The 20 Best Young Adult Horror Books: Ultimate Guide

Sometimes all it takes is a good push early to get into a new genre. Some will pick up a fantasy book in their youth like the Redwall series and end up deep into Game of Thrones. With horror, it can start as a child with Goosebumps, and lead up through the teens and young adult years with a wide array and niche for anyone.

The 20 Best Young Adult Horror Books - Ultimate Guide

These twenty YA horror books will be a doorway into a world of nightmares and macabre. This is only the beginning of the journey if you can stand these terrors. So hold on to your sanity, take a deep breath, and get ready for these worlds of horror without looking back.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind (1) (Unwind Dystology)

Dystopian and horrifying following a second Civil War in the United States leads to outlawing abortion as it’s known and instead allowing the late-term “unwindings” of any unwanted 13–year-olds.

The book follows three set for Unwinding as they desperately try to fight against their fate and take down the brutal regime that’s led to these circumstances. The unwinding process is described in detail and is just a visceral nightmare. The fact that anyone going through it is fully conscious is even worse.

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Shutter by Ramona Emerson

Shutter (A Rita Todacheene Novel)

One of my first horror games was the Fatal Frame series on PS1/2, and this book is the closest I’ve found to capturing that same feel. A young girl that can see ghosts as part of a visible spectrum takes on the job of cleansing spirits from the world, whether by bullet or camera flash.

It’s fantastic and creative, giving an underlying terror of haunting and quick thinking on the protagonist’s part. There are great setpieces and fantastic characters to root for in between the action.

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My Best Friends Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend's Exorcism: A Novel

Grady tackles the exorcism genre with his signature wit and character writing, leading to a story about two girls coming of age while one tries to rid the other of a demon.

It’s just as much a coming-of-age story as it is a horror. There’s so much loving detail put into every part of this book and Grady has the time of his life putting the story together. The characters are loveable, and you actually find yourself hoping against hope that this is a friendship that will last a lifetime.

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I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan.

I Know What You Did Last Summer

The basis for the classic slasher movie, and set a lot of slasher benchmarks used in horror today. Four friends accidentally cause a hit-and-run, killing a young boy and leaving the scene before swearing to never breathe a word to anyone.

Someone knows though, as notes begin showing up in the mail and someone is sending threatening messages, leading to some early psychological horror dealing with guilt and taking responsibility.

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Fear Street by RL Stine

Fear Street The Beginning: The New Girl; The Surprise Party; The Overnight; Missing

One of the greatest from a master of young adult horror. Stine’s Goosebumps series is a gateway to horror, and reading them as a kid may or may not result in all-night Evil Dead binges, but Fear Street is like his second step in getting readers hooked.

Focusing on a sleepy town with a haunted past, the Fear Street books are an anthology with each book following a different plot for the most part, but having some intersecting characters. There’s a rich backstory and lore to the town too, giving plenty to draw from for the stories that happen.

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Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls

Three girls who couldn’t be more different team up to fight a terrifying legend that’s been taking young girls from their island community. Legend hits the ground running with a rich backstory to the island as well as fleshed-out pasts and histories for each of the girls.

The book is taught and terrifying, with the mystery building around if the legend of Sawkill Island is real or just some story made up to cover for even more terrifying events. There’s coming of age, romance, and even some psychological thriller to hit the spot.

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Dead Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation

As if the Civil War wasn’t deadly enough, zombies start rising in the freshly bloodied fields of Gettysburg. The war is quickly abandoned as America goes to fighting the zombie menace, with former slaves and natives now granted “opportunities” through becoming trained zombie slayers.

The book takes historical horror and intertwines it with zombie fiction, telling a story about America where the zombies aren’t the most terrifying monsters in the country. 

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The River Has Teeth by Erica Waters

The River Has Teeth

A girl trying to find her missing sister turns to another rumored to be a witch, and whose mother might just be the monster that did the taking. A lot is going on here with characters twisting motivations around each other, but the interactions are natural and so well done it makes everything work smoothly.

The horror is not knowing whether the mother has actually become something or not, with the book leaving a fantastic air of mystery throughout before pulling the rug from underneath readers. It’s violent, so best for the older end of the YA spectrum, but a fantastic transition point from YA to mainstream horror.

