Fifteen Fabulous, Frightful Novels

The other day a friend asked what my top ten-fifteen horror/suspense novels were, and I said I’d give a try to listing them. Time is passing, and I’d better do it before Halloween’s gone, so here they are in unranked format. I’ve limited myself to one book per author, so keep your salt shaker handy, but if you haven’t read these books, well, you know the drill…

scott smith the ruinsThe Ruins, by Scott Smith. You know that one about how things go bad sometimes? But you know that, somehow, one way or another, they’re eventually bound to turn out all right? Scott Smith never heard it. This is one of the novels that comes to mind for me when people talk about “unrelenting” books. A holiday in Mexico takes a disastrous wrong turn and exposes young people in the prime of their lives to multiple terrors. Spoiler: they don’t come back! Part of Smith’s amazing accomplishment with this book is that you know pretty early on that it’s over for them, and that their only escape is going to be death, and yet you still care, still want them to survive.

cover of the dark halfThe Dark Half, by Stephen King. This novel is one of many I could have picked by King, and it’s less cited as an influence than a dozen (Hell, two dozen) other things he’s written, but it’s tight, grim, well plotted, and the characters are real. If someone asks me which King book I recommend, but they don’t like reading long books, I usually say either this one or Salem’s Lot, and the latter gets enough love.

the red tree coverThe Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Among the best novels I’ve read that deal with haunting, in every sense of that word. It’s clear by novel’s end that something has gone deeply wrong for the protagonist, but the reader may never fully know the nature of that wrongness. I got goosebumps writing that sentence. Ignore the cover, which was a mind-bendingly terrible choice for this book, and doomed it to a lower profile in the market than it might otherwise have attained. In another timeline, this was the book that scooted Kiernan out of genre and into a Shirley Jackson-like mainstream position. Speaking of which…

cover for we have always lived in the castleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson’s influence looms over this list in a dozen ways. People like to point to “The Lottery” or The Haunting of Hill House as her masterpieces, and I’d say each is respectively her most well known short story and novel, but this novel is the one that rocked my world. I am an inveterate re-reader of books I love, stretching to dozens of reads for some titles, but I have never been able to finish this book again in its entirety. Amazing.

cover of the howlingThe Howling, by Gary Brandner. This werewolf novel was part of what turned me on to horror. It spawned a series of movies that range from good to regrettable, but if that’s the only thing you know, check out the book. It’s a zero-fucks-given kind of novel, with no visible pretensions to greatness, nor aspirations to literature, part of the secret to its excellence. Brandner omitted needless words in writing it, and it’s a taut, frightening book. Also, it’s the first book I remember reading that might reasonably be called “erotic,” though I don’t think it’s the most commonly used label for the book. Despite the, uh, very large fang on the cover.

cover of midnight sunMidnight Sun, by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is the horror writer’s horror writer, a living master whose novels and short stories will be teaching lessons long after he himself has left this vale of tears. It wasn’t the first Campbell novel that I read, but it was the first where I felt everything click together into an awe-inducing whole. I’d read some Algernon Blackwood by that point, to which this book owes a debt, but here I found a blend of mysticism, ancient rituals, and fearsome nature all wrapped up into a novel. The prose is the typically wry, seemingly light stuff that the author regularly uses to build dread with each word.

sheltering sky coverThe Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. Okay, this arguably falls into the “trying too hard” category, in terms of putting books in the “horror” box, but insofar as horror is not a genre, rather an emotion that certain novels arouse? This counts. Bowles’ fiction is a grand mash-up of exoticism, orientalism, and postwar nihilo-primitivism (is that a thing? I’m saying it’s a thing) that blends worlds. I’ve always thought of the characters in this novel as the wounded, latter-day equivalents of the group in The Sun Also Rises, searching in vain for meaning away from Europe, indulging in cheap vices and increasingly hollow acts of civilization en route to brutalization and death.

cover of silence of the lambsThe Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. Is there a more well known contemporary suspense novel? Well, yes, because this novel’s just shy of thirty years old, so presumably something by Gillian Flynn or Stieg Larsson would fit the bill and be contemporary, but Thomas Harris’ masterpiece hangs over its successors like the shadows of giant moth wings. This novel sits at the outer rim of suspense, as it’s the last time Hannibal Lecter is left to bloom in the darkness, unrationalized and terrifying for what the reader doesn’t know about him. I loved the television show Hannibal, but it was a very different kind of story than this book, and the Lecter novels that Harris wrote following this one were not, to put it midly, on the same level.

