The literature of fear is not as hard to find as you might imagine. Literature itself began as a means of dealing with our fears of the unknown. Our first stories were those of gods and monsters, both with little regard for mere human lives. Henry James and Mary Shelley terrified us with literary classics. Stephen King has written his way to literary respectability.
But a visit to the book store might have you thinking that the horror genre is all vampires and serial killers, with gore and violence standing in lieu of character and insight. For those of us who enjoy the literature of fear, with a soupçon of the fantastic, there are still lots of great writers out there. Here’s a pocket guide to some first-rate literature with a macabre imagination.
North American Lake Monsters
By Nathan Ballingrud
Small Beer Press
America is not a happy place, and nobody captures that with the precision of Nathan Ballingrud. He creates compelling characters that are often unpleasantly real. We are immersed in their lives and their very intense stories before they encounter the fantastic, and so deeply captivated that the strange is brushed aside — but not without consequence.
The nine stories in North American Lake Monsters will draw you into the lives of the diminished and the decaying landscapes on the fringes of the American economy. “Wild Acre” explores the regret of those damaged by an experience they can neither admit nor explain. In the title story, an ex-con trying to re-connect with his now-teenage daughter finds something washed up on a beach that brings unfortunate emotions to the surface. Ballingrud’s bad father, unfaithful wife and surly teenager manage to be off-putting and poignant, and the fantastic notion in the title offers up a mystery that is disturbing without easy resolution. North American Lake Monsters is a collection of stories about real American lives in a monstrous world.
The Cobbler of Ridingham
By Jeffrey E. Barlough
Gresham & Doyle
It’s easy to forget, or just overlook, that Charles Dickens invented the modern ghost story with A Christmas Carol. Jeffrey E. Barlough has managed the very difficult feat of innovating fiction with the feel of Dickens without resorting to imitation of any kind. In his Western Lights novels, Barlough has created a sort of alternate American history, and with consummate literary scholarship, crafted stories that combine charming characters with deeply chilling experiences. His latest novel, The Cobbler of Ridingham is a mystery notable for characters that you will absolutely love.
Richard Hathaway is visiting friends at Haigh Hall, on the edge of the marshes of Fenshire, just outside of Ridingham. There’s a curse, and something behind the curse that is as dark as the ages. Barlough’s work is simply and utterly unique, not easy to find, but not to be missed. He has a great sense of humor and a generous heart, but when the darkness falls, it does so with a finality that is all the more chilling. Barlough is averse to violence in his novels, but not chills, and his ability to craft the latter without resorting to the former is spectacular.
By Lauren Beukes
On page one of Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters, Detroit detective Gabriella Versado finds a body that perfectly represents a new aesthetic of fear. It’s not particularly gory, it’s just – imaginative. Versado’s daughter, Layla, is spending her time with the monsters of the Internet, at a safe distance. She hopes. And Jonno the journalist, who is about half-a-step behind the profit barrier, is just looking for a great story to tell that goes beyond ruin porn. Beukes whips up a storm of smart, clipped prose, and introduces something we’ve never seen before, as effortlessly as she describes the vista of America’s new feudal wasteland.
Broken Monsters is part police procedural, part Internet procedural, a mediation on the power of storytelling, and a means, as the author told me when we spoke at KQED, of breaking through “issue fatigue.” Make no mistake, Beukes knows how to get under your skin. It takes imagination, not surgical diagrams, and she’s adept at delivering monsters on every scale, as well as kick-ass women. Broken Monsters manages the neat trick of being about art while also being art.
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
By Thomas Ligotti
If you think horror is confined to short stories and novels, here’s a book to prove you wrong. In fact, the concept of wrong is very much at the heart of this work. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is certainly not fiction, not literary criticism, nor is it philosophy, though it partakes of all of these. Thomas Ligotti is best known for his short stories, and those who want to experience truly literary horror are directed to Songs of a Dead Dreamer and The Nightmare Factory. The stories you’ll find there are largely violence-free, suffused with surrealistic imagery and written in lyrical prose so lovely you’ll want to read it aloud.
But this book… this book is the heart of darkness, a frank and unrelenting examination of just how damn hard it is to be a conscious, living human being. Everything we are is so easily turned against us, and Ligotti, drawing on personalities as diverse as Arthur Schopenhauer, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Joseph Conrad and Anne Radcliffe uses all his prose gifts to craft a perspective that is so dark and pessimistic that life itself seems to have passed us by without our noticing. Some have noticed; the TV series True Detective seems to have read Ligotti a little too closely. But don’t let that scare you away. Turn the pages of this book at your own risk; no matter how bright the sun, you may never see the light of day again.
We Are Here
By Michael Marshall
Who are all those strangers on the street? How can they be here with us and yet not be known to us? We’re surrounded by the human race, and in theory, that should mean we always have company and comfort. Michael Marshall begs to differ, and We Are Here has at its core a vision of humans separated from themselves, each of us torn asunder and unable to know it. But Marshall tells his story with a skill that creates an almost unbearable amount of philosophical tension, in essence, an existential stalker myth.
We first meet David, a writer whose novel is about to be published and who is somehow at loose ends. On his way home from a meeting, a man steps up to him and whispers, “Remember me.” Kristina and John are trying to help a friend of Kristina’s who believes herself to be the victim of a stalker, if only it were that simple. Marshall is a master at crafting the surreal into suspense. He also manages to come up with an original idea, almost unthinkable in a sea of vampire sequels. One of his previous novels, The Intruders, has been made into a TV series for BBC America. Watch at your own risk.
By Adam Nevill
St. Martin’s Griffin
Kyle Freeman is an indie filmmaker on his last legs, looking to make a breakthrough, and pay his bills, with The Temple of Last Days, a documentary about a cult that self-destructed in the Arizona desert in 1975. This proves to be a bad idea for Kyle, but a truly terrorizing experience for readers of Adam Nevill’s Last Days. If you’re looking for a big, beefy horror novel that is consummately well written and extremely creepy, look no further; Last Days will keep you awake through the night reading, and then for many thereafter, remembering.
As Kyle investigates the origins of the cult, he finds it reaches farther into the past than he imagined. But when he talks to survivors of that night, his life takes a turn for the worse as he begins to experience nights even less restful than readers can expect.
Flowers from the Sea
By Reggie Oliver
Quiet is a word to remember when reading Reggie Oliver. He’s subtle and classy, crafting intelligent ghost stories and hauntings with a unique literary feel. His latest book is Flowers from the Sea, with two novellas and six stories that show just how versatile and classy horror literature can be. “A Child’s Problem” takes as its inspiration a painting by Richard Dadd, who was condemned to imprisonment in the Bedlam insane asylum in 1843 after murdering his father with a razor. Later in the asylum at Broadmoor, he created the image of a very young boy reaching towards a chessboard. Oliver’s imagination of the story behind the painting manages to live up to the reality, and then sidesteps quietly past it.
“Lord of the Fleas” studies a sinister 18th-century architect through documents that include an unpublished fragment of Boswell’s The Life of Dr. Johnson. Oliver has a talent for entertaining his readers with subtle chills illustrated with his own hand-crafted, very fine line drawings at the top of each story.
Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu
Jim Rockhill and Brian Showers, Editors
The Swan River Press
J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) is not as well known as he should be, given the influence of his work, including James Joyce, Henry James and every vampire novel ever written. Carmilla, one of his signature works, was the vampire novel that preceded Dracula by twenty-six years. Jim Rockhill and Brian Showers have brought readers ten stories that speak to the legacy of Le Fanu, and some quite directly; contributors Emma Darwin and Sarah Le Fanu are both related. But this collection is not about legacy, it’s about literature, and the power of fantastic stories to keep readers engaged over centuries.
Mark Valentine’s “Seaweed Tea” riffs on Le Fanu’s famous story “Green Tea,” effectively creating a feeling of dank decay. Brian J. Showers’ “Some Houses – A Rumination” imagines the scruffy house that never gets better, and a reason why, with a delightful and disturbing disintegration between the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. Peter Bell’s “Princess of the Highway” evokes the forlorn and reckless with elegant prose. Showers is the publisher of Swan River Press, and he crafts a beautiful book every time. Dreams of Shadow and Smoke offers readers modern stories with the feel of Victorian hearth.
