Horror novels are good any time of the year, but the best time for them is right around Halloween. With the weather getting cooler and the nights getting longer, there’s nothing like curling up in a dark room with a cup of hot chocolate and a great horror story and scaring the hell out of yourself.
It’s also interesting how much of horror has a sci-fi or fantasy element to it. The exceptions are true-crime books or novels about gritty, urban violence, and those are great, but Kathryn and Elizabeth really prefer the ones with some kind of otherworldly element. So they’ve whittled down their list of favorites and each picked three books they think you’d like, if you’re looking to sleep with the lights on tonight.
Books of Blood, Volumes 1-3 – by Clive Barker
I’ve mentioned in other reviews that I like horror books and movies that are creepy rather than gory. I think it takes real talent to convey a growing sense of horror from the things you can’t see, to have characters slowly lose their minds from the anticipation of something awful waiting just out of sight. So it probably doesn’t make much sense that I actually enjoyed Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, since Barker goes all out with the gore.
It’s been thirty years since these collections were first published (volumes 1-3 were re-released as one book in 1996) , and I don’t think anything else even comes close to just how overwhelmingly gruesome most of these are. Sixteen stories spread out over three books, filled with as much gore as you can stomach, and then some: blood, decapitation, maggots, pacts with demons, dismemberment, lots of sex (not all of it with humans), awful things happening to animals, truly awful things happening to children (the story “Rawhead Rex” has pretty much all of those, and it’s one I’m not sure I’m comfortable with re-reading).
Part of the appeal is that this isn’t cheap horror; Barker has a very clear, easy to read style that comes close to poetry. He’s very good at building anticipation, and he goes back and forth between elaborate, splashy descriptions of terrible things going on with moments of quiet: “There was a silence. Small clouds passed over the road, soundlessly shedding their mass to the air.” His writing is almost unbelievably visual; there’s a reason why so many of his books and stories have been made into movies (…none of which I’ve seen. Too scared.)
And then there’s my favorite story in the collection: “In The Hills, The Cities.” Nothing like it out there that I’ve read. The imagery is chilling and awe-inspiring. Think of the notorious elevator scene from the movie “The Shining,” only set in the wilderness of Yugoslavia. Then imagine what could have caused something like that.
Wormwood – by Poppy Z. Brite
Poppy Z. Brite is something of a guilty pleasure for me. Her stories are all written in the purplest prose you can imagine: gloomy, Gothic, and very decadent. It’s all horror, but not so much the monster-coming-to-get-you kind (although there’s a little of that too), but more the horror of forbidden things. And of death. There’s a lot of death in Poppy’s stories.
The main characters in this collection are exclusively male. They’re also young, very pretty, usually gay (although not always, and not always openly), and most of them want something they’re not allowed to have or even admit that they want. In stories like “The Sixth Sentinel” the main character is a ghost who’s in love with an exotic dancer who’s slowly drinking herself to death. In “Footprints in the Water” the object of desire is telepathic power for one character, and a three-years-dead twin brother for the other. The characters in “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood” want to raid crypts in Louisiana for whatever catches their interest, like jewelry or clothes, or maybe bones, or eyes. I can’t say what’s wanted in the story “Angels,” or who wants it, without giving away the story, although you can probably guess. And in “Optional Music for Voice and Piano,” the main character has a talent that’s made him famous, and he really really wants to be free from it. I could easily see that one being turned into a short film; it has the oddest happy ending in the book.
Most of these are pretty unhappy stories, even more so because we won’t be getting any more of them. Poppy is still living in New Orleans, and she (now he) is making a living as an artist and occasional crafter of voodoo supplies. The trauma of living through Hurricane Katrina pretty much killed any desire to keep writing, which basically makes any of Brite’s books feel like buried treasure now, something I can dig up and brush the dirt off every time I need something dark to re-read.
Everything’s Eventual – by Stephen King
I know Elizabeth’s got a Stephen King book further on in the article (she claimed my favorite one before I could. The fiend.) (Neener neener – Elizabeth) but I wanted to review one too. He is the master of horror after all. And even though some of his more recent books have been a little meh, his short-story collections are consistently better than just about anything else out there.
The stories here run the whole range from quirky (“L.T’s Theory of Pets”) to historical fiction (“The Death of Jack Hamilton”) to the ones where something terrifying happens in the middle of a mundane situation (“Lunch at the Gotham Café,” which is what the cover art is based on). “The Little Sisters of Eluria” is set in the world from the Gunslinger novels, and it’s so beautiful and sad it damn near made me cry. And the title story “Everything’s Eventual” is filled with the kind of details I love, all about a never-quite-explained magic talent, and the many perks involved in using a magic talent for a faceless corporation.
The real draw in this collection however are the scary stories. “The Road Virus Heads North” has a plot straight out of a cheap horror movie, and every time I read the thing my subconscious is going “Run. RUN. OMIGOD IT’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”
“That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French” is an odd one. You have to stick with it almost to the end to get why it’s so terrifying; it’s the kind of story that gets into your brain and then shows up again when you can’t sleep.
