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.

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A Head Full of Ghosts in a Very Busy Room

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsLast week I finished reading Paul Tremblay‘s A Head Full of Ghosts [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads]. Early praise for it was very good, and the reputation it has grown even in a year is suggestive of a book of quality. The subtlety of it can’t be emphasized enough, partly because the book grapples head-on with The Exorcist, reality TV culture, metafiction, and the epistolary tradition. It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious book, and all the more so because it’s not a doorstopper. I love a short novel, and this one is a well-made UFC fighter of a book, rangy and able to use a bunch of different strikes, chokes, locks, and kicks to do its thing.  And all the while that it is doing those things, it is building with repetition, diction, and well-chosen details a subtle atmosphere of dread that is still with me, even now.

As it also turns out, I’m very glad I waited to read it. The Venn diagram of horror, literary horror, weird fiction, dark fiction, and literary-fiction-that-is-dark is larger than ever these day. Once upon a time, there was only so much of it in any given year. In a thread over on a publisher’s Facebook page the other day, the roll call of what’s coming out this year—in short fiction collections alone—was formidable in length, something like 25 books. Add another 25 novels or standalone novellas, and it’s past the number of books I generally read in a year, and that’s before even getting to the recent surge in weird/literary chapbooks.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing a talk from Kelly Link at the University of Richmond, “A Vampire Is a Flexible Metaphor,” which covers some of the same territory as a 2013 interview with the author. Link is a living master of fantastic short fiction, so it was instructive to hear her talk at some length about the authors she has read and currently reads, and about the importance of returning to deep wells. To focus on fiction from 1960 or 1910 necessarily means that you won’t read all of the exciting books of 2016, but Link’s enduring passion for authors like Joan Aiken, Shirley Jackson, etc. is clear and instructive, even as she spoke lyrically about the strength of a number of authors writing today.

All of that to say, I think that A Head Full of Ghosts is a standout novel and worth reading. I felt something moving inside me as I turned the pages, perhaps the kind of unrest that will ultimately lead to deeper reflection, and that alone would make me want to tell other readers about it, even if it weren’t a pleasure to read. So, you know, go check out A Head Full of Ghosts, and see if you wind up with something unexpected taking hold of you as well.

 

Shirley Jackson, Dark Visionary, Revealer of Human Frailty, Empress of All, For Whose New Book We Give Thanks

shirley jackson portraitIf you haven’t heard, today is the release day for the new (!) book from Shirley Jackson, writer extraordinaire, best known for… well, if you’re reading this, surely I don’t have to tell you. I have not yet acquired Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, but I will. Ordinarily these sort of books are full of juvenilia, crappy also-rans, or whatever bits & bobs the literary executors have been able to scare up.  Online excerpts of this book, however, suggest it’s going to be fucking sweet. So, hey, if you somehow hadn’t heard, check it out. [Amazon|B&N|Indiebound]

shirley jackson book cover

Blowing the Doors Off Those Crypts

vintage halloween costumes~

The better to see you with…

Lately horror and the Weird have each been going great guns, entering an efflorescence unlike anything we’ve seen for decades. Tobias Carroll put up a fine essay at Electric Literature the other day about the state of literary horror—”‘Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them’: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations.” It captures the breadth of the authors who are making free with all things horrific these days, often in places where the word “horror” previously was unwelcome. Whenever I encounter a meaningful and unapologetic treatment of literary horror (or literary fantasy, for that matter) I feel a kind of excitement that goes bone deep.

Genre and literary snobs look down their noses at each other, particularly around formations like “literary [GENRE],” and phrases like “slipstream” or “magical realism” have both lost and gained precision over time, but at least that latter is finally a little less likely to be used as a term of contempt in genre. That said, literary genre work is a strange beast, and, pace Carroll, I think not actually all that common, to judge by the shelves at B&N. Little of it appears in the F/SF section, or to stay for long if it does, and so it’s off to sift through literary fiction to find eloquent novels about disaffected werewolves.

The Weird has had similar success of late, with a high-water mark being Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Southern Reach novels. He has a piece over at The Atlantic, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” that is about as clear as sign as you’re ever going to see that this strange little niche is seeing more daylight than I ever could have hoped. Jeff’s piece is very well written and introduced me to, as every time I see something from him, writers of whom I’ve never heard.

The VanderMeers should bear, of course, a huge part of our gratitude for the recent surge. Jeff’s fiction was a part of the New Weird when that came along, of course, but it’s grown since then, strengthened by his omnivorous consumption of fiction in all forms and his well-documented efforts to focus intently on his writing. Ann VanderMeer’s stint as Fiction Editor at Weird Tales put the cat so much among the canaries that a veritable legion of living fossils rose up and cried “to R’lyeh shalt thou go, and no further.” Though flags have repeatedly been planted in the sand about the end of the avant-garde, such flags are ever meant to be torn down. Jeff and Ann blew the doors off with The Weird and everything that followed, debunking some of the Old Weird/New Weird/That’s Not Weird stupidity in the process. I do so love the Weird of the early 20th century, but people too often think of those guys as a terminus, when they were actually a phase.

Yesterday Laird Barron posted “New Blood,” calling out some of the current leading lights of horror, springboarding off of an introduction Stephen Jones wrote at the start of his 2011 A Book of Horrors that led with “What the hell happened to the horror genre?” I won’t repeat Laird’s excellent roll call, but I will point out that the average age of the contributors to A Book of Horrors (2011) was 55. A similar book with the same lineup could, with the right twists of fate, have shown up in Horror at B. Dalton Bookseller around 1989. Laird’s list is a little harder to suss, age-wise, in so far as the people he names haven’t all cast such long shadows yet that their biographical data is easy to find, but the “new blood” moniker is pretty apt.

This is no complaint about Olds: many writers come into their prime a lot later than people do in other fields of artistic endeavor. Some of the names on the roster of Jones’ anthology are ones that I respect and have loved to see work from for decades. And while some of what Jones has to say is distinctly get-off-my-lawn-y, there’s a certain truth in what he says that’s clear from the work of many of the authors on the list: many of them share a certain idea of horror, one that’s faded away. I expect that’s hard to deal with. When literary horror goes fallow a couple decades down the road, I’m going to be irritable.

Some months back I had a lengthy conversation with a friend about horror now vs. horror in the 1980s. As my friend said, while I was busy lamenting that Young Me never got to read Barron or Llewellyn, “you know, it was just a very different scene.” And that, folks, is truth you can take to the bank. Jack Williamson, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Charles Grant, Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Justin Cronin, and Lauren Beukes all have something to do with horror, but they are not all doing the same thing. Not by a long shot. (To which I personally say “thank God,” but I digress.) While one writer may be more skilled than another, what we are writing now is… what we’re writing now. It’s generally more self-consciously literate, and much of it profits, one way and another, from the overall greater attention to good prose that prevails in U.S. fiction these days, thanks primarily to the development of BFA & MFA pedagogy, and the ripple effect it caused throughout literature.

Today, on this best, scariest, and most ooga-booga of days, I’ll say that I’m grateful for masks of all kind. A mask-maker who uses burlap and twine is trying to do something different from the injection molded and painted horrors of Party City. One’s no better than the other, and we’re the happier for having both. It’s a shit game, trash-talking your elders, and it’s likewise a shit game to trash-talk the young turks. You’d be smart to avoid doing either, not least because you either were once the New Blood, or will, with luck, wind up part of the Old Guard.

Happy Halloween.