Young Adult and Middle Grade Horror Roundup, January 2024
Welcome to another year of ‘Young Blood,’ the Young Adult and Middle-Grade arm of the Ginger Nuts of Horror. January is kicking off in style with seven reviews, including an early contender for the Young Adult horror novel 2024.
I recommend you push Krystal Sutherland’s magnificent The Invocations straight to the top of your buy list. Krystal’s previous novel, House of Hollow, was beautiful, but this follow-up raises the bar even higher, blending mystery, demons, and witchcraft with three teenage girls battling against an ancient and hidden evil. This book had it all and helped 2024 get off to a wild and bloodthirsty start.
In dropping down to Middle Grade back in 2020, I was impressed by Daka Hermon’s debut, Hide and Seek and was delighted to read her second novel, Nightmare King, which is standalone but does have some connections to her predecessor. Daka does a wonderful job of turning popular childhood games on their head and morphing them into something decidedly sinister. We’ve reviewed YA fantasy and horror author Kalynn Bayron previously, with The Vanquishers being her Middle-Grade vampire debut, but this toothless failed to impress in the same manner as her terrific YA output.
Nicholas Bowling can be read by both Middle Grade and YA readers, and his latest, The Undying of Obedience Wellrest, is a quality adventure thriller set in the times of grave robbing, alchemy and medical exploration. Few write better historical fiction than Bowling, who has a wonderful eye for detail, and this latest outing maintains the high standard set in Witchborn (2017) and In the Shadow of Heroes (2019).
We reviewed Tess James MacKey’s entertaining thriller debut, Someone Is Watching You (2023), this time last year, and in her sophomore effort, You Wouldn’t Catch Me Dead, Tess smashes it out of the park with a group of kids on a school camping trip in rural Wales being stalked after tragedy strikes the party. This dark thriller was high-intensity stuff which is loaded with authentic teen banter, angst and a lurking edgy storyline. Megan Lally’s That’s Not My Name is a stylish American dark thriller about memory loss, which is a solid page-turner.
Finally, let’s head back to 2022 and an anthology I missed the first time around, Tori Bovalino’s (editor) The Gathering Dark: An Anthology of Folk Horror. I adored this, a book which could just as well be read by adults or teenagers. It is not aimed at younger kids seeking quick scares but is a deeply atmospheric anthology which creeps under the skin and into your dreams.
The books are presented A-Z by the author.
Young Adult and Middle-Grade Horror Roundup, January 2024
Kalynn Bayron – The Vanquishers
Publisher : Bloomsbury Children’s Books
In recent years, Kalynn Bayron has become a big name in the world of YA after a succession of hits, including Cinderella is Dead (2020), This Poison Heart (2021) and This Wicked Fate (2022), which were all dark fantasy novels. Bayron then made an impressive leap into YA horror with the highly entertaining You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight (2023) which was a fun homage to the slasher horror films of yesteryear. Sandwiched in the middle of these releases was her Middle-Grade horror debut, The Vanquishers (2022), and we will feature its sequel, The Vanquishers 2: Secret of the Reaping (2023), in a future update. I am always interested when authors move around age groups, as it can be a tricky business and is not always successful, and ultimately, I was unconvinced by The Vanquishers, which lacked both bite and action. Bearing in mind this was a vampire novel, even at the grade level, it came across as rather toothless, and the author was definitely pulling her punches to the extent that even though the characters were engaging, the main plot was stilted.
The setting and background to The Vanquishers was impressive and it was a shame it lacked the plot to capitalise on this. The action is set a generation after the last vampires were killed off by a group of vigilantes called ‘The Vanquishers’, with the legendary Vanquishers being the parents of the kids in the story. I enjoyed the manner in which the adults were suspicious of vampires returning and still had their kids following rules, such as not inviting strangers into their house, but many no longer follow the most basic vampire precautions regarding garlic, etc. The main character Malika “Boog” Wilson was great, she and her friends idolise the Vanquishers, but she is embarrassed when her parents still follow the ‘old’ rules. The story kicks off when one of Boog’s friends goes missing, she and her sidekicks go on the hunt, and soon there is suspicion that vampires have returned. There was no vampire action in the first half of the book and even the second half contained little, it felt like too many things were being put in place for the second instalment and as a result the pacing (and lack of vampires) held this book back. The abrupt ending might test the patience of readers also. AGE RANGE 9-12.
Tori Bovalino – The Gathering Dark: An Anthology of Folk Horror
Publisher : Page Street Kids
Folk Horror can be tricky to define, and considering The Gathering Dark: An Anthology of Folk Horror is aimed at older teenagers, this incredible collection of ten short stories is let down by its lack of an introduction to frame this fascinating topic. Folk Horror is also a tricky sub-genre to have clear points of reference beyond the cult-horror film The Wicker Man (which teens will find incredibly cheesy and creaky), with Midsommar (2019) probably being the best-known relevant screen example. Edited by Tori Bolvalino, who also has a story amongst the ten, this anthology remains bang on topic with all of the entries using elements of folklore, rural settings, superstition, religion, smalltown horror, sacrifice, strange beliefs or dark aspects of nature. The strength of this book is the fact that most of the stories use elements of this classic Folk Horror tropes beautifully blending in believable modern teenage characters with a near melancholic feel of longing to leave their small, angst-ridden feelings, young love or a need to break the unwritten rules. Within their natural environments and whichever code they follow within the boundaries of their own story, all convinced and throbbed with a Folk Horror vibe.
The ten stories were written by Erica Waters, Chloe Gong, Tori Bovalino, Hannah Whitten, Allison Saft, Olivia Chadha, Courtney Gould, Aden Polydoros, Alex Brown and Shakira Toussaint. Six of these authors were completely new to me. In picking out a bunch of my favourites, Hannah Whitten’s One Lane Bridge was an unsettling tale of a group of bored teens who fool around at the local bridge, which is supposed to be cursed and awaken something ancient. Allison Saft’s Ghost on the Shore is a sad tale of loss and a teenager who believes she can bring back her dead best friend by visiting a local lake with an otherworldly reputation. Olivia Chadha’s Petrified revolves around a remote religious cult and how they select their next sacrifice. Aden Polydoros’s It Stays With You is a terrific revamp of the Bloody Mary mirror curse and the lingering effects of childhood trauma. Finally, Alex Brown gives the truth-or-dare story a shakeup with Truth or Dare in a tale of teenage longing when the game takes a bizarre direction in an old cave with a murky history. There was a huge amount to savour and enjoy in this intelligent anthology, which is aimed at older and thoughtful teens as it completely abandons shock, horror, or violence in favour of mood and atmosphere. AGE RANGE 14+
Nicholas Bowling – The Undying of Obedience Wellrest
Publisher : Chicken House
Since Witchborn (2017) was released, I have read most of Nicholas Bowling’s fiction, and he remains one of the finest writers of children’s historical fiction in the UK, skilfully and artfully moving around different periods. In the Shadow of Heroes (2019) whisked us back to Ancient Rome, Witchborn to the time of Queen Elizabeth I and his latest historical thriller, The Undying of Obedience Wellrest to the period of graverobbing, body snatching, alchemy and medical exploration of the eighteen century. This entertaining gothic mystery has a split first-person narrative, ‘Ned’ and ‘Bede’ (short for Obedience), and the two characters could not be more different. When the story opens, the pair do not know each other, as they come from different class systems and rarely cross paths. Ned is the local gravedigger’s grandson and the local graveyard’s custodian. They live in suspicious times, where even the gravediggers are suspected of being complicit in robbing graves and selling the bodies. Bede is the sixteen-year-old daughter of the local landowner who hopes to marry her off to a wealthy man of science, Phineas Mordaunt. Bede, a spirited young woman, has other ideas.
The two meet early in the story, but their narratives do not genuinely connect until further into the book, as Bede has concerns about why Mordaunt is so interested in her family history. In particular, a nameless grave associated with her descendant, Uncle Herbert, who was rumoured to practice alchemy and conduct research into life after death. Mordaunt, a hack of a scientist, is an entertaining villain and realises Bede is considerably more than an uneducated teenage girl and has been conducting scientific research of her own. Ned is sucked into their orbit, takes a fancy to Bebe, and aids her in a deepening mystery involving disappearing bodies and the search for a diary Herbert might have hidden in a grave. This was a highly engaging historical thriller, with Bebe dreaming of studying science at university but being held back because of her gender. The situation of Ned helps provide solid background on the plight of the lower classes, the suspicions, the graverobbing and how tough life was for those on the breadline. The plot plays its cards close to its chest and for much of the story the reader is unsure whether there is anything magical (or alchemy related) going on, but a nice plot reveal/twist in the riveting finish blew the mystery wide open. AGE RANGE 12+
Daka Hermon – Nightmare King
Publisher : Scholastic Press
I was a major fan of Daka Hermon’s debut, Hide and Seeker (2020), and was delighted to hear that her sophomore Middle Grade novel Nightmare King (2023) was in the same ballpark. In the first novel, a game of hide and seek goes horribly wrong, and a group of kids are sucked into a shadow world called ‘The Nowhere’ ruled by a creature called the Seeker. When I started reading the excellent Nightmare King, I was unaware it had some connections with Hide and Seeker, and when Justin popped up in the last quarter, I almost leapt with joy! This is definitely a standalone novel, but the links to Hermon’s debut novel make it clear that we can expect a third. I hope we do not have to wait three years, as I am desperate to see which favourite kids game the author inverts into something nasty in her next outing. Interestingly, this story picks up the action a year after a disastrous game of tag left twelve-year-old Shane in a coma, which his friends, twin sister and family thought he might never wake up from.
Nightmare King has great characters all the way through, and this is balanced nicely with the brooding and developing supernatural story of Shane falling under the influence of the Nightmare King (the equivalent of the Seeker in the previous novel). After such a long spell in a coma, Shane struggles with his health and is desperate to win his place back on the basketball team, whilst clashing with Travis, who is a bully and plays in the same position. Shane is supported by his twin Sadie and best friend Doc and the friendship angle of the story is nicely played with the youngster bottling up his nightmares and increasing influence of the King on his life. Even though Shane shuns help, he remains an engaging character, and I enjoyed seeing how a seemingly fun and innocent game can be loaded with sinister twists and turns. AGE RANGE 10+
Megan Lally – That’s Not My Name
Publisher : Sourcebooks Fire
Megan Lally’s debut thriller That’s Not My Name was an enjoyable if slightly predictable, page-turner thriller aimed at the YA market. Cold and bruised, a teenage girl wakes up on the side of a dirt road with no memory of how she got there. Luckily, a police car passes and takes her to the station, not long after, a man claiming to be her father arrives. He provides her school ID, her birth certificate, and even family photos, even though the police officer is suspicious he releases the girl to the man and That’s Not My Name is off and running. It’s weakness is the incredibly obvious fact that this guy is not her father, however, there is alot of fun to be had in piecing everything together and even if the direction the plot takes is slightly telegraphed, there are still a few twists and turns in the road with things not turning out quite as obvious as you might think.
