The last time I started to write about books to read at Halloween, I ended up having to cut myself off. It certainly wasn't for lack of passion; give me a chance and I can talk about books until the cows come home. I stopped because I didn't want to bore the pants off of the casual reader with an endless tour of my obsessions. In this second installment I was going to try and cover the twentieth century up until the present time, but when I realized that my essay was going to clock in a little shorter than War and Peace I decided to give you a little tour of the modern world of horror fiction, according to me and me alone.
In my blog posting “What Are You Reading For Halloween?” I mentioned a time when Stephen King had less than a half-dozen published works. That was for a very deliberate reason; more than any writer he is responsible for the commercial and critical acceptance of the horror novel. Like him or not he has become, to use his term, America's Literary Boogeyman. Mr. King's career, with over forty published novels and two hundred stories has in a way run parallel to the acceptance of horror fiction in literary circles. Once seen as a writer of unassuming pot-boilers he has since been called the modern Dickens, which is quite an accomplishment.
Over that time Mr. King has written his share of flops, but his best work ranks up there with the best in the history of horror fiction. So I have boiled his works down to my essential list. I know that everyone is going to jump all over my choices, but oh well, fire away.
Salem's Lot is the best classic vampire novel since Dracula, and when you consider that he followed that up with The Shining, The Stand, and The Dead Zone that makes for an impressive start to a career. Pet Sematary, is one of the most creepy and depressing popular novels I have ever read, and is on the list, as well as The Dark Half. Then read Gerald's Game, Bag of Bones, and Lisey's Story. All of the short story collections have their gems, and I would catch the novellas Apt Pupil and The Sun Dog. Wasn't that useful? Of course Mr. King has written several novels that I wouldn't call horror that are worth reading, but that is not for here and now.
For a time it seemed that Peter Straub was going to go round for round with Mr. King. I use this metaphor despite that fact that both men have collaborated on two books. Now Mr. Straub has only one book on my list, but it is a classic; Ghost Story. For those of you who have seen the film, and passed on the book, stop right now, excise the movie from your memory and go grab the book. It is one of my favorite horror novels of all time, and I have re-read it at least four times, usually around this time of year. If you think that I went on about Mr. King I could write two or three blogs easily about this book. For one thing it is most assuredly not a ghost story. The people who made the film did not understand that, and proceeded to butcher it. For my money it's better than The Haunting of Hill House, which I also encourage you to read. Shirley Jackson is a beautiful, subtle writer, and when she turns her hand to horror all the scares you could want are there on the surface, but there are tons lurking underneath for the more careful reader. It's one of the two or three best haunted house books I've read.
Another writer who started out in a literary ghetto was Dan Simmons. As his career progressed he has dabbled in many genres and done exemplary work in each. He has written several horror novels worth mentioning; Carrion Comfort, Children of the Night (another great vampire novel), Summer of Night (a personal favorite of mine combining chilling horror with a nostalgic look at a boy's summer), as well as The Terror and Drood. Some people might quibble about their inclusion, but both are full of chills as well as being complex historical novels.
One of the shortest and most poorly hidden secrets in the publishing world was the identity of Joe Hill. It turned out that he was Stephen King's son. Oddly enough, he is an amazing writer. Considering his father and that his mother, Tabitha are both decent writers this shouldn’t be surprising. If you want proof read Heart-Shaped Box. It's a truly original and truly scary take on ghosts, as well as a wonderful rock n roll novel. What's really scary is that Joe Hill’s book NOS4A2 is way better. This was one of my favorite novels that I have read in the past few years, and I recommend it very much. I could go on and on, about the well-drawn characters, and the dizzying invention, etc.., but just go out and get it.
The last few years have seen an absolute deluge of vampire novels, and I haven't read most of them because almost without exception I find the idea of sexy vampires ridiculous. However, there are a few exceptions; Anno Dracula by Kim Newman is one. Originally published in the nineties it was brought back into print because of the vamp craze and it deserved it. It's a clever, daring mash-up of Victorian fiction that is scary as well. The Strain trilogy by Benecio Del Toro and Chuck Hogan is a technological horror story that features a very different kind of vampire, but still dishes out the chills.
Every bit as good as NOS4A2, and perhaps better is The Passage and its sequel The Twelve by Ethan Cronin. Both of these books are epic in scope, full of plot and characters. They both span decades and feature vampires and human horrors as well. What puts those books head and shoulder above most horror fiction is the sheer talent of Ethan Cronin's writing. I will say little about these books, to keep me from running off at the mouth, but after the first few chapters of The Passage I had to scrape my jaw off of the ground and glue my heart back together. When I finished each, I was very tempted to start over again immediately. They were that good.
To finish this section up I want to talk about a few more good horror novels in another genre that has become very popular; YA books. For me the difference between YA books and "regular" books are few. Mostly it's a matter of marketing. How many classics could be published as YA books today? So, to find some really good horror is no surprise. One that knocked my socks off was The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. It's sneaky and clever, and scary as well, which is rare. Also worth looking up is Ashfall by Mike Mullin which, marketing aside, is definitely a horror novel. Finally, for a Dickensian treat read Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, proof positive that a book for younger folks can still give one a touch of frisson.
I feel like I am just getting warmed up, but the clock on the wall says otherwise. I could go on and on, and in the future I may do so. Until then, remember that everything here is merely my opinion and I would like to hear yours. Have a horrifying Halloween.