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All These Bodies by Kendare Blake

All These Bodies

A string of murders with the bodies drained of every last drop of blood, and what seems like a cold case for decades until it happens again. One girl covered in blood that isn’t hers at the home of a murdered family and one young journalist vying to figure out the truth are the focus of this thrilling YA horror.

The characters play off of each other in a fun way, even if the plot gets a little bogged down in the middle of the book.  There’s a fun ride and mystery at the bottom of everything though, with some wild real-life inspiration taken by the author.

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Small Town Monsters by Diana Rodriguez Wallach

Small Town Monsters (Underlined Paperbacks)

The daughter of occult researchers teams up with a boy still struggling over his father’s death to stop the takeover of their town by a demonic cult. It sounds basic on the surface but the horror is secondary to the friendship between the two protagonists as it forms a coming-of-age story as much about family as it is about demonic monsters.

There’s a creeping sense of dread Wallach puts over the entire town, and by the climax it’s just an overwhelming darkness that seems almost hopeless for our heroes. The tension holds out to an amazing finale and one of the best YA horrors I’ve ever picked up.

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The Twisted Ones by T Kingfisher

Twisted Ones

Kingfisher falls in the gray area between YA and adult horror, but The Twisted Ones is one of the best places to make the jump. Following one woman cleaning out her grandmother’s house after her passing finds out far more than she bargained for about her family.

It’s like a horror episode of Hoarders except in addition to all the scattered junk there are cosmic terrors. Typical keepsakes from grandma, right? Until they start coming out of the surrounding woods to terrify our heroine.

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House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland

House of Hollow

Three young girls suddenly disappear one day only to come back a month later, completely unaware of what happened or that they were even gone. Ten years later, one of the girls begins unraveling the mystery of what happened to them.

While it’s great for all ages on the YA spectrum, there are some heavy themes of loss and isolation as the girls come to terms with what happened. The book draws on the legends of the fae for a creepy time, too.

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Category Five by Ann Davila Cardinal

Category Five (Five Midnights, 2)

I’ve lived on the Southeast Coast of the United States and rode out some of the worst hurricanes like Irma and Maria that have come near. That said, Maria did damage to Puerto Rico that persists even today due to a host of factors that could have been easily avoided.

I mention this because post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico is the setting for Category Five. Picking up in the days after the hurricane ripped the country apart, locals must also contend with a darker presence looming over the already towering death and destruction.

There is so much social commentary in this one, and rightly so considering the tragedy that could have been mitigated in the small territory. The wreckage and carnage are described in visceral detail while the characters shine in the face of dark hopelessness.

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Bury Me Deep by Christopher Pike

Bury Me Deep

When getting on the plane for a Hawaiian vacation you don’t expect the guy sitting next to you to die mid-way over the Pacific. Turns out it’s kind of a damper on an otherwise fun vacation, especially if the dead guy starts haunting you on diving trips. Double if those diving trips are being used to try and find missing friends.

Bury Me Deep is paranoid and haunting, linking a ghost story with the terror of deep water. Not for those scared by the abyss of the open ocean, Pike sets up a terrifying cloud of horror despite the lush surroundings of Hawaii as a group of newfound friends try to solve the mystery haunting them.

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The Buried by Melissa Grey

The Buried

A town forced underground years ago by an unknown event and forbidden from returning to the surface, while over the years the bunkers they’re staying in become hotbeds of terror and cruelty as people become monsters.

There’s the looming mystery of what exactly happened above ground that keeps the book moving, with only small hints given describing what happened on the day they were all driven under. Paranoia and claustrophobia combine as you can’t tell if the outside is really as deadly as the leaders say while the walls of the bunker seem to be closing in at all times.

This book got my claustrophobia going. Something about small underground rooms just gives me the chills and makes my breathing speed up. Even worse was the thought of being trapped there.

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The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

Lost Girls: A Vampire Revenge Story, The

A group of female vamps eternally stuck in their teens thanks to a rogue vampire that preyed on and turned all of them throughout centuries, decide they won’t let more victims join their ranks. What follows is a bloody tale of revenge as they seek justice on their tormenter.

