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Mental Health & Genre Fiction Reading List


Okay. Let's get personal.


A few weeks ago, I ran a library writing workshop called "Mental Health and Genre Fiction" at the Bloomfield Public Library in Bloomfield, NJ. The framework for the workshop stemmed from time I've spent writing and reading about mental health, particularly in film and literature. In my 2024 novel Midnight on Beacon Street, the main character is a babysitter named Amy who struggles with anxiety. I wrote this from personal experience with anxiety (I also have OCD, which I discuss often and openly on the internet here and here).


Representation is important and so, in conjunction with the workshop, I put together this list of works that approach mental health and/or mental illness with the care and depth it so rightly deserves. I'm sharing it here on Frightful today so that anyone can access it.


This list was organized to encompass genre fiction as a whole with a focus on horror and thrillers. In some cases, books have been reissued over time. For most of these titles, the original publisher is listed with the publication date but the current publisher synopsis is cited.


Books


Our Own Unique Affliction by Scott J. Moses (Darklit Press, 2023)


From the publisher:

"Our Own Unique Affliction is the story of Alice Ann, a dejected immortal who longs for her life in the sun. Navigating guilt, loss, family, meaning, murder, and all that comes with the curse of living forever. An existential bleak, quiet until it's not, hallucination on duality, rife with fangs, empathy, blood, and grief."






The Haunting of Alejandra by V. Castro (Del Rey, 2023)


From the publisher:


"Alejandra no longer knows who she is. To her husband, she is a wife, and to her children, a mother. To her own adoptive mother, she is a daughter. But they cannot see who Alejandra has become: a woman struggling with a darkness that threatens to consume her. Nor can they see what Alejandra sees. In times of despair, a ghostly vision appears to her, the apparition of a crying woman in a ragged white gown. When Alejandra visits a therapist, she begins exploring her family’s history, starting with the biological mother she never knew. As she goes deeper into the lives of the women in her family, she learns that heartbreak and tragedy are not the only things she has in common with her ancestors. Because the crying woman was with them, too. She is La Llorona, the vengeful and murderous mother of Mexican legend. And she will not leave until Alejandra follows her mother, her grandmother, and all the women who came before her into the darkness. But Alejandra has inherited more than just pain. She has inherited the strength and the courage of her foremothers—and she will have to summon everything they have given her to banish La Llorona forever."


Curse of the Reaper by Brian McAuley (Talos, 2022)


From the publisher:


"Decades after playing the titular killer in the 80s horror franchise Night of the Reaper, Howard Browning has been reduced to signing autographs for his dwindling fanbase at genre conventions. When the studio announces a series reboot, the aging thespian is crushed to learn he’s being replaced in the iconic role by heartthrob Trevor Mane, a former sitcom child-star who’s fresh out of rehab. Trevor is determined to stay sober and revamp his image while Howard refuses to let go of the character he created, setting the stage for a cross-generational clash over the soul of a monster. But as Howard fights to reclaim his legacy, the sinister alter ego consumes his unraveling mind, pushing him to the brink of violence. Is the method actor succumbing to madness or has the devilish Reaper taken on a life of its own?


In his razor-sharp debut novel, film and television writer Brian McAuley melds wicked suspense with dark humor and heart. Curse of the Reaper is a tightly plotted thriller that walks the tightrope between the psychological and the supernatural, while characters struggling with addiction and identity bring to light the harrowing cost of Hollywood fame."


The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward (Tor Nightfire, 2021)


From the publisher:


"In a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods lives a family of three.


A teenage girl who isn’t allowed outside, not after last time.

A man who drinks alone in front of his TV, trying to ignore the gaps in his memory.

And a house cat who loves napping and reading the Bible.


An unspeakable secret binds them together, but when a new neighbor moves in next door, what is buried out among the birch trees may come back to haunt them all."


Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones (Tor, 2020)


From the publisher:


"We thought we'd play a fun prank on her, and now most of us are dead.


One last laugh for the summer as it winds down. One last prank just to scare a friend. Bringing a mannequin into a theater is just some harmless fun, right? Until it wakes up. Until it starts killing.


Luckily, Sawyer has a plan. He’ll be a hero. He'll save everyone to the best of his ability. He'll do whatever he needs to so he can save the day. That's the thing about heroes—sometimes you have to become a monster first."


Planetfall (Planetfall #1) by Emma Newman (Ace/Roc, 2015)


From the publisher:


"Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.


More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony's 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.


Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.


The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart..."


Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (Orion, 2010)


From the publisher:


"January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken.


But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return – when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible.


