It’s my favorite time of year again. Crisp fall air and crunching leaves under your feet means it’s time to crack a spooky paperback.
When I talk to non-horror fans, I tend to hear a few criticisms of the genre. One is that horror is formulaic. While tropes and devices are what define genres, for some reason horror and romance seem to be the most common targets for this complaint. It’s also been said that most horror is trash. I actually agree with this! For all of the ‘good horror’ out there, there is plenty of bad. This doesn’t mean that horror fans will necessarily have bad taste, but I do think that they tend to be open to, shall we say, a wide range of experiences. A final criticism is the idea that there’s enough horror in the real world, so why would you choose to experience more? This is the objection that actually gives me pause, and has at times made me question my love for horror. But I’ve realized that fiction (and art as a whole) gives us powerful means to process events and greater opportunity for discourse about important issues. Unlike other genres, horror often turns what might have been subtext into text, and boils down our fears into tangible forms. I think that in this way, there is also an honesty in horror that’s unique. Still, I realize that horror is not for everyone.
My love for horror started when I was terrified by the movie Psycho at a young age. Days and weeks after watching, I would be walking home, or down the hallway late at night, and the thought might occur to me that someone was watching or following me. I didn’t need to believe it, but just the thought would be enough to send a chill down my spine. I remember these moments, where I felt the need to race for a lightswitch, or where I fumbled with my house keys.
Why did I want more of this? I’ve heard many explanations for why people love horror. On the more academic side, some will say that horror provides catharsis, allowing us to confront our worst fears and vicariously experience thrilling emotions from a point of relative safety. I think there’s something to this. I recently heard a more commonsensical explanation, which also struck me as true, that horror is like real life but more interesting. Regardless, I think horror is like any other genre in that once you develop a taste for it, nothing else will do the trick. Loving movies eventually led me to read more horror fiction, as I wanted to dive deeper into the stories that terrified me. I suspect I wanted to do this to get more of the same feeling, or maybe because confronting the images that you can’t get out of your head provides some kind of relief. Reading, and reading horror fiction in particular, allows you to live in those feelings and dwell in those moods, immersing you in worlds in a way that can only be done with your mind’s eye.
The foundations of modern horror are often traced back to gothic novels, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you’re looking for a classic, you can’t do much better than these three. Of course, these stories are deeply embedded in our culture, with the characters being satirized or turned into cartoons to the point that they’re somewhat robbed of their scare factor. But revisiting any of these original novels (best to do by candlelight!) transports me to a different world, where I can smell the mustiness of dank castles, hear footsteps on cobblestones, and viscerally feel the anxieties of the ages in which they were written.
If you’re looking for shorter works which are also sure to put you in an eerie frame of mind, try Viy by Nikolai Gogol, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and The Black Cat, or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. For something more modern, no one can evoke a creepy atmosphere like Shirley Jackson. I recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and especially the short stories The Summer People and The Lottery. Authors like Jackson paved the way for the horror paperback boom of the 70’s and 80’s, which is the timeframe with which I’ve been most fascinated over the last few years. A recent favorite discovery is The Search For Joseph Tully by William H. Hallahan, a ghost story mixed with a genealogical search, taking place in a desolate New York City apartment building. Like countless others, the first horror author I truly fell in love with was Stephen King. For a Halloween mood, try Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, or the short story collections Night Shift and Skeleton Crew.
I love being immersed in stories that elicit visceral reactions and transport me to another place. These are primitive feelings (ew! ah! yuck!) which run the gamut from giddy enjoyment to genuine fear or repulsion. But my love for horror also has to do with the ability to reflect on this process and to ask: what has scared us, as individuals and as a culture? When, and why? Some non-fiction I’ve enjoyed in recent years include: Horror Noire: a History of Black Horror, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Films, and more recently, Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell. The Devil’s Advocates series discusses the productions of films and their cultural impact. I especially loved the entry on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which devotes a lot of attention to the adaptation of the novel (which Stephen King famously hated). The book goes into great detail about the challenges of adapting a beloved book, how to make a good horror movie, as opposed to a novel, and how the director’s vision for the ghost story drastically differed from the original author’s.
The longer I watch movies and read books, the more I realize that both are best enjoyed with others. I have no doubt that a movie is best experienced on a big screen, with the energy, enjoyment and restlessness of theater-goers feeding off each other. There’s also the joy of reliving favorite moments when walking out of a theater with friends. While we tend to read alone, a good story gives me the same urge. I’ll often close a book, crawling out of my skin wanting to talk about what I’ve just read.
Over the past year I’ve participated in my most active book club to date. We read a book, talk about it, and cap it off by watching an adaptation of the story, leading to a lot more discussion. Some recent favorites include: Deliverance by James Dickey, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, and Jaws by Peter Benchley. Like many I’ve talked to, I’ve had many failed attempts at starting book clubs. It can be challenging to get the right group together, as conflicting schedules, differing interests, or lack of follow through can make them flounder before they get started. If you want to get a book club going, getting people to rally around favorite movies can be a good way to do it. This doesn’t only apply to horror. Even for my all time favorites, the book is often better than the movie.
 “Once you’ve seen enough horror films, you begin to get a taste for really sh***y movies” (Danse Macabre by Stephen King, p. 200).
 A recent Q&A with bestselling horror author Grady Hendrix.
Note: Click on the images to find the audiobook version of these titles.