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  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/10/08 Permalink
    Tags: alice isn't dead, ghostest with the mostest, , laird barron,   

    21 Books That Offer a Crash-Course in Horror 

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    Horror is an institution; scaring ourselves has become an accepted form of entertainment, so refined that the sub-genres have sub-genres. If you’ve never been much of a horror fan but want to get into the spirit of the season by taking a deep dive into the genre, you can either randomly select a few titles and roll the bones, or you could concentrate on the 20 books listed here, which, taken together, will walk you through a crash course of the literary horror world—note, this isn’t comprehensive or even close to complete, but will give you an idea of how the genre’s evolved.

    A Little History

    Some folks will argue horror existed as far back as Homer and other ancient writers, and even pops up in the bible. This argument seems to rest entirely on the fact that witches and scary things exist in those works, but that’s not really horror; there’s a necessary facet of emotional terror that the work has to at least intend to inspire that is lacking. Thus, we begin with the earliest works that are arguably recognizable as horror as we understand it today.

    The Castle of Oranto, by Horace Walpole, 1764
    Modern readers might not find this to be particularly scary, as the supernatural elements are underplayed compared to modern tastes. But every aspect of Gothic horror stems directly from this book, from the curse on the noble family to the twisted plot filled with unsavory implications to the secret passages and creepy evidence of ghosts throughout. It more or less established the seeds of the horror genre all by itself.

    The Monk, by Matthew Lewis, 1797
    Filled with lust, violence, ghosts, and truly terrifying supernatural happenings, The Monk is another Gothic story that brought much of the terror found in earlier examples to the forefront. Although ultimately a morality tale in which the wicked are punished, part of the horror is that the sins they’re punished for are sins most people are guilty of at one time or another, and there is no hint of any kind of salvation.

    Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, 1818
    Perhaps the most famous horror novel of all time, Shelley’s work of genius is one of the first to eschew supernatural elements entirely for science fiction tropes. It’s also become so iconic within and without the horror world that even people who haven’t read the book think they know the plot. The novel draws its energy from the fundamentals of human nature itself—the quest for knowledge, the dawning terror of realizing you’ve set something in motion you can’t control, and the horror of being rejected entirely by society. That last bit is important, because although Frankenstein’s monster is, you know, a monster, it’s not really the villain of the story.

    The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by
    As it’s wont to do, America took the developing tropes of horror fiction and ran with them,  transforming the genre into the visceral form we’re used to today. This process took a very long time, but it began in the early 19th century with works like this one—familiar to everyone, yet genuinely terrifying, if you think about it. While your enjoyment of the story is richer if you know a bit about the time period, the central image of the Headless Horseman is still 100 Percent Do Not Want in the modern age, and the structure set out some of the basic outlines that horror still follows today.

    The Fall o f the House of Usher, et al,, by Edgar Allen Poe, 1839
    Just about everything Poe wrote, from detective fiction to love poems, was terrifying, and many of his stories remain iconic works of horror, from the insane point-of-view work in The Tell-Tale Heart to the slow-burn horror of The Cask of Amontillado. The Fall of the House of Usher is representative of the smothering doom Poe infused into his work, built on a concept that seems modern even today—that of the house or structure that’s not merely haunted but can actually hurt you. Poe was one of the first horror writers to plant the idea that inanimate objects might want to hurt us.


    Horror began to evolve into a distinct genre of fiction, with its own tropes and conventions, in the late 19th century, but by modern standards, the level of output was pretty thin. Still, some of the most famous works of horror ever were published in this period—foundational texts that served to define what, exactly, a horror story was supposed to be.

    The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
    Another tale so familiar that it’s almost a given, meaning it’s easy to forget just how disturbing the story really is—or how primal. The idea of being able to give in to your worst impulses without anyone knowing is intriguing in many circumstances, and the danger of losing control of your inner demons is at the heart of many horror stories—but none as iconic as this one. Stevenson’s tale of science gone wrong began to move horror away from formless evils and external forces and towards the intimate and the personal.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, 1890
    It doesn’t get much more intimate and personal than this, a story in which a man offloads his sins onto a supernatural portrait, allowing him to remain young and handsome while his portrait becomes increasingly gruesome, reflecting his true self. Wilde’s brilliant twist, which finds Gray’s attempts to reverse the desecration of the painting, resulting in even worse consequences—because his motives were selfish, poisoning his attempt at reform—ensured this one would remain influential long after its publication.

    Dracula, by Bram Stoker, 1897
    Another iconic story centered on human frailty—the irresistible lure of decadent pleasures. Stoker was once described as simultaneously “a prude and a pornographer,” seeking to explore the dangerous lust of woman in the Victorian Age while still seeing them punished for it. His story of a monster and the men who come together to oppose its desires ushered in a new age of horror, although it wasn’t really appreciated until it became a smash hit as a Broadway play—and until Stoker’s estate sued the filmmakers responsible for Nosferatu, a pretty blatant example of infringement.

    The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
    James’ methodical story of psychological horror was one of the earliest to tease the reader with unreliable narrators, leaving it up to you to decide whether there really were any ghosts at all. That this foreknowledge doesn’t change the impact of the story is a tribute to James’ skill. Its influence can be seen today in just about any book that involves a creepy old house and a serious air psychological tension that seems to continue to tighten even after the story’s over.

    20th Century

    Often pinned to the horrors of modern war, especially World War I, and the rise of pulp fiction, horror really came into its own as a distinct genre of fiction in the early 20th century, and went through several waves and reinventions over the course of subsequent decades.

    The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel, 1901
    This apocalyptic story about a man who goes on an expedition to the North Pole and witnesses the destruction of mankind by a mysterious, poisonous purple cloud, holds nothing back, diving pretty deep into the weird—especially for a book published in 1901. It’s influence on future horror writers outstrips its actual entertainment value—things get a little hard to take in the later pages—but if you want to see where H.P. Lovecraft got his inspiration, you have to read Shiel.

    The Jules de Grandin Stories, by Seabury Quinn, 1925
    The rise of pulp magazines in the 20th century meant there was a sudden demand for stories in the speculative genres—lots of them, in a steady supply. Characters like Jules de Grandin, a sort of Sherlock Holmes-meets-Scooby Doo character who investigated crimes involving ghosts, monsters, and magic—most of which turned out to center on regular, if depraved, people—served to make horror tropes familiar and acceptable to a mass audience. While these stories are great fun, they’re not particularly scary to the modern reader—but they served to create a hunger for the more intense material coming down the pike.

    At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1936
    Lovecraft’s real life and racist beliefs aside, he occupies a fascinating place in horror, in that his ideas are widely enjoyed by people who have likely never read his work. Lovecraft’s actual writing is hit-or-miss, often veering into outright muddled—but when he focused, as he did in his famous novel At the Mountains of Madness, he was terrifying. By establishing the Cthulu Mythos, Lovecraft created a mythic foundation for horror that still being mined today.

    Psycho, by Robert Bloch, 1959
    It might seem hard to believe, but Psycho was transformative to the horror genre, in that there are zero supernatural elements in it. The horror is drawn entirely from one man’s break from reality—the character was even based on real-life serial killers. This is the book that boiled horror down to its essential motives—to scare and disturb—and made people realize that you didn’t need creaky old mansions or fictional monsters to scare the yips out of yourself.

    Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, 1967
    As the 20th century moved on, horror became more realistic and increasingly based in modern times, finding terror in society itself. Levin intended this story to be a critique of religion and belief systems in general, but its true horror lies in the fact that Rosemary is victimized by her neighbors and even, to an extent, her husband—society itself has lied to her, gaslighted her, and assaulted her. If you can’t trust your neighbors,who can you trust?

    Hell House, by Richard Matheson, 1971
    Matheson wrote some of the most influential books in the horror genre, including his more famous I Am Legend. Hell House marked a synthesis between the supernatural horror of tradition and the more modern psychological horror. The titular house is a powerful, inexplicable force, but its power is wielded by using people’s secrets and weaknesses against them, establishing a theme that continues to be used today.

    Carrie, by Stephen King, 1974
    Stephen King is often credited with the creation of horror as a marketing category unto itself, and he certainly single-handed led a surge of interest in horror fiction—and remains the most famous horror writer of all time. While many of the writers that preceded him were excellent, King also brought a sheen of literary quality to the genre, using the tricks and tropes of non-genre writing to craft deeply-imagined characters with individual motivations that lay outside the horrifying events. From the jump, King’s stories blended old-school supernatural elements, sci-fi concepts, and characters with weaknesses, and add a layer of complexity and artistry that elevated the entire genre.

    The Face That Must Die, by Ramsey Campbell, 1979
    Campbell’s lauded work is both heavily influenced by Lovecraft and essentially weirder. That weirdness has been taken to new levels by subsequent horror writers, eventually spurring the bizarro movement—horror that goes way off the deep end. In Campbell’s work, that weirdness is still subtle and controlled; this book, told through the eyes of a disturbed man, offers a view of reality that gets under your skin and frightens you on a nearly subliminal basis.

