Book Club Nominees

6 Jewish Horror Novels

by @Mantis Shrimp, curator of HOWLS book club nominees for August’s “Horror Nagila” category

Judaism is not exactly devoid of the ghastly and macabre. The Torah mentions the mysterious Azazel, which may or may not be a goat-eating demon. An aggadah (legend) tells of two ghosts who, to stave off boredom in their cemetery, would tell each other of all the disasters fated to plague farmers in the year to come. One particular medieval rabbi is even convinced that Benjamin (youngest son of Jacob) was a werewolf. And yet despite this, contemporary Jewish horror fiction – that is to say, horror fiction from an explicitly Jewish perspective, featuring Jewish characters, Jewish themes, Jewish fears – feels like a rarity. So rather than kvetch and moan, I have instead brought these rarities to you, five options for a choosing people. Five explorations of life’s darker side from a Jewish POV. It’s Horror Nagila, baby – horror, we shall rejoice!

Cover of The Tribe by Bari Wood. Cover shows a blue silhouette, shaped only like the rough outline of a man. Repeated images of the same face over and over are hovering inside the silhouette.

The Tribe by Bari Wood

When the Belzec concentration camp was liberated in 1945, no one could explain how a group of Jewish captives had not only survived but thrived, appearing better fed than their Nazi captors. Thirty-five years later in New York, the youths responsible for the murder of a rabbi’s son are found hideously slain, covered in a strange gray substance. What is the connection between these events? That is the mystery that Rachel Levy and Det. Roger Hawkins must unravel, a mystery that will hold readers spellbound as terrible truths emerge from the nightmare of the past.


Not only is The Tribe one of the infamous Paperbacks from Hell, it’s one of the (un)lucky 13 recently republished by Valancourt Books, and Grady Hendrix has waxed lyrical about Bari Wood’s strength as a writer. Wood’s first novel won the Putnam Prize, and her second (Twins) was adapted into a David Cronenberg film (Dead Ringers). But we’re not here to talk about her other books. We’re here to talk about this thrilling mixture of Jewish folklore and Holocaust horror. One goodreads review commented, “Strangley, this mass-market cheapie paperback is one of the best fictional efforts I’ve come across in helping one not-“understand”-but-“grasp” the Holocaust.” 

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

A man in a long coat and yarmulke stands in a dark underground tunnel facing away from us. He stands on a glowing magical symbol. There is the image of another man in a cloak, hood up, face obscured, hovering in the background.

Treif Magic by John Baltisberger

Ze’ev Kaplan is not your average prayer leader. Hell, he’s not even a prayer leader, despite what his friends, family, and girlfriend might think. Ze’ev leads a strange double life, as an exorcist and monster-hunter for the Jewish Community of Texas. What starts as a simple exorcism reveals him to the schemes of a sordid necromancer who will stop at nothing to kill anyone who stands in his way… Can Ze’ev beat the odds and put an end to the necromantic cult festering in the heart of Texas, or will he end up being the victim of Treif Magic?


It’s an urban fantasy horror about a secret monster-hunter in Texas. How does that not make you want to read every word of this book and then demand a Netflix adaptation? For those unfamiliar, *treif* means “not fit” or unclean,” the opposite of kosher. So, uh, spoiler alert – the magic’s gonna be bad. Baltisberger utilizes extensive footnotes, ensuring readers can grasp unfamiliar terminology and suggesting, to me at least, that the book is unapologetic in its Jewishness. Which is exactly what I’m looking for in this category.

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

Cover of The Tel Aviv Dossier by Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv. Cover shows a stack of very old yellowed papers. An ancient image, perhaps from biblical (old testament) times is on top of the stack. Drops of blood streak down the image.

The Tel Aviv Dossier by Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv

Through a city torn apart by violence they cannot comprehend, three disparate people: a documentary film-maker, a yeshiva student, and a psychotic fireman must try to survive, and try to find meaning – even if it means being lost themselves. As Tel Aviv is consumed, a strange mountain rises at the heart of the city and shows the outline of what may be another, alien world beyond. Can there be redemption there? Can the fevered rumours of a coming messiah be true? As the city loses contact with the outside world and closes in on itself, as the few surviving children play and scavenge in the ruins, can innocence survive? Experience the last days of Tel Aviv…


Any book that brings Lovecraftian and Biblical mythologies into conversation with each other has my interest. Lavie Tidhar has made waves across a few genres (primarily SciFi), even beating out Stephen King and George R. R. Martin for a World Fantasy Award in 2012. The Tel Aviv Dossier represents one of his earlier works (co-written with Nir Yaniv), so I can’t comment on how polished or not his style may be at this point. But if severed-heads-that-can-still-talk are your kind of weird, then maybe it’s time to book yourself a flight to Tel Aviv…

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

Cover of A Death: Notes of a Suicide by Zalman Shneour. Cover shows a black and white line drawing of a cityscape. Falling through the air are dozens of sheets of paper.

A Death: Notes of a Suicide by Zalman Shneour

In a Yiddish take on Notes from Underground, a dark, expressionist love affair develops in a large, unnamed Eastern European city between the young, impoverished, and violently self-loathing teacher, Shloyme—and a hungry, spiteful, and unsettlingly sensual revolver. Purchased from a friend ostensibly to protect him from the pogroms sweeping the empire, the weapon instead opens a portal to Shloyme’s innermost demons, and through it he begins his methodical mission to eradicate any remnants of life and humanity in him and pave the way for his self-destruction. A Death takes the form of a diary that follows the Jewish calendar, describing hallucinatory demons and parasitical urges as its author spends his remaining days excising all his responsibilities and acquaintances from a life now devoted to not living.


The quintessential toast in Judaism is l’chaim – “to life!” So a book dedicated to “not living” feels like the right kind of transgressive. The oldest book on this list (written in 1905), A Death features psychological demons rather than literal ones, offering a harrowing exploration of modern alienation, toxic masculinity, and violence. On the Jewish side, this book has several major factors working in its favor: it’s translated from a Jewish language (Yiddish); it centers around the Jewish calendar; and its author, Zalman Shneour, is a descendent of the founding rabbi of the Chabad movement, Shneur Zalman of Liadi. 

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

Cover of Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter by Edward M Erdelac. Cover shows a man dressed slightly like a cowboy, with a beard, hat, and John Lennon style glasses, holding an old six shooter style gun. In the background, a structure similar to a windmill is toppling and the sky is orange, like there is something in the distance on fire.

Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter by Edward M. Erdelac

A Hasidic gunslinger tracks the renegade teacher who betrayed his mystic Jewish order of astral travelers to the Great Old Ones across the demon haunted American Southwest of 1879. In this acclaimed first volume, four sequential novellas and one bonus short story chronicle the weird adventures of THE MERKABAH RIDER. In THE BLOOD LIBEL, The Rider fights to save the last survivors of a frontier Jewish settlement not only from a maddened lynch mob, but from a cult of Molech worshippers hiding in their midst. In THE DUST DEVILS, a border town is held hostage by a band of outlaws in league with a powerful Vodoun sorcerer. In HELL’S HIRED GUN, The Rider faces an ex-Confederate sharpshooter who has pledged his allegiance to Hell itself.  In THE NIGHTJAR WOMEN, The Rider drifts into a town where children cannot be born. Here an antediluvian being holds the secret to his fugitive master’s insidious plan; a plot that threatens all of Creation. Finally, never before collected, THE SHOMER EXPRESS. On a midnight train crossing the desert, a corpse turns up desecrated. Someone stalking the cars has assumed its shape, and only The Rider can stop it.


Why settle for one tale of horror when you can have five? The adventures of the Merkabah Rider (this is volume one of four, and each volume collects multiple novellas) sound high-concept and batsh*t crazy in the best of ways. (I’m picturing Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid, but a badass.) Merkabah is the Hebrew term for God’s throne-like chariot, a common trope in Jewish mysticism, so expect a wild, pulpy mash-up of mystical Judaism, the Wild West, and cosmic horror. 

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

Cover of The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros. Cover shows an evil face hovering in a red-tinted sky. Below the face on the horizon are a series of towers, a ferris wheel type spoke, and two street lamps

Honorable Mention: The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros

Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania. But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows. Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.


The only, and I repeat, only, reason this book didn’t make the official list is that it won’t be released until September 2021 (expected publication date is on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year). But a murder mystery in which the main character is possessed by the dybbuk of his best friend? Sign. Me. Up. I know one book I’m buying in September.

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

And The Winner Is…

Out of these five books, HOWLers voted to read The Tribe by Bari Wood. Join HOWL Society on Monday, August 2, 2021 to begin discussion!

*The HOWLS affiliate storefront pays a 10% commission to HOWL Society and gives a matching 10% to independent bookstores

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