None of these compare with my favorite though: “1408.” I watched the movie recently, and it isn’t nearly as good as the source material. This is the kind of Stephen King story I love, the inspired-by-Lovecraft, hard-to-describe, crawling sort of terror of something unexplained that’s coming from another dimension to eat you alive, and you can’t get out of the room. The conversation about the history of room 1408 with the hotel manager, the changing pictures on the walls, the random phrases the main character says (or thinks) as the room starts messing with his head, every bit of this story is perfect. (Oh, and the fact that I’ve felt the same kind of unease from the late-afternoon sunset light that the character dreads? Well it’s even worse now, so “thanks,” Stephen.)
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves gets criticized sometimes for being gimmicky. And the critics aren’t wrong; it is gimmicky. The book has weird footnotes on almost every page, and the text starts to do very odd things halfway through; bending around corners, turning upside down, going in circles, that kind of thing. A purely literary novel wouldn’t rely on graphic design tricks to be an interesting book.
Here’s the kicker: the gimmick works. The changes in the text are extremely disturbing, throwing off the reader with every page. The footnotes that creep up into the story add to the claustrophobic, unsettling feeling. There’s a long sequence of pages with only one line of type on each page, which causes the reader to flip the pages faster and faster, adding to the panic as the main character tries to escape something in the dark.
The gimmick works with the story. And without tricks with the text, the story would still be disturbing. It’s only bad to have a gimmick if the story wouldn’t stand on its own without it.
The story itself, oversimplified, is this: in a quiet neighborhood there’s a house, with rooms that change size when no one is looking, and a door that opens up into a never-ending hallway of dark walls and stairs and pits that, when you do the math, are possibly too deep to actually fit inside the planet.
A man recorded a film about the house. Someone else wrote a book about the film about the house. And a young man wrote footnotes in the book about the film about the house.
And everybody involved goes slowly crazy.
It’s a wonderfully creepy book, with or without the graphic design oddity. Danielewski also added lots of secret messages in the story (the varying length of a certain series of paragraphs, for example, turns out to be a warning in Morse code) that his faithful followers are still figuring out and posting online.
There are also a few pure horror-movie moments, with armed madmen hiding in the dark, doors that slam shut by themselves, and walls that leap out terrifyingly fast and attack people. I’d love to see a real film about it, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t live up to how creepy it is in my head.
Tommyknockers – Stephen King
One could argue that there are King books that are better written (the Gunslinger book before he went back and messed with it) or more epic (The Stand, unabridged of course) or even scarier (Pet Sematary, that one still freaks me out.) But The Tommyknockers will always be my favorite, because it’s got the best mix of horror and science fiction of any book I’ve read, King-written or otherwise.
(And no, I’ve never seen the movie, I love the book too much to hope the movie could live up to it.)
Like a lot of King books the theme is “sometimes psychotically bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it,” but I think every person in the book has more depth than some of his other books. Gard is a basically nice guy, but he’s also a drunk and has hurt a lot of people either through selfishness or stupidity. But you still like him. And Bobbi’s got issues with her family and her temper and the bottle herself, but she’s also a hard-working, independent writer who loves her dog.
The fact that she stumbled across something in the woods that changed an entire town was just dumb luck.
I love the details in this book; the little inventions that the crazy townspeople create, the mutant vegetables in the garden, or the massive digging operation out in the woods. There are so many major characters you’d think all those details would confuse things and clutter up the story, but they just add this extra layer of depth to everything.
The horror elements are wonderful too, with glowing tanks and hoses plugged into very bad places, creepy mind-reading townspeople, honest-to-god tentacle aliens, and a metric ton of blood. But even when the horror isn’t obvious there’s still a dark, panicky feel to everything, whether it’s a much-too-quiet town, or someone poking around where they shouldn’t and hoping like hell they can get the padlock back on the door.
Also, this is one of the few King books where he nails the ending. In so many of his books there’s a perfectly good ending, and then he trails off for another few chapters that suck the power out of it. This time he got it right. He has a perfect ending, and then there’s an epilogue with another perfect ending. Neither ending is exactly happy, but I wouldn’t have wanted them to be any different.
We Can Get Them For You Wholesale – Neil Gaiman
This is actually a short story, but considering that Kathryn reviewed three whole books of short stories, I think it’s fair for me to review just one.
(I regret nothing! – Kathryn)
I read this in the collection Bangs and Whimpers: Stories About the End of the World, which is probably one of the best, random, library-used-book-sale finds I’ve ever made. And Neil Gaiman’s story was the best in the book.
It’s got Gaiman’s usual quirky, clever style, and despite the subject matter (bargain-rate assassinations) it’s really light-hearted for almost the entire story.
The ending took me completely by surprise. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, but after such a funny, ridiculous story, I couldn’t believe how well everything fit into place. It’s intensely creepy.
(Also, if you need more than one reason to find this book, “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke is also in the collection, and it’s just as short and just as disturbing.)