There’s no more perfect way to spend a quiet October night than cozying up with some great horror fiction and getting in the spirit of the season. Yet when one considers the daunting vastness of the genre and its many varying forms, it can often be difficult to find exactly the right brand of terror one is looking for. So with that in mind, I have broken up some of my favorite works of horror fiction by form and style. Whatever you might be on the lookout for – be it the immediate terror of short fiction, the operatic thrill of the romantic macabre, or the searing power of the genuinely disturbing – you can find it in horror. That is, of course, if you’re looking in the right place…
Books of Blood Volumes I-III by Clive Barker (1984)
Barker is obviously a big deal when it comes to horror fiction, something these seminal volumes of his short fiction established with startling effectiveness. Like most collections of short fiction, some tales are a bit weaker than others, but the general pace and momentum of Barker’s stories – specifically in the first three volumes – keeps the collections compulsively readable and exciting. Greatly aiding the ambiance of the Books of Blood is the self-titled first tale, which establishes a beautifully conceived wraparound narrative for the remaining tales while serving as an effective tonal barometer for the madness to come. Highlights include “In the Hills, the Cities”, a striking tale of two communal creatures composed of thousands of people, “Son of Celluloid”, a grotesquely ingenious portrayal of a cancerous tumor that gains cinematic sentience, and “Rawhead Rex”, a truly brutal bloodbath of a monster yarn, in which the titular beast is a juggernaut of uninhibited male vitriol. This is a well-respected release, and at its best, it’s easy to understand why.
Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein (1985)
T.E.D. Klein is one of those enigmatic writers whose bibliography you can count on one hand, yet in his limited output he has achieved heights, and an unsettling staying power, other far more prolific architects of terror never have. Dark Gods is four novellas as opposed to an anthology of short fiction, but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality and nightmare-fuel. The first novella, “Children of the City”, made me very uneasy when I first read it – the off-handed racism of the narrator and his family had me wondering if it was just the characters who were prejudiced or Klein himself – but the deeply disturbed tale, which establishes an altogether different history of the 1977 New York blackout, uses the racial paranoia to cleverly assert the naïveté of our protagonist to the true root of horror. “Black Man with a Horn”, an account of a former Lovecraft protégé who finds himself living one of his mentor’s stories, operates on its many thematic levels – as a brutally self-aware assessment of the redundancy of horror, as a metatextual commentary on Lovecraft’s xenophobia – with fluid grace. “Nadelman’s God”, in which an advertizing executive recognizes the horrible truth behind the nihilistic writings of his youth, employs its ridiculously creepy central conceit with agonizingly disquieting deliberation. But the cream of the crop may be “Petey”, which memorably highlights Klein’s supreme grasp of the power of suggestion to frightening effect; the framing of the story, and the manner in which it consummates, is horror at its most ominous and distressing.
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (2005)
It is nothing short of impressive how effectively Joe Hill has avoided falling under the shadow of his father’s reputation – Stephen King is a tough act to follow. But Hill’s prose and style are all his own, creating an atmosphere more nebulous and opaque than his father’s, one that tends to unsettle in a very different way. This collection, his first major release, starts off masterfully with “Best New Horror”, a self-aware gem that follows a horror anthology editor desperately bored with the trite, formulaic tales that he is routinely inundated with – until, of course, he comes upon one that’s different. It’s a bold way to begin the collection, one that wisely plumbs Hill’s knowledge of the genre’s many forms without becoming too clever for its own good, and it successfully establishes the manner in which his own fiction differs from the norm. This is a varied anthology. Some – like “Pop Art” – are powerfully moving and sad, others – like “You Will Hear The Locust Sing” – are uncanny nightmares of inexplicable surrealism – and still others, like “In The Rundown”, express the weight of their terror in their implications rather than their substance. But for my money the crown jewel is the closing tale, “Voluntary Committal”, which will ensure you never look at cardboard boxes the same way again.
Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti (2008)
While popular culture at large may not recognize Thomas Ligotti’s name, chances are many of its consumers would recognize his voice. HBO’s True Detective mined his unrelentingly bleak ruminations on reality and human nature through Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle to enormously acclaimed effect – but Ligotti’s actual work is even more strange, thought-provoking, and terrifying. This more recent collection of Ligotti’s old work – which long remained out-of-print and difficult to procure – is an excellent way to get started on exploring his ceaselessly bleak brand of fiction. His stories are always grimly memorable, hauntingly dismantling the illusory structures of family (“Purity”), bureaucracy (“The Town Manager”), industry (“The Red Tower”), employment (“Our Temporary Supervisor”), community (“In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land”), idolatry (“Severini”), and artistry (“Teatro Grottesco”, “The Bungalow House”, and – most memorably – “The Shadow, the Darkness”). There is never any glimmer of hope or levity or optimism – even before the horror really kicks into gear. For Ligotti, nothing that exists is beyond corruption, because in his eyes – and just maybe the world’s own – existence is corruption. And that’s why Ligotti is as good as the genre gets.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
Yes, it’s a world-famous literary classic that has inspired hundreds of adaptations in nearly every medium one can imagine, but it’s nonetheless surprising how many people have never read the original masterpiece that inspired it all. If you’re one of those people, it is well worth it to experience Shelley’s lush narrative for yourself. Her style is far from realistic – the story is framed as a first-person account within a first-person account, yet somehow all the important dialogue is, impractically, conveyed exactly – but such romantic flourishes help Shelley achieve the fascinating depth that Frankenstein adaptations and like-minded tales have been plumbing for so many years. And most importantly, the exaggerated style enables Shelley to endow her monster with an articulate, educated voice – one which makes the creature all the more sympathetic and the tragedy that much more wrenching. Pop culture buffs are quick to note that the title Frankenstein refers to the creator, not the monster, but after reading this justifiably revered mainstay, you may wonder if Frankenstein was the monster after all.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Okay, if you’ve seen the 2007 film of the same name starring Will Smith, a) I’m so sorry and b) don’t worry about it because it has nearly nothing to do with its “source material” – Richard Matheson’s impressively influential 1954 novel, one of the best of its kind. The story of Robert Neville, seemingly the last survivor of a worldwide bacterial pandemic which has transformed most of the populace into vampires, Matheson’s compulsively readable narrative is as effective as a profound examination of human isolation as it is as a claustrophobic tale of horror. Neville’s plight, his desperate search for a cure and for anyone or anything that can fill the void in his lonely nightmare of a life, is fascinating, relatable, and communicated with devastating effectiveness. By the time it reaches its powerful conclusion, the tale has thematically illustrated the very nature of fear, in all its subjectivity, with a truly stunning clarity. Often imitated but never surpassed, I Am Legend lives up to its title in all the right ways.
Cabal by Clive Barker (1988)
There’s clearly a whole lot of Clive Barker I could recommend comfortably. From the fast-paced, brutally concise terror of The Hellbound Heart (later adapted by Barker himself as the visceral modern horror benchmark Hellraiser) to the dense, operatic macabre of The Damnation Game, the man handles the grotesque with a rare poetry. But although it often seems neglected in the greater body of Barker’s work, Cabal merits serious interest. His addictive tale of Midian, a subterranean city housing all manner of curious creatures and charismatic monsters, and the deeply disturbed humans driven to antagonize it – the truly monstrous element of the story – plays with the conventions of horror and our traditional identifications as an audience to thought provoking and dramatic effect. Barker’s own film adaptation, Nightbreed, is ambitious, lively, and unfairly maligned, but Cabal remains the best way to experience the story of Midian, with all its noble monsters and warped humans.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)
There’s a good chance you may have seen Tomas Alfredson’s phenomenal, hauntingly gorgeous adaptation of Lindqvist’s novel – or Matt Reeves’ unnecessary American remake, Let Me In – but even if you have, this is must-read material. Having read and fallen in love with this book before having a chance to fall in love with the movie, I found myself moved and entranced by Alfredson’s film but a tad disappointed by the absence of certain material from the novel, material that will make this book pop even for those familiar with the adaptations. Make no mistake; the most harrowing material in Lindqvist’s novel – including hands-down the scariest scene in the book – didn’t even make it to the screen. So if you’ve seen the film or not, Let the Right One In is a complete tour-de-force of nuanced horror – chilling, moving, beautifully dismal. Lindqvist’s other work, like the fascinating Handling the Undead, warrants generous examination, but if you’re looking for well-developed horror, it’s hard to do much better than this.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
This book, Iain Banks’ debut, is never billed as a “horror” novel, but that hasn’t stopped it from being one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, an immersive dive into the deplorable depths of the adolescent male code – of the privately dictated structures of power that compose it, of the activities that constitute its worship, and of the wide swath of destruction it cuts through the world it occupies. Our narrator, Francis “Frank” Cauldhame, lives a mostly solitary life with his father on a tiny Scottish isle – and the activities and rituals he has built his day-to-day life around will turn your stomach. As repugnant and sociopathic as he is, Frank’s clinically detached assessments of his savagery and Banks’ subtle manner of excoriating his protagonist ushers the reader on addictively. But on top of all the other remarkable things The Wasp Factory does, what really completes this masterpiece is the ending, which perfectly illuminates the illusory nature of all that Frank holds dear and the utter falseness of his vicious worldview. This is one brutal book – but it needed to be, to be this brilliant.