the house next door coverThe House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons. Ranks among the best haunted house novels out there. My appreciation for this book has only grown over time. It was creepy and terrifying when I read it as a teenager, but as time passed and I understood how Siddons mapped the terrors onto class slippage, I started to think this novel as actually great. Beyond which, having now lived in the South for almost a decade, I feel like I know the people she’s writing about, and that I have on occasion been to or seen their houses. The exact location is never quite articulated, but that works here. Siddons pays obligatory attention to the mechanics of the haunting, but they aren’t the focus of the book, not really. The terror, and the horror, are the focus.

cover of rebeccaRebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

And that’s really all there is to say. If that doesn’t remind you of your regard for this excellent novel, or drive you to learn who or what Manderley is, you’re probably reading the wrong list.

cover for the killing kindThe Killing Kind, by John Connolly. Third in the author’s Charlie Parker series of books, I read this one first, and it’s my favorite. Mass graves, spiders, terror in the Canadian wilderness. It’s a lot to handle. It also pulls off the trick of being readable in its own right outside of the series, which I always appreciate. The terrors and suspense here are ratcheted up by prose that moves smoothly, gliding shark-like through a narrative that could have gotten bogged down by many things. It doesn’t.

dracula coverDracula, by Bram Stoker. What am I going to say that thousands of readers, reviewers, critics, and yahoos haven’t already said? Not a lot, friends, not a lot. It’s a book that keeps on giving, year after year. 120 years after its publication, this novel keeps going and going, finding new audiences and new adaptations, literary and cinematic. The driving anxieties of the book—immigration, class anxiety, disease, women’s roles, insanity—are no less in play now than they were in Stoker’s time, although the stage on which they play out has shifted.

rosemary's baby coverRosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin. The best novel ever written about witches. Yes, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is great, likewise The Witches and The Witching Hour, but none are as good. Also, the basis for the best horror movie ever made. Need I say more?

 

something wicked coverSomething Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. This novel captures childhood, the Midwest, carnivals, and nostalgia in a way that no book before or since has managed to do, and its magic is as alive today as it was when it was new. I expect Cooger and Dark will be entertaining people for years to come.

Another year, any of the following might have made the list: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Interview with the Vampire, It, Frankenstein, Threshold, etc. The list is notably lacking writers of color, as well as (mostly) authors outside of North America or the U.K., and I expect I’d be writing a different list if I’d been born twenty years later, or indeed twenty years from now. Let’s do this again in 2036, hmm?

What’s that? Oh, right! Fifteen.

cover the hellbound heartI’m going to cheat here and say The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker. It’s not a novel, but a novella, by almost any definition. Barker’s written other novels, but I feel like The Hellbound Heart has gone on to a novel-like life of its own far exceeding that of most of his other books. Part of that’s the transmedia Hellraiser franchise, but honestly the book itself is simply that good. Strange, elliptical, and balancing very well Barker’s narrative urges and his descriptive urges, it’s a story that deserves to be read in its own right, and appreciated for the terror that it delivers.

Finding Critical Reviews of Horror and Weird Fiction

man on motorcycle

Turn left at Amazon, stop at Goodreads, go three sites north…

Early in October I asked friends to weigh in with recommendations for the sites they liked to visit to find critical reviews of horror or weird fiction. This question was inspired partly by having read too many “reviews” that consist of plot summary or praise, and partly by having read a really thoughtful critical review that, while imperfect, was judicious, engaged at length with the text, and seemed to me to fulfill the basic requirements of a critical reviews.

When asking people I mentioned my habits, which include…

People replied with a number of sites, blogs, etc., some of which I visit occasionally, some of which were new to me, some of which don’t publish regularly.

Please feel free to suggest other sites in comments. Please don’t suggest sites that are there primarily to publicize self-published fiction, sites that don’t review books at length, sites that have never given a book less than a glowing review, etc.

Note: I welcome suggestions of resources that review underrepresented writers and writing: women, racial or ethnic minority, translated horror/weird, LGBTQIA, non-English language, etc.