    Exquisite Corpse, by Poppy Z. Brite, 1997
    As the 20th century ticked by, horror grew increasingly nihilistic, suffering in some ways from a problem science fiction also faced: reality was catching up. It’s hard to be scared of something in a book when the nightly news has regular reports of atrocities, so horror made its way to the edge, offering gruesome characters and eccentric premises—like Brite’s story of two serial killers who meet cute and decide to team up for what can only be described as an orgy of kink and killing.

    Right Now

    Horror as a marketing category went through some lean times as the 20th century closed; while it thrived on movie screens, in print, it all but disappeared, as many publishers failed or closed up their imprints and what books were published were absorbed into other genres. But horror didn’t die, it simply evolved; today it thrives in print with a literary facade and on the internet in the form of creepypastas and memes that have moved into more formal stories.

    Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach, 2012
    If you’ve never heard the term “creepypasta,” you will soon enough; it’s slowly becoming a legit source for horror stories—the Slender Man film and SyFy’s Channel Zero are just two examples of creepypasta-inspired fare. Creepypastas are essentially horror memes—short stories and images that intend to unsettle and terrify, often linked together by disparate communities to form deep back stories. Auerbach’s Penpal began life as one such creepypasta, and it evolved into a novel that has the neutral, deadened tone of the best examples of the format.

    The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron, 2013
    Barron may represent the future of horror; he combines a literary flare with long, complex sentences, and lush descriptive passages with a fusion of genres; his most successful stories mashups of noir, crime, horror, and fantasy. Because why can’t everything be terrifying? Consider the first season of HBO’s True Detective: a crime thriller that was flat-out a horror story for a few episodes before resolving into a crime story again. Who’s to say what’s horror and what’s not?

    Alice Isn’t Dead, by Joseph Fink, 2018
    Alice isn’t dead is based on a successful podcast also written by Fink (one of the co-creators of Welcome to Night Vale). The podcast, about a truck driver’s lonely roadtrip across the US in search of her missing wife, is making its case as the format of the future in general, though it works remarkably well as a standalone novel. Aside from being an example of how cutting-edge horror is being made these days, it’s also a scary piece of work, infusing old-school story elements (unstoppable monsters) with a modern sensibility and sense of cultural malaise.

    What horror books do you regard as foundational?

    The post 21 Books That Offer a Crash-Course in Horror appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2016/08/29 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , laird barron, patricia highsmith, the next generation,   

    5 Authors Following in the Footsteps of Older Writers 

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    We’re all of us only on this earth for a short time, which means the next generation is always going to be following close behind, ready to take over where the last leaves off. In the literary world, that means a fresh crop of talented writers working in genres and styles built upon what has gone before, even occasionally taking up the mantle of older writers. The five authors have done just that, and on a level that reminds us of their forebears in the best way.

    Ryan Gattis (The New Richard Price)
    Richard Price is far from retired, and is still among the modern day’s most compelling chroniclers of urban life, in all its violence and occasional grace. Gattis brings a mixture of Midwestern and West Coast attitude to his books, which explore the same territory: sprawling urban milieus packed with viscerally real characters struggling for and against monumental forces, finding small moments of triumph and emotion amidst the noise and dehumanizing bustle of modern life. Gattis taps into the same pulsing vein of gritty, violent, and of-the-moment stories that has supplied Price with so many memorable works, giving us books with the same you-are-there immediacy and dialogue that feels like eavesdropping on real people in real place.

    Mike Ransom (The New Michael Crichton)
    In the world of techno thrillers (and just plain thrillers), scientific accuracy is often a low priority; research sometimes seems to consist of walking through a room that contains an open Google search window. Michael Crichton made his name by crafting tense, imaginative stories that often crossed boldly into science fiction without ever forgetting the science part. With his electric debut The Ripper Gene, Ransom brings his scientific background (he’s a molecular pharmacologist) to bear in a story about the hunt for a serial killer that involves identifying a genetic trait shared by 70 percent of all known mass murderers, resulting in a story that slips perfectly into the vacuum left by Crichton’s passing.

