R. Graves, The Ghost Story; girl reading a ghost story, c. 1874.
R. Graves, The Ghost Story; girl reading a ghost story, c. 1874.

Have you ever stumbled upon a book that defies easy categorization? A story that blends genres in unexpected ways, leaving you both unsettled and strangely satisfied? I recently watched Elizabeth of Reading Wryly talk about the genres that define her taste on her YouTube channel, and it got me thinking about my own preferences and predilections.

Inspired, I decided to delve into my own bookshelf, unearthing a collection of contemporary tales that resonate with my peculiar tastes. These are the subgenres that keep me up all night, narratives that blend the familiar with the fantastical, the scholarly with the spooky, and the artistic with the unsettling. Think academia with a dash of the supernatural, secluded artists haunted by their creations, or media that becomes a chilling conduit for obsession.

These are all fairly contemporary titles, but obviously, stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper” or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, would probably be right at home on some of these lists. So, as always, when I make and share lists like this, if you feel there is something missing, I invite you to make your own! And I imagine it should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: I have indeed read every book on this list. I would never, ever recommend something that I have not experienced myself.

At any rate, see below for the hyper-specific subgenres that keep me turning pages…!

Engraving of a woman reading by candlelight by John Sartain, after a painting by Philippe Mercier. 1854.

The Academy of Shadows:  Imagine academia’s hallowed halls, cloaked in shadows and secrets, where intellectual pursuits intertwine with the arcane. These narratives tantalize with their blend of scholarly intrigue and subtle (or not so much) supernatural undertones. Bonus points for clique-y cults and catty mean girls.

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt: A murder unfolds at an elite college as a group of classics students delve into ancient Greek rituals, their dark secret binding them together.
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt:  Two contemporary scholars uncover a hidden love story between Victorian poets through unearthed letters and journals.
  • Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: A young woman who can see ghosts navigates the occult underbelly of Yale University, where secret societies wield dangerous magic.
  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas:  At an isolated, prestigious university with a dark secret, a rebellious student uncovers a shocking truth about the school’s true purpose.
  • The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton: A shy new student at an elite boarding school joins a cultish choir group led by a charismatic but dangerous leader.
  • The Lightness by Emily Temple: A teenager attends a summer camp where girls attempt to levitate, exploring the boundaries between reality and transcendence.
  • The Likeness by Tana French: Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover as her former alias to lure out a killer whose victim looked eerily like Cassie. This painfully beautiful book is an atypical example of this genre, but I must insist.
  • The Cloisters by Katy Hays: A young art researcher at a gothic museum gets caught in a deadly web of ambition and intrigue surrounding a mysterious deck of tarot cards.
  • The Tenth Girl by Sara Faring: A young woman seeking refuge from a brutal regime finds herself battling a haunting presence at a remote Argentinian boarding school with a missing student.
  • Down A Dark Hall by Lois Duncan: The one that started it all! (For me, anyway!) A skeptical girl at a mysterious boarding school uncovers a dark secret behind her classmates’ newfound talents.

The Perilous Price of Artistic Refuge: Solitude breeds introspection, but in these narratives, it also invites unsettling encounters with the unknown. As artists and writers retreat into seclusion (or, sometimes, secluded retreats with a few other people) they find their creative sanctuaries infiltrated by eerie presences and mysterious occurrences. And murder! While this is not really an ordered list of favorites, “artist goes off to creation in isolation, weird shit ensues” actually IS my favorite!

  • The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz:  A struggling writer competes in a deadly writing challenge at a secluded retreat hosted by a famous horror author.
  • Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland:  A young artist, desperate to recreate her lost work, takes refuge at an isolated retreat shrouded in the mystery of a past artist’s death.
  • The Last Word by Taylor Adams: A reclusive woman’s negative online review of a horror author’s work spirals into a terrifying situation as she fears the author might be stalking her.
  • Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand:  Decades after a British folk band’s lead singer vanishes in a haunted mansion, survivors recount the chilling events in conflicting narratives. BIG TIME FAVORITE!
  • The Dark Half by Stephen King: A writer’s pseudonym takes on a life of its own, manifesting as a malevolent doppelgänger bent on revenge.
  • Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari: A former art student seeks revenge on her manipulative professor thirty years after a dark secret emerged at a secluded art camp
  • Green Fuse Burning by Tiffany Morris: A grieving artist confronts her family’s past and the unsettling secrets of a secluded cabin residency in the swamp.
  • The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: A discontented translator achieves fluency in a mysterious program, but grapples with the dark secret behind its success.

