Today I’ve decided to take a break from the heavy stuff to talk about a fun topic, and one I love: horror novels! Yes, it’s off-brand for my blog, but I’m a person, not a brand, so there. Besides, although I’ve been exploring different directions lately, most of my published work has been in the horror genre.
Also, it isn’t totally off-brand. Over the past 18 months, I’ve questioned a lot about who I am, what I like, and how I perceive myself: what was really me versus protective coloration that no longer served its purpose. For example, I started to wonder whether my Goth persona was a carapace it was time to shed. Did I even enjoy horror, or had it just become a thing I felt obligated to like because everyone, including myself, expected it? Was Halloween a holiday I loved or a habit I was tired of? And how much of my October observance was designed to distract me from what could have happened or came very close to happening on Halloween when I was nineteen? Last year I didn’t know, and I didn’t have the energy to put up a facade anymore. Except for one trip with friends to a local haunted forest, I sat out the entire season.
Another thing I lost, over that period of deep self-doubt and staring down my inner demons, was the ability to focus long enough to read books. I’ve been an avid reader since I was four years old, and I’ve known since I was seven that I am a writer, so that was particularly tough. It never felt permanent: I trusted that when some of the angst and anxiety settled, I would rediscover that love. But I also had to recognize that for years I’d used books, words, other people’s stories as an escape from my own shit and loneliness. I’d just started being able to read for pleasure again last January, shortly before lockdown. For me, one of the challenges and, eventually, triumphs of this pandemic season has been learning to read for enjoyment and relaxation, not out of a frantic need to vicariously live someone else’s life.
So this year — left to my own devices and without external or internal pressures to conform to expectations of what I like — I’ve found myself returning to a heavy dose of horror as we near Halloween. Bingeing on ghosts and devils and things that go bump in the night.
Accordingly, here’s a sampling of old favorites and titles I’ve enjoyed recently:
The Bedeviled by Thomas Cullinan. Schlocky 80s horror at its best: a house haunted by the spirit of a satanic Civil War general — whose satanism is straight out of a Geraldo Rivera expose, with good teenagers gone bad and ritual murder and Black Masses involving prominent local citizens — who, with the help of his coven, manages to possess his great-great-grandson. All the tropes are here: rural horror, a spooky old house with its own graveyard, a priest who’s helpless against an evil he refuses to believe in, suggestions of incest, creepy old women.
Childgrave by Ken Greenhall. How far would you go for the person you love? How much of love is bewitchment? To what extent can you rationalize the unthinkable? Greenhall’s narrator, photographer Jonathan Brewster, falls in love with mysterious harpist Sara Coleridge. When she flees New York City to return to her upstate hometown, Childgrave, he follows — and discovers a horror that threatens not only his soul, but his young daughter, too.
Crota by Owl Goingback. A savage creature, a throwback from the dawn of time, breaks out of the deep cave where it’s been imprisoned. As it leaves a trail of carnage across rural Missouri, two Native American shamans and the local sheriff band together to try to stop its reign of terror. It’s satisfyingly gruesome without degenerating into splatterpunk, and there’s a mysterious city under a mountain that adds an element of the fantastic.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell. Sand isn’t scary — until it’s in McDowell’s adroit hands, and then it becomes oddly menacing. This is a compelling Southern Gothic that you will not want to read on the beach. I’ve also enjoyed Cold Moon Over Babylon and Blackwater, and I look forward to more McDowell; in fact, Gilded Needles is on my coffee table as we speak.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I’ll never get over that one conversation where the characters discuss Dracula’s head for pages without realizing they’re discussing Dracula’s head. But other than that, this remains a pleasurable read, with sophisticated, cosmopolitan academics following a mysterious trail across Europe in search of Vlad himself.
The Shining by Stephen King. Of course no list of horror would be complete without the grand master himself, and this is probably my favorite of his books (although Pet Sematary is up there, and I personally also rank Duma Key high on the list). King’s at his peak in this tale of a haunted hotel in the Colorado mountains. The miniseries was super creepy, too (and filmed at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, which lately has been housing crews of firefighters); I can’t hear Glenn Miller or the Andrews Sisters without thinking of that party in the Overlook and experiencing a delicious chill.
The Toll by Cherie Priest. This book is set in my beloved Okefenokee Swamp, and I do wish the swamp figured as more of a character. Also, if you get close enough to an alligator to poke it with a stick, you aren’t going to be confused about whether or not it’s a log. But putting aside those minor quibbles, this is an enjoyable yarn about a mysterious bridge that sometimes appears and exacts a terrible toll, and the thing on the other side of reality from the bridge, and how it affects the humans living in proximity.
The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher. If I describe this novel, it will sound hokey. Honestly, if I’d known where it was going, I might never have picked it up…and I would have missed out, because this book is quietly creepy and just weird, in the best of ways. I also have to adore any book that lets you know within the first twenty pages that the dog — a goofy hound who could be my foster’s doppelganger — survives.
The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman. Rickman may well be my all-time favorite writer. He explores the liminal spaces along the Welsh border in ways that combine history, mythology, spirituality, and human evil. This novel introduces Merrily Watkins, the diocesan priest and exorcist who serves as the focus of his long-running series. One of the many things I love about the Merrily books is that Rickman lets readers make up their own minds: There’s a natural, logical explanation for everything, but if you want to find the supernatural, it’s there, too.
The New Annotated Dracula by Bram Stoker, edited by Leslie S. Klinger. This was my Halloween gift to myself this year. I don’t even know how many times I’ve read the original novel, and I also enjoyed that cool Icelandic version where the translator essentially took the story and ran with it. But the annotated tome is a thing of beauty indeed, packed with both information and images.
What are you reading this Halloween?