While I’m not really a blogger, I put this list together a while ago and thought I’d expand it into a post. Just for fun, as a quiet Sunday morning project, admiring the contents of my bookshelves and listening to Miranda Sex Garden. (It seems to fit, somehow.)
Dark fiction (aka horror!) is one of the most ambiguous of all the genres. It slips and slides around the place, infiltrates other genres with the insidious sleuth of a Soviet honeytrap, and—most frustratingly for its writers and champions—has yet to be exactly defined. Say horror and most people think of zombies, vampires, cheap thrills and gimmicky plot twists. They also assume that if it’s horror, it must be bad—as in poorly written, and/or shallow, and/or callously plotted. My go-to example when I want to debunk this thinking is Lord of the Flies, anyone? Which usually then sparks a discussion on Is it really horror, though? To which I say, Hell yes!
And on we go.
So, here’s a list of five (ahem) horror novels that not only fit the general dark mould, but also showcase gorgeous writing and incredible depth.
Do note that every one of the novels on this list has been adapted for film. As I glimpsed in the closing credits of The Lost, another damn-near perfect novel that made it to the screen (novel by Jack Ketchum, film directed by Chris Sivertson and produced by Lucky McKee): If you liked the movie, read the book! If you didn’t like the movie, read the book! So, you know. Read these books!
SENSELESS, by Stona Fitch
“Removing an eye is easy. All it takes is a confident man and a coffee spoon.”
Reading this book is easy. All it takes is an open mind and a stress ball. And maybe a pillow to scream into. And a big box of tissues. And a counsellor at the end of it when you look up and recognise the world you’re living in.
Lots of folks like to slam body horror as mere (mere?) torture porn, but this is proof that there can be a lot more to it than that. (And what’s wrong with torture porn anyway? But I guess that’s another topic.) This book takes a hard look at society, politics, and the implied liability of the individual in a consumerist society.
Here we follow Elliot Gast, a little fish in the business ocean of a mega trade corporation. While strolling around Brussels one evening post-gourmet dinner, he’s kidnapped by a group of political extremists who make him both poster and whipping boy for all the evils they feel America is wreaking on the world, specifically European economies. Whether he’s responsible for any of this or not (and this book is pitched grey enough to invite you to think on that—and on your own guilt while you’re at it, regardless of nationality), there’s no escape for Gast—or the reader. This is the kind of book that will have you periodically snapping the pages shut and taking deep breaths. But with the empathy Fitch builds in us for his character, there’s just no way you’ll be able to stop reading and leave poor Gast alone in there. Happy nightmares.
So yes, this is a book about torture, about body horror. But it’s also political, current, purposeful. Coming in at around 50K words, it may be a short read but it’s by no means a smooth ride. This is a great example of how extreme violence can be an essential component for far-reaching dark fiction. And at the end… blow me down if you don’t wind up feeling something very close to uplifted. The mysteries of great story-telling.
It takes guts to write a book like this. It takes genius to pull it off so flawlessly.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, by Shirley Jackson
“Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.”
This is the haunted house book. Forget Amityville, forget House of Leaves… put all of those down until you’ve read this one, because this is it. This is where it all starts. This remarkable novel has been adapted numerous times and has inspired countless other works. It’s not just a haunted house story—it’s the cornerstone to all haunted house tales that have followed since it was originally published in 1959. This thing is an institution. Did I mention that it’s beautiful? Not yet? Well, it is… to such a degree… I get breathless just thinking about it.
There are so many wonderful aspects to this novel, it’s hard to pick which to highlight. For one thing, while it is a ‘haunted house’ story it’s also an elegant example of psychological horror at its best. Since we (mostly) experience the story through the sensitive soul and eyes of Eleanor Vance, nothing is spelled out for us. We’re as emotionally influenced and easily blinded as she is—as, in fact, all the characters here are.
The deeper horrors behind the horror include loneliness, bullying, isolation, insecurity. Lies and love and more beautiful lies. The desperate, the lost, and the seeking. A favourite section of this book is Eleanor’s drive to the house—poignant enough to draw tears. And nothing really happens! If you’re a writer of dark lit and haven’t read this, you’ve got some homework to do. If you’re a reader of… well, anything, this is a firm must.
