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Paranormal: Dark Fantasy for Teens and Its Appeals

by Tom Reynolds

*This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of RA News.*

Many teen fantasy readers enjoy books that are atmospheric, brooding, creepy, and sometimes violent with exciting, even shocking, plots. These readers love dark fantasy.

Dark fantasy is paranormal fiction that mixes fantasy and horror elements, particularly magic and violence. Some of the common elements include a bleak, brooding, gritty, or gruesome tone and characters who are outsiders because of supernatural abilities or disturbing pasts. Common subgenres of dark fantasy include gothic fiction and urban fantasy which have a strong sense of place and magical realism with its dreamlike imagery. Altered fairy tales or classics with a disturbing tone can also be called dark fantasy. Obsessive or destructive love is a common theme with strong appeal for teenagers.

The origins of dark fantasy for teens can be traced back as early as the 1980s.  Books that stand out are The Dark Angel Trilogy by Ann Meredith Pierce, The Third Eye by Lois Duncan, Fade by Robert Cormier, and Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause. In 2002, Holly Black broke new ground with her gritty urban fantasy Tithe as did Neil Gaiman with his dark and moody Coraline. Finally, Midwinter Blood won the 2014 Michael Printz award recognizing what teen readers already knew -- dark fantasy could be a noteworthy, as well as indulgent, read.

Recent Notable Dark Fantasy Titles for Teens

Compulsion by Martina Boone
Conflicted after the death of her shut-in mother, Barrie is sent to live with her aunt on Watson Island, where bitter rivalries exist and spirits haunt its residents and protect its secrets. Using her supernatural ability to find the lost, Barrie hopes to discover those secrets in this Southern Gothic, paranormal romance with a strong sense of place.

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Dorothy Must Die by Paige, D. M.
Amy Gumm is whisked away via tornado to find an Oz quite different from the one known and loved in popular culture. The good characters are now evil and vice versa. Dorothy, now a tyrant, must die, and Amy is the hero Oz needs. This is a fast-paced, action-packed, and gruesome retelling of the famous childhood classic.

The Fall by Griffin, Bethany

Madeline Usher and her twin brother suffer from a strange fit-inducing catatonia that has plagued her family for generations. Slowly, she realizes the crumbling ancient mansion she lives in is the cause of her ailments. In addition, the house has a dark and jealous power that will do anything to stop her from leaving in this brilliantly atmospheric and creepy retelling of Poe's classic The Fall of the House of Usher.

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King
Angry and struggling to understand her mother's suicide, Glory O'Brien and her best friend Ellie begin to see terrifying visions of a future civil war after they drink the ashes of a mummified bat. Readers will enjoy the voice of Glory, whose inner thought life may appear at times both delusional and brilliant.  This is a thought-provoking and character-driven example of magical realism.

Half Bad by Sally Green
In this bleak, action-packed urban fantasy, set in a modern England, witches and humans live side-by-side, but white witches hunt down black ones. The white witches are holding Nathan captive because of his mixed parentage, in the hope that he will kill his notorious black witch father. Sensitive readers may find scenes of torture difficult.

Hellhole by Gina Damico
Awkward and overwhelmed by worry about his bedridden mother, Max Kilgore literally digs up the devil while searching for dinosaur bones. Now he has a devil living in his basement, and no matter what he does, his situation just keeps getting worse in this darkly humorous fantasy.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
In a world filled with supernatural beings, talking animals, and monsters, a group of special children, called peculiars, flee for their lives from their island home with evil wights and hollowgasts in hot pursuit.  The children now seek to find the one being that can restore their beloved protector, Miss Peregrine, to human form in this atmospheric and creepy fantasy.

The Messengers by Edward Hogan
In this haunting, fast-paced novel, Frances suffers from blackouts after which she creates disturbing drawings of others' imminent death. She is a Messenger and feels compelled to deliver these drawings to each would-be victim. Frances refuses to believe she can’t intervene to save those she knows will die.

Midwinter Blood by Marcus Sedgwick
This intricately plotted novel of mystery and memory follows two recurring characters, Eric and Merle, whose lives intersect through time on an isolated Nordic island. Author Sedgwick follows the lovers through a series of stories moving in reverse from the present to a startling beginning in the distant past.

Portraits of Celina by Sue Whiting
Celina disappeared 40 years ago. When 16-year-old Bayley finds Celina's clothes in a long vacant family home, she experiences creepy flashbacks and becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Celina in this edgy, paranormal mystery.

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier
Set in the violent Razorhurst District of 1930's Sydney Australia, this intricately plotted, historical urban fantasy follows two very different girls -- the prized prostitute of a female gang leader and a street urchin, both haunted by ghosts -- – who fight to survive in the  days after they meet over the body of  a murdered gangster.

Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
In this mystical, offbeat, multigenerational novel, Ava Lavender, age 16 and born with wings, narrates the story of her family, each member born with an oddity of appearance or special ability. A family plagued by obsessive love and resultant tragedy.

Undertow by Michael Buckley
The unexpected arrival of an underwater race of sea creatures on Coney Island generates hysteria and mob violence in this dark, romantic, and action-packed urban fantasy. "Wild thing" Lyric Walker has heard all the rumors and seen the growing violence that has turned the beach into a concentration camp. But she's not prepared for the secret that connects her family to the aliens who have invaded her home.

Dark Fantasy and the Mixed Genre Phenomena

With the acclaim surrounding Midwinter Blood, the 2014 Printz Award winner, dark fantasy written for teenagers has today reached a new level of popularity. While authors like Sedgwick and Holly Black will continue to write great dark fantasy fiction, today's dark fantasy is part of a trend particularly prevalent in young adult fiction, where various genres are mixed to create stories that are exciting and express feelings and fears that resonate with teenagers. Margo Lanagan's fiction mixes supernatural and folklore-inspired elements. The paranormal is central to Kate Karyus Quinn's creepy, horror fiction. Elizabeth Miles has written a high-drama urban fantasy series, Fury, while Adele Griffin's Tighter, and Francine Prose's The Turning rework Henry James' gothic thriller, The Turn of the Screw.

Dark fantasy with its creepy or gruesome tone, quirky characters, and gritty writing style will continue to be popular with teen readers.


Dark Fantasy is not a genre term in NoveList, but there are several ways to find dark fantasy for your teens:

  1. Combine genre terms in your search. 

    GN horror stories AND GN fantasy fiction AND RL 2

    GN dystopian fiction AND GN fantasy fiction AND RL 2

    FYI:  RL 2 means teen reading level. Add it to any Boolean search.
  2. Check out the appeal terms cataloged for the books on this list.

Compulsion by Martina Boone: gruesome.

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier: menacing and gritty.

The Fall by Bethany Griffin: creepy.

  1. Check out the read-alikes on the right side of every book record in NoveList.
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Tom Reynolds is a librarian, writer, the author of Teen Reading Connections and the novel Rudy Becker, Stargazer.