the Magri Viri dies of a brain aneurism Tara is offered her place which she grabs with both hands and all of a sudden she has a 100% scholarship. For much of the first-person narrative the reader piggybacks on the insecurities of Tara who begins to work on her own novella but suffers from strange blackouts, feeling a connection to the girl who recently died whilst her writing improves dramatically. For much of its four hundred pages All That Consumes Her reads as a compelling slow-burning psychological thriller with bi-sexual Tara connecting with another girl along the way, has great support characters and has much to say about the obsession with greatness and how universities drive their students to achieve it. Ultimately, All That Consumes Us is a very enjoyable paranormal, dark academia YA novel about ambition, creativity, and the price of success. AGE RANGE 13+
Justin Weinberger – Zombie Season
Apologies to Justin Weinberger, if I had come across Zombie Season earlier it would definitely have featured in my recently published ‘Best of 2023 Middle Grade Fiction’ as this was a terrific book. Amazon UK has it listed as ages 8-12, even though it is definitely Middle Grade (and is not at all graphic and nobody gets eaten) it could also be read by older kids who are after an easier read. This was the best zombie novel I have read for ages and it has an outstanding blend of pace, adventure, friendship, sympathetic characters and a zombie plot which was very fresh. Justin Weinberger deserves a pat on the back for the massive shakeup Zombie Season gives what was a tired subgenre. In this book zombies are dumped underground onto a huge treadmill which is used to produce energy! Also, zombies can appear anywhere, so towns have the equivalent of tornado warnings and shelters should there be any uprising and kids are taught sports skills at school to aid survival and participate in creating survival routes. And this is another new zombie spin: in this novel they eat anything! From your rubbish to trees and even bricks and buildings!
For a Middle Grade novel the level of worldbuilding was extraordinarily impressive and I am not surprised Zombie Season 2: Dead in the Water has already been announced for a mid-2024 release. There was too much going on in this book to be wasted on a standalone novel! The action takes place in a Californian town used to what is known as ‘Zombie Season’ and are accustomed to defending themselves when summer arrives against the creatures. The story focuses on three kids, Jules (who refuses to evacuate with her mom as she struggles to accept her dad is probably now a zombie), Regina (who is proud of her scientist parents, especially now that they’re working on a weapon to keep the zombies at bay) and Oliver (who is sick of the drills and believes the zombies are getting faster, more intelligent and stronger). As there is a huge zombie attack the kids have to fight for their lives, survive against intelligent zombies and uncover secrets which will be explored in the sequel. I loved all three characters, particularly socially awkward Regina who makes a new friend in Jules. And watch out for that talking zombie! What a terrific book. AGE RANGE 9/10-13.