‘Tis the season, right? Happy holidays, everyone!
Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 (excepting a few adjustments, with catch-up in December) I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what horror means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!
What is Horror?
Horror can be a tricky genre to categorize, because it’s meant to disturb and unsettle (there is a definite dark cover trend), but in a welcome way. It is a delightful source of creepy-crawlies for those of us who like to imagine things going bump in the night and see shapes in the shadows. It can also be a warning, highlighting something about society that could benefit from a change.
Horror likes to borrow elements from other genres: sci-fi, fabulism, thrills, satire, gothic mysteries. There’s a whole lot of overlap, and I would say whether or not a book is classified as horror depends largely on how subjectively disturbing different readers find the material. Not all disturbing content fits under the horror umbrella, though; a mention of murder or unexplained crime is not enough to turn the average mystery into horror, etc. Ultimately, what I consider horror comes down to my interpretation of tone and intent moreso than how effectively frightened I am.
My History with Horror
I got an early start with this genre. I even remember reading and rereading a few picture books with ghosts and skeletons and such, though of course children’s horror is a tamer version of terror. In elementary I was reading The Spiderwick Chronicles by Toni DiTerlizzi and Holly Black for a good (magical) scare, along with books like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Joseph Bruchac’s Skeleton Man, and Cynthia C. DeFelice’sThe Ghost of Fossil Glen.
By middle school, I had started picking up works by Stephen King; he’s a good adult author for young readers (in that his writing is easy to follow- his content is often problematic, so enter with caution) and a major horror genre staple, as I’m sure even non-horror readers are probably aware. Early King volumes for me included Pet Sematary, Bag of Bones, Misery, and Lisey’s Story, among others, and I am still reading King to this day (though I’m more aware of the issues in his writing now than I was as a kid. I want to do a full ranking and round-up of his fiction eventually, with all the pros and cons).
Since then I’ve expanded my adult horror reading and also dabbled a bit in YA horror, though that was a category I had a hard time finding as a teen. Some of my top reads with horror elements this year have been Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (short stories with horror, fabulist, and feminist focus), Dot Hutchison’s The Butterfly Garden (mystery/horror with commentary on psychological trauma), The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (gothic historical mystery revolving around cannibalism), Sisters by Daisy Johnson (literary thriller exploring a fraught sibling relationship), and Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford (magical healers serve a small village until a rift upsets the balance of their work).
Horror Classics and Staples
I’ll start with some popular classics:
Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews – A disturbing tale of child captivity that begins with a death and ends with incest. It’s pulpy and commercial, requiring significant suspension of disbelief, but the horror of a mother hiding her children in an attic for years is real enough.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – A patient story of psychological suspense, this book explores secrets in a marriage where the man’s first wife (now dead) looms over his second, whose aim to please steers her down the dangerous path of emulating the first Mrs. de Winter. This is a gothic mystery so the horror is lighter, but if that’s your brand let me also recommend du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, in which a man must determine whether his uncle’s new wife has poisoned her husband.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Only a short story, but this psychological tale of postpartum depression and a controlling husband packs a memorable punch.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This one’s a dystopian in which a group of young boys stranded on an island resort to lawless violence when left to their own devices.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris – The second volume in Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series, this story of an aspiring FBI agent hunting a psychopathic serial killer with the aid and advice of an imprisoned psychopathic serial killer is sure to stand the test of time in horror, and can be read as a standalone. If you are interested in reading all of the books in the series though, you can start with Red Dragon.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Here we have another psychological tale, this one set up as an investigation of a possibly haunted house, though one of the young women involved is either particularly affected by strange occurrences in the house or caught up in a past trauma that’s slowly driving her mad; while the cause may be ambiguous, the result is not!
Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle has a more fairytale feel, but this story of two girls living in their dead family’s once grand estate in a town that despises them all is well worth picking up also.
The Shining by Stephen King is probably the King title I recommend most often and easily- it’s the story of a family of three caretaking a large, secluded hotel through the winter months. It’s on the psychological end of King’s horror spectrum, with a hint of the supernatural.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – A new governess moves into an old estate to watch over two strange children who seem to be coveted by the lingering dead.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – That familiar sci-fi tale of a mad scientist piecing the dead together and bringing the creature to life, only to realize that his invention is not quite human after all. And I must give a mention here as well of Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge, an excellent graphic novel depicting Shelley’s difficult life and the creation of her famous monster.
Before I close out this section of the post, I also want to mention a few more modern horror classics, fairly recent releases that have gotten a lot of traction in the genre through general popularity and film adaptations:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – A memorable thriller with an unreliable narrator, which features a husband and wife with a complicated relationship that both binds them together and endangers them both.
You by Caroline Kepnes – This psychological horror involves a stalker who creeps around New York and uses modern technology to keep tabs on the girl he has fallen instantly in love with; but there’s a locked cage in the basement of the bookstore where he works, and he’s not afraid to use it on anyone who might not play by his rules.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman – Another thrilling tale of suspense, this novel includes mysterious creatures that spell death for any humans who see them, requiring sensory deprivation for the protagonists who are trying to escape to a safer place.
Further Horror Recommendations
Though the classics do, I think, show some variety of style and subject matter, there’s more of a range of authors and topics in the tailored lists below, divided into categories you may be particularly interested in:
Horror on my TBR
This is a genre that I reach for pretty easily, and as horror can be pulpy it is fun to read books like these in the peak of their popularity; thus horror tends to cycle through my TBR more quickly than other genres (with fewer titles that hang around unread for several years) and as a result I think my TBR list is straightforward and I expect to get around to most or quite possibly all of these titles within the next year:
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg, You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce, Little Eyes by Samanta Scweblin and translated by Megan McDowell, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Possession by Michael Rutger, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Why Read Horror?
This is a genre that can make some of the tough things in our real lives look a little less bleak, but it can also be a way to learn about the dark corners of the world that we didn’t know were there. Additionally, horror is one of the most cathartic genres, in my opinion; it can be great fun to get a low-stakes scare in a safe way.
We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for horror, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you. 🙂
The Literary Elephant