In these scary stories, the wilderness is best left unexplored.
For some people, part of the thrill of exploring wild locations—be that trekking through a dense forest or hiking to the top of a snow-capped mountain—is the element of danger. A number of horror authors have taken this real-life risk of getting lost or twisting an ankle in a remote place and added a dash of the supernatural to significantly up the stakes. Below are ten terrifying novels where trips go from being a thrilling adventure to a living nightmare.
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‘The Shuddering’ by Ania Ahlborn
The Shuddering is essentially a B-movie creature feature in book format, and it’s a gruesomely good read. The story follows a group of friends (with a very good husky called Oona in tow) who take a trip to an incredibly fancy but isolated cabin in Colorado’s mountains. With fresh powder on the slopes calling, the friends plan to spend their time skiing, but things go awry when a snowstorm blows in, knocking out the power and stranding the group. Everything goes from bad to much worse when they realize that strange creatures are lurking between the trees, creatures that seem to have a taste for human flesh.
‘The Hunger’ by Alma Katsu
The true story of the Donner Party is tragic—a group of westward-bound American pioneers became trapped while crossing the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains and resorted to cannibalism to survive. In The Hunger, Alma Katsu takes this 19th-century event—which saw the travelers experience sickness, poor weather, human conflict, and death—and ramps up the horror even further by adding a supernatural element. Although not the focal point of the book, the addition of a creature from folklore stalking the wagon train amplifies the feeling of fear throughout the story.
For readers wanting to pair Katsu’s historical horror novel with a non-fiction account of this story, check out Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party.
‘The Troop’ by Nick Cutter
The Troop is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. A group of five Boy Scouts and their scoutmaster set up on a small, uninhabited Canadian island for a three-day excursion. The boys are telling each other scary stories in their rustic cabin when a seriously unwell stranger pulls up in a small boat. It quickly becomes apparent that the skeletal man is infected with a horrifying parasite, and chaos subsequently erupts on the island.
Nick Cutter has a twisted way with words, crafting viscerally gory descriptions that are squirm-inducing. With The Troop, he also takes a leaf out of Stephen King’s semi-epistolary novel Carrie by weaving newspaper articles and scientific reports into the narrative to give readers the full context of the disturbing and disgusting events that occur on the little island.
‘The Ruins’ by Scott Smith
Two American couples are on vacation together in Mexico when they learn of an archaeological dig at the ruins of an ancient mine. Looking for a little adventure to break up their otherwise lazy trip, they head off into the depths of the jungle with a newly made friend. The group is totally unprepared—lacking proper clothing and supplies and not even having a plan for returning to civilization—but that proves to be the least of their problems. Once at the ruins, they find themselves trapped and, thanks to something unexpectedly carnivorous, in perilous danger. The Ruins has no chapter breaks, and so reads as a continuous narrative, drawing the reader in and making the horror feel inescapable. There’s also a 2008 film adaptation for those interested in visuals of the gruesome scenes.
‘The Ritual’ by Adam Neville
For another vacation-gone-wrong story, check out The Ritual, set in Sweden’s wilderness. Four old but alienated university friends go on a hiking trip through a craggy and forested National Park. They decide to take a shortcut because of a few minor injuries but end up getting lost. Terror levels ramp up when they come across an animal carcass creepily hung in the trees and a decrepit cabin filled with ritualistic artifacts and bones. Tensions rise, and old wounds are prized open, but the worst is yet to come, with an ancient evil entity lurking in the trees waiting to attack.
A film adaptation was released in 2017 but massively diverges from the book. That’s not the only reason to read the novel, though: Neville’s writing is eerily atmospheric, and he perfectly captures the painfully realistic dynamics of a fractured friendship group.
‘The Girl in Red’ by Christina Henry
Many of Christina Henry’s books are dark reimaginings of well-known stories, and in The Girl in Red she takes the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale and gives it a post-apocalyptic twist. A strange disease has wiped out most of the population, and survivors are being sent to quarantine camps. But the novel’s main character, a young woman nicknamed Red, would rather bank on herself than the authorities, and so she treks through the woods to get to the hopeful safety of her grandmother’s cabin.
Red is fierce and opinionated, but above all else, she’s prepared. Her love of camping and knowledge gleaned from years of consuming horror have left her confident that she can make this dangerous journey and won’t let her prosthetic leg slow her down. What follows is a thrilling yarn with a terrifying injection of body horror.
‘Near the Bone’ by Christina Henry
Near the Bone is one of Christina Henry’s completely original stories. It starts with a dead fox in the snow alongside a bizarre footprint, both of which are found by Mattie, who lives with her abusive husband, William, in an isolated mountain cabin. With worries of an unusually large bear nagging at the back of her mind, three friendly (but unwanted) cryptid hunters show up. These two events set in motion the desperate fight for survival that Mattie must endure on the snowy mountaintop. Near the Bone brings together the fictional horrors of an unknown beast with the all-too-real horrors of humankind at its worst.
‘Ascension’ by Nicholas Binge
Ascension starts off reading like a sci-fi story, with a gigantic mountain suddenly popping up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but the horror does eventually kick in. The story is largely told through unsent letters written by scientist Harold Tunmore, who is part of a team sent to explore the mysterious mountain. Some of the scientists and soldiers who made it there before Harold are acting strangely, and it soon becomes apparent that time behaves differently on the freezing mountain. As the team of curious scientists make their way up the slopes, things turn deadly thanks to the appearance of some monsters that feel like they’re straight out of a cheesy creature feature. Ascension is campy and silly and so much fun.
‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’ by Stephen King
Stephen King is skilled at creating supernatural scares, such as sewer-dwelling clowns (It) and hotel-haunting ghosts (The Shining), but he can also wring real-life frights for all they’re worth. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon falls (mostly) into the latter category, being about a young girl getting lost in the woods.
The titular girl is nine-year-old Trish, who is hiking a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail with her mom and older brother. She steps off the trail to take a pee and then decides to chart a shortcut through the trees to catch up with her family, but instead, she ends up accidentally walking out into miles upon miles of uninhabited forest. Not only must Trish battle the brutal elements and her pressing hunger, but she also suspects that a dangerous beast is following her. Or is it just her fear-addled mind creating monsters out of shadows?
‘The Watchers’ by A. M. Shine
When Mina’s car breaks down on the edge of a forest in rural Ireland, she foolishly decides to walk into the woods to find help. As the sun sets, Mina hears terrifying screeches closing in on her and realizes she’s made a huge mistake. Thankfully, she comes across an out-of-place bunker just in the nick of time and finds a few other frightened people who have sought safety within its walls. Outside roam deadly creatures known as “the watchers,” and although they only come out at night, the group’s attempts to hike out of the dense forest during the day continuously fail. The Watchers was inspired by Irish folklore, and feelings of claustrophobia and unease permeate its pages.