BONUS: A few films in this vein!

  • The Strings: Cut off from the world in a snowy hideaway, a composer’s quest for inspiration turns into a battle against a malevolent force.
  • Black Lake: A red scarf, a gift, and a curse. Aarya’s escape to pursue art awakens a terrifying entity – the Churail, a South Asian witch hungering for vengeance.

BONUS BONUS: The soundtracks for both The Strings and Black Lake are fantastically haunting in very different but equally marvelous ways

Félix Hilaire Buhot Liseuse à la Lampe (Woman Reading by Lamplight), 1879

Media Maledictions: Books, films, music—mundane on the surface, yet in these narratives, they become conduits for obsession, curses, and the macabre. These stories delve into the transformative power of art and media, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality.

  • Experimental Film by Gemma Files:  A former film teacher investigating a lost filmmaker’s chilling work unleashes supernatural forces that threaten her family. ANOTHER BIG FAVORITE!
  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl: A journalist investigates the death of a reclusive cult filmmaker’s daughter, uncovering a world of dark rituals and macabre cinema.
  • Silver Nitrate by Silvia Moreno-Garcia A disillusioned sound editor and a washed-up soap star team up with a cult horror director to break a curse tied to a lost film infused with Nazi occultism.
  • Schrader’s Chord by Scott Leeds: Estranged from his dead father, a man inherits a record store and cursed vinyl that unleashes a malevolent force from the land of the dead.
  • Universal Harvester by John Darnielle: A small-town video store clerk stumbles upon disturbing hidden content on rental tapes, unraveling a sinister mystery.
  • The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte: A  rare book dealer hunts for a legendary text while encountering characters mirroring those from Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers.” You may have seen the film adaptation, The Ninth Gate.
  • Ringu by Koji Suzuki: A cursed videotape leads to a journalist’s race against time to uncover its origins and break the deadly cycle before it claims her life.
  • The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran:  A down-and-out bookseller searches for a legendary sex magic book desired by the wealthy elite on a journey that explores dark desires and occult power.
  • Burn the Negative by Josh Winning: A journalist with a dark past as a child star in a cursed horror movie must confront the deadly remake and break the cycle.
  • Beholder by Ryan Lasala: A young art handler with the secret power to see the past in reflections gets pulled into a deadly conspiracy involving a supernatural entity and New York’s elite art scene.

BONUS: A few series in this vein…!

  • Archive 81: A cryptic trail of damaged tapes leads an archivist to piece together a filmmaker’s descent into the darkness of a hidden cult  
  • Deadwax: A vinyl tracker is hired by a rich collector to hunt a legendary rare record that has driven all its former owners mad

Unhinged and Unraveling: Women pushed to the edge, their sanity teetering on the brink, colliding with supernatural (ish) (esque) forces that challenge their perceptions of reality. These narratives delve into the complexities of female identity, power, and the eerie intersections of the mundane and the supernatural–of, if not specifically, supernatural, just weird shit in general.

  • Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder: A mother’s transformation into a dog leads to a surreal exploration of identity, motherhood, and the supernatural (and art!)
  • Bunny by Mona Awad: A graduate student infiltrates a clique of eccentric classmates, leading to a surreal journey into academia, identity, and bizarre rituals.
  • Mona by Pola Oloixarac:  A blunt Latina writer in California gets a chance to escape for a European literary award, but finds herself trapped amidst a pretentious competition, bizarre encounters, and a lingering threat of violence.
  • Mother Thing by Ainslie Hogarth: Desperate to escape a cruel mother-in-law’s ghost, a woman resorts to extreme measures to protect her husband and find a surrogate mother figure.
  • Mary: An Awakening of Terror by Nat Cassidy: A middle-aged woman returning home confronts repressed memories, disturbing visions, and a resurfacing serial killer.
  • Maeve Fly by CJ Leede: Ice princess Maeve embraces her murderous urges after a handsome stranger awakens a darkness within her. Thinks Weetzie Bat x American Psycho/Takashi Miike x Lana del Rey
  • Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: A reclusive animal lover in a Polish village becomes an unlikely detective, convinced she knows the truth behind a string of murders the indifferent police are ignoring.
  • Earthlings by Sayaka Murata: A woman who copes with a traumatic childhood and societal pressures by clinging to childhood fantasies seeks refuge in the mountains to reconnect with her alien-believing cousin and fulfill their pact to survive.
  • Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval: A hyper-sensitive Norwegian biology student navigates a strange, decaying apartment and a possibly unhealthy relationship with her enigmatic roommate.


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