A sideways glance at horror - for the not-yet-horror-fan
Part of the Halloween Spooktacular, our week of back-to-back ghoulishness, here is my list of less obvious horror choices to show there is more to the genre than first meets the eye.
Horror gets a bad rap. Dismissed, over-looked and scoffed at…it is an oft-maligned genre. But give me a fantastically creepy story – and I’m in.
I wouldn’t call myself a horror fan – because there is so much bilge out there – but I would call myself a discerning reader of scary stories. (A horror fan, basically).
And I think there are plenty of superbly written, eerie tales that people walk past in their local bookshop – every visit.
So I decided to put a list together.
Some people may feel I have broken rules and cast the net out beyond the usual boundary of what is deemed horror, but that is my whole point. The usual view is so narrow.
Each of the books on this list will, I hope, be a surprise. Either because you had no idea that the author wrote horror – or because you had no idea that the author wrote novels – or because you had no idea that the author existed.
And all of these books are quietly waiting, on neat shelves, for you to take home and scare yourself senseless with (and they make a nice change from the usual suggestions too).
1. Dark Entries – Robert Aickman
In the words of Neil Gaiman, Robert Aickman "really is the best". He is number one on this list for a reason. He is eloquent and a master of the beautiful yet troubling, tiny detail. These tiny details unnerve you, little by little, as you read.
Like all the best short story writers, he tests language’s limit - he makes it bend and alters it as he goes. His command of English is so complete you feel he has an almost supernatural ability to convey a scene or an emotion in words.
Of the stories in Dark Entries, I recommend The School Friend not just because the main character is my namesake, but because it will fill you with a slow-burning dread for days and weeks after. It is followed in this collection by Ringing Out the Changes which is a creepy delight that I will leave for you to discover in your own time. Aickman's stories are sophisticated confections of horror – exquisitely crafted and delicious every time.I came late to the work of Aickman. And I am slowly making my way through his catalogue of short stories. For examples of the best writing in the genre, I strongly suggest you do the same.
2. Holes for Faces – Ramsey Campbell
Not many people have heard of Ramsey Campbell, which is a shame. If you are looking for the kind of story that will reel you into its seemingly ordinary world, only to make you suddenly aware of its ice-cold breath on the back of your neck – he has just the thing.
Ramsey Campbell’s writing is not about gory extremes, it is about subtle, psychological shifts and just a touch of the supernatural. I must confess, I haven’t read his novels, and cannot speak about them myself (though they do get rave reviews). What I can say, with certainty, is that, as little slivers of dread go, you won’t find much better than Campbell’s short stories.
I have chosen his most recent collection, Holes for Faces, as it should be the easiest to get hold of – but do look out for whatever you can find. There are plenty out there, in dark corners of musty little second hand shops and on our very own marketplace.
The eponymous story in Holes for Faces still gives me a shiver just to write its title…
3. The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson
Yes, I have mentioned this book before. But there is good reason: when it comes to elegance and brevity together, you don’t get much better than any given line in The Daylight Gate.
This is a slim volume written in staccato sentences, yet it brims with history and violence and rage and horror. It is like a distillation of a much longer novel down to its essence. It is seductive and intelligent and compulsive. It really is an astonishing little book.
Read of goings-on in the wood, creatures from other realms and mysterious women with witch-like powers. Visceral is definitely a word for the novel.1612 seems to revolve around sex, death and mud. And it is funny, in places, too.
Winterson is not known as a horror writer – but she is known as a feminist. And the horror of this book comes from the realisation that most modern women would have been burnt alive as witches in 1612.
If you want to read a female writer challenging our ideas, not just of horror, but of what writing can do – then Winterson is your woman.
4. The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
If you like your heroines wise, courageous and armed with an arsenal of four-letter words, 15 year old Anais Hendricks from The Panopticon is not only the one for you – she is a cut above. The only trouble is, once you start rooting for her, you realise that the bleak and corrupt institution system has her trapped - and is a horror all too real.
The writing is phenomenal – if you are a fan of writers who keep prose clean and simple, but not entirely unornamented, ones that endlessly challenge and surprise you, then you will fall head-first into this book.
