While putting this post together, I realized that the original song this is based on, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” needs very little amending to become horrific: why is someone gifting their lover so many different kinds of birds? That can’t be safe? But we love notching the horror up whenever we can, so in our version of the song — a list of holiday-themed horror novels — we’re exchanging drummers for zombies, leaping lords for mutilated bodies, and milking maids for debaucherous yule lords. Pour yourself a glass of mulled wine, light the fire (or put a fireplace simulator on your TV), and settle in.
We’re starting this list out strong with zombies. In Where the Dead Go to Die, Emily, an exhausted mother of one in post-infection Chicago, works at a hospice center where those who are en-route to become zombies are kept while they turn (at which point, they are “mercifully” put down). The premise of this book is pure horror, but it still raises questions about humanity, caregiving, what we owe to those around us. A fresh take on the zombie genre that takes place over a particularly bloody Christmas.
A bleak, desolate story set in 1717 Swedish Lapland, after a young family moves to the mountain region, the most recent in a series of big moves that the family has made in attempt to build a life that will let them do more than the bare minimum of surviving. But almost as soon as they arrive, their eldest daughter discovers the mutilated body of their neighbor and all bets are off. Is the murder a banal, gruesome event, or is there something supernatural going on around them? Maija, the mother, is determined to find out.
A heroine (Vic) with the ability to find lost things. A villain (Charlie Manx) who abducts children and takes them away to “Christmasland,” a sinister, threatening place where it’s Christmas every day. These two find themselves on a collision course, filled with bloody reprisals, disturbing revelations, and cosmic evils, as well as candy canes and Christmas trees. Bloody, horrific, compelling holiday fun.
What would this list be with the first in a “Fear Street” Christmas-themed trilogy from the legendary R. L. Stine? Silent Night follows two storylines: in the first, the spoiled and often-malicious teen Reva Dalby may finally have to pay for her many misdeeds; and in the second, Reva’s cousin, the shy Pam Dalby, decides to rob Reva’s family’s department store when her family’s finances turn dire. Collision course, indeed! Before the end of this book, there will be bodies and blackmailing, jump-scares and confessions. A classic Stine caper!
A Christmas-themed anthology of horror stories from so many great authors, including Seanan McGuire, Josh Malerman, Sarah Langan, and Elizabeth Hand (to name only a few!). The sixteen stories in this collection are chock-full of horrific holidays: terrible office parties, ghosts out for revenge, an unrecognizable Santa, absinthe and angels, vacations gone wrong, Snow Maidens and Creepers. Bizarre, terrifying fun — you won’t be able to think about the holidays in the same way again.
A delicious send-up of the publishing world via 80s horror — Secret Santa is filled with dread and humor. Our protagonist, Lussi, finds herself thrust into an editor position at a small publishing company, tasked with finding the next Stephen King, and faced with the looming company Christmas party and its accompanying game of Secret Santa. Creepy basements, creepy dolls, and creepy coworkers — oh, god!
Like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” The Nutcracker is one of those stories that you realize might actually be a horror story, if you give it a moment’s thought. Erika Johansen goes all in on the horror with this dark retelling of the story. This story is filled with vengeful sisters, bitter rivalries, Sugar Plum Fairies eager to bargain with you, evil characters, creepy twists and even creepier turns.
In case you can't get enough horror for the holidays, author Erika Johansen put this list together for LitHub, which we highly recommend.
What’s scarier than a true crime podcaster? Probably a true crime podcaster who’s determined to dig into the secrets of Madeline Martin, bookstore owner and the only victim of a local killer who managed to survive. The podcaster wants to know: if the suspected killer is in jail, then why do women keep disappearing? As Christmas approaches, Martin is faced with a decidedly un-jolly holiday, one where her world is upended. Christmas Presents is a twisty, fun, thoroughly snow-bound thriller.
Lucky Girl is a true Christmas ghost story, one where five lonely strangers meet up on Christmas to exchange ghost stories and (stolen) presents. Told from the perspective of Ro (short for Roanoke! A perfect name), we hear the strangers’ stories — stories about Krampus and monsters and ghosts — and watch as those stories come back around to haunt those strangers in mysterious and unexpected ways. A creeptastic companion for this year’s holiday.
A holiday whodunit that can be read in one sitting? Yes please! This Peter Swanson novella packs a punch for how few pages it has: stories are embedded in stories, an unnamed narrator (alone in NYC on Christmas) reads through a journal she finds of one woman’s visit to a country home in 1989, which leads to her falling for a man who just so happens to be the main suspect in another woman’s murder. There are surprises and twists and stories-in-stories in this gripping holiday mystery.
Ooh, this book is dark and twisty and so much fun. Imagine if Santa wasn’t the wonderful, gift-giving, jolly man that we’re all told as children that he is. Imagine that he stole the powers of Krampus, and now he and Krampus are locked in to-the-death feud that is interrupted by a singer-songwriter in West Virginia. Krampus the Yule Lord is a howling Yule delight — filled with sugar and spice and very few things nice.
Rounding out this list is a horror anthology, edited by legendary editor Ellen Datlow, filled with stories centered around the winter solstice — a time of celebration, but also of long nights and the creatures and uncanny threats that can lurk in that darkness. The authors featured in this anthology are truly legendary — Alma Katsu, Tananarive Due, Stephen Graham Jones, Cassandra Khaw! And so many others. This anthology is horrific holiday fun, filled with stories about unnerving traditions, vindictive creatures, malevolent spirits, and uncanny neighbors. A perfect antidote to all of that holiday cheer.