By Anne Sylvie Salzman translated by William Charlton
The work on display in Darkscapes offers a literary taste of madness, an intense inversion of reason that is powerful, sometimes unknowable, and almost always unforgettable. Salzman is the perfect 21st-century bride for Edgar Allen Poe. Those of us who think the work of Salvador Dali is frightening as well as beautiful will find much to like here.
The book is divided into four sections; “Lost Girls,” “Crucifixions,” “The Story of Margaret” and “Wildlife.” The titles are pertinent, if sometimes a bit oblique. They suggest and enhance the stories within, but don’t confine them. Once you dig into this collection it becomes clear that Salzman is not a writer who can be confined. Three of the sections contain outstanding narratives that veer from traveling circus stories to flat out nightmares.
The Transfiguration of Mister Punch
By Charles Schneider, D. P. Watt and Cate Gardner
Theme anthologies are a staple of genre fiction, but The Transfiguration of Mister Punch is light years beyond such a mundane appellation. The publisher considers it a triptych, and that seems so much better, more appropriate for this dark wonder of written depravity and art. The entire volume needs to be considered, as Egaeus has gone to some trouble to offer readers a work that seems torn from another reality, one much less friendly to the humans who will enjoy this work.
Packed with photos and line illustrations, The Transfiguration of Mister Punch is a beautiful but disturbing book. Charles Schneider’s “The Show That Must Never Die” starts with a rather unhinged narrator, apparently overcome by his research into the origins of the Punch and Judy figures. What follows is a masterful exploration of voice and history. D. P. Watt takes a perhaps more traditional narrative strategy in “Memorabilia.” It’s a very traditional frame story, with a collector speaking to a client buying a collection of Punch and Judy items. There are four stories in the single story, each one wonderful in itself, the sum of them rather more so. The final story in the book, “This Foolish & Harmful Delight” by Cate Gardner manages the unique feat of being by far the most outrageously gory and distressing story in the book, while, oddly enough, having the most traditional narrative. Mr. Punch is in hell and he escapes. But what a hell – and what an escape! Given the content and design, the book is nearly totemic in its effect. Leave it out for your friends to see and watch it bring a chill to their world and yours.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings
By Angela Slatter
Once upon a time, what we now call “fairy tales” were the original horror stories. Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings takes its cue from the Brothers Grimm, but builds on that foundation to create a collection of stories that reveals itself to be a novel. She knows how to craft magic on the page and brings it to life in tale after gloriously written tale.
The stories take place in the environs of Lodellan, a sort of medieval world where magic works, supernatural beings interfere in everyday life and all-too-real men and women find themselves forced to compromise and face those compromises. Every story is nothing short of amazing, from the opening tale of “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” (forced to work with unhelpful shade of her father yelling at her) to “St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls,” an academy that teaches the fine art of murder for vengeful teen angels. Slatter’s prose is often magnificent, and she’s able to craft characters as great as the powers they wield. Here you find beauty and terror in a marriage made in prose heaven.
Last Stories and Other Stories
William T. Vollmann
William T. Vollmann won a National Book Award for his novel Europe Central, and he brings a similar sensibility to his collection of stories inspired by the work of classic horror writers including Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft. Not surprisingly, he goes further afield as well, from the recent Bosnian Wars to modern-day America. Last Stories and Other Stories is an ambitious exploration of the afterlife in all its various shades. Each story brings in as much non-fiction background research as it does imagination. The combination is exquisite, intricate and engrossing.
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich,” which takes place in eighteenth century Trieste, is an epic fantasy of cursed inheritance. Sturdy guardsmen transform themselves into flesh eating ghouls, the ghosts and vampires of Mexico haunt artists and writers, the stories and fragments weave in and out of reality and history. This is a powerful collection that takes death as its subject and treats it with the respect and imagination it deserves.
While there is nothing wrong with a lot of the popular horror overflowing the bookshelves and screens large and small, these books suggest that great horror literature might actually be the rule rather than the exception.