    Gillian Flynn (The New Patricia Highsmith)
    As Gone Girl-mania subsides to merely fanatic levels, Flynn still reigns as one of the top writers of thrillers-with-a-twist working today. Her work is dark and edgy, infused with a strain of misanthropy that places most of her characters squarely into categories like “unreliable,” “unlikable,” and “unthinkable.” This is a trait she shares with Highsmith, the master of misanthropic thrillers, whose clever mind constructed the sort of twisting, unexpectedly dark stories in which people kill for small profits and become caught in webs of lies and violence of their own creation. Flynn’s bleak worldview continues in grand Highsmith tradition; Amy Dunne just might be the Tom Ripley of a new generation.

    Garth Risk Hallberg (The New Tom Wolfe)
    Hallberg’s much-anticipated opus City on Fire sprawls, an ambitious novel with scope and intent that will take your breath away. If Hallberg didn’t quite hit the heights that Wolfe’s all-time classic Bonfire of the Vanities managed 30 years ago, it certainly isn’t for lack of talent, incendiary writing, or willingness to dive into characters’ inner lives in a way few other writers would even attempt, much less pull off as thrillingly. When it comes to big, fleshy books that bring an entire world to life (even as they threaten to drown us in detail), we can never have enough. Hallberg’s attempt to step into Wolfe’s famous white-shoes is more than welcome—it’s necessary.

    Laird Barron (The New H.P. Lovecraft)
    Barron has been the thinking horror fan’s writer of choice for years, quietly building an empire of poetic horror fiction that explores much of the same psychological territory as Lovecraft, minus the problematic political and social beliefs, and with a firmer grasp on why the darkness can be so darn attractive. No other working writer can boast as great an excess of muscular imagery or as fluid and adaptive a style. Barron has turned Lovecraft’s epic mythology into something purely his own—a terrifying wordscape presented with such ornamental flourish, you sometimes forget you’re supposed to be terrified—until he forcibly, skillfully reminds you.


  • Jeff Somers 4:30 pm on 2014/12/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , , laird barron, m.r. carey, mrs. hemingway, naomi wood, , ted thompson, the beautiful things that awaits us all, , the land of steady habits, the son, under the radar   

    Great Under-the-Radar Reads of 2014 

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    Ted Thompson's Land of Steady HabitsIt happens every year: Websites and magazines, newspapers, bloggers, and that crazy guy who stands just outside your subway stop wearing a tattered clown costume and aggressively demanding money all start releasing their “best of 2014” lists. But what about the books that don’t make the lists, or don’t make enough of the lists to cut through the noise? Certainly there are more great books every year than even the longest best of lists can handle, so there will always be overlooked works that deserve your attention. Here are five that might be missing from the lists, but deserve to be read.

    The Land of Steady Habits, by Ted Thompson
    Maybe it’s the back-cover plot summary that sounds like a take on John Updike, maybe it’s the inexplicable (but intriguing) cover art, but this wonderful story was overlooked by a lot of people. It’s the kind of refreshing story you don’t see much of these days, centered on a man’s retirement-age crisis, with a main character who’s brought right up to the line of complete dislikability. The improbably named Anders Hill, made rich from the sort of financial plays that tanked the economy, leaves his wife, parties with his son’s friends, and imagines he can escape the entropy of his life, but finds only spectacularly entertaining humiliation and the limitations of his own ego. It all pulls together into a thoroughly entertaining read that, yes, will remind you of Updike while standing on its own.

    The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron
    Laird Barron writes beautiful, sophisticated prose that pulls you in with gorgeous imagery and easy verisimilitude, then scares the pants off of you. His characters and settings are a break from the usual urban sophisticates of literature and the typical suburban mediocrities of most horror, and the writing is so strong you often forget you’re reading horror at all—at least right up until you read something that makes you put this collection of short stories in your freezer and build a blanket tent so you can sit up all night hiding in it with a flashlight, telling yourself you didn’t hear anything.

    Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel, by Naomi Wood
    Sometimes we forget that real life is often as entertaining—and more difficult to believe—than fiction. Ernest Hemingway would be a challenge to buy as a fictional character, but he was very real, and just about every aspect of his life makes for fascinating reading. Mrs. Hemingway interweaves the stories of all four of Hemingway’s wives, masterfully playing with time and keeping as a central mystery whether any of them manage to hold onto Hemingway’s interest for good. Possibly overshadowed by Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, Wood’s excellent novel (incorporating some of the actual letters shared between Hemingway and his various mistresses-cum-wives) didn’t get the attention it deserves.

