3 YA novels offer thrills, chills and frights aplenty


People are the true monsters in two thrilling novels from acclaimed authors Tiffany D. Jackson and Lamar Giles, while shadows gather menacingly in an anthology of folk horror stories from popular YA authors including Chloe Gong, Erica Waters, Aden Polydoros and more.

The Weight of Blood

Maddy Washington is living a lie. To protect herself from the brutal bullying she’s received in her small town of Springville, Georgia, she avoids her peers whenever possible. But she’s also protecting her secret: Though Maddy passes as white, she’s actually biracial. Her fanatically religious father forces her to hide her Blackness, supposedly to protect her, while also hiding the truth about Maddy’s mother from her. 

When an unexpected rainstorm causes Maddy’s perfectly straightened hair to revert to its natural state, the bullying that follows is caught on video. The footage goes viral, painting an ugly portrait of a former sundown town where Black residents are still expected to follow archaic, unspoken rules, such as attending a separate, segregated prom—even in 2014. In response to the negative attention, several students start planning Springville’s first integrated prom, unaware that they’ll lay the groundwork for a night that will never be forgotten—but for very different reasons than they expect, because Maddy has another secret, and after the devastation occurs, all the survivors can say is “Maddy did it.”

Inspired by the real-life town of Rochelle, Georgia, which held its first integrated prom in 2013, The Weight of Blood is an unflinching indictment of racism and cruelty in the Deep South. Critically acclaimed author Tiffany D. Jackson has described her seventh YA novel as a “remix of Carrie,” and The Weight of Blood follows much of Stephen King’s horror classic beat for beat. But Jackson’s sophisticated framing elevates her book from a basic retelling to a brilliant de- and reconstruction.

One of Jackson’s most significant talents is her refusal to talk down to her readers. She offers no concessions or apologies in her portrayal of the chokehold of small-town racism. Take, for instance, Kenny Scott, Springville High’s Black all-star quarterback, who brushes off his friends’ racist jokes to keep the peace, even as Kenny’s sister, Kali, reads Ta-Nehisi Coates and tries to get through to her brother. Jackson highlights the quiet insidiousness of racism through Kenny’s white girlfriend, Wendy, who doesn’t understand her own prejudices or privileges. Jackson also portrays racism at its most violent through cruel pranks played by Wendy’s best friend, Julia, and through acts of brutality from white police officers.

Although The Weight of Blood is Maddy’s story, much of the novel happens around her rather than with her. Jackson circumnavigates the horrors of Maddy’s life via newspaper clippings, testimonies and a true crime podcast investigating Maddy’s case. In the rare moments that the reader spends alone with Maddy, the mystery of her life only grows denser and more shrouded, and even readers intimately familiar with Carrie will be on tenterhooks as they wait to discover how Jackson twists the story’s most infamous moments—and twist she does. The Weight of Blood seizes readers quickly and never lets go. Long after the sirens have quieted and its fires have burned to ash, its heat lingers.

The Getaway

Jay Butler and his family live in Karloff Country, a massive amusement park known as “the funnest place around.” Selected to be part of the lucky few who live and work in one of the park’s residences, the Butlers are safe from the ongoing climate disaster and societal collapse outside the compound’s walls. Jay and his friends Connie and Zeke live in the Jubilee neighborhood, but the final member of their friend group, Chelle Karloff, the biracial daughter of Blythe Karloff and the heir to her hateful grandfather’s massive fortune, lives a life of uneasy privilege on her family’s estate. 

The Karloffs—wealthy, white and seemingly progressive—have promised to provide a good life for the families under their proverbial roof. Though Chelle makes her distaste for her mother’s performative “wokeness” clear and her friends agree with her assessment, everyone is grateful to live inside Karloff Country’s protective walls, and no one scrutinizes anything too closely—until families begin to go missing. Soon, shady rumors of conspiracies become reality. When the park’s trustees arrive, no one is safe, least of all its Black and brown residents. As a place that once represented security becomes a cage to be escaped, time is running out before Karloff Country’s gates close—forever.

Author Lamar Giles began his career with YA thrillers such as Fake ID and Endangered. He returns to the genre with his sixth YA novel, The Getaway, which is sure to garner well-deserved comparison to Jordan Peele’s masterpiece psychological thriller Get Out. Much like Peele’s film, The Getaway exists in a strange limbo. Its story is simultaneously propulsive and meandering, and Giles smartly utilizes Jay’s “go along to get along” attitude to create and dispel tension. Jay is the archetypical frog in boiling water who frequently doesn’t notice danger until it’s too late. Brief interludes from Zeke’s, Connie’s and Chelle’s perspectives act like security cameras, providing new perspectives at new angles and sightlines into previously hidden corners. 

Though the book’s pacing and plot twists occasionally get away from him, Giles crafts a story that’s difficult to look away from. He uses classic thriller tropes such as disturbing amusement park mascots to great effect, creating an atmosphere of creeping dread, and artfully juxtaposes the artificial brightness of Karloff Country against scenes of graphic violence.

Giles’ only misstep is the subtlety with which he depicts the true nature of the park’s politics. Although he heavily implies that people of color are the true targets of the Karloffs’ cruel plans and many teen readers will read between the lines, others may need more clarity to understand the entirety of Giles’ large, extended metaphor. Regardless, The Getaway is an excellent addition to the quickly growing canon of YA social horror novels. 

The Gathering Dark

Something lurks in the shadows of the trees. An ancient being stirs. The dead are restless and hungry. A house carries a curse in its walls. A town echoes with whispered legends of burned girls. Enter the realm of folk horror with The Gathering Dark, an anthology edited by YA author Tori Bovalino and featuring original stories from Erica Waters, Chloe Gong, Hannah Whitten, Allison Saft, Olivia Chadha, Courtney Gould, Aden Polydoros, Alex Brown, Shakira Toussaint and Bovalino herself.

Folk horror has long been a controversial horror subgenre, as it often relies on disorientation and ambiguity to build a sense of terror. Its monsters creep through the dark but do not always make themselves known, so catharsis is not easily granted. These types of stories explore themes of memory, tradition and what we sometimes leave buried inside—which, for many readers, hits uncomfortably close to home. 

Fans of atmospheric, folkloric horror like Krystal Sutherland’s House of Hollow, Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls and Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement will find their niche in The Gathering Dark. Among the collection’s best stories are Hannah Whitten’s “One Lane Bridge,” a masterclass in rising tension. Its terror stems not only from eldritch beings in the woods but also from the cruel ways friends can hurt each other without even trying. Erica Waters’ “Stay” introduces a lonely girl who tends to the graves of her family, while Allison Saft’s haunting “Ghost on the Shore” explores the nightmare of unresolved grief and loss without closure.

As with many anthologies, the collection is somewhat unbalanced in terms of quality. Some of the stories are a tad too obvious to be frightening or rush toward their climax without ample buildup. But the standout stories leave their mark. For teens who grew up reading Alvin Schwartz’s iconic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Gathering Dark will be the perfect shivery autumnal read. 

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