Yes, it’s true: today marks the first anniversary of me publishing the first article at Popcorn for Breakfast (a short essay on my ever-changing relationship with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). And yeah, I know we’re twenty-three days into October already, but hey, who doesn’t need to add a passel of horror to their TBR stack? As usual, I try to keep to the slightly more obscure (you already know which Stephen King books to read and which to avoid, right? And that House of Leaves really is the best damn thing since sliced bread?), but I figure since so few people actually read any more, anyone who hasn’t topped the best-seller list a few times probably counts as “obscure” in America. So you may have already read all this stuff. Or maybe not.In any case, here’s a few pretties for you:
Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory (Simon and Schuster, 1984)
Putting the books for this one in alphabetical order by author had the unfortunate side effect of putting one of the most disturbing books on the list at the very top. Most of The Wasp Factory is good, a little sadistic, just enough out of focus to make you wonder what the flying hell Iain Banks was smoking at the time he wrote it. On the other hand, there’s that scene. It sits dead center of the book, and trust me, you will know it when you get there, because you will need copious amounts of brain bleach after you read it. I can no longer remember when I first read The Wasp Factory, though it must have been some time between 1998 and April 2000 (judging by (a) who recommended it to me and (b) there being no record of my review at either Amazon or Goodreads), but I still have nightmares about that scene.
Kealan Patrick Burke, Currency of Souls (Subterranean, 2007)
My first introduction to the work of the wonderful Irish author Kealan Patrick Burke came courtesy this small but effective novel that I would like to say is about making deals with the devil, but if I say that, I then have to rush to add that Burke’s devils are, often, all too human. Twenty pages into this, you will be telling yourself you have read this story before. You haven’t.
Ross Campbell, The Abandoned (Tokyopop, 2006)
The first of the list’s graphic novels is anything but your typical zompocalypse-porn. Yes, it has zombies, and yes, there’s an apocalypse of same, but the real draw here is Campbell’s sensitive-without-treacle portrait of his dysfunctional heroine. You’ve seen zombies as an allegory for pretty much everything, but… fear of commitment? Yeah, and it works.
Candace Caponegro, The Breeze Horror (Onyx, 1988)
This is not the place to go into a discussion on the various horror structures and how they came about, because that would take too long. Suffice to say that when it comes to “extreme” horror–the gorefest-type stuff that as far as I know was pioneered by Japanese director/author/etc. Hideshi Hino–The Breeze Horror is the first American example I know of the breed. It had the misfortune to be published just as the last Golden Age of Horror was ending, and thus has been sadly neglected for decades; you’ll find it on any number of best-overlooked-horror-novels lists, and deservedly so. (I actually had Caponegro’s husband leave a comment on my review of the book saying he’s been trying to get her to write a second one ever since without success.) These zombies don’t just want to eat you, they want to make sure you understand how much glee they’re taking in doing so.
Robert Devereaux, Deadweight (Dell Abyss, 1994)
The last Golden Age of Horror may have been dead by 1990, but that didn’t stop Dell from launching its short-lived, but phenomenal, Abyss horror imprint in April of 1992. They started off with a bang–the first Abyss novel was The Cipher, the debut novel by a young Kathe Koja–and while the series as a whole had its weak spots, there was much more strong than there was weak. Case in point: Bobdev’s Deadweight, another debut novel, put out by Abyss in 1994. By 1994, Splatterpunk had come and gone, and the American public really hadn’t glommed on to the Japanese extreme-horror movement when it came to films yet. In other words, given the notoriously short memories of American media consumers, no one, but no one, was ready for what Robert Devereaux was throwing down. The extreme gore novel came roaring back to life, and no one noticed (at least not until Charlee Jacob exploded onto the scene five or six years later…but that’s another entry in this list). Devereaux’s output has remained consistent ever since; he’s now been co-opted by the bizarro movement and has found a new home with Deadite Press, who are slowly re-releasing all the good old stuff as well as putting out Dev’s new stuff. Hallelujah.
Gregory A. Douglas, The Nest (NAL, 1982)
Ecohorror comes in all sorts of forms, but ever since the nuclear-monster movies of the fifties, the Nature’s Revenge storyline has proved fertile ground for horror stories. Horror novelists (and filmmakers) have long been fond of the “animals suddenly get intelligent and fuck with humans” angle; I could throw out a dozen examples just off the top of my head, from Them! to The Year of the Angry Rabbit (made into the infamous, and wonderful, film Night of the Lepus). Gregory A. Douglas, writing at what would prove to also be the tail end of the Golden Age of Porn (the transition between porn films with plots and endless loops of money shots happened, as far as I have been able to tell, right around 1984), decided to fuse Nature’s Revenge and Porn with a Plot, throw in some pot-smoking hippies for fun, and came up with The Nest, which does for cockroaches what Guy N. Smith’s books do for crabs. When I was fourteen years old, this book was the best thing ever. I re-read it a few years ago and it now strikes me as unintentionally hilarious, but it is so much fun. (And writing this reminds me that I want to do an entire post about Nature’s Revenge books.)
John Everson, Needles and Sins (Necro Publications, 2007)
The only book on this list I’ve read recently enough to have reviewed it during Popcorn’s run. Needles and Sins is the first of the short story collections on this list, and it is a fine one indeed–but it is the five-story cycle at the end that really blows this book into the stratosphere (which has me more excited to get my hands on some of Everson’s novels to see if that promise is fulfilled). You’ve got everything here from rock stars stuck in purgatories conceived by their own excesses to murderous circus performers to a suburb of hell that could have come straight out of a Jeffrey Thomas novel, and it’s all quite beautiful.
Gemma Files, The Worm in Every Heart (Prime, 2004)
Canadian author Gemma Files has become much better-known for her novels than her short fiction, and the novels are great stuff, but it’s always the shorts that draw me back in, be it the Loonie Dreadfuls published by Kelp Queen Press or the full-length story collections put out by Prime. This is one of the latter (the other is Kissing Carrion and it is equally as good), and if you are a fan of short fiction, you will find a whole lot to love in Gemma Files’ sloppily-wrapped, ichor-dripping little treasures. Files is one of those authors (cf. Greg Gifune below) who has figured out the perfect balance between gore and atmosphere, and which of the strings she decides to pull generally determines which way any given story is going to go. In the Prime collections, there’s a slight bias towards gore (compared to, say, “Every Angel“, my favorite of the Loonie Dreadfuls), but the emphasis there is on slight; Files tugs heartstrings as much as aortas.
Greg F. Gifune, Heretics (Delirium, 2001)
After the death of the Abyss line, like most American readers, I kind of dropped out of the horror game for a while because no one really seemed to be printing it much. Sure, Leisure were still toiling away in the background, but the majors had pretty much stopped publishing horror, so if you didn’t go to the drugstore, you probably did what I did and went back and re-read your Golden Age paperbacks like When We Dead Awaken and The Beast Within (both below). And when the Next Golden Age began… no one noticed, really. Charlee Jacob got some press, but as far as I could tell, she was an outlier. Now, I may be slow on the uptake, but the day I noticed there was, in fact, a New Golden Age came in 2005, when I got a copy of Heretics from the library and started reading it. This was A Thing. I read these beautiful little stories that were treading the line between gore and atmosphere (and doing it better than anyone, at the time, I was aware of; a few months later I would discover the work of Gemma Files, above, who mines that same vein), took note of the name Delirium Press, and started researching. And the rest is history. So I may be loading some more baggage on Heretics in hindsight than I should, but believe me, Gifune is worth it. If you’re not yet familiar with him, a lot of his early stuff, including Heretics, is now available cheap in ebook format; it is well worth your time.
William Hjortsberg, Falling Angel (Warner, 1978)
Oddly, as of this writing, just four of the books on this list have been made into films. (A fifth, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, is currently in development.) Of those four, by far the best known is Angel Heart, an adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel that is much better if you consider it as descending from a common ancestor rather than being a straight adaptation. (Hint number one: Fallen Angel takes place entirely within the New York City limits.) And I do not in any way mean to knock the movie, which is a wonderful thing, but the book? Oh, man. William Hjortsberg worked in many different genres, but the defining thread of all the novels of his I have read has been a sort of absurdist humor that works well with everything from transhumanist sci-fi (Grey Matters) to tales of private eyes hired to shadow sexy witches (this one). It’s huge amounts of fun, and if you think you don’t need to read the book because you saw the movie, think again; the last third of each is an entirely different beast.
John R. Holt, When We Dead Awaken (Bantam, 1990)
You may have noticed a few zombies on the list so far. When We Dead Awaken, like Deadweight above, is a specialized subgenre of zombie fiction–the Revenant novel. Revenants, according to the lore, are dead who arise for a very specific reason (usually to take revenge on the person who caused their death, or who they believe caused their death). As with the protagonist in Deadweight, the revenant in question was a nasty guy before he kicked off, and dead hasn’t done his personality any favors. A savage and quite blackly humorous little novel that went well under the radar.
Christopher Hyde, Styx (Playboy, 1982)
I discovered the wonder of Christopher Hyde when I picked up one of his novels–I think it was Jericho Falls–for cheap in a used bookstore (which is how I discovered most of my favorite authors). I stayed up all night reading Jericho Falls, whether it was my first Hyde or not, and I immediately went out and scoured used bookstores for more of his stuff. Styx is more adventure novel than horror, but the stuff people get up to with one another when all hope is lost has been the subject of many an adventure-turned-horror novel (Lord of the Flies being the obvious example). Hyde flew way, way under the radar even when he was still turning out books (which he seems to have stopped doing sometime in the nineties); he deserves much more recognition.
Charlee Jacob, Haunter (Leisure, 2003)
Charlee Jacob first gained recognition with the vampire novel This Symbiotic Fascination. By 1997, extreme horror was nothing new, but Jacob was part of that tribe of authors who were dedicated to pushing that envelope as far as it could go, and that one one helluva first effort. It took six years for Jacob to release a sequel…and it was well worth the wait. Envelopes? What are those? Haunter is one of only two novels I have ever had to stop reading for a while because I was so downright disgusted by what I was reading. (The other is Matthew Stokoe’s Cows.) Reading the synopsis may give you the idea that this novel owes a debt to Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, but believe me, Charlee Jacob is in a class all her own. Make sure it’s somewhere you want to be before you buy a ticket.
Caitlin R. Kiernan, Candles for Elizabeth (Meisha Merlin Publishing, 1998)
Candles for Elizabeth is a chapbook, and by far the shortest work represented on this list–but one could not ask for a finer introduction to the work of Caitlin Kiernan than this, three short stories that plumb horror’s depths more empathetically than anything else here. Kiernan’s strength is her characters; she writes people who resonate with most everyone they come into contact with (on this side of the page, anyway; many of Kiernan’s finest characters are outcasts, loners by choice or not), and of the works of hers I have read–all of which I have loved–my favorite of her characters are still here, in the first work of hers I discovered. I don’t have a thousand-best list for books the way I do for movies yet, but when I put one together, this will be very, very high on it.
Kathe Koja, Strange Angels (Delacorte, 1994)
There are very few novels I have ever read that I would consider perfect–novels where I did not say “you know, if the author had done this here instead of that, this passage would have been more powerful/this character would have been a little more real/that decision would have made so much more sense/etc.”, where everything from the setting to the language to the pattern on the tableware contributes so well to the novel that when I’m done, I can’t figure out what to read next because I can’t imagine anything comparing. I can think of maybe half a dozen novels I’ve read that have ever qualified. Strange Angels is one of them. Koja (who would stop writing horror after this novel) excelled at what, when I was reviewing the books at the time, I called “the horror of absence”, which I’ve since come to understand is nothing more than a riff on the type of existentialism Sartre was on about in the Roads to Freedom books. Which doesn’t make it any less powerful, nor any less horrific in its brutal, unflinching despair. This is probably the quietest novel on the list, but it is also the most deeply affecting. (For the record, only one other of the novels that sits on the “perfect” shelf in my head could be considered horror, if you turn your head and squint right–Clive Barker’s Sacrament.)
Joe R. Lansdale, By Bizarre Hands (Mark V. Ziesing, 1989)
Most folks who are familiar with Joe Lansdale currently know him because of the Hap and Leonard series of mysteries, which started with the very non-mystery splatterpunk thriller Savage Season in 1990. (It is so different from the rest of the series that I had entirely forgotten it was a Hap and Leonard novel until I re-read it roundabout 1999.) But if you knew him in the eighties, you knew him as one of the splatterpunks, a loose cadre of horror writers, both novelists and short story writers, who worked at pushing the envelope of what one could get away with on the page, in the same way Herschell Gordon Lewis pushed the same sorts of envelopes in film. A lot of authors who got tagged as splatterpunks disowned the label (Lansdale did this himself, if memory serves), and a lot of those who embraced it didn’t care about anything but the gore, which led to brief careers and lasting obscurity. But the best authors combined the ultra-gore with solid stories and believable characters, and their work is easily remembered. Lansdale was one of the best of the bunch; once you’ve read “The Pit” or “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks”, among others here, they’ll be with you for life.
Edward Levy, The Beast Within (Berkley, 1981)
If you were unfortunate enough to see the piece of shit that passed for a film adaptation of Levy’s wonderful novel, put it out of your head entirely and pick up the novel, which is an entirely different, pardon the pun, beast. Like many of the books here–like many horror novels overall–The Beast Within is a bildungsroman, what we call in English a coming-of-age novel, and all of the confusion and pain of puberty was excised from the film with almost surgical precision, turning it into nothing more than a shallow, worthless attempt at a monster movie that’s about as transgressive as a slice of blueberry pie. The book, on the other hand, is full to brimming with all the messy reality of same, and also happens to contain some really nasty monsters, most of them of the human variety. The first fifty pages of this novel are one of the most terrifying examinations of man’s inhumanity to man I’ve ever read.
Richard Christian Matheson, Scars and other Distinguishing Marks (Tor, 1988)
There are a couple of dozen stories in Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks, and all of them are pretty damn good. But I’ll tell you what: If every page of this book had been blank other than the four that contain the story “Red”, it would have still been worth the price of admission ten times over. It is one of the finest stories in any genre I have ever read, and packs more emotional punch into less than two thousand words than most authors can manage in a ten-book series. Buy it, and eventually read the rest of it. But do what you have to to get your hands on “Red”, and the sooner the better.
Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden (Vintage, 1978)
Long before Ian MacEwan became known for writing sensitive dramas that get turned into award-winning movies like Atonement, Enduring Love, and First Love, Last Rites, he wrote The Cement Garden, which was also turned into a movie (by Andrew Birkin, in 1993). Like the other books that were novelized on this list, it was emasculated by being turned into a film; many of the themes McEwan was interested in exploring were jettisoned, and one of the book’s main themes, the incestuous relationship between the two main characters, was made into a piece of prurient innuendo rather than a serious examination. This is Lord of the Flies for a more cynical generation, one that wants to turn its back on the world’s adults, and unlike Golding’s classic, when the inevitable deus ex machina shows up, they are interested in anything but saving the tribe.
Joyce Carol Oates, Cybele (Black Sparrow Press, 1974)
Joyce Carol Oates is one of America’s most famous, and most prolific, novelists, and almost all of her books have been either continuously in print since they were written or have gone out of print for, at most, a few months at a time. Cybele, which went through (as far as I have ever been able to tell) a single printing in 1974 and has not been reprinted since, is a glaring exception. I spent much of the nineties mounting a campaign to try and get the book back into print, first from Black Sparrow and then, after Black Sparrow went the way of the great auk, from Ecco. (A managing director at Ecco dropped me an email not long after the sale was complete to inform me that Cybele was one of the very few books from the Black Sparrow backlist that was not among the properties they received; presumably Oates has the rights, though he did not know that for certain.) It is spare and savage and haunting, as with most of Oates’ best work, an unflinching look at the cycle of sexual abuse whose horror stems from the protagonist’s easy relatability; like the scariest abusers, he could easily be the socially-awkward guy next door. Oates is very good at scary (I first discovered her in Twilight Zone magazine; she’s been doing horror for quite a while now), and never more so than here.
Monica J. O’Rourke, Experiments in Human Nature (Two-Backed Books, 2007)
Monica O’Rourke’s novel Suffer the Flesh is an endurance test of a book, more torture porn than horror (I think, in my review, I compared it to Pan Pantziarka’s extreme BDSM masterpiece House of Pain; if I didn’t, I should have). Her short story collection Experiments in Human Nature is more easily readable, if only because the depravity and horror is wrapped up in smaller packages. The title track here is the kind of thing that makes you wonder what kind of diseased mind could come up with such a thing, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay a horror author. And “Feeder”, well, either you’ll get it or you won’t.
Eiji Otsuka, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse, various dates)
I admit, I have only gotten through four volumes of this series so far, and there is every possibility that it could slide down the same ridiculous slope that plagued Case Closed (I stopped after vol. 19) or Bleach (I stopped after vol. 33, though I do intend to keep going at some point). But man, those first four volumes are sterling. Otsuka is probably better-known for MPD Psycho, which was turned into a film by Takashi Miike, but this is the good stuff, the story of a cadre of medical-school dropouts who start a company aimed at reuniting the corpses of the dead with their families (and the spirits with their bodies). Full of all the humor, gore, and outright fun you should expect from a crazy manga series.
Tom Piccirilli, A Choir of Ill Children (Leisure, 2001)
With A Choir of Ill Children, Tom Piccirilli redefined Southern Gothic more definitively than anyone since Faulkner, and that is not a comparison I make lightly. It is not a perfect novel like Strange Angels, above, but its flaws are minor, studied, and deliberate, and they are there in order to increase the echo of the classic Southern gothic novel. (There is much about this book that also presages the Bizarro movement that would start gaining momentum a few years later.) There are, maybe, a half-dozen novels I’ve read in the past decade I would put on a par with A Choir of Ill Children; I cannot think of one that is flat-out better.
John Russo, The Majorettes (Pocket, 1979)
I’ve spent a lot of time telling you about great books, classics, all that sort of thing. The Majorettes is not one of those books. In fact, it’s utter crap, a lowest-common-denominator genre-potboiler slasher novel chock full of gratuitous sex, fetishism lite, and enough violence to choke an elephant. If I’d read it for the first time in my thirties, I’m pretty sure I’d have laughed at it as much as I did at its move adaptation. But I first read it in my early teens, and this is very much a case of me discovering the right book at the right time. It had a profound, powerful effect on me, and it’s another case of “as soon as I finished this book I went out and bought everything else I could find by the author.” I must have read this book a dozen times between eighth grade and college. It’s ridiculous, and it’s on this list for nostalgia purposes more than anything–but if you happen to be reading this at the age of fourteen, go find a copy of The Majorettes. It will rock your world.
Carrie Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte, 2009)
The first of two young adult novels on the list (and as I write this I’m wondering why Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels didn’t make the cut; must remember to plug it next year if I do this again). The Forest of Hands and Teeth takes place in an alternate universe where the zombie apocalypse happened decades ago, and the zombies won; humans are relegated to a few clearings in a massive forest, loosely strung together by fenced-in pathways that no village has the manpower or resources to maintain, so each village is basically its own self-contained world. But what happens when one village is overrun and its few survivors are forced to try and find another human habitation that’s still standing? This is very bleak stuff, the ugly flipside of Twilight and a thousand times better for it.
Al Sarrantonio, Toybox (Leisure, 2003)
Few folks, even in the realm of genre fiction (perhaps especially etc.), specialize in the short story these days, and even those who do for the most part churn out the occasional novel because short stories don’t pay the bills unless you’re Alice Munro. Al Sarrantonio is one of those guys who write the occasional novel. I’ve read a few of them. They’re not bad. But his short stories? They range from the excellent to the immortal. I first read “Pumpkinhead”, which opens this collection in one of the Karl Edward Wagner-edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror collections in the very early eighties, and the final line of it… well, I didn’t understand it one damn bit, but it stayed with me for decades until I opened this collection and re-read it. You know what? I’m still not entirely sure I grasp all the layers of meaning in that last line, but it’s just as haunting now as it was then. That’s classic storytelling for you.
William Schoell, Fatal Beauty (Leisure, 1990)
Any of the eight horror novels Schoell published between 1984 and 1990 would fit here, really, but Fatal Beauty, the final book Schoell published before dropping out of sight for years and then returning to the printed page as an entertainment biographer, of all things, seemed appropriate somehow. It’s a definite break from his earlier books, most of which had that sort of crazed-ecohorror feel to them (either big-ass monsters coming out of nowhere or genetic anomalies gone horribly wrong) so popular in the eighties. Fatal Beauty takes a different tack towards the same outcome: a biotech firm has come up with a sort of nu-skin product that also affects people psychologically, and where does that go when psychotics get their hands on it? Schoell, one of Leisure’s first house authors (he would jump ship to St. Martin’s for his last two horror novels, which turned out to be a horrible mistake, as St. Martin’s did even less publicity for him than Leisure had), was unfortunately neglected back in the day, and now his books are so out-of-print he hasn’t even scored the rights himself and released them as cheap ebooks a la Edward Levy, so finding them might take some digging; it’s worth it if you like genre horror potboilers.
Wayne Simmons, Drop Dead Gorgeous (Permuted Press, 2008)
Okay, posit a world in which the zombie apocalypse happens–but the only people who rise from the dead are bodacious babes. Simmons combines absurdist comedy, Autumn-style zombie fiction, and some fantastic characters to come up with one of the only truly original novels that’s come out of the recent zombie glut.
John Skipp and Craig Spector, The Light at the End (Bantam, 1986)
These days, The Light at the End is marketed as “the first splatterpunk novel”. I didn’t think so at the time and I don’t really think so now (for some probably arbitrary reason, I’ve always drawn that line at Ray Garton’s Crucifax). But there’s an element of meta in it that I had never encountered in a horror novel before, and it tickled me pink. (There’s a character who’s obsessed with Anne Rice’s novels, which I hated then and still do, who gets exactly what’s coming to her and finds out it’