A few days ago, I wrote an essay on why I believe horror writing is, indeed, an art form, and a massively under-appreciated one, at that. Over the years, I’ve consumed absurd amounts of horror literature, from ancient texts to more modern classics to some of today’s emerging artists, as a quick glance at my bookshelf reveals. (And I’m talking actual bookshelf here, actually standing in my dining room, overflowing with more books than could ever fit onto its seven-foot frame.)
As always, some works stand out more than others. For whatever reason, some tales and their creators tend to resonate with different people in different ways. Instead of offering up a best-of list or something similar, I thought I’d just go through a half a dozen books among the many, that stuck with me, inspired me a bit, if you will.
Best book ever. Hands down. Bar none. This book has stopped me from ever really writing a full-on haunted house story because there is simply no earthly (or unearthly) way that I could improve upon the perfection of Jackson’s masterpiece. This story has so many levels that it still takes some time after reading it to figure out what exactly had gone on.
Was the house actually haunted? Was Eleanor the one doing the haunting herself? I’m still not sure. I alternate every time I read it; and I’ve read it a lot. My copy is a crumbling paperback held together by a rubber band at the moment–a testament to a well-used life.
Sometimes, I’m convinced that the house really is an evil force and poor, sensitive, fragile little Eleanor is the perfect bait for its unholy attentions. But then, other times, I persuade myself that the house is totally benign, and that Eleanor is the protagonist, taking a mind that was on the brink to begin with and dropping all the way into madness and obsession within the house. I’m just not sure either way, and that’s part of what makes this book so perfect. It doesn’t really matter.
What Shirley Jackson’s aforementioned novel did for haunted houses, Matheson’s I Am Legend has done for vampires, and to a lesser extent, zombies. That is, after reading this, I just couldn’t conceive of a more unique angle for a vampire/undead tale, so why try?
Let me say, I didn’t care for the Will Smith film version. I like the old Charlton Heston version, The Omega Man, a little better, but it still didn’t bring the book across in all its glory. Sometimes, that’s just not possible, and this book, short as it is (not even 200 pages) may be one of those.
The gist of this story, however echoes through mainstream horror to this day. Reanimated, undead corpses caused by a mutant bacteria unleashed in a massive epidemic infecting nearly the entire planet. Sound familiar? This book, while ostensibly about vampires, actually invented the entire zombie genre that pervades everything these days.
The book’s conclusion is near-perfect to my way of thinking. You never consider such things, that in a world populated with vampires and zombie vampires, a lone human being would become an object of fear and superstition. I just love the fact that the Legend referred to in the title is not at all what I expected it meant before I read the book.
Ray Bradbury is an interesting guy. It’s hard to pin down exactly what genre he works in, and I believe that’s the way he likes it. Many times, I find the Bradbury books lumped in with science fiction, but I don’t think that fits completely. Something Wicked This Way Comes, however, is unambiguous. It’s horror, plain and simple.
Rolling into the idyllic little burg of Greentown one autumn comes a carnival. It’s leader, a Mr. Dark, secretly entices patrons to live their fantasies, but for a price. Those who partake become bound to the carnival, and immortalized as a tattoo on Mr. Dark’s body.
The story is told in Bradbury’s best, creepiest voice, even making the darkness and decay of the carnival beautiful in a haunting sort of way. It’s a basic battle between good versus evil at its core, but the elements of temptation, desire, and a yearning for one’s lost youth carve out a richly spooky landscape.
The conclusion can seem a bit light and fluffy, especially for a book as genuinely creepy as this one, but it doesn’t bother me. Mr. Dark is evil and feeds off of darker emotions. It makes some sense that positive emotions could give him fits. But that’s only a minor issue. This book is simply a beauty of atmospheric horror.
Of the classic Victorian horror novels, Dracula always was my favorite. Frankenstein has its place but was a little too much like a philosophy class for my taste. Jekyll and Hyde was a good look at the darkness that lives in all men, but Stevenson’s writing, even on darker subject matters like Hyde, always seemed much better suited to children’s epic adventures like Treasure Island. For my money, Dracula is the best of that group.
Bram Stoker, by all reports a somewhat repressed personality himself, did manage to draft a very dense and comprehensive tale that treats the concepts of love and sexuality in a manner very un-Victorian. The mysterious count leaves his Transylvanian abode to travel to London to find what he believes to be his long lost love. By now, everyone knows the gist of the tale. But Stoker writes it in such a way that the theme of temptations of the flesh that runs throughout is almost palpable. And I, for one, like the ending.
There is no way Dracula is dead. Certainly, he was stabbed through the heart and dissolved into dust, but I think that was a ruse. The book itself even set up the use of a wooden stake through the heart earlier, why would a simple bowie knife work at the end on the most powerful of all vampires? It wouldn’t. The count wanted them to believe him dead. That’s my take, and I’m sticking to it. Dracula lives on!
Stephen King might not be anywhere near the class of writers that make up much of this list, but I would be remiss if he didn’t play some part. If you liked horror during the time I grew up, you simply couldn’t avoid King’s work. I read many of his novels–Pet Cemetery likely being my favorite–but it was always his short stories I enjoyed the most. And his first collection of those stories, Night Shift, has stayed with me through the years.
The amount of material in Night Shift that later became films or other works is startling. Salem’s Lot, Graveyard Shift, The Mangler, Maximum Overdrive, The Lawnmower Man, Cat’s Eye, Sometimes They Come Back, Childen of the Corn and more I’m sure I’m forgetting, all had their origins in this one little story collection from the late ’70s.
While I’ve often felt King’s novels were over-long and a bit rambling, I always considered him an underrated short story writer. Maybe it’s because his ideas are distilled more in a short story, I don’t know, but if I read any of King’s work today, it’ll almost always be Night Shift or his later short story collection, Skeleton Crew.
While I’m on the subject of short stories, another of my favorite books is this collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. If you’ve never read Lovecraft, you should. His world is one where the very fabric of reality hangs by just a thread and there are always bigger, darker, scarier beings waiting just behind the veil to cross over.
Lovecraft writes is such a nicely polished way, yet much of his work sets you at immediate unease. He frequently describes how angles in a room or structure have an unsettling affect, but his prose is much the same. Reading Lovecraft just puts you slightly off, uncomfortable, if you will.
So many times in his tales, events take a wild, seemingly insane turn, yet his characters adapt as if they’re going to the grocery store as they try to stop a 100,000 year old creature from crossing into this realm and wreaking havoc. Very few writers more clearly allow you to relate to someone’s descent into total madness as Lovecraft does. It makes his work simultaneously exhilarating and disconcerting. What better advertisement could you need for a horror author?
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween