Within the many genres that go into making up modern literature, horror has a special place. The shelves are positively teeming with vampires, zombies, psychos, apocalypses… it’s a wonder they don’t drip when we aren’t looking. And yet, as a subset of fiction, it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention without the help of handsome actors, big franchises and the surname King. Which is awful. Awful because there’s just so much that can be done with it, so many colours to play with, so many shapes that thrills and fears can take. On top of that, we can easily forget (thanks, again, to sparkles and screen-battles and marketing execs) that one of horror’s chief functions is to really plumb the depths of human emotion, existence even, and to dissect the impact of the outlandish and the unexplainable. Whether we’re talking about gigantic geometry-flouting squid deities, quietly malevolent phantasms or a whole lot of seriously ticked-off birds, the darker fruits of the imagination stay juicy for longest.
Netflix and Hollywood certainly seem to keep the genre going strong on screen, but what about the books? Since we’re lurching ominously (or however it is that lurching tends to be done) toward the end of this decade, I thought it would be prudent to take a look at eight of the scariest and most inventive works of fiction to have hit the shelves since 2010. In no particular order, here they are:
Fellside by M.R. Carey
From the author of The Girl With All the Gifts (which is not lacking in skin-crawls either), this one is majorly chilling and sometimes downright terrifying. A woman is sent to a remote prison deep in the unforgiving Yorkshire Moors after she accidentally burns down her apartment in a narcotic haze, killing a young boy in the process. In the seclusion of her cold and whispering cell she is haunted by the boy… who has a message especially for her. Supernatural and claustrophobic horrors jostle with emotional devastation and guilt in this intense tale of dual imprisonment.
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Like The Conjuring, if you threw in a dangerous dose of small-town politics and some modern innovations, Hex is the story of a witch whose work is not finished, the community that she torments and the struggle that ensues when a group of teenagers tries to expose the truth. (If not for curious and foolhardy kids, the horror genre would mostly consist of adults worrying about property prices, right?) The elders of Black Spring have placed the town in a state of lockdown to prevent the spread of the curse of the muzzled witch, but when some local teenagers go viral with the hauntings, the community is plunged into a medieval panic. It’s gothic, bleak and wholly original. European creepiness at its most cloying.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The zombie apocalypse is more than just a fun discussion to have at a bar with your nerdier friends. This is the ultimate tale of the world plunged into gruesome predator-prey enormity, a post-apocalyptic thrill-ride that starts with a monstrous military experiment and grows into an epic, impossibly dangerous quest to overcome insuperable doom and corrupted humanity. Masterfully written, inventive and massive in scope, Cronin’s chronicle of primal horror and global catastrophe is a must read if you’ve ever felt that the viral apocalypse genre just doesn’t go deep enough.
Bedfellow by Jeremy C. Shipp
Shipp may be a lesser-known author but his bizarre, psychological terrors deserve a wide readership. Bedfellow is a headlong plunge into the weird and forbidding, the tale of a strange and insidious entity that latches itself onto a family, warping their minds and using them to feed its shifting and frightful appetites. There is no story of haunting or home invasion that matches the inventiveness and unease of Bedfellow. Need we say more than, it’s about a shapeshifting invader called Marvin who takes root by manipulating memories and feeding off psyches?
I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindquist
Lindquist is a horror icon. His brilliantly fresh and unique take on vampire lore, Let the Right One In was not only one of the best horror novels ever produced, it was also a righteous slap to the faces of Edward Cullen and company. Lindquist is as gifted at finding unusual emotion as he is at evoking decay and gore. In this one, he dials back the undead nausea in favour of more atmospheric and stalking terror, a more philosophical exploration of dread. Four families find themselves stuck in a vast expanse of grass and sky, watched by the creatures that patrol the fringes and tormented by eerie music. Heartbreak, mind-f*cks and near-cosmic creepiness. Oh, and weird… so weird.
The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman
The open road is an ever bountiful source of horror. Because crashes are soul-shakingly fearsome, long stretches of lonely travel are forbidding and motorists are complete… vampires? Yep, it’s a vampire story that also has muscle cars, gritty revenge and devastating loss. It has loads of action, buckets of gore and properly memorable villains. But don’t be fooled, The Suicide Motor Club also packs a complex emotional punch and augments its deserted-highway dread with top notch writing. Visceral, terrifying and hard-hitting. I think there’s a Tarantino comparison that wants making here…
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Suffocating, strange, surreal and gloriously unsettling, Fever Dream is a rare instance of the properly conveyed nightmare. You know when you have a really traumatic nightmare and you’re hopelessly unable to describe it to those around you? This is not a problem that Schweblin has. Told through unrestrained dialogue, the premise is simple: a young woman lies dying in a hospital. By her side is a young boy. The two are not related, but between them grows a haunting story of lost souls and tattered psychologies, desperation and poison. It’s unlike anything you’ve read before, and so much of it defies description, but you can be sure it is intoxicatingly unique, hallucinogenic and thoroughly engrossing.
A Dark Matter by Peter Straub
Straub is a master right up there with Stephen King. His work is always literate and ambitious. A Dark Matter is a profound and cerebral book that will divide opinion, but occupies such a position within the genre, and within American literature as a whole, that you can’t ignore it. Back when they were in high school, four friends each encountered a charismatic and cunning occult leader. The story ends, for a time, with a gruesome and deadly ritual performed in a meadow. Years later, the friends attempt to make sense of what happened and just how deeply it touched them all, inadvertently rekindling the evil that was born all that time ago. It’s chilling, unpredictable, technically inventive and darkly enigmatic. Horror-heads, this is the essential bridge between the philosophy of terror and the visceral wrench of the jump-scare, between Lovecraft and King.