And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…"


Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Shaye Areheart Books, 2006)


From the publisher:


"Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, reporter Camille Preaker faces a troubling assignment: she must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. For years, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed in her old bedroom in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Dogged by her own demons, she must unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past if she wants to get the story—and survive this homecoming."


Borderline (The Arcadia Project #1 ) by Mishell Baker (Saga Press, 2016)


From the publisher:


"A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.


For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she’ll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble’s disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.


No pressure."


Lady of the House by Grace R. Reynolds (Curious Corvid Publishing, 2021)


From the publisher:


"Lady of The House shares the fictional tale of Lady, a 1940s riveter turned housewife trapped by a loveless marriage and societal framework that makes it difficult for her to abandon her current circumstances. She feels purposeless, hopeless, and she is angry. Resentful. And she festers..."







Sometimes We're Cruel and Other Stories by J.A.W. McCarthy (Cemetery Gates Media, 2021)


From the publisher:


"A town where people go missing and inexplicably return as cruel versions of themselves.


A not-quite-human mother races against time to build a new body for her ailing daughter.


Lovesick ghosts inhabit the body parts of living people in a world where the only other choice is amputation.


A woman takes extreme measures to combat the repercussions of a childhood hazing ritual gone wrong.


Obsession. Selfishness. Cruelty. Doppelgängers. In these dark, speculative stories—six reprints and six never before published, including the novelette 'Girls Tied to Trees'—J.A.W. McCarthy explores how far humans and the not-quite-human will go to tame the darkness in their world and within themselves."


EDITORIAL NOTE: “Girls Tied to Trees” is my favorite depiction of OCD in horror


Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (Tor Nightfire, 2021)


From the publisher:


"A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

It’s the perfect venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends, brought back together to celebrate a wedding.


A night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare as secrets get dragged out and relationships are tested.


But the house has secrets too. Lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.


And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.


Effortlessly taking the classic haunted house story and turning it on its head, Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a sharp and devastating exploration of grief, the parasitic nature of relationships, and the consequences of our actions."


Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca (Weirdpunk Books, 2021)


From the publisher:


"A whirlpool of darkness churns at the heart of a macabre ballet between two lonely young women in an internet chat room in the early 2000s—a darkness that threatens to forever transform them once they finally succumb to their most horrific desires."


EDITORIAL NOTE: This novella is now featured in Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes from Titan Books




The Between by Tananarive Due (HarperCollins, 1995)


From the publisher:


"When Hilton was a boy, his grandmother sacrificed her life to save him from drowning. Thirty years later, he begins to suspect that he was never meant to survive that accident, and that dark forces are working to rectify that mistake.


When Hilton's wife, the only elected African American judge in Dade County, Florida, begins to receive racist hate mail from a man she once prosecuted, Hilton becomes obsessed with protecting his family. The demons lurking outside are matched by his internal terrors—macabre nightmares, more intense and disturbing than any he has ever experienced. Are these bizarre dreams the dark imaginings of a man losing his hold on sanity—or are they harbingers of terrible events to come?


As Hilton battles both the sociopath threatening to destroy his family and the even more terrifying enemy stalking his sleep, the line between reality and fantasy dissolves . . .

Chilling and utterly convincing, The Between is the haunting story of a man desperately trying to hold on to the people and life he loves as he slowly loses himself. "


Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith (Simon & Schuster, 1977)


From the publisher:


"'Edith Howland’s diary provides a reflective interlude in her busy day. This 'fine and chilling character study' (Newsweek), though, charts a diary gone wrong. As Edith’s life turns sour, her diary entries only grow brighter. While her life plunges into chaos’her husband abandons her for a younger woman, leaving her with their delinquent son and his senile uncle”a tale of success and happiness blooms in her notebook. As The New York Times Book Review wrote, 'Edith’s fall takes the form of an old-fashioned psychological chiller, but there is also something larger, fine poignancy at her struggle not to go under. She is betrayed by such ordinary dreams.'"


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Viking Press, 1962)


From the publisher:


"Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiousity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp."


Online Reading


  • "Tracing the Portrayal of Mental Disorders in Literature Over Time, Through Five Books" by Jane Shemilt is a 2022 essay available for free online through Crimereads.com

  • “The H Word: Mental Health, Ableism, and the Horror Genre” by Evan J. Peterson (essay available for free online through Nightmare Magazine

  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a 1892 novella available for free online through Project Gutenberg

  • Of Horror and Hope edited by the HWA Wellness Committee is a poetry, fiction, and essay collection available for free online through the Horror Writers Association


*Full disclosure, I have a poem in Of Horror and Hope



[Image Credit: Joseph Henry Hatfield illustration from the 1901 edition of The Yellow Wallpaper via Wikimedia Commons]





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