Not for the faint of heart

As Halloween nears, check out these six pulse-pounding, often horror-inflected tales of the supernatural, recommended for young adult readers…if you dare. For more, see the YA Horror tag in the Guide/Reviews Database.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Here
by Autumn Krause
High School    Peachtree Teen    227 pp.
10/23    9781682636473    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781682636480    $11.99

When Catalina’s pa dies after drinking cider made from a poisoned apple, “wind burst through the cabin like a ferocious intruder…a man, but his skin rose and fell in patchy, lopsided ridges. Bark? Green leaves with serrated edges sprouted from his hair. Birds circled his head.” It’s Johnny Appleseed — he goes by “John, actually” — and this Faustian take on the folk hero posits that he was compelled to plant poisoned apple seeds across North America after selling his soul to the devil. John has come for Catalina’s younger brother, Jose Luis, and she sets off to save him by tracking one of John’s birds. Soon she finds a companion in a young lumberjack, Paul, who is also hunting John. They gradually open up to each other and acknowledge their growing mutual attraction as they face more harrowing forest obstacles. Interspersed with third-person narration are first-person accounts from John detailing his ­desperate dealings with the maleficent “banker.” Krause’s North American frontier is diverse and filled with historically rooted fantastical elements (e.g., “tree weepers”: sobbing canopy-dwellers dressed in worn period gowns). Her lyrical prose shines in descriptions of nature: “Late summer rains had fattened the wilderness, making it full and dense, as though it wore a coat it had made for itself.” Catalina’s emotional growth, including reflections on her maternal Mexican heritage (her mother died years earlier) and identity as a poet, and several surprising plot twists carry this riveting tale to a satisfying­ conclusion. MONICA DE LOS REYES

A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife
by Kendall Kulper
High School    Holiday    352 pp.
5/23    9780823453610    $19.99
e-book ed.  9780823455331    $11.99

In 1934, eighteen-year-old aspiring Chicago actress Henny wins a ticket to Los Angeles and the promise of a screen test. Unfortunately, it turns out, there are men in Hollywood looking to take advantage of aspiring starlets. Henny encounters the ghosts of young women who were murdered in the business, whom only she can see, and she must team up with Declan — a stunt performer who seems immune to injury even in the most punishing situations — to seek justice. Their supernatural abilities are mere assets to their wit and determination as they navigate glitzy parties and the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles in a novel that will likely have greater appeal to historical fiction and mystery fans than to fantasy readers. The story, which unfolds in alternating first-person narrations, is tightly wound and truly stress-inducing in places, with emotional revelations that cause characters to doubt everything they thought they knew. The descriptions of 1930s movie sets and surrounding scenery are lush and convincing, with animated minor characters fleshing out a well-researched setting. The novel shares characters with Murder for the Modern Girl (rev. 7/22) — Henny is that book’s protagonist’s younger sister — and will likely entrance readers both familiar with and new to the world. SARAH BERMAN

Once There Was
by Kiyash Monsef
Middle School, High School    Simon    416 pp.
4/23    9781665928502    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781665928526    $10.99

Marjan Dastani, the daughter of an Iranian immigrant father and an American-born mother (who died when Marjan was seven), has grown up in California with stories that begin “Yeki bood, yeki nabood,” or “Once was, once wasn’t.” Those stories “created a place that was real and not real, at the same time,” where the mythical could coexist with the everyday. After her father, a veterinarian, is murdered, fifteen-year-old Marjan finds herself tasked with taking over management of the vet clinic and her father’s crumbling finances. She is summoned to England on a mysterious mission, where she learns that her father was leading a double life: he also specialized in the healing of mythical creatures such as griffons, faeries, and gnomes. As Marjan tries to solve the mystery of who killed her father, she is pulled into a secret network in which these legendary beasts are brokered and sold. She must come face to face with who her father really was and with her own feelings of grief. With its blend of fantasy and mystery, the story slowly ratchets up the suspense. It also poses intriguing ethical questions about the conservation of endangered species and the devastating effects of human intervention on the natural world. A hard-to-put-down book with great appeal to fantasy and mythology fans. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