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, by Dorothy Allison
“Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.”
When this book was banned (again… and then again…) from American schools, Stephen and Tabitha King went out and bought a few thousand copies, which they then donated to public libraries across the States. Take that, censors!
The story follows Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed Bone, through the agonies and brutalities of her childhood. Yes, it’s about child abuse. But before you get ready to cross it off your list, hang on a second. There is nothing voyeuristic or sensationalistic about this story, though so many others covering this subject matter tend to fall into that trap. I even recommended this book to my mother (an avid reader who cannot handle dark themes in fiction—not even mine. Actually, least of all mine!).
She said, “What happens when a scene gets too heavy?”
“Then just put it down,” I told her. “Whatever you’ll have read so far will make it worth it!”
I really do mean that. The writing is tight, vivid, layered. Even the ‘villains’ are well-drawn enough for you to find some empathy for (or at least some insight into) their lives and inner workings. While of course this makes the darkness of it all the more traumatising, if it didn’t have that effect then it would be just another cheap kick at a sensational topic. Which this most certainly is not. Anyone who’s been a victim of abuse of any kind will identify with this story, and feel a little less alone for reading it. To those censors out there I would say—If it makes you feel, then it’s working. No?
This novel is both disturbing and beautiful, and every line breathes. Nothing here is black and white—and not many writers can achieve that kind of balance in such dark waters.
THE EXORCIST, by William Peter Blatty
“Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness… and perhaps Satan—even Satan, in spite of himself—somehow serves to work out the will of God.”
Yes!! Yes, for the love of all things great in literature, it is a book! And it’s a brilliant one. While the movie is fantastic in its own right, there’s a lot more to this story than you saw on the screen. This novel contains some of the most stunning prose it’s our pleasure to find on the pages detailing nightmares such as this.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the first page, describing Father Merrick at the archaeological dig:
The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics; phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots. Nothing exceptional. An Assyrian ivory toilet box. And man. The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God.
Not only is the prose this rich, but the characters are utterly human (except for when they’re utterly inhuman) and the dialogue snaps. There’s a depth to this book that the film’s reputation denies. One could make a point of rereading this every year, and on each return you’re bound to find something new, something you missed, or something so darn beautiful it’ll move you to tears.
As a final bit of trivia, when Blatty read this in studio for the audiobook, he reportedly stopped after a few pages and snapped, “Who wrote this trash?!”
The mind boggles.
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER, by Patrick Süskind
“And suddenly solitude fell across his heart like a dusty reflection. He closed his eyes. The dark doors within him opened and he entered. The next performance in the theater of Grenouille’s soul was beginning.”
This is a story about a serial killer such as it has never been told before. What’s so magic about it is that the protagonist is utterly despicable, but… we like him? Despite his sad beginnings, he has exactly zero redeeming features—and yet… and yet… we admire him? Alright, we don’t like him—but we root for him. We don’t understand him—but we feel for him. It’s like falling in love with a narcissist. He makes us furious and desperate and sometimes downright disgusted, but we follow him around like a tortured puppy anyway.
I still cannot figure how Süskind got that right.
Grenouille is a hideous little creature with an extraordinarily refined sense of smell. There is no beauty in his world except for that gifted by fragrance, which he pursues heartlessly, almost in direct contrast to the beauty of the scents themselves. There is nothing admirable in him, except for his keen intelligence (he’s no fool) and this remarkable gift of his. When he discovers a way to capture the scent of human, feminine beauty, he goes from sociopath to psychopath, and there are no limits to what he’ll do to achieve his goal: create the greatest perfume the world has ever known.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to pick this apart any further. It’s just too layered, too intense, too intricate. This novel stands alone, and has to be experienced first-hand by the reader.
Kudos to the translator. It can’t have been easy, working with words as full and dense as this.
And there we have it. The record player is skipping, and I’m out of coffee. Happy Sunday.