A HEX on Richmond!

IMG_2796Yesterday was a bad (or was it good?) day for witches in Richmond. Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt came through town on his U.S. tour, which included a talk and signing at the ever-excellent Fountain Bookstore. If you weren’t able to make his reading last night, Fountain does have on hand for you signed copies of his first novel translated into English: Hex.

I’ve been enjoying reading Thomas’ novel from the library, and I was delighted to pick up my own copy last night. It has appealed to many readers, including Stephen King. It’s a witch tale for the 21st century that will appeal to anyone who likes haunts mashed up with YouTube, The Cabin in the Woods, or the like:

Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay ’til death. Whoever settles, never leaves.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened or the consequences will be too terrible to bear.

The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into dark, medieval practices of the distant past.

 

eye-sewing kit

“Just squint. This won’t hurt a bit.”

If you were able to attend the reading in person, you got the pleasure of receiving a creepy little giveaway that Thomas prepared with the help of some friends: an eye-sewing kit. Why, pray tell, would you sew eyes? Read the book to learn more, naturally.

My wife and I had the pleasure of showing Thomas around the city during the day, and we visited various places apropos for a horror writer, including the Poe Museum and Hollywood Cemetery, among others. Richmond, which has lately been burning up all those 10-best-cities-for-whatever lists, has a vibrant arts and literary scene and history, which we talked about all day, from Poe to murals. We can’t wait to see Thomas again, hopefully on his next visit to Richmond.

At the Poe Museum, photo by Kyla Tew

At the Poe Museum, photo by Kyla Tew

Is Thomas Olde Heuvelt coming to your neck of the woods? Maybe: he’s on a six-week tour, the longest ever by a Dutch author, and he’s going to be visiting many places. Check it out, and check his website for updates:

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The Horror That May or May Not Be Horror

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsThis spring I gave a paper at ICFA37 about the life of horror fiction after the boom of 1970-1995, wherein I talked about different waves of authors, nomenclatures of horror, and about the appearance of books like Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. That paper has been revised and slightly expanded for publication as “The Life and Afterlife of Horror Fiction,” and you can read it over at Postscripts to Darkness.

Looking for a more cinematic flavor of horror, but text-y? Try Orrin Grey’s new book, Monsters from the Vault, which collects his monster movie columns from Innsmouth Free Press. I haven’t read it yet, but I did pre-order it, and Orrin on movies is always a pleasure.

Looking for a chapbook celebrating the bicentennial of Frankenstein’s conception? Coming June 18, Selena Chambers has you covered via Tallhat Press.

Looking for carnal fiction, penned by authors with the blackest of hearts? Molly Tanzer’s new mag, Congress, is alive and kicking.

The Ransacking of Expectations

cover tanzer pleasure merchantI went into Molly Tanzer‘s most recent outing, The Pleasure Merchant [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads], with delighted anticipation. Molly (disclosure: my friend) is the kind of author who is interviewed in Locus, noted by NPR for her steampunk genderswappery, and publishes whatever she wants. You liked that werewolf short story? Have some incestuous Lovecraftian twins. You liked incestuous Lovecraftian twins? Have a wigmaker’s apprentice. It’s kind of like that with her: if you like her writing, you have to follow where she goes, without too many expectations in terms of precisely what she’ll be writing. Because she writes well, it’s an unmitigated joy, but—baby—if you like More of the Same?—if more of the same makes you feel comfortable?—Molly Tanzer don’t care. (Although I’m perhaps a bit of a liar on this, as word on the street is that she does have a Vermilion sequel forthcoming, so British/Chinese  psychopomp Lou Merriwether will ride again.)

The Pleasure Merchant is hard to classify, as reflected by the fairly tentative level of genre-tagging over at Goodreads, and Amazon’s robots are reasonably sure that it’s “genre fiction,” but aren’t quite clear what kind of genre it is. Whatever! It’s an amazing mashup of history, fantasy, horror, and… well, “bawdy” is actually a great way to describe it. Is there sex? Reader, it’s one of those amazing books where there’s copulation, libidinal exultation, and naughty language around every corner, and yet it’s not particularly pornographic: everything on the page serves a purpose beyond titillation, whether advancing plot or revealing character.