Dream to Me
by Megan Paasch
High School    Feiwel    384 pp.
1/23    9781250817051    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781250817068    $10.99

After the death of Eva Sylvan’s beloved father (about which she feels lingering guilt), she and her half-sister, Rhonda, move from New York to the (fictional) small town of Madrona, Washington, and intoa spooky, decrepit house willed to Eva by a great-aunt she never met. When people in Madrona learn that Eva and Rhonda are Sylvans, most seem to view them with fear (with the exception of a few new friends). And Eva becomes terrified that she might really be as monstrous a witch as people believed her great-aunt was when her dreams about the inhabitants of the town cause them to fall into comas — including Rhonda. Eva must rely on her own wits and bravery to reach back into memories that have been hidden away and solve a years-old mystery about her family, the town, and a tragedy that involved two Madrona residents when they were children. This is a compelling combination of gothic YA fiction and psychological thriller. The magical elements of astral projection and battling shadows in dreams feel human and intimate rather than fantastical. A vibrant cast of characters populates Madrona, and Paasch clearly understands grief, guilt, and what moves the teenage heart. SARAH BERMAN

Harvest House
by Cynthia Leitich Smith
High School    Candlewick    320 pp.
4/23    9781536218602    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781536227284    $19.99

Theater kid Hughie Wolfe, one of the few Indigenous students at his high school, is disappointed when the fall play is cancelled. He sets his sights on a new project: a haunted house fundraiser at the rural crossroads, a location plagued by rumors of an Indigenous ghost. Hughie is excited to volunteer until he learns that the organizer wants to feature Indigenous stereotypes, including an “Indian Maiden” and an “Indian burial ground” as the main attractions. To make matters worse, there are reports of a creepy figure terrorizing brown girls at the crossroads, scaring them as they walk to their vehicles at night. As Hughie considers how to speak up about bigotry against Indigenous people, he and his friends investigate the stalker and discover that some rumors are based in truth. The story (set in the same universe as the realistic Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Hearts Unbroken, rev. 11/18) adeptly centers important conversations about the racism Indigenous youth face; the plight of missing Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people; and the lack of police, media, and governmental support in searching for them. This eerie cross-genre novel will entice readers in search of spooky and truthful storytelling. S. R. TOLIVER

The Spirit Bares Its Teeth
by Andrew Joseph White
High School    Peachtree Teen    400 pp.
9/23    9781682636114    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781682636183    $11.99

Alienated from his alternate Victorian London’s society by behaviors and sensitivities common to people with autism, Silas is nonetheless valued for his eyes. Their violet color allows the possessor to reach through the Veil and converse with the dead — but only if you’re male; violet-eyed females are valued only as breeding stock, and Silas was assigned female at birth. Self-taught in surgical techniques, Silas morbidly dreams of using his knowledge to excise his own womb, but when an attempt to gain the independence to live as his true self goes wrong, he’s sent to Braxton’s Finishing School and Sanitorium. It’s a place where “girls like you” are cured of “the Veil sickness” — and true peril awaits. Can Silas discover why the students are disappearing? The protagonist’s travails are ­coming from so many different directions that readers’ sympathies are fully engaged. Secondary­ characters are rounded as well, creating intriguing dynamics. A well-sustained body horror suffuses the book with tension, and (as an opening note warns) the “transphobia,­ ableism, graphic violence, sexual assault, discussions of forced pregnancy and miscarriage,­ mentions of suicidal ideation, and extensive medical gore” can be a lot to take. But readers who are up for it will follow Silas’s exploits in horrified­ fascination and (potentially) delightfully sick dread. A closing note places this fantasy’s use of medical experimentation in real historical context. ANITA L. BURKAM

From the October 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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