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It’s the perfect time of the year for reading horror. Not just any horror, but horror about demons, devils, possessions, and exorcisms. You may be wondering why I think the weeks leading up to the major holiday season are ripe for demonic pursuits (or maybe your mind is as sinister as mine). Well, I’ll tell you.
The nights are dark and long. The days are cold and crisp. It’s the perfect recipe for dimming the lights, snuggling up under a blanket, lighting a candle (or ten), and reading some demonic horror novels that scare the living daylights out of you.
You may have seen fellow Rioter Jessica Avery’s post on demonic possession in horror literature last winter. The books on that list were spine-tingling, hair-raising, and all the other things you might imagine horror novels about demons would be. In this post, I’ll look at what happens when writers take demonic possession in some unconventional directions.
Allow me to explain. Demons and possession don’t necessarily go hand in hand. In the case of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s popular horror novel Mexican Gothic, possession turns out to be a force of colonialism rather than demons. Similarly, Louise Erdrich’s use of the demonic wiindigoo figure in The Round House is less about exorcising demons and more about jurisdictional issues around violence against Native women.
The books on this list deal more explicitly with demons and possession than Mexican Gothic or The Round House, but they’re no less interested in the bigger picture. So get your coziest blankie ready and plug in your night light, because these horror books about demons will have you looking over your shoulder for weeks to come.
Horror Books About Demons
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
In Clark’s powerful storyworld, there’s the KKK and then there are Ku Kluxers. They’re one and the same, except that Ku Kluxers have been possessed by demons from another realm. (Sadly, it’s not too different from actual reality in many ways.) The way these possessions work is all about hatred — how it seeps into a person, takes hold of them, and turns them into something else. Something blank-eyed and violent and soulless. Something human and inhuman all at once. Ring Shout may be a quick read, but it’s a thought-provoking investigation of the destructive power of racist hate.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp
This book opens with an explanation that what you’re about to read is an account of journalist Jack Sparks’s last days alive. Okay, so Jack (as a character) is pretty abhorrent. Despite this fact, Arnopp’s novel is a great mystery that will creep you out as you try to unravel it. It all begins when Jack attends an exorcism…and of course, even though he doesn’t believe a second of it, everything goes haywire from there. Interspersed with Jack’s story are various materials (emails, testimonies, websites, etc.) that add different perspectives and make for a paranoia-inducing read.
The Merciless Series by Danielle Vega
With a description like “Mean Girls meets The Exorcist,” who could resist The Merciless series? It all kicks off with the eponymous first novel where teenager Sofia Flores finds herself in over her head with her new group of friends. As they attempt to exorcise Brooklyn Stevens, Sofia is trapped: participate or become the next victim. The subsequent three books keep up with Sofia and Brooklyn as they attempt to move on from the gory events of the first book in the series, exploring the evil that resides within ordinary people in a variety of settings.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
A biracial American woman searching for something in the land of her ancestors becomes entangled in something far more sinister. Winnie Nguyen’s new job in Saigon proves to be more than just a way for her to find some happiness. Instead, it opens the door into a different kind of connection with her past — one that’s about ancestors, colonial rule, and the things that haunt. Described as “part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story,” Build Your House Around My Body is a beautifully written page-turner that takes possession to an unexpected place.
Outcast by Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta
If comics are your thing, Outcast is a riveting series that follows Kyle Barnes (among others) as a spate of demonic possessions plague his small town. It turns out Kyle has the ability to exorcise demons…but the process is gruesome. (What else would you expect from the writer who brought us The Walking Dead?) As the series unfolds, larger questions around violence, religion, and family emerge. To date, there are four books available that compile 12 issues into a single volume; since the series is ongoing, this is a great option if you’re looking for something to keep up with. Also, it has to be said: Paul Azaceta’s illustrations are the perfect complement to Kirkman’s writing.
The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess by Andy Marino
In Andy Marino’s hands, addiction and possession become intertwined. Sydney is a recovering addict trying to make a new life for herself and her son. When she comes home one day and interrupts a home invasion, her carefully wrought world begins to fall apart. As she attempts to fill in blank spots in her memory and reconcile her story with that of the police, her personal demons and the more sinister demons of the home invasion come together in horrifying ways.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Historical horror? Yes, please! The Hunger is a horrific retelling of the ill-fated Donner Party’s attempts to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in the mid-1800s. In Alma Katsu’s version of the story, there’s something evil afoot (beyond, you know, the cannibalism part). Taking a dark chapter out of settler colonial history as its premise, the book adds supernatural elements to an already-chilling tale. How did just one person survive this deadly endeavor? You’ll have to read the book in order to discover Katsu’s answer to that question.
A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee
This YA novel (scheduled for release in March 2022) follows young Miuko as she is ousted from her unassuming life by a curse. Cursed to become a demon with a deadly touch, Miuko is forced to embark upon a journey to undo the curse before it’s too late. On her adventures through the fantastical realm of Awara, which draw heavily from Japanese folklore, Miuko’s quest raises questions about the nature of change.
And Because I Can’t Help Myself…
I know this post is on horror books about demons. Bonus! These next few books are about demons but aren’t horror. Because demons are everywhere and they’re interesting even when the story isn’t scary.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
Somehow, Zen Cho has mashed up urban fantasy, chick lit, and demons with great success. Harvard grad Jess Teoh and her family have relocated to Malaysia, and it seems Jess is a gifted medium. Turns out ghosts and gods aren’t the worst of Jess’s worries since her late grandmother (also a medium) is determined to resolve some unfinished business with Jess’s help. Black Water Sister manages to be funny at times while also tackling everything from intergenerational trauma to family dynamics. It’s not horror, but it’s chock full of supernatural elements and is well worth the read.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Nghi Vo’s first full-length novel might be described as “demon lite.” There’s a lot of demoniac (demon’s blood) being put into cocktails in this magical retelling of The Great Gatsby. Unlike most of the other books on this list, The Chosen and the Beautiful is about a world where people have sold their souls for the possessions they desire rather than a world where demons are possessing humans for the hell of it. It’s a delicate and captivating engagement with demons and racism where evil lurks in the peripheries and the glitz and glam of the Roaring Twenties is revealed as an ostentatious facade available to only a certain privileged few.
Suggestions for Further Reading
If you want more demonic reads, consider picking up some manga featuring devilish fiends. Or perhaps you’re short on time, in which case you might enjoy this post on short horror fiction. Alternately, if you’re interested in longer works and are craving horror (with or without the demons), peruse this list of recently published chilling reads.