10 (of the) Best Horror Novels

October 15, 2010

A few years ago at Halloweentime, I posted a blog with my 10 Favorite Horror Films. This year I have 2 new posts for the season, starting with this, 10 (of the) best horror novels. I’m stressing the “of the,” here, because there are several newer titles (past 10-15 years) that certainly would be outranked by certain classic horror works (some of which are also found here); this list is not “authoritative” or all-encompassing, it just consists of 10 novels that are pretty terrifying in different ways, most of which are pretty literate to boot.

10) The Store – Bentley Little

Little’s books are a bit preposterous. He takes everyday concepts–moving into a gated community, getting an insurance policy, and in this case, shopping at the newly opened mega-mart in town–and blankets them with creeping horror that becomes exceedingly worse until it reaches epic proportions. The build-up in such tales make these books page-turners, but with such constant “one-ups” in the narrative process, Little is never quite able to deliver an ending worthy of all that has come before it. I always close his novels feeling a bit let down because of that; but the process leading up to that ending usually makes it worth the read. That being said, “The Store” is my favorite work of his, probably because I hate Wal-Mart so much. The citizens of a small Arizona town are at first ecstatic over the newly opened “The Store” mega-mart, but as it begins to push out all of the local businesses and recruit all of the thus-unemployed workers, things get increasingly dark. The Store begins to ask odd demands of its workers and to provide dangerous products for its customers.

9) Endless Night – Richard Laymon

First off, I have to issue a warning– Laymon’s books are not for everyone. Despite a seemingly general consensus of support and acclaim from within the horror-writers community (from indie writers to King and Koontz), there’s a reason some critics labeled the work Laymon did as “churning porno-violence,” (as one memorable reviewer put it). At his worst, Laymon is not worth your time and probably not good for your soul (skip his short stories, most of which remove all wit to leave only mindless gore). At his best, though, as “Endless Night” showcases, Laymon can truly terrify you more than any other writer. “Endless Night” opens with a home invasion–a group of teenage boys armed with hatchets and spears, dressed in clothes made out of flesh break into a house for the sole purpose of murder. Teenage Jody, who is sleeping over with the daughter of the family, escapes with the family’s 12 year old son. From there, the story races along at practically break-neck speed, pausing only to focus on the back-story of the murder club and how they began (scenes which rank with the scariest of the book). “Endless Night” works where other Laymon books do not, partly because the protagonist is likable. Many of his works focus on leads that are so corruptible that you cease to want to root for them–when they turn out to be like their opponents, it’s simply too nihilistic. Granted, he wasn’t usually gifted in full character development, but it works well enough here to propel the story along. Another worthwhile book of his is “In the Dark,” a great mystery like scavenger hunt with a charming lady librarian as protagonist.

8. Horns – Joe Hill

I reviewed this book here earlier this year when it first came out. It’s a bit new to add to a “best of list,” but it’s so good and Hill is such a fresh talent that I can’t help myself. His characters work wonderfully, his setting seems real, the suspense keeps the pages turning, but the substance of the story is what sticks with you and keeps you pondering it afterward. A dark love story and fantasy, a Shakespearean drama in many ways–a really excellent horror novel that bursts out of the genre in the right ways but stays within in the right ways as well.

7) Off Season – Jack Ketchum

Ketchum’s “Off Season” and Laymon’s “The Woods are Dark” have a very similar history–both focused on a surviving tribe of cannibals that time forgot, living in America and encountering vacationers. Both books received cult praise but were faced with publishing difficulties resulting in edited and misshaped versions hitting the shelves in the states to lackluster reviews while the full versions (or closer approximations to them) hit in the UK and Europe, resulting in a bigger fanbase abroad for the authors while they were unknown at home. Both novels were eventually pieced back together and published as originally intended this past decade. Ketchum’s is  a much more fulfilling and terrifying work. Ketchum is a real writer, which makes his scares all the more scary. He works at the reader both viscerally and psychologically, getting into the inner workings of his characters.  I think more than any horror writer, Ketchum shares much more with classic noir and pulp writers like Raymond Chandler in that you get the sense that a literary writer is “slumming it” in the “lower” genres. His attention to detail sends each jolt over the top but not in a forced or non-genuine manner. “Off Season” presents us with a survival race from a group of people who should be unbelievable but who are painted so well that we feel they could very well exist. (I also recommend Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door,” a book that will stick with you longer than you wish it to. Its tale of hideous evil done by “ordinary” people, mostly youth, would be hideous were it played for exploitation value, especially since the story is based on fact. Yet Ketchum works it into a non-glorifying meditation on evil–which is worse, that which is done or that which is allowed to happen without an effort to halt it? And what does that do that type of evil do to the community, those goaded into it, those victimized by it, and those that survive it?

