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I hate the song “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” It gives me the creeps! It begins with “If you go out in the woods today…” and I’m like “LEMME STOP YOU RIGHT THERE.” I do not go into in the woods, specifically because there are things in there. Plus like a million ways to shuffle off your mortal coil. Admittedly, I am a…what’s that word?…a chicken. I am a big chicken, bawk bawk. I do not go camping because I do not want to run the risk of being eaten by a bear or bit by a snake, or chased through the woods by a man with mommy issues wearing a mask made of human flesh. You know, the usual outdoorsy things. It’s all camping horror.
Which is why scary books about people out in the woods are so effective for me. I don’t want to be out there, but I love reading about other people doing it. One of my favorite camping horror stories — which is unfortunately no longer in print — is The Summer is Ended and We Are Not Yet Saved by Joey Comeau. It was expanded from the original novella Bible Camp Bloodbath. (Which has maybe my favorite jacket description: “Martin is going to Bible Camp for the summer. He’s going to make new friends. And he’s excited, but that’s probably because nobody told him what this book is called.”)
So please join me in celebrating terrible things happening to people on hikes and rafting trips and summer camp adventures, which can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home. Please also note that like most horror, this sub-genre is mostly written by white, male-presenting authors, so if you know of any great diverse camping horror, please let us know!
The Troop by Nick Cutter
This horror novel about a Boy Scout–type troop hits the ground running. Or wriggling, actually. Scoutmaster Tim Riggs has taken his troop for a three-day camping trip to a remote little island on a lake in the Canadian wilderness. But things go horribly wrong right away when a stranger shows up. He’s very thin and very hungry and very full of things you don’t want to touch you. Suddenly, the boys are fighting for their lives against hordes of unspeakable disgustingness, plus *SHOUTS IN GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY*.
The White Road by Sarah Lotz
Simon Newman is an adrenalin chaser always hungering for views for his internet videos. After an ill-advised expedition into off-limits caverns ends in tragedy, you’d think he would learn his lesson. Spoiler: You would be wrong. Years later, looking to get his mojo back after the caverns, he signs up to climb Mount Everest. Because, you know, that’s never hard. Between the horrors of his cavern expedition, and the dangers — and thinning air — on the mountain, Simon experiences plenty of scares.
The Ritual by Adam Nevill
This is a perfect example of “don’t go in there” horror. Four college buddies decide to reunite and go camping in the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle. But when the trip isn’t as much fun as they expected, they decide to take a shortcut to their destination — and end up paying the price. Lost and hunger in the wilderness, they stumble upon an abandoned home. Stepping inside, they discover evidence of pagan sacrifice and rituals, and the friends soon learn they’ve alerted the evil in the wilderness to their presence. Good luck with that!
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Okay, this isn’t technically a “let’s go camping for funsies” story, since it is based on the real-life journey of the Donner party. You know, the story about cannibalism that made you pay attention that day in American history class? But as the families make their way to California, the families begin to worry that the terror they feel is not caused by man, but by something else. Something with a taste for human flesh. And, goodness, them all alone out there, with nothing to protect them but their wagons…
The Ruins by Scott Smith
And this is what I call “forced camping.” The two couples in this book, all American college students, are partying it up in Mexico when the brother of a friend disappears into the Mexican jungle. Against advice, they decide to trek in after him and bring him back. But now they’re up to their eyeballs in sinister surroundings, and lots of sentient slithering things at the site of ancient ruins. This is a horror novel — sorry kids, that means not everyone is coming back.
Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West To Investigate My Attempted Murder — and Solve the Riddle of Myself by Terri Jentz
And I am 100% serious when I say that if you love camping, or are considering going camping, you should skip the description of this book. Because the first 150 pages is one of the most intense, terrifying true crime stories I have ever read, and it still haunts me almost two decades after I read it. Terri Jentz was on a cross-country biking trip with her Yale roommate in the summer of 1977. One night, after they had set up camp for the night and gone to sleep, a man drove his truck onto them in their tent, then got out and struck them with an axe before driving away. Jentz and her roommate suffered horrifying injuries, but both survived. The crime was never solved, and years later, Jentz returned to the town to try and find out what really happened.
The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois, Rhonda Mullins (Translator)
And if uninhibited nonsensical violence is your cup of tea, then do I have a book for you. Scary camping story! Murderous children! Terrifying bodies of water! More gore than you can shake a pointy stick at! The whole premise of the book is that a group of young children and three chaperones go camping in the woods — but one of the children has been waiting for an opportunity just like this to practice his homicidal skills. And he’s not going to let this trip go to waste.
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
Winifred Allen and her three friends set off on what is supposed to be a rejuvenating girls’ trip, hiking and rafting the white waters of Maine. (Side note: A lot of scary books are set in Maine.) But after a rafting accident leaves them stranded, the women must now make their way through the secluded Maine wilderness to find help. They think they are saved when they come upon a camp site, but *cue Deliverance banjo music.* Winifred and her friends are about to learn that they will have to rescue themselves.
Camp Murderface by Saundra Mitchell and Josh Berk
And, last but not least, this is a fun scary camping book for all ages, but it is also a great starting point for younger readers. It’s 1983 in Ohio and Corryn Quinn and Tez Jones are excited to spend the summer at the newly reopened and Camp Sweetwater. They don’t realize that a camp being shut down for decades for mysterious circumstances is Red Flags 101. And that all the laughter, and toasted marshmallows, and camp camaraderie won’t be enough to scare away the supernatural. Will Corryn and Tez survive the summer? I will fully admit I bought the book just because of the title. I mean, Camp Murderface. How great is that??!)
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