There’s an analogy for innocence and trauma here, with plenty to go around as the characters come to face what happened to them in the past and take it upon themselves to make sure nobody else suffers as they did. It’s bloody, with great chemistry among the core group and a villain that’s built as pure evil in the worst possible way.

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book

Take the premise of The Jungle Book, with an orphaned human child being raised by the resident animals of the jungle, but change it to a graveyard and the animals to every kind of ghost and ghoul that’s ever roamed the night.

The book is a delight, and one of Gaiman’s best outside of his more mature work with Sandman. The graveyard is such a darkly magical setting and the protectors and residents are as terrifying as they are lovable. Just one of many works where Gaiman puts his unique spin on a beloved story.

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Bad Girls Don’t Die by Katie Alender

Bad Girls Don't Die (Bad Girls Don't Die, 1)

Dolls creep me out. Ever since I was a kid, it’s like the only thing that will scare me without fail, and I’m a seasoned horror veteran. This book is meant for young adults and it scares me even in my late 20s.

Thankfully, Alexander takes it beyond the creepy doll pretty quickly and runs head-on into a story about the love between sisters and fighting evil despite how alone you may feel. Doesn’t change how I feel about dolls though.

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Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan

Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare

A traveling circus run by a vampire and showing off all manner of strange creatures and performers. That’s just the intro as the series follows the young hero Darren while he falls into the supernatural world, becoming assistant to the lead vampire of the show.

The series combines fun horror tropes with goofy humor and likable characters. As with most YA series, they do end up becoming surprisingly more mature as it goes.

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Hell Followed with Us by Andrew Joseph White

Hell Followed with Us

A trans teen runs away from the doomsday cult that raised him, unfortunately not before they bring about actual doomsday and try to use him as their final weapon though. This leads to a story of one boy on the run from those that abused him while fighting to stay true to himself.

There are so many amazing messages for LGBT+ youth and those struggling to find their identity in an increasingly chaotic world. There’s a point in the book where you ask if this is a doomsday or just an everyday occurrence for these marginalized communities, driving the author’s point home with righteous rage and heart.

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Fair warning that these books can be like gateway drugs into the world of horror. First thing you’re starting with some fun Fear Street supernatural mysteries then the next thing you know you’re waist-deep in a Lovecraftian Splatterpunk collection. It’s a slippery slope but a damn fun slide down. Just keep hands and feet inside the ride at all times.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a horror young adult oriented?

While we can take almost any horror trope and make a story out of it, young adult is usually catered towards an audience either just starting out with horror or those that want less overt scares. That doesn’t mean YA horror can’t be scary though!

Where should I start if it’s for a younger audience? Say 10-12 years old?

The Goosebumps series by RL Stine, no doubt about it! There are dozens of books, with almost any of them being good to just pick up and read without requiring any knowledge of others in the series. They’re great beginner scares and Stine is one of the few horror authors for young people that wasn’t tapping out with happy endings every time, often giving some that were much darker than kids realize.

I’ve been reading YA horror but I’m ready to move up to something scarier.

Check out works by T Kingfisher! The author often plays with older tropes and ideas but mashes them into something totally new, all while balancing the horror so the tone is just right. Not too extreme but just scary enough to pull you out of your comfort zone.

Do any adult horror authors keep things close to a YA level of intensity?

So if you’re looking for adult horror that keeps the horror manageable while also giving engaging characters I would say Stephen King is always your safest bet. While some of the author’s romances and situations can get a little risque, it doesn’t usually go into steamy territory (thankfully). Try Carrie to start then move to something like Joyland to get a feel for his range.

Are there any good YA horror series?

Lockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud is a great five-book series with light horror elements. Otherwise Fear Street is still ongoing with Stine returning to the franchise sporadically. Christopher Pike was also a staple, churning out fun, pulpy YA horror in the 90s that have been making a resurgence.

Bonus: YA Horror Comics To Check Out

Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida
Locke and Key by Joe Hill
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Roberto Aguirre Sacasa and Robert Hack
The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai
Stranger Things by Jody Houser
Bleach by Tite Kubo
D.Gray-Man by Katsura Hoshiro

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Ross Tyson