After a veritable glut of horror novels in the 80s, the genre pretty much imploded in the early 90s. If you go to a store like Borders, chances are the horror section consists mostly of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and John Saul, with a few authors like Clive Barker and Peter Straub tossed in here and there. It’s only recently that companies like Leisure Books have been making a concerted effort to publish mass-market editions of horror novels from mid-list authors. So, in an effort to help the raise the profile of the horror genre, I’ve decided to write up a list of notable scary books that you may not be familiar with. Stephen King’s a great author, but there’s more to the horror genre than just Pet Sematary. You might have to search a little to find some of these books, but it’s worth taking the effort to search for them. At the very least, you’ll be getting a more enjoyable reading experience than picking up a John Saul novel.
Strange Aeons by Robert Bloch – Before Robert Bloch became known as the author of Psycho, he paid his dues writing for the pulps. In the early days of his career, he dabbled in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, as did many authors of the time. He also corresponded with Lovecraft and was considered a member of the “Lovecraft circle”. Bloch went on to find his own distinctive voice and went on to write many fine novels and short stories. However, Bloch returned to Lovecraftian territory in the 70s with this novel, in which three people discover that Lovecraft’s stories were in fact warnings about actual creatures who are returning to take over the earth. Is this Bloch’s finest work? No, probably not. I think you could argue that Night of the Ripper and Psycho are better books. Strange Aeons is more of a tribute to Lovecraft and an excuse for Bloch and his fans to have a little fun with Lovecraft’s creations. A lot of horror authors have done this, but few have done it as well as Bloch did. Strange Aeons has been out of print for years, but I’ve seen copies in used bookstores and libraries. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, Stranger Aeons is a joy to read.
The Fog by James Herbert – James Herbert often gets knocked by the critics, but he has written a few good books in his time. Stephen King wrote a defense of the man’s work in Danse Macabre, and I would like to offer up The Fog as proof the man’s work has some merit.
A mysterious fog is sweeping through the world, awakening bizarre sexual and homicidal urges in the people it touches. Scientists struggle to find a cure, and the world panics as it faces the possibility that this could be the end of life as we know it. The book could be seen as continuing the fine British tradition of science fiction novels about the world going to hell and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, such as J.G. Ballard’s early work and John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass. However, The Fog stands firmly in the horror camp, so there’s a lot more gratuitous sex and gore. No problem with that.
James Herbert has written some bad novels, but he’s also written some good stuff. When James Herbert is at his best, his novels are like getting hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. The Fog is James Herbert at his best.
Oddkins by Dean Koontz – OK, I’m cheating a little, but this Dean Koontz novel is one of the best things he’s ever written. Unfortunately, it’s also been out of print for years. A group of magical toys has to journey to another toyshop after their creator dies, but the journey won’t be easy, especially when a group of evil toy tries to stop them. It’s sort of like Toy Story, although this being Koontz, it’s darker than any Pixar film. This is an excellent book for children (I read it several times when I was in 6th grade), and I think it would be a great book for kids and parents to read together. As an added bonus, the book is filled with gorgeous illustration from Phil Parks. Many of Koontz’s books are out of print, some of them deservedly so, but it is a crying shame that Oddkins is not available for kids to read today.
The Nightrunners by Joe Lansdale – After being raped, a woman and her husband drive out to a remote cabin so she can recover from the experience. However, the rapist is still out there and blames the woman for the death of one of his friends. And he and his friends are coming after them. Much like Death Wish and Straw Dogs, the book is about a liberal whose belief in the inherent goodness of people is challenged when faced with really bad people. The Nightrunners is a taut, exciting book, and a high point in the career of Joe Lansdale, an author with many fine books to his credit. The new Bruce Campbell movie Bubba Ho-Tep is based on one of his short stories, so hopefully the movie will encourage people to check out Lansdale’s work.
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin – Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby unfortunately overshadows most of his other work, much of which is quite good. I always though A Kiss Before Dying was a better novel than Rosemary’s Baby, even though it’s a bit dated.
