The best dark historical fiction

Michael Stewart Author Of Ill Will
By Michael Stewart

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by dark fiction since I discovered Edgar Allan Poe at the age of ten. I don’t know why I like to immerse myself in such troubling worlds, perhaps, by experiencing the worst of human nature vicariously, these texts give us the opportunity to really get to grips with who we are as people and what we are capable of. I’ve written eight works of fiction. Wuthering Heights has captivated me, and I've always been fascinated by the two mysterious holes in the narrative: where is Heathcliff from? And where does he go when he is missing for three years? I wrote a book, Ill Will, that attempts to answer these questions.

I wrote...

Ill Will

By Michael Stewart,

Book cover of Ill Will

What is my book about?

I am William Lee: brute; liar, and graveside thief. But you will know me by another name. 

Heathcliff has left Wuthering Heights, and is travelling across the moors to Liverpool in search of his past. Along the way, he saves Emily, the foul-mouthed daughter of a Highwayman, from a whipping, and the pair journey on together. Roaming from graveyard to graveyard, making a living from Emily’s apparent ability to commune with the dead, the pair lie, cheat and scheme their way across the North of England. And towards the terrible misdeeds – and untold riches – that will one day send Heathcliff home to Wuthering Heights.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Why did I love this book?

This book is only loosely based on the events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, but through the Miltonic grandeur of the language, and the deeply unsettling violence of the world McCarthy builds, this vision of Hell on Earth has rarely been matched. Despite the blood and guts, the prose is starkly beautiful.

By Cormac McCarthy,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Blood Meridian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is an epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America's westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West. Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

Witchfinder General

By Ronald Bassett,

Book cover of Witchfinder General

Why did I love this book?

Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General, was one of the most venal and vicious Englishmen to ever live. This is a brutal novel, a veritable catalogue of horror, but a necessary lesson in man’s inhumanity and corruption. There is an authenticity here that will but ice in your marrow. 

By Ronald Bassett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Witchfinder General as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1643. England is at war with itself.

While bitter battles rage between King and Parliament, local magistrates have more power, and less accountability, than ever before.

Taking advantage of the tense atmosphere and lax prosecution procedures, Matthew Hopkins, an insignificant lawyer and self-appointed Witchfinder General, travels across East Anglia accusing the aged, the confused and the poor of satanic crimes against their neighbours.

With every innocent death, his purse grows heavier, as he satisfies his lust for power.

But his dealings with one particular young woman make him a powerful enemy in the form of Ralph Margery – a captain…

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead,

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Why did I love this book?

This novel is fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. It is about a runaway slave called Cora, and it takes us from plantation bondage, on an odyssey through the dark corners of American life in the 19th century. It does this through the magical realist device of an underground railroad. The characters jump off the page and the tense and gripping plotting will have your glands sweating and your blood pumping. 

By Colson Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Underground Railroad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime' Guardian

'Luminous, furious, wildly inventive' Observer

'Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year' Stylist

'Dazzling' New York Review of Books

Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the…

Sugar Money

By Jane Harris,

Book cover of Sugar Money

Why did I love this book?

Another slavery narrative that doesn’t pull any punches. Set in Martinique 1765, it tells the tale of brothers Emile and Lucien, who are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, with a mission. They must return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back 42 slaves claimed by English invaders. A gruesomely compelling story.

By Jane Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sugar Money as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The stunning return from the Orange Prize shortlisted author of The Observations and Gillespie and I

'Pitches you headfirst into this outstanding, heartbreaking story of siblings, slavery and the savagery of the colonial past.' SUNDAY EXPRESS

'Harris builds a lush sense of place, and the pace and tension of a rip-roaring adventure here, with derring-do and double-crossing.' THE TIMES

'Through masterful detail, Harris shows the dehumanisation of the brothers and their fellow slaves . . . Beautifully cadenced.' IRISH TIMES

Martinique, 1765, and brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, with a mission. They must…

The North Water

By Ian McGuire,

Book cover of The North Water

Why did I love this book?

A 19th-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp, and highly original novel. In Henry Drax, we have one of the most twisted antagonists in historical fiction. First-class writing and exemplary research, this is an authentic trip into the heart of darkness. A novel free of sentimentality. 

By Ian McGuire,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The North Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A ship sets sail with a killer on board . . .
1859. A man joins a whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle. Having left the British Army with his reputation in tatters, Patrick Sumner has little option but to accept the position of ship's surgeon on this ill-fated voyage. But when, deep into the journey, a cabin boy is discovered brutally killed, Sumner finds himself forced to act. Soon he will face an evil even greater than he had encountered at the…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the USA Mexico border, brothers, and the arctic?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the USA Mexico border, brothers, and the arctic.

The USA Mexico Border Explore 23 books about the USA Mexico border
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