If you’re like me, you’re pretty bummed that Halloween, and more generally, Spooky Szn, is over. It is, arguably, the best time of the year: for one thing, it’s Fall, there are delicious pumpkin and pumpkin spice treats abound (looking at you, PSL), there are haunted corn mazes, hayrides, and pumpkin patches popping up all over, and it’s a great time to have friend dates and watch horror films, or, like me, play reruns of classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Addams Family, and the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
It does get harder to find fun and spooky things to do for Halloween as an adult unless you have kids and can still go trick-or-treating in a socially acceptable way; many of my colleagues and friends in the past several weeks have mentioned the lack of Halloween fun for adults, especially those of us who don’t have kids and also don’t party hard (at all, or any more, hello 30s).
But, regardless of what time of year it is (and already the Winter holiday music has cued literally everywhere), it is always a great time to curl up with a good scary, spooky, or thrilling book with plot twists that keep you on the edge, page after page. That’s why I decided to create this list of my most highly recommended spooky books that I’ve read this year. And because at least 80% of the books I read are ✨kinda gay✨ several of these are also LGBTQIA+ representing!
For fans of fairy tales who are seeking an alternative and more empowering narrative:
A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow
2021, Tordotcom Publishing, 112 pages
Features: magical kingdoms, badass women, interdimensional travel, a main character with a terminal illness, and a very sapphic storyline. Contains references to blood, illness, death, and violence against women.
My rating: 4.5/5
LGBTQ+ inclusive rating: 5/5 (super sapphic!)
Okay, this is the first book I’ve read by Harrow, and this is the first in a series of fairy tale rewrites that she has written, so I’m sure I’ll be reviewing more of her works in the future. This novella follows 21-year-old Zinnia, who is slowly dying from a (fictional) terminal illness called Generalized Roseville Malady which was caused by improperly handled toxic waste from a corporation; as the story goes, no one with the condition lives past 22. Zinnia has always been fascinated by fairy tales and especially with Sleeping Beauty, whose curse reminds her, in a way, of her own. Her whole room, we discover, is decked out in Sleeping Beauty decor, down to the Disney bedsheets, and she even gets a college degree in Folklore Studies. As Zinnia’s 21st birthday approaches, her best friend Charm (it is a fairy tale after all) throws her a fairy tale party inside a tower with fairy lights, roses, and even a spinning wheel. Once it’s just the two of them left, Zinnia jokingly pricks her finger on the spinning wheel and that’s when everything changes. Up to this point, we’ve been presented with a world much like our own, where fairy tales are just that. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, she is thrown across dimensions and lands in a fairytale kingdom, where she befriends the unrealistically beautiful Princess Primrose. Zinnia soon finds out that all is not what it seems, including the apparently evil forest-dwelling fairy, and soon helps to free thousands of girls whose fate–and sleeping beauty curse–rests within the confines of patriarchal powers. There is a badass fight/escape scene towards the end, in which versions of Sleeping Beauty from several cultures’ folktales are set free, and when Zinna wakes up in the hospital, her best friend Charm even ends up with the princess.
I liked the sensitive way that Zinnia’s illness was handled, and I especially liked that her illness wasn’t used as a weakness in the plot. She was strong and determined, and she had also made peace with her fate, which actually drove the plot forward because that strength made it possible for her to do the badass things she does in the story. I have long been a fan of fairy tales, but as a child, I was exposed to the Grimm Brothers tales before the Disney versions, and I love to see modern twists on these classic stories that ultimately provide commentary about issues such as misogyny and gender roles. This title also passes my queer reads check, because the main character is lesbian, as is her best friend, and (spoiler alert!) the Princess too.
For fans of Wednesday and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina:
Hooky Volumes I-III, by Miriam Bonastre-Tur
2021-2023, Clarion Books, 368-400 pages
Features: magic, witchcraft, siblinghood, battle between good and evil, friendship, dragons, complex family dynamics.
My rating: 4.5/5
LGBTQ+ rating: 5/5 (only one queer couple, but well written and given realistic complexity)
In Volume I, we are introduced to brother and Sister Dorian and Dani, who miss the bus to their new school, where they will learn witchcraft, as they come from a long line of witches. Missing that school sets in motion a whole wild turn of events that spans three volumes, tests friendships, and nearly sets an end to civil relations between witches and non-witch common folk. Dorian and Dani go on a journey of self-discovery and find out their parents aren’t necessarily who they thought they were. Both of them have to fight against both angry witches who want to rule the world and a kingdom that threatens to wipe out every witch–including the good ones. They make great friends along the way, even teaching common folk how to practice magic and vow to put an end to the centuries-old war. Can they also fight against the prophecy proclaiming one of them to become the new evil witch king or queen?
This series is listed as a junior graphic novel for grades 3-7, buuuuttt I argue that it’s such a great and entertaining story with a-dor-able art and lovable characters that we young adults can enjoy it too! Originally a Webtoon, Bonastre-Tur both wrote and illustrated this series. It is definitely one of my all-time favourite graphic novels and makes this year’s top 10 reads. There’s even a squealingly good romance reveal in Vol. III that made fans everywhere scream, YES!!
Over my Dead Body, by Sweeny Boo
2022, HarperAlley Publishers, 240 pages
Features: witchcraft, friendship, paganism, investigative characters, non-binary character, plot twists.
My rating: 4.5/5
LGBTQ+ rating: 2/5 (one NB side character; no queerphobia present)
This graphic novel opens up with a strange ritual occurring in the woods, and a girl pleading to the off-page mystery person to let them go. Soon we find out said girl is the recently disappeared Noreen, mentee of Abby, both of whom are students at the prestigious Younwity Hidden Institute of Witchcraft. While Abby’s classmates are fairly quick to brush off her disappearance while the school administrators investigate, Abby isn’t, and begins to uncover decades of secrets that seem to point straight to…the school administration and the headmistress herself! Eventually, she forces a reveal of the truth, and we find out Noreen wasn’t the first or the only, victim of a strange set of events set in motion a long time ago.
This graphic novel was really well written, with deep characters and great detail. My only complaint is that it was so short! It felt like it could have been the first in a series, and I really wish it was because I would love to find out more about Abby’s world, and what other secrets she might uncover.
For those in need of a sapphic thriller:
A Lesson in Vengeance, by Victoria Lee
2021, Delacorte Press, 384 pages
Features: mystery, suspense, thriller, murder mystery, plot twists, dark academia vibes, all-female cast, lesbian romance, psychological thriller. Contains alcoholism, controlling relationships, murder.
My rating: 5/5
LGBTQ+ rating: 5/5 (this title puts the L in LGBTQ+ – super sapphic!)
Set in the historic Dalloway all-girls School, and steeped in a deeply dark and mysterious history full of witchcraft, the foundations of the school are layered with murder and mystery. In the first 10 years of the school’s existence, five strange girls all died mysterious and brutal deaths which were ultimately linked together and blamed on the different girls. Felicity Morrow can still feel the lingering sensation of the Dollaway Five, convinced that their blood runs under the school’s soil, darkening the aura of anyone who sets foot here. She is a girl traumatized by her girlfriend’s recent death, an accident that happened while mountaineering together. She is also convinced that she and her (dead) girlfriend unleashed the angry spirit of one of the Dollaway Five and that she is cursed by that dark magic. Enter acclaimed writer Ellis Haley, who seems to sweep everyone in their school house off their feet, including Felicity. As the story progresses, so does their complicated relationship, and Ellis will do anything to convince Felicity that magic isn’t real and that she’s not cursed by a centuries-old dead witch. That convincing includes a whole lot of toxic gaslighting and even murder. Contains some intense plot twists and a very steamy scene.
This was absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year and makes the list of my top 5 faves of all the books I’ve read. There were so many intricate layers and plot twists in this book, even up to the very last page, and it really truly had me on the edge the whole time. I’ve recommended it to everyone I know, including my colleagues, and months after reading it this summer, it’s still on my mind. Another fascinating aspect of this book is that it contains absolutely no male characters, nor even references to them. In this way, it is a fascinating modern feminist text as well. I also love that Lee wrote this as their dissertation for their psychology doctoral dissertation. If you could wrap dark academia into paper, this is it. Lee’s writing is so visceral and real that I felt sucked right into the pages and right into the characters’ scenes. You think you know who to trust until twist after twist reveals you’ve been tricked, too.
For those seeking stories of femme power, revenge, and balancing the scales:
VenCo, by Cherie Dimaline
2023, William Morrow Books, 400 pages
Features: seriously badass women, witches, Southern magic, Indigenous magic, changing points of view, transgender and lesbian characters, magical objects, patriarchy smashing, community, women supporting women.
My rating: 5/5
LGBTQ+ rating: 5/5 (deep and equal representation of lesbian couple, a transgender character, and non-binary folks)
Lucky St. James has had an odd life. Her mother Aryna was an eclectic woman who bounced around relationships, odd jobs, and hobbies, but who raised Lucky to be one hell of a badass herself. Now an adult and taking care of her aging grandmother Stella, Lucky is about to stumble into a tunnel (literally) that will change not just her life, but the course of the world. The novel begins in the VenCo headquarters (rearrange VenCo and you get coven–you see where this is going?) to a meeting among the Mother, Maiden, and Crone who are trying to figure some very tricky details out. The POV shifts between Lucky, the VenCo ladies, the patriarchy-upholding Jay Christos (last in a line of somewhat immortal not just witch hunters, but femme power hunters), and the witches that the spoon Lucky finds will eventually lead her to. This tale is full of plot twists, suspense, and an excellently paced and driven plot that very clearly is digging at the roots of systems of oppression while proving that the diversity of femme power is what makes it so much stronger. There is plenty of Southern, Indigenous, modern, Pagan, plant, and dream magic in this story, and that too is proven to be strongest when woven together, right up to the very pleasurable last page.
I could not believe how good this book was. This also made the list of my top five fave reads ever. I absolutely love how deeply layered, intricate, and real Métis writer Cherie Dimaline made her characters (including the very unlikable one) and how absolutely real they felt as a result. This was a powerful and very de-colonial story that I didn’t realize I had been waiting my whole life for! I have also heard that this is just the first in what will be a series of VenCo novels. I cannot possibly recommend this title enough, and I can’t wait to read more of Dimaline’s work.