Song of Kali by Dan Simmons (1985)
“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.” So begins the truly unsettling first page of Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, a disorienting descent into some truly unsettling territory. Robert Luzcak, an American writer on assignment for Harper’s Magazine, is dispatched to Calcutta to locate a well-regarded Indian poet, a man who until recently was believed dead; he is apparently producing new work, which Luzcak is tasked with retrieving for publication. Without saying much more, the assignment becomes something much more sinister and dangerous than he bargained for. Simmons’ creates a Calcutta that is mesmerizing in its mystery and danger without resorting to cheap, exploitive exoticism to heighten the suspense, crafting a narrative full of intriguing supporting characters and scares that tread a masterfully fine line between the real and the fantastic. One scene in particular left me particularly riveted, but to describe more would be a crime. Song of Kali doesn’t explain all of the answers, but the questions raised in their absence are more dreadful than it seems any explicit answer could be.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum (1989)
The faint-of-heart should avoid this at all costs, and even seasoned lovers of the macabre should prepare to be seriously disturbed. Well, at least I hope you’ll be disturbed, because the only thing more disturbing than The Girl Next Door is the thought of someone not finding it disturbing. Jack Ketchum’s pitch-black look into an appalling evil born in 1960s suburbia – an evil that lounges comfortably and unperturbed behind its convenient façade, exploiting adolescent apathy and sadism – will leave you shaken in a way most horror fiction simply cannot. And that’s because the horror of The Girl Next Door is so very real, a tangibly human nightmare, one in which the only thing surmounting the horror of the disgusting crimes portrayed is the manner in which they are tolerated and kept secret by onlookers like the story’s narrator. The manner in which we as people distance ourselves from the evil that surrounds us – evil that we are often, indirectly or otherwise, in collusion with – is the heart of The Girl Next Door’s horror, and our inability to escape our own guilt makes it all the more horrific.
My Work Is Not Yet Done by Thomas Ligotti (2002)
Thomas Ligotti’s fiction is so potently nihilistic, so infused with bitter pessimism and numbed fatalism, that it is almost a relief that the majority of it is short stories – endowed with a brevity that allows one to catch their breath and distance themselves from such an oppressively bleak perspective. My Work Is Not Yet Done, Ligotti’s only example of novella-length fiction, offers no such respite in either its duration or its unforgiving plunge into the depths of his vision of the world, a futilitarian nightmare where no one is anyone and anything that exists, by virtue of existing, is infected with the inescapably toxic nature of reality. It is at once one of the most foreboding and disconcerting revenge narratives you are likely to read and yet a brutal indictment of vengeance – of its futility and, consequently, the futility of all human ambition and values. This is an expertly executed, unforgiving trip into a vision of life that’s as dark as they come – and your blood may run cold at just how much you recognize.
Scott Douglass is a New Jersey native who has harbored a lifelong infatuation with all things frightening, one that doesn’t show any signs of subsiding. He spends his time obsessively concocting grim ideas for macabre fiction that he puts off writing.
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