6) The Hellbound Heart – Clive Barker

Barker was the standout talent to emerge from the aftermath of the “splatterpunk” movement of horror writers–those balls-to-the-wall, in your face, shocking, blood dripping writers. Barker has a mind built for dark fantasy and a talent that is equal parts literate and obscene. “The Hellbound Heart” at it’s 130 some odd pages was the inspiration for countless “Hellraiser” films due to the gripping imagery of the main baddies present here, the cenobites (of which “Pinhead” is one). “The Hellbound” heart is a great short novel with truly great (but horrific) prose. It’s about desire that knows no bounds, about betrayal, sin, corruption and violence. It’s a warning to those that chase the “highest pleasures” without grounding a foot in reality, and it’s a modern day Faustian fable of (practically) unequaled parallel.

5) Ghost Story – Peter Straub

I’ve babbled about “literate” qualities in quite a few of these entries, but Straub takes the cake in that regard–he’s truly like the old generation of horror writers, those who worked squarely in “literature,” whose work probed terror areas yet delivered artistic work and prose, developed characters, and cemented immaculate settings. This isn’t quick, flashy, or violent horror. This is creeping, supernatural revenge horror. It’s much more like Hawthorne than Koontz or Laymon. It’s a modern classic novel that just happens to be a horror novel that takes its time to settle into you for scares that come with thought.

4) Pet Sematary -Stephen King

I’ve argued for King’s literary respect before; I’ve always felt that, despite his glowing popular reviews and massive sells (and somewhat because of those factors), King has often been slighted by the more “upper-end” literary critics. “Pet Sematary” is not his absolute best work–that honor could belong to “The Stand,” “The Dark Tower” series, or “Bag of Bones,” among others–but it is his scariest tale, his most stream-lined horror story. The only competition in that area would be his massive “It” tome, but what “Sematary” lacks in epic scale against “It,” it makes up in morbid yet oddly sentimental meditations on subject matter often swept under the rug in modern Western society. “Pet Sematary” is about death, and the statement made by a character in it (Jud) that “sometimes dead is better” is its theme. King’s own fear of losing his son (which didn’t happen) inspired this close look at what could have happened (well, until the part where the resurrected Gage comes back in worse shape).

3) Lord of the Flies – William Goulding

You might try and say that “Lord of the Flies” isn’t horror, that it’s literature…but you’re kidding yourself. This tale of “civilized” private school children resorting to ruthlessness in their own constructed society when marooned on a desert island is a horror classic.

2) Dracula – Bram Stoker

“Dracula” may not bet the best vampire story of all time, but in Stoker’s original presentation of it, it’s certainly on the short list and every vampire tale to come after owes a nod to it whether it follows from it or reacts back on it. It’s epistle style narration works very well for the story and learning of the neurosis that Stoker had and the history behind the real “Vlad” only adds to the reading of the work itself.

1) Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Shelley’s novel is a milestone even if the distortions and over-use of the “Frankenstein” monster character inadvertently attempt to dilute the importance and artistry of the original story. So, forget everything you’ve ever read or seen regarding this myth and pick up the original novel. It’s deeply literate and gothically romantic–not in the love story sense but in the passion-more-than-intellect, feel-more-than-think trajectory of events. This is a sad book; a heartbreaking terror story, each moment of scares is tempered with the overall tragedy of affairs. Yet it’s so nicely written that it’s joyful, in a dark way. The depth of this work really comes in the philosophical realm–is this man creates monster a dark mirrored version of the Creation myth in Genesis? No doubt that’s a blasphemous thought for many to entertain, but in a more “positive” religious sense, is this what happens when humanity plays at being Godlike? Yet the monster is the tragic hero, despite the violence he gives to the world in “Frankenstein”–he wanted only love and did not receive it even from his creator–he wanted a companion and was denied it. He lashed out in violence and his story became the best modern monster tale and the blueprint for every good horror story to follow it.


4 Responses to “10 (of the) Best Horror Novels”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Another Poet, Katrina Britt. Katrina Britt said: 10 (of the) Best Horror Novels « Raging Against the Dying Light …: This year I have 2 new posts for the season, … http://bit.ly/aPhoC9 […]

  2. […] 17, 2010 To complement my Halloween posts on Horror Novels and Horror Films, here’s the official RATDOTL Halloween Mixtape liner […]

  3. […] dmhamby2 Posted in Classics, Science fiction. Leave a Comment » LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  4. sharon said

    the rats by james herbert makes my blood run cold, especially now rats are getting bigger and loosing there fear of humans……….

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