    The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey
    Perhaps because the paranormal twist at this story’s heart is of a sort that some are exhausted with at this point, The Girl with All the Gifts got short shrift this year. But it’s an effectively told, surprising story that revels in its twists without relying on them. Inventively turning a supernatural apocalypse setup on its head and proposing an intelligent scenario for the usual pandemic, this book deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten, and will appeal to readers who would normally pass over a novel with its particular premise.

    The Son, by Jo Nesbø
    Jo Nesbø is one of the most consistent and interesting crime writers in the world, but he’s often lumped in with Stieg Larsson and others as one of a many-headed creature known as Nordic Noir. While his Harry Hole novels are excellent mysteries and thrillers, his standalone novels (including the phenomenal Headhunters) are usually more interesting and unexpected. So it is with The Son, a story about a young man voluntarily serving time in prison for crimes he didn’t commit; a very corrupt system of cops, lawyers, and officials; and a central mystery that threatens to bring it all tumbling down. It’s an ambitious book that seeks to break out of some of the conventions of crime fiction, while reveling in others, and is well worth your time.

  • Ella Cosmo 4:30 pm on 2014/11/18 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , john searles, , laird barron, national occult day, prince lestat, the vampire chronicles   

    5 Supernatural Reads to Celebrate National Occult Day 

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    Laird Barron's The CroningToday is National Occult Day, a celebration of hidden secrets, dusty tomes inscribed with mystical script, spirits, a howling wind from the East that sends shivers up the back of your spine, covens, pentagrams, and the glint of fangs in the moonlight. If you’re a fan of writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson, or just love all things supernatural, magical, and scary, today is the perfect excuse to curl up with a book that promises to keep you up late at night. Here are five of my favorites.

    Lullaby, by Chuck Palahniuk
    What if you could kill someone just by singing a lullaby? Carl Streator is a reporter who has discovered the dark secret hidden inside seemingly innocuous children’s book Poems and Rhymes. In a desperate effort to stop the lullaby’s dark magic from spreading any further, Streator heads a motley group of characters, including witches and an ecoterrorist, on a road trip to destroy all existing copies of the book before it kills anyone else. Written by the author of Fight Club and Choke, this horror story initially has an almost lighthearted feel to it. But as the story progresses, the fun quickly becomes darkly frightening.

    Prince Lestat, by Anne Rice
    Lestat is back! The beloved enfant terrible of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles makes his triumphant return in Rice’s latest novel. At turns terrifying and seductive, Lestat is drawn from self-imposed exile into a world that is swiftly falling apart. Vampires are everywhere, beautiful, powerful, and out of control, while the human world reacts (rightfully) with fear and (perhaps not so rightfully) violence. Rice’s signature dark gothic style set the perfect tone for the novel and elevates it to “raises the hair on the back of your neck” scary.

    The Croning, by Laird Barron
    It would be criminal not to include The Croning on this list. A Lovecraftian horror story in the truest sense, the novel follows Don Miller, a geologist married to anthropologist Michelle Mock, whose investigation into the existence of “little people” is not what is seems. As Mock’s investigation continues, it draws both her and Don closer to a horrifying truth about human existence. Are we all just the pawns of a mysterious otherworldly evil? The novel’s tone of nihilistic dread is made all the more terrifying by Barron’s slow and deliberate chronicling of the destruction of Don’s fundamental beliefs about our world.

    Help for the Haunted, by John Searles
    Slyvie Mason is alone. Following a late-night phone call, Sylvie’s parents, self-styled professionals at helping lost souls find eternal peace, vanished into the night. Late-night phone calls are a common occurrence in her parent’s line of work, but this time, they don’t come back. Her big sister, Rose, is supposed to take care of Sylvie but she’s caught in her own grief (and perhaps her own guilt), and Sylvie must discover the truth about her family and what happened on that fateful night all by herself. Worst of all, she will have to brave the darkest (both literally and figuratively) recesses of her family’s basement alone. Searles masterfully straddles the line between horror and psychological thriller, playing on the darkest fears that reside in the back of the human mind.

    The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates
    If you talk about the occult, at some point you must delve into curses. And acclaimed author Oates does a spectacular job in The Accursed. The novel begins in 1905 in the town of Princeton, New Jersey. On the surface, the sleepy college town is perfect, but just beneath lies the real truth. The residents are beset with nightmarish dreams, daughters are disappearing, and the town’s upper class are afflicted with what is known as the Crosswicks Curse. The Accursed defies categorization, containing aspects of gothic horror, historical fiction (apparently Woodrow Wilson was a power-hungry madman), and the supernatural.

    What are your favorite supernatural books?

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