A rich kid gets his girlfriend pregnant, and has to choose whether to marry her and loose out on an inheritance, or convince her get an illegal abortion (the book was written in the 50s). However, his girlfriend isn’t interested in getting an abortion, and he really wants the money. He ends up killing her, but that’s only the first part of the story.
The book is often been imitated, so it may not seem as fresh as it once did. However, I thought it was a really creepy book that still managed to have an impact on me even after I’d read American Psycho. I liked Rosemary’s Baby, but I think A Kiss Before Dying was just as enjoyable
Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin – I believe Martin’s epic fantasy series Song of Fire and Ice is doing quite well in terms of sales, but a lot of his early work is not easily available. I think that’s a shame, because Martin has produced some truly exceptional work. The Armageddon Rag, for example, is one of the best novels about rock and roll I’ve ever read, and yet it remains sadly neglected by today’s readers. Fevre Dream is another great book that you can’t find anywhere.
Martin spins a tale of vampires on a Mississippi steamboat in the 1850s. Although the Southern setting will likely cause people to draw parallels between it and Anne Rice’s work, this novels blows away almost everything Rice has written. It’s one of my favorite vampire novels, and I’m amazed that people will line up to buy a new Vampire Chronicles book even though the series has run out of steam, yet almost no one knows about Fevre Dream. If you tired of waiting for A Storm of Swords to come out, see if you can find a copy of Fevre Dream to bide you time. You won’t be disappointed.
Swan Song by Robert McCammon – Although his first few books were kind of mediocre, McCammon spent about decade writing exceptional horror novels. Swan Song is one of his best. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, an enigmatic figure known as the Man with Many Faces is trying to kill a young girl known as Swan, who possesses magical powers that can heal the damage done by the fallout. The book shares a lot of similarities with the Stand, but like The Merchant of Venice is an improvement over The Jew of Malta, Swan Song is essentially The Stand done right. It’s much more exciting, and there’s no annoying (and literal) Deus ex Machina making an appearance. Since it takes place after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the first part of the book is a little dated. However, I think it still holds up as one of the best post-apocalyptic novels ever written.
Toplin by Michael McDowell – You might not know McDowell’s name, but he wrote the screenplays for Beetlejuice and A Nightmare Before Christmas, and I’ve been told he was the ghostwriter of Tim Burton’s book The Melancholy Death Of Oyster Boy.
Toplin is told from the point of view of a mentally unhinged man who decides he has to kill a woman for having deformities only he can see. Few authors have been able to make a human mind seem so alien and so creepy. This is truly haunting novel, and like McDowell’s other novels, it deserves to be rescued from the depths of obscurity. It’s long out of print, so hit the used bookstores for this one.
A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny – Sort of a marginal inclusion, this is the last solo novel Roger Zelazny wrote before his death, and I think it’s one of his finest works. In Victorian England, in an October in which the full moon falls on a Halloween, the magical creatures of England vie for control of a magical door which, if opened, will allow the Cthulhu to return to earth.
Everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Victor von Frankenstein makes an appearance in the novel, as does Jack the Ripper. In fact, the novel is narrated by Jack the Ripper’s heretofore-unknown pet dog. Zelazny wrote some substandard novels in the 80s (he had several children to provide for, so he dragged the Amber series out for a few more books than he needed to), but with A Night in the Lonesome October he had written his strongest work in years. It’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, he died soon after publication, but this was a real high note for him. Byron Preiss Books has been reprinting some of Zelazny’s works; hopefully this book will find its way back onto bookstore shelves.
Since horror movies seem to be bringing in the bucks at the box office these days, we can hope that the public has an increased appetite for horror on the printed page as well. If that means more money for authors like Thomas Ligotti, Poppy Z. Brite, or Thomas Tessier, that’s a good thing. If we’re lucky, the horror section at Borders will be just as diverse as the science fiction and mystery sections are.