This novel takes the Pygmalion story and embeds it in 18th century England, exploring class and gender and medicine along the way. I read it with the kind of eye that one has with historical fiction, curious to learn more of historical norms, practices, events, and culture, along with a well-told story. The Pleasure Merchant does not disappoint, following the aforementioned wigmaker’s apprentice through the turns and reversals of fortune, weaving in and around picaresque set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in Fielding.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to people who like novels. A particular genre of novel? Not really, although it might not suit prudes very well. To enjoy this book you have to have a taste for living characters inhabiting a pleasing narrative that occurs in well-depicted settings. It has the scope and sprawl that we seek in novels, and the interweaving plots and themes. In a literary world that is overcrowded, featuring so many books that feel virtually write-by-the-numbers,  The Pleasure Merchant is a strange and wondrous journey that should delight all readers.

adam nevill the ritual coverIn a rather different thematic vein lies Adam Nevill‘s The Ritual [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. I knew that I was in for something other than a monster-and-rituals-in-the-wilderness sort of narrative, but—augh, reader!—the opening half of the book is so compelling I sank into it and found myself developing unwarranted expectations. The parts of this novel set in the up-near-the-Arctic-Circle Scandinavian wilds are gut-wrenchingly tense portrayals of people degenerating in harrowing circumstances. It was like Scott Smith rewrote “The Wendigo” as a novel and gave it to Mary Oliver for a line-edit. Strange and beautiful.

And then, halfway through, the type and pitch of the narrative changes utterly. It goes from one kind of harrowing to another, and this was the point where the pace at which I read slowed considerably, and it never picked up again. I think this is in part because the arc of the narrative follows a more or less standard set of peaks and valleys, and then it hits Norwegian black metal cultists and the needle starts flying all over the place. I knew from the book description that this turn was coming, but when it did, it became (for me) a much different book. My investment waned along with the tension and dread that Nevill so carefully built in the powerful first act. Comments on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. suggest that some readers have a similar experience, though many others didn’t have any problem with this.

I recommend The Ritual to people who are versed in literary horror of the weird stripe looking for a flip-the-script sort of experience. It features notes that will appeal to readers of Algernon Blackwood, James Dickey, William Golding, and perhaps Joseph Payne Brennan. It’s not a book I would offer to someone new to the genre, as I expect that many readers will wind up thrown for a loop without awareness of the themes that it varies, and some knowledge of the subgenres it’s mashing up. That said, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it here, and I urge you to give it a try and come to your own conclusions.

ICFA 37 & The Horror of It All

iafa logoICFA 37 promises to be exciting, and the preliminary program has been posted. I’m looking forward to talking with friends and colleagues old and new. My activities are mostly horror-related, and include…

Thursday, March 17, 2016 8:30-10:00 a.m., Dogwood
(HL) Paranormal Publishing and Pedagogy
[Paper session. I’ll be giving “Anxiety, Nomenclature, and Epistemology after the Horror Boom.”]

Friday, March 18, 2016  10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Oak
(HL/FL) Cosmic Panic: The Continuing Influence of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
[Panel discussion on Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” chaired by the estimable Sean Moreland.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016 10:30-12:00 a.m., Cove
(HL/FL/VPAA) Folkloric Monsters Old and New
[Paper session I’m chairing.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016  2:00-3:30 p.m., Cove
Words & Worlds: Prose I
[Long-running ICFA group reading series, in which I’m delighted to be included.]

For Your Listening Enjoyment: The Outer Dark

Do you like weird fiction? The odds are reasonable if you are reading this that you do, and the odds seem conversely small that, if you do, you haven’t heard about Scott Nicolay‘s new radio show, The Outer Dark, [Project iRadio][iTunes] where he interviews leading lights in the Weird. If you haven’t, however, check it out!

Thus far I’ve only listened to his interview of Livia Llewellyn, but it was a corker. Livia says miscellaneous interesting and horrifying things, and Scott interviews her from a position of real knowledge about the Weird, which not every interviewer has. This week’s interviewee is Mr. Gaunt himself, John Langan, and previous interviewees have included S.P. Mikowski and  Jayaprakash Satyamurthy. I have a lengthy patch of home improvement looming in just a couple days and expect to catch up with the rest of the interviews then.

logo for the outer dark radio show