The first movie I saw in theaters was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s perhaps my earliest memory, I was two years old. My brother, who was three, was afraid of the beast and had to be escorted out of the theater. I, however, was quite taken with the monster. I think about this experience a lot because I’m fairly certain the movie romanticized unhealthy relationship dynamics and instilled false hope of someday being gifted a library, and because of this line delivered via dramatic voiceover: “For who could ever learn to love a beast ?”
This question came back to me over the years—usually when one of my friends or I was dating someone beastly, or when I was feeling beastly myself. It came up once again when I set out to write my werewolf book, Such Sharp Teeth. I began to think about body horror and romance, about how often they intersect and why. There’s the element of monstrous desire, but deeper than that, it seems to me at the core of both is control. A loss of control over the body, over the heart. A forced surrender. Inescapable vulnerability.
What could be more terrifying than revealing your true form and hoping to be loved as you are? Or falling in love with someone who might not be as they appear? And love can be transformative, but is that always a good thing—or could it be a very bad thing?
The books on this list blend elements of body horror and romance, both conventionally and unconventionally, with beautifully grim and sometimes gruesome results.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
“It is still comforting, of a fashion, to think about my Leah, although such thoughts come attendant on the usual wave of grief that my Leah is not who I have with me now.”
When Miri’s wife Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission gone awry, it becomes evident that the wife Miri sent to sea is not the same wife who came back. Armfield’s stunning novel explores the glory of falling in love and the devastation of it slipping through your fingers. There are moments of shudder-inducing body horror, but what’s truly scary is reckoning with the fleeting, mysterious nature of love.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
“I stand naked, looking at Jude, concentrating on becoming one hundred percent water so that I could slip down the drain and out to sea or at least I could slip down Jude’s wrong pipe and fill his lungs, lovingly washing away every breath he takes .”
In Samantha Hunt’s The Seas, our 19-year-old unnamed protagonist suspects she’s a mermaid. Her father vanished into the sea years ago and left her to pine in a small, sad coastal town. She’s hopelessly in love with a haunted local veteran, Jude, though their bond proves complicated. More poignant and heart-wrenching than horrifying, The Seas is about how grief, loneliness, and love—especially our first love—can alter us forever.
House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson
“We bleed for those we love most.”
In Alexis Henderson’s deliciously gothic novel, indentured bloodmaids must dedicate themselves to their noble-class mistress or master by providing their blood for consumption. In exchange, they’re rewarded handsomely. When Marion Shaw leaves the slums behind to work as a bloodmaid for Countess Lisavet, she’s enthralled by her extravagant new lifestyle and striking mistress but unable to shake the nagging suspicion that something is amiss. Lisavet soon takes a special interest in Marion, but is it true love, or will Lisavet (literally) bleed Marion dry? There’s some swoony, sultry gothic romance, some dizzying body horror, but perhaps what’s most riveting about the novel is how it ruminates on toxic relationships.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
“He didn’t have to have him. He just had to be near him. It was enough.”
It’s difficult to distill the sprawling brilliance of Violet Kupersmith’s novel, which weaves together multiple narratives across different timelines, seamlessly incorporates folklore, ghosts, and monsters, and explores themes of love and violence and revenge, of identity and colonialism. To save from spoiling anything, I will only say there are several instances where love—pure, genuine love, and selfish love—proves horrifying and/or transformative. It’s sometimes bittersweet, and sometimes downright terrifying.
The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig
“…I only want your happiness your happiness and mine ours both please eat you need our strength.”
Molly Pohlig’s inventive novel, set during the Victorian era, centers around 28-year-old spinster Iseult, who is tortured by the bitter ghost of her mother Beatrice. Beatrice died giving birth to Iseult, and now haunts her daughter’s body, constantly uttering cruelties, driving Iseult to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Iseult’s equally cruel father exercises his control by attempting to marry her off—unsuccessfully, until Jacob Vinke enters the picture. Jacob has silver skin, a side-effect of a medical treatment that has made him, like Iseult, undesirable. Will they be two misfits in love? Maybe. But Pohlig’s novel has more to say about the ghosts that roam under our skin and the struggle of taking full possession over our bodies and our fates.
Things Have Got Worse Since We Last Spoke and Other Misfortunes by Eric LaRocca
“What have you done today to deserve your eyes?”
In LaRocca’s gripping novella, two women connect in a chat room in the early 2000s and form an online relationship. Lost, lonely Agnes is quick to fall for the generous and enigmatic Zoe. Their skewed power balance is clear from the start, but how this dynamic plays out is truly shocking. The dread escalates as love turns to obsession, and both physical and emotional boundaries are tested. The conclusion is as heart-rending as it is stomach-turning. This novella delivers on the body horror, but it also captures something specific and profound about the need for connection and the early aughts of the internet.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”
As most of us grow up under the impression that Frankenstein’s monster is a big green oaf with bolts sticking out of its neck, reading Mary Shelley’s horror classic for the first time can be jarring. The Creature in the novel is a gentle, intelligent soul trapped in a monstrous form, aware his appearance prohibits the love and connection he craves. The Creature’s dilemma taps into the fear that we won’t be embraced and accepted for who we are because of how we look, that our love won’t be reciprocated because of the superficial. It’s the most obliterating intersection of romance and body horror, where the former can’t exist because of the laughter. Reanimation and revenge plot aside, it’s pretty relatable.