It’s the time of year when everybody is celebrating autumn by carving faces into various squash plants and thinking about weird monsters. The time of year when friends put on a movie about a guy who drowned and now kills any kid who comes near his lake, and maybe later they'll all dress up like him and go get drunk. Sure, it sounds cool, but sometimes I enjoy more subtle, less over-the-top forms of horror—the kind that's more complex than masks and haunted pumpkins and blood splatter on a camera lens.
In that spirit, here are some books that bring a different kind of terror to their readers, something weirder than Freddy, or Jigsaw, or a witch. Weird like when your dad dressed you up as a mummy and no one thought about how fucked up it was to pretend your kid's dead in the name of candy.
Project X by Jim Shepard
There were tons of attempts at creative reactions to the wave of school shootings following Columbine. Even though it’s been years since I read it, Shepard’s Project X still carries a strange, dark weight in my brain because of the way it subtly renders the overplayed school shooter narrative. Horror is even more horrifying when it’s something real, tangible, and wholly out of your control.
In clipped prose, Project X follows two eighth graders, Edwin and Flake, through the preteen turmoil of being bullied by jocks and feeling like losers. The book is full of strangely realistic scenes that somehow manage to be both childlike and adult at once, like this:
“College,” I finally go. “Anybody who goes to college…” I can’t even finish the sentence.
“I wanna be president someday,” Flake goes. “Or maybe Wizard Death Lord.”
We got no Interests. We got no extracurriculars.
“I’m goin’ to Fuck U,” I tell him.
“We’re goin’ to Uzi State,” he tells me back.
It’s amazing how well Shepard gets into the head of a kid and turns revenge fantasy into a frightening reality. It's certainly scarier than a Hellraiser mask.
Dies: A Sentence by Vanessa Place
My favorite horror stories are those that pile on brutal image after brutal image, with less regard for story than for planting ideas in your head that you can’t get out.
That type of onslaught is alive in Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence. The book carries a maniacal energy right from the first page that doesn't let go until the period on the last page. The entire book is one long sentence. The blood of war and violence has rarely been brought to life in language so clearly—every page burns with descriptions like this:
“…let hollow yellow teeth snap and fall from your grim shattered jaw and your bleeding tongue be splayed in slices, your eyes pricked clean from their sockets with the tip of a shepherd’s short knife, sockets cleaned by the delicate sip sip sip of a bottlefly, your cheeks come stinking sunken sumps of scum and weep, your guts tumble free from your belly, purple-ripe with pain and shit…”
Enough of the horror with no guts. Vanessa Place gives you the guts themselves.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
The Fifth Child begins with a rather unremarkable white suburban family: a young couple who struggle against the expectations of their friends and relatives and decide to have a large family. The couple has four children and everything goes as planned, until they decide to have a fifth. The pregnancy goes wrong, and when the child is born he looks more like an animal than a boy. He's both physically and behaviorally deformed, unmanageable, and a wrench in the whole family machine.
Eventually they agree to give the child to a home for unwanted children, and the couple move on, focusing on their first four children. But their attempt at reclaiming a normal life turns out to be the beginning of the most difficult terrain. The book becomes a strange and heartrending study of how it feels to be emotionally tied to another human, especially one who makes your life hard.
The horror in The Fifth Child isn't monster-driven. It comes from the emotional terror of having to go against your flesh and blood. It's also about how one hard decision can affect your entire future and haunt you for the rest of your life. I know there are some people out there who get off more on emotional damage than splatter horror (somebody had to make Ingmar Bergman's claustrophobic Scenes From a Marriage famous, after all).
Curl up with this one if you are ready to not go anywhere for Halloween.
The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier
Kevin Brockmeier's novel tackles a similar domestic horror as The Fifth Child, but in a completely different manner. I originally bought this book because I got hooked by one detail in its plotline: a young girl, Celia, goes missing, and then she talks to her father through a walkie-talkie toy she left behind. Yet the impact of this, and the questions about if Celia is a ghost or if it's all a hallucination brought on by her father's grief, is just a platform for Brockmeier to describe reality through the lens of the surreal, like a mash-up of David Lynch and Robert Altman.
15 Serial Killers by Harold Jaffe
The back cover of 15 Serial Killers proclaims the author’s belief in Georges Bataille’s idea that “only at the extremes is there freedom,” a philosophical stance that begins to explain the book's bizarre construction. 15 Serial Killers is a psychological exploration of 15 well-known murderers, including Richard Speck, Aileen Wuornos, the Unabomber, Ted Bundy, and Jack Kevorkian. Rather than tackling these personas with short stories, Jaffe presents what he calls "docufictions." These are monologues, interviews, letters, stream-of-consciousness fragments, psychiatrist reports, and other forms that highlight the logic of the killer more than the actual killing itself.
The jarringly widespread array of writing tactics places us deep inside the psyches of the murderers. I honestly felt dirty after finishing this book, less due to the content than the construction. It gives the feeling of flipping through actual documents found in a closet covered in blood.
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
This one doesn’t necessarily scream Halloween, because it doesn’t scream anything, really. The Unconsoled is quiet, desolate, surreal, and full of oblique wandering and unresolved questions. The book's narrator, a pianist, has arrived in a European city, but his dementia causes him to struggle to complete even simple tasks. The book itself produces a sort of disorientation, as if the world is alive and moving around you in ways you'll never be able to comprehend.
Ishiguro's book is long and, like the best long books, part of the pleasure of The Unconsoled is its ability to hold the reader from ever becoming fully grounded. You're left lingering and floating, struggling to find a foothold but never quite finding one, just like the novel's narrator.
Other Recommended Titles for the Cold of October
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
Skin Horse by Olivia Cronk
Haute Surveillance by Johannes Göransson
The Collector by John Fowles
Souls of the Labadie Tract by Susan Howe
Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet
I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond
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