Top Ten Horror Books for Junior High Readers by Michelle Glatt
Back in the day (and by that I mean pre-2005), when one of my junior high students asked me for a vampire book, I had some definite recommendations in mind, with little need for many follow-up questions. Since the publication of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, however, my reader’s advisory skills get more action when faced with such a request. The explosion of paranormal romance books means that students may be looking for one of those rather than a truly scary horror novel. As such novels are near and dear to my heart, I am always pleased when asked to recommend something frightening—a true horror book.
Here, then, are my top ten horror novels for junior high and early high school readers. It would be very difficult to rank them because fear is such an individual thing–what makes my skin crawl the most may not be quite as creepy to someone else—so I give them to you alphabetically by title instead. Rest assured, however, that many of these books will have you NOT resting assured once the lights are out [insert sinister laugh here].
Abarat by Clive Barker (first in trilogy)
Abarat is quite the dark fantasy/horror novel. Clive Barker, master of adult horror literature, creates in the Abarat a spectacular world that is in danger of being conquered and possibly obliterated by the maniacal Christopher Carrion, a villain to rival Lord Voldemort in his cruelty and number of fervent servants. This series was born out of Barker’s magnificent paintings of his “dream-images,” and whenever I show students the plate of Carrion breathing in his nightmares, there are audible gasps from the room. Thankfully, our heroine Candy Quakenbush has the magic skill set (albeit unknown and undeveloped at the start) and host of companions to do battle against the evil Carrion, his grandmother’s stitchlings, and the Requiax, an ancient, blood-thirsty brood of insects.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Isn’t it frightening when you enter a room and everything seems a little bit off, but you can’t place your finger on what it is exactly? Imagine that you are Coraline and behind a door in your new flat you find a perverse replica of not only your flat, but the people who live there as well. Gaiman’s Other Mother–with her button eyes and long fingernails which you just know would scratch your eyes out—is one of the most unsettling creatures you will ever meet, and she wants Coraline to stay with her FOREVER. What Gaiman superbly keys into is our childhood fear that something will happen to separate us from our parents. Added bonus: as with Barker, you are introducing young adults to a gifted adult writer who they may end up following throughout their entire lives.
The Enemy by Charlie Higson (first in series)
Zombies are all the rage now, and Higson really hits the mark. The children and teens of London find that all adults have been infected with some sort of disease that wastes them away and makes them crave human flesh. The teens holed up at the Waitrose supermarket not only battle zombies but also another group of teens headquartered at Buckingham Palace, in a Lord of the Flies-inspired quest for power. Be prepared for lots of gory descriptions of disemboweling and the like. Plus, one of the most disturbing aspects of this series is that the teens constantly refer to the adults as “mothers” and “fathers,” emphasizing that those who were once loving caregivers are now monsters.
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding
This is the book students get when they ask for Stephen King and I tell them his books are not available in my junior high school library. In Victorian London, there is a special area where the wych-kin (witches, werewolves, cradlejacks, etc.) truly exist. Thaniel is a wych-hunter like his father before him, working to rid London of these terrifying creatures—but only when they venture out into human-inhabited areas. During a routine sweep of an abandoned apartment building, Thaniel finds Alaizabel a disheveled, troubled, amnesiac girl with haunting beauty underneath. It isn’t until Thaniel takes her back to his home that he finds out she is possessed. And then there is the Fraternity to deal with—its human members worship the wych-kin gods and want to release them to take over the world. In this book, Wooding creates a Victorian London that would give even Jack the Ripper the chills.
The Hunt for the Seventh by Christine Morton-Shaw
Jim Brown’s father becomes head gardener at the old English manor, Minerva Estate. The gardens are extensive, with a hedge maze and hundreds of statues. It is not long before Jim starts to see terrifying ghostly visions when he encounters the statues which serve as tributes to the six children who have died at the estate. He meets a mysterious boy he calls Einstein hiding around the grounds who helps him start to put the pieces together, and Jim learns he is the key to stopping a deadly ancient prophecy from being fulfilled. This ghost story has great twists and turns—just like the labyrinth in the center of the gardens. (Nerdy aside: it will give Doctor Who fans yet another reason to avoid statues)
Loch by Paul Zindel
Zindel has written a number of similar “scary creature” books for middle grade readers, and I recommend them most often to my sixth graders. Loch’s dad is a scientist who investigates cryptids. He is hired by a rich man to find a Loch-Ness-type monster in Lake Alban in Vermont. Just a few pages into the book, a crewman on Loch’s father’s boat is attacked, dismembered, and devoured by one of the creatures. Then, Loch finds a baby plesiosaur and has to decide whether to tell someone (and make his dad rich and famous) or keep silent because he knows his dad’s employer wants the creature—dead or alive. I like that Zindel’s books include a bit of a message along with his heart-pumping, gore-filled scenes.
Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith (first in series)
Alex, a petty criminal, is pulling off a routine B&E in a supposedly empty house when strange men in black suits arrive, kill his friend, and frame him for the murder. Due to a recent crack-down on teenage crime, Alex is sent to Furnace, a maximum security prison a mile below the earth. It doesn’t take him long to find out that this is no ordinary prison. Inmate work crews spend their days breaking rocks and making tunnels, and Alex can’t shake the feeling that they are looking for something. Mutated dog-like creatures and strange, gas-masked “men” patrol the halls at night. Those who break the rules are dragged away–screaming–to solitary confinement. Because most of those taken never come back and those who do are never the same. Alex knows that he must find a way to escape or die trying.
The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (first in series)
This one is for all the future gothic horror fans out there. Will Henry is the orphaned apprentice Dr. Warthrop, who is not a doctor of medicine but of monstrumology, the study of monsters (of course). This tale recounts their experiences with the Anthropophagi, man-like creatures with no proper heads but eyes in their shoulders and huge, splinter-toothed mouths where their stomachs would be. Dr. Warthrop gathers a group to hunt down the Anthropophagi, as he surmises only a mating pair has somehow made it from Africa to America. The ensuing Anthropophagi attacks are grisly, and the scenes in their underground lair are especially gruesome. Yancey’s language and style is gothic horror all the way, making this the most challenging book reading-level-wise on the list, but definitely worth the “reach.” It is not surprising to me that this book won Printz Honor designation in 2010.
Nightmare by Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the book I turn to when students want a scary mystery. Emily Wood has been having nightmares about running through the woods and stumbling upon…something…that causes her to wake up screaming. When her parents send her off to a summer camp for underachievers, she is horrified that the surrounding woods are the same ones from her dreams. As readers put the pieces together, they not only share in Emily’s fear and find out just what was in those woods, but they also read a few chapters scattered throughout that are narrated by Emily’s stalker.
The Thief of Always by Clive Barker
graphic novel version adapted by Kris Oprisko and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez
Harvey Swick is so tired of his dull, boring life and waiting for something, anything, to happen. So, though he knows he should not even talk to strangers, he follows the smiling Rictus to the edge of town, through the mist, and to the Holiday House. There, Harvey marvels that every morning is springtime, every afternoon summer, and every night Christmas. There are always sweets to eat and always new toys to play with. It is wonderful…at first. Then Harvey starts to notice strange things and manages to narrowly escape the House and its owner, Mr. Hood. When he arrives home he finds much has changed and makes it his mission to destroy Holiday House. The original novel is superb, of course, but I chose the graphic novel adaptation because Hernandez’s illustrations really do Barker’s words justice and will stay with the reader a long time.
While I know this is supposed to be a top ten list, I just can’t resist adding three honorable mentions–to round out our list to an unlucky thirteen.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (first in trilogy)
Mary lives is an isolated community, reminiscent of the middle ages and “guided” by the Sisterhood and Guardians. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a well-crafted name, as it refers to the world outside the community’s fences—where all the zombies are. The people of the village have been told that they are the sole survivors in a world overrun by the undead, but Mary finds a fenced in pathway that must go somewhere….
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The scariest part of this 2009 Newbery winner is not the murders in the first few pages. Nobody “Bod” Owens, survivor of the attack as a toddler, is raised by the inhabitants of the graveyard he wanders into that fateful night. Silas, the graveyard’s link to the outside world, knows that Bod was Jack the killer’s real target and that he is still being hunted because of the destiny he has to fulfill. The scariest part? When Bod and his friend Scarlett encounter the Sleer, an ageless, seductive evil presence.
This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel (first in trilogy)
Oppel introduces us to Victor Frankenstein, a young man who starts out trying to help his twin brother recover from a mysterious illness and ends up dabbling in the dark arts of alchemy. This book is creepy mostly because we know that Victor has started down a path to madness and a monster. And Oppel tells it very, very well.
So there you have it, a baker’s dozen of books whose intent is to unsettle you, unnerve you, and make you sleep with the lights on. Although they are aimed primarily at young people, they can be as equally frightening to adults. After all, don’t we all have an inner child that quivers just a little bit when we have to walk down to the dark basement’s fuse box when the power goes out?
Michelle Glatt is the librarian at Chiddix Junior High School in Normal, IL, and is on the Steering Committee of the Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award. She recently began a blog called I Push Books – http://ipushbooks.wordpress.com. You can find Michelle on Twitter: @ipushbooks