Another writer you will not usually find on the horror shelves, Fagan was named one of Granta’s Best British novelists of 2013 and The Panopticon was named one of the Waterstones Eleven in 2012. She is an exceptional, experimental writer, unafraid when it comes to breaking out of ‘literary English’ and into smart and slick, colloquial splendour.
There is a theme forming here – no one follows rules. Everyone is pushing the limits. Come on, I’ll make a horror fan of you yet.
5. The Quiet Earth – Craig Harrison
I know, this is a sci-fi. And of all the ‘man/woman in a deserted landscape’ sci-fi’s I could have picked, I chose this one. Why? Because it plays out like a horror story to me. And The Martian has got quite enough acclaim for one year.
John Hobson wakes up to find his watch has stopped at 6.12. The world is quiet – the streets are empty of movement but full of abandoned cars, the sky is uninterrupted by vapour trails, there is no sign of life – or death. As the hours become days, it seems Hobson is the last person left on the planet…
It is a breath-taking concept – that you are completely alone. Scream, cry, laugh – no difference. Eat, breath, die – no difference. There is no one. If that is not horrific, then I’m not sure what is.
Thing is, Hobson may not be alone…and what he keeps seeing out of the corner of his eye may not be human...
The Quiet Earth may have a familiar template – but I would argue this troubling and peculiar book – which is paced as slickly as a Hitchcock - deserves more recognition as a classic – of both horror and science fiction.
6. Endless Night – Agatha Christie
Say Agatha Christie to someone in a free-association game and they will probably say: old ladies. When asked why – they would no doubt add: in brown tights with tweed skirts. Wait, I am just describing my grandmother now. The point is, people think of the pantomime adaptations on the telly, with half the cast of Eastenders and dismiss the books along with the television programmes as tame.
What amazes me is the terseness and forcefulness of Christie’s prose. I hate the use of masculine/feminine to describe styles - but hers is definitely not what you would expect of a little old lady sucking on toffees. It has muscularity, if you will pardon the pretentiousness. It is classy, too. And it is finely crafted.
It can be a struggle getting younger people to read Christie - but why not start with Endless Night. It has a very modern-seeming unreliable narrator and razor sharp sentences. Just a frisson of horror. Go on.
7. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
I am rounding off this list with a forgotten masterpiece of horror – or maybe terror is a better word. You may not have read The Haunting of Hill House, but you will have read at least one of the books or seen at least one of the films that pays homage to it. It places a group of investigators in a haunted house and then let’s the good times roll…
The book epitomises the notion that fear without a face is always the most frightening. You don’t see anything. The characters have no idea what it is that they fear. And your imagination is allowed to fly free as a bat in a bellfry.
The story is more about human psychology than it is about spectres. That’s not to say it won’t make you sit bolt upright in the night and wonder what that noise was…
I will finish with a quotation from Ramsey Campbell:
“What appeals to me most is the kind of story that attempts to convey something larger than it actually shows. Not the horror story that seeks to disgust – which is not, on the whole, very interesting – but that seeks to disturb, however you define that. One of things that good horror fiction does – as with all good fiction – is to make both the reader and the writer look again at things we’ve taken for granted.”
Horror is something we have all taken for granted. Look again.
I rest my case.
Robert Aickman (1914-1981) was the grandson of Richard Marsh, a leading Victorian novelist of the occult. Though his chief occupation in life was first as a conservationist of England's canals he eventually turned his talents to writing what he called 'strange stories.' This book tells his story.
Good Friday 1612. Pendle Hill. A mysterious gathering of thirteen people is interrupted by a local magistrate. Is it a witches' Sabbat? In Lancaster Castle two notorious witches await trial and certain death, while the beautiful and wealthy Alice Nutter rides to their defence.
Fifteen-year old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce, but she is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met. Sitting in the back of a police car, she finds herself headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders where the social workers are as suspicious as its residents.
Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely assistant; Luke, the future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past.
Agatha Christie's disturbing 1960s mystery thriller, reissued with a striking new cover designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers.