Here are a few books that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…
Looking for something to curl up with over the holidays? This was a long, strange year, and what I needed most of all was engrossing narratives neither too enamored of their own cleverness, nor stylistically too filigreed. I enjoyed all of the below and recommend them to those of you seeking transportation to another world.
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…
The 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.
The 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, 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…
We 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.
The 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.
Midnight 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.
The 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.
The 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, 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.
“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.
The 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, 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, 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 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.
I’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.