Horror fiction contains multitudes, from giddy slasher romps to incisive social commentary. Author Ryan La Sala sees the genre as the perfect outlet for young queer anxiety. His books include 2022’s The Honeys, which PW’s starred review praised for its “deliciously creepy horror scenes,” and the forthcoming YA novel Beholder (Push, Oct.), in which teenage Athan emerges from a swanky penthouse party to find the other guests slaughtered and their bodies arranged into an intricate sculpture.
“Queer horror is the definitive horror,” La Sala says. “Monsters that pop up in these stories aren’t mummies wrapped in rotting cloth; they’re other people making split decisions about queer people and their humanity.”
Gigi Griffis, whose YA debut, The Wicked Unseen (Underlined, June), draws on the Satanic Panic of the 1990s, roots her fictional tensions in all-too-real homophobia and transphobia. “When you’re writing as a marginalized author from any sort of background, you’re picking apart your own feelings about a world that’s been horrifying to you at some point,” she says. “This lets you go into darker things, give characters hope and agency, and unpack difficult things in a way that’s entertaining and safe to explore.”
PW spoke with La Sala, Griffis, and other queer authors of children’s and YA horror fiction about the importance of positive LGBTQ representation in a genre that has historically fed its queer characters to the creatures under the stairs.
Don’t go in the basement (or the closet)
"Being a teenager is hard in general,” Griffis says. “You don’t have your own agency; you’re beholden to adults around you. As a queer kid, you also have to be careful about showing who you are. I want to show queer kids the power they do have.”
Horror is a safe way for young readers to explore the terrors of their daily lives, according to several authors who spoke with PW. In Alex Crespo’s debut, Saint Juniper’s Folly (Peachtree Teen, June), which he calls a “queer haunted house novel,” three teenagers wrestle with their inner demons and outer ghosts. “I love that speculative fiction can give you the space to play with a lot of negative emotions,” Crespo says. “A character is 17 or 18 and feels incredibly stuck, and you can dial that emotion up to a thousand using scary elements to dig into the feelings around coming out.”
Themes of social isolation, the weight of past trauma, and the horror of being trapped in an unwanted form pervade Deephaven (Quill Tree, Sept.), a middle grade gothic and the prose debut of graphic novelist Ethan M. Aldridge. Protagonist Nev, who is nonbinary, enrolls in a secretive and secluded boarding school; weighty undertones notwithstanding, Aldridge’s goal is to engage young readers. “It can be hard to be a queer kid,” the author says, “and when you go to read, you want escapism, not a social studies lecture.” Still, Aldridge acknowledges the many emotional needs the genre can fill. “Kids live in a world with a lot of anxiety—climate, guns, etc.,” he says. “With horror, there’s a specific monster or supernatural dread that can be outwitted or escaped. It’s a healthy release.”
YA fantasy author Kalynn Bayron made her middle grade debut with 2022’s The Vanquishers (Bloomsbury), “a fresh take on vampire lore,” per PW’s review, about a squad of sixth graders who face off against the undead. Before the sequel, Secret of the Reaping, pubs in October, Bayron returns to YA with the slasher You’re Not Supposed to Die Tonight (Bloomsbury, June). When Charity Curtis takes a summer job as a “final girl” in a full-contact game at Camp Mirror Lake, her coworkers begin disappearing one by one, and she and her girlfriend find themselves in real-life peril.
“I create work through a lens that is queer-normative,” Bayron says. “There’s a double whammy in horror—Black or queer characters get killed off first. What does it mean to be queer and Black and survive?”
Reading of the bans
Bayron’s question resonates with particular urgency as states, school systems, and increasingly vocal individuals amp up their offensives against books with queer content.
“Queer kids nowadays are enduring more attacks than they’re even aware of, as books are being banned and narratives contested,” La Sala says. “I don’t think anyone ‘just happens to be’ queer. Queerness is reflected through the many decisions a character has to make. It’s important that these characters make it into the world, so kids see a future for themselves—that they see people like them go on to battle and thrive.”
