To me horror has always been more than “scary stories” and I have little interest in novels or films that focus on nothing but splatter and gore. Literary horror in particular has much more to offer than exploding bodies and serial killers alone. In fact, my favourite novels pair all things physical with philosophy and even romance, creating narrative universes that are as fascinating as they are gruesome. Here are some of my best-loved texts which, while certainly not for the squeamish, will change your perception of what this controversial genre is capable of.
- Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle
A spooky story about two sisters who occupy a derelict mansion on the edge of a hostile village, this novel offers a decidedly gothic setting. The challenge lies in finding out what the hell as going on as the novel’s narrator is as unreliable as they come. Fact and fiction freely intersect and become impossible to tell apart as the novel progresses, leading up to a shocking climax, and saying much about small-town-narrow-mindedness and social ostracism in the process.
- Stephen King – Pet Sematary
Everyone knows King, even self-proclaimed horror haters, but most people are familiar with the film adaptations of his novels rather than the originals. A shame, for even though King often sacrifices stylistics to plot, he remains a powerful storyteller who is guaranteed to capture even the most reluctant reader with his imagination. This story is a typical King “what if” story, exploring what would happen if we had the ability to bring deceased loved ones back to life. Naturally this can only end badly, but this novel is about much more than the fear provoked by corpses raised from the grave. The image of a revived war veteran who has turned into a decidedly “different” version of his former self will resonate with anyone who has experienced mental illness and its effect on relationships, and turns this novel into one that haunts for reasons very different than what one might expect.
- Poppy Z. Brite – Exquisite Corpse
By far the goriest novel on this list, Exquisite Corpse transforms the stories of real-life killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen into a fictional New Orleans dominated by surprisingly sophisticated murderers. This novel is both disgusting and oddly erotic, pairing lurid sex scenes with gruesome killings, and pushing boundaries of even the most open-minded reader. But the novel also offers a more philosophical edge, exploring the limits of human experience, the possibility of negotiating the boundary between life and death, and even the potential to cross the restrictions of the physical body.
- Dennis Lehane – Shutter Island
Perhaps this novel should be classified as a mystery or psychological thriller, but to me its setting on a remote island-slash-psychiatric institution makes it one of the most terrifying stories I have ever come across. In this novel horror resides in what you can’t see – the histories of the island’s occupiers, the unreliability of the narrator, and the fate of one of the disappearing characters. Madness, the novel suggests, is not something suffered by others but a phenomenon that affects all of us to some degree. As a result, nothing in Shutter Island is what it seems, and the story is a mindfuck that will stay with you for days.
- Richard Matheson – I Am Legend
Please ignore the terrible film adaptation and enjoy the decidedly more interesting original, in which a lone man tries to survive in a vampire/zombie infested post-apocalyptic world. this story explores what happens when horror becomes the new normal and supposedly evil characters come to rule a formerly straightforward and well-organised narrative universe. The horror in this story revolves around trying not to go mad, maintaining a failing sense of self and normality in decidedly abnormal circumstances, and the suggestion that the protagonist is doomed to fail from the start.
Image from Pixabay.com via Pexels