The manner in which Mary grapples with amnesia was a major highlight, her father tells her what her favourite clothes are, food and colours etc, and who is she to argue? The anxiety builds nicely as Mary (is that really her name?) begins to question her father and suspicions arise when all her supposed clothing is in the wrong size. Meanwhile, there is a second narrative seen from the point of view of a teenage boy called Drew whose girlfriend Lola has disappeared and he is suspected of killing her. The narratives are clearly connected but not as obviously as they seem. That’s Not My Name was an enjoyable read which holds the attention nicely with well-drawn characters and enough investment to see how everything was going to pan out. AGE RANGE 13+
Tess James MacKey – You Wouldn’t Catch Me Dead
Publisher : Hodder Children’s Books
Tess James Mackey follows her 2023 debut, Someone Is Watching You, with another highly entertaining thriller, with this effort having even more of a survival element than its predecessor. Tess’s first book was set in an abandoned prison with a trapped teenager being seemingly stalked by someone or something. In following a vaguely similar blueprint, in Someone is Watching You a group of teenagers, lost in the remote Welsh hills, are stalked by someone of something. Beyond that the similarities end and I much preferred Tess’s sophomore effort to her debut, mainly because it included a much stronger set of characters and the traumatic backstory was gripping and beautifully balanced with the dangerous predicament the teenagers find themselves in. I loved the fact that there was no mobile phone service when tragedy struck, and so the novel is devoid of all text-lingo and is all the better for it. Like with Someone is Watching You the story nicely balances thriller and potentially supernatural shenanigans with the reveal coming around 75% of the story. When it arrived it was fairly obvious, but this did not detract from what was an incredibly exciting finish where the characters are truly put through the ringer. All the characters were nicely pitched and very believable teens. The main character Keely was great, but Barry totally stole the show. As the book hurtled in its final 10%, my heart was in my mouth, and I knew that something really horrible was going to happen to this lovely chap!
The story opens with sixteen-year-old Keely roped into joining a Duke of Edinburgh Scheme-style outdoor programme in the Welsh mountains for three nights. She is new to the area and has no friends, even though others in the group try to connect with her, she pushes them away. Keely has a serious traumatic experience in her recent past, which is connected to her former best friend Amy, and is revealed in delicate flashbacks. Before they have even camped one night, in thick fog, disaster strikes and one of the teachers falls off a ridge and dies. With no mobile phone coverage and a second teacher nearing nervous breakdown territory, the group find themselves lost in the shadows of a ruined abbey when weird stuff begins to happen. As they try to wait it out, small piles of rocks appear outside their tents and they realise they are not alone. This was a terrific thriller, and as page-turners go, you are not going to read many better, balanced nicely with the huge reveals of Kelly’s recent past. I loved the manner in which the teens bounced off each other, with the tension ratcheting up, forcing poor Kelly way out of her comfort zone. Highly recommended. AGE RANGE 12+
Krystal Sutherland – The Invocations
Publisher : Hot Key Books
Back in 2021 Krystal Sutherland made a seamless move from mainstream teen fiction into much darker YA with House of Hollow, one of the best novels of that year. With The Invocations, Sutherland once again ups the ante with a full-blown mystery and gory horror novel. Gone are the dreamy subtleties and ambiguities of House of Hollow, and instead, we welcome demons, witchcraft, resurrected flesh-eating zombies, mass murder, curses and sweet, sweet revenge. In the opening stages The Invocations is skilfully presented as a thriller, an unnamed woman is being stalked walking home after a party, she is not too scared as she has some unnamed supernatural power but is killed anyway. The reader quickly realises that five women have been murdered in similar circumstances which are connected by the fact that they all had some knowledge of magic. Although The Invocations is a very contemporary novel, the idea that some women are able to practice magic (witch covens do exist) is seamlessly filtered into the story. One women even has control over a demon (almost) as a pet! Even if you do not like horror novels, this was an incredibly captivating, page-turning supernatural thriller which was bolstered by three young women who banter, clash and eventually support each other beautifully.
We know right from the start that Emer Bryne is an Irish witch who is hiding in the south of London, she is also a very powerful cursewriter who has control of a demon and soon she is introduced to Jude Wolf (the daughter of a billionaire) and Zara Jones, a grieving teenager who wants to use the occult to bring her sister back from the dead. Jude herself has been cursed and has sold off a part of her soul and the three women are sucked into a complex mystery. The Invocations was a superb supernatural thriller with engaging characters and an advanced magical system which does not hold back on the gore with a bloodthirsty ending. The three women initially clash as they all have their own particular agendas, with the first half of the book setting the scene and the second deepening the conspiracy and throwing in some twists and a cute, slow-burning LGBTQIA+ storyline. Adults could easily read The Invocations and not be disappointed as some of the demons were so vicious they would not have been out of place in an Adam Nevill novel! AGE RANGE 13/14+