Kosoko Jackson has written queer characters in an array of genres—dystopian YA, adult rom-com, time-travel YA. The hero of his next YA novel, The Forest Demands Its Due (Quill Tree, Oct.), is a queer Black teen who awakens a centuries-old horror outside his elite boarding school. “We need blatantly queer books: it’s a statement and act of resilience,” Jackson says. “But being able to carry that around in your school and town is a privilege not everyone has.”
In the forthcoming YA horror thriller Your Lonely Nights Are Over (Viking, Sept.), Adam Sass makes the threat overt: a serial killer targets a high school Queer Club. Sass, who describes his novel as “Scream meets Clueless and it’s gay,” sees representation as filling a ground-level need at a difficult time. “We’re seeing more and more bans and don’t-say-gay bills, active organized efforts to erase us out of existence,” he says. “Minimally, we need to make sure people know we exist.”
Even in the current climate, Sass says that horror fans may be the ideal readers for books with diverse representation—open-minded, always looking for fresh stories. “Horror fans will read outside just their favorite author; they’re adventurous, they’ll try new voices. And you can sneak in a lot more queerness—a cis straight reader might not pick up a gay rom-com but will pick up a cool splatter book with queerness in it. People give us a chance a little bit more.”
Justine Pucella Winans, whose middle grade horror adventure The Otherwoods (Bloomsbury, Sept.) features a nonbinary hero with the ability to see monsters, thinks the anti-queer legislation may be a reason some readers are turning to horror fiction. “There’s something about horror and thrillers that’s very cathartic,” they say. “You have these queer characters facing monsters, and now more of them are making it out alive.”
Here to slay
When YA author Erica Waters was growing up in rural Florida, the situation was different: there was no queer lit in either the school or public libraries and, she says, “the dominant narrative was that to be gay was to be broken and sad.” Today, she writes horror and dark fantasy novels tinged with queer romance and recalls an email she received from one teen fan who’d been overjoyed to find her books. All the queer titles had been removed from their local library, they wrote, but Waters’s novels had survived the cull. Her books “weren’t aggressively marketed” as queer, the author explains; “I like that my books can fly under the radar.” In her latest, All That Consumes Us (HarperTeen, Oct.), Tara, a queer college student, enrolls in an elite academic society that harbors a dark secret. Even as things turn nightmarish, romance blossoms with a sweet, smart classmate named Penny.
Many authors interviewed for this article could still name the first queer book they found in the library and spoke with love and longing about seeing themselves—even a self they might not yet have fully accepted or understood—reflected in books. “I read scads and scads of science fiction adventures, and if there was even a whisper of a queer relationship, I read it,” says Kate Alice Marshall, whose next YA novel, The Narrow (Viking, Aug.), is set at a haunted boarding school where Eden, who is queer, falls for the mysterious Delphine. “There was so little out there. I was so hungry to find that.”
Andrew Joseph White says that when he was a teenager in the 2010s, he knew of almost no books with trans protagonists. “I had my first gender crisis at 16, but I bottled it up for three years,” he says. “If I’d been exposed to what a trans man was, it would have been so much easier.” His next YA novel, The Spirit Bares Its Teeth (Peachtree Teen, Sept.), follows 16-year-old Silas Bell, an autistic trans boy plagued by talkative ghosts in 1883 London. “My books aren’t solely about the main character being trans, but if you remove that element, the book would be destroyed. Silas goes to a cruel boarding school and discovers ghosts of dead students are trying to get his attention, but it all collapses if you don’t know he’s being brutalized for being trans.”
Debut author Alex Brown takes a more lighthearted approach in Damned if You Do (Page Street Kids, Aug.), which meshes a horror comedy with Filipino folklore. “As a kid, if you don’t see your identity represented, you feel that you’re not worth being in a story, your story doesn’t matter,” she says.
Brown is also the coeditor, with Shelly Page, of Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday, Aug.), a YA horror anthology with stories by 13 authors of color, including Page and Brown.
“All my narrators are queer, biracial, kind of a mess, trying to figure things out,” Brown says. Along with other authors interviewed for this piece, she sees her work as having a positive impact beyond its entertainment value: “I write with the hope that if I can help one or two kids feel seen, like I didn’t, that’ll be worth it.”
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the memoir Never Simple.