4 Spine-Chilling Coming-of-Age Novels by Horror Writers of Color
by Desiree Villena
Horror is haunted by a reputation for whiteness. H.P. Lovecraft’s well-known racism, for instance, still casts a shadow as vast as his outsized influence over the genre. Meanwhile, an enduring stereotype holds that characters of color are inevitably the first to succumb to any slasher or ghoul.
Horror writers of color have long grappled with this troubling legacy as they produce groundbreaking work that takes the genre in new creative directions. Together, they’ve reimagined old storylines with tremendous insight and grounded established tropes with a keen awareness of the social. When it comes to coming-of-age novels, they’ve done especially transformative work, expanding horror’s capacity to explore the psychic terrors of growing up. If you’re looking to diversify your bookshelf, here are four must-reads to check out today.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Malaysian-American author Yangsze Choo took a circuitous path to speculative fiction, as her author website makes clear. She spent much of her adult life in buttoned-down environs: after snapping up an Ivy League degree, she worked a series of briefcase-toting, corporate jobs while keeping her literary dreams alive on the side, “writing fiction on a coffee table at home.” Fortunately, the Oprah-endorsed success of The Ghost Bride, her debut novel, saw her complete the transition from Harvard to horror.
In this historical horror novel, which takes place in late 19th-century Malacca, seventeen-year-old Li Lan’s downwardly mobile family hatches an unusual scheme to recover their former glory: they want Li Lan to become a ghost bride. Her betrothed is the dead son of the powerful Lim clan, whose grieving parents are determined to see him to the altar — even without a pulse.
When the would-be bride pays a visit to her would-be in-laws, she finds herself drawn into a world of ghosts, her decidedly creepy fiancé at their center. His death, he claims, was no accident. And he’s pointing the finger at his own cousin — who just so happens to be Li Lan’s inconvenient new crush.
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
A self-described “foremother of Afrofuturism,” Black and Ioway author Jewelle Gomez has used horror to explore race, feminism, and queer sexuality since the early ‘90s. The Gilda Stories, her first novel, is a masterclass in the political potential of the fantastical: its heroine is a Black lesbian who escapes from slavery to fall in with a vampire clan.
Of course, the trope of the queer, vampiric woman is an old one, dating back at least to Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Carmilla. But in Gomez’s hands, it feels new again, even 29 years after her book’s initial publication. When an unnamed African-American girl runs away from bondage in 19th-century Louisiana, she doesn’t expect to wind up in the company of two benevolent vampires. But soon these dangerous strangers are treating her as family, and she feels drawn to join them in eternal life, even adopting one of their names as her own: Gilda.
As Gilda’s experience makes clear, the real horror of Gomez’s book lies not in the preternaturally strong, hypnotically gifted individuals who subsist off human blood — it’s in the specter of slavery itself. Still, immortality poses its own challenges, and Gilda is forced to come of age again and again, as the tides of history ebb and flow around her.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones writes bold, brainy horror about everything from rare Shakespeare editions to the proverbial final girl. In his capable hands, even footnotes can be used to terrify, building up a mood of destabilizing uncertainty. In Mongrels, he lavishes all his virtuosity on a genre mainstay: the werewolf.
The unnamed boy at the heart of this story has always felt like an outcast, but at least he’s not alone. He’s been living on the fringe of society with his aunt Libby and uncle Darren, who’ve trained him to be constantly on the move, staying one step ahead of a society hostile to their very existence. Libby and Darren, of course, are werewolves. But their nephew is not — at least, not yet.
The boy is old enough that he should have turned by now, but he’s still awaiting his transformation. His family seems convinced that he’s just a late bloomer, ready to erupt into tooth and claw at any moment. What happens if he never changes? With a caustic wit and a bittersweet slant on growing up, Mongrels also offers plenty of terror. Body horror fans are sure to admire Jones’s blood-stained, visceral scenes of transformation.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
In speculative fiction circles, Helen Oyeyemi was known as something of a prodigy. She wrote her debut novel, The Icarus Girl, as a teen and saw it published before she’d even graduated from Cambridge. Still only 35, the British Nigerian phenom has since racked up a slate of major prizes — and a reputation as a seasoned storytelling pro. In the Shirley Jackson Award-winning White Is For Witching, she offers a lyrical take on the Gothic.
As its book description makes clear, White Is for Witching counts a house among its primary characters: par for the course for Gothic narratives, of course, though Oyeyemi’s poetic approach does something new for the genre. The eerie Dover manse she brings to life has belonged to the Silver clan for four generations. The family hasn’t had the best luck during that time, and its current inhabitants are no exception.
Matriarch Lily dies suddenly, shot on a work assignment in Haiti. But her sixteen-year-old daughter Miranda, already suffering from pica, feels her ghostly presence around the house. This thoughtful, stylish book isn’t one for jump scares. But if you want your horror to ensnare you with an unrelenting atmosphere of dread, you won’t find anything better to put on your shelf.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world's best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys writing short stories and reading everything from cosmic horror to contemporary romance.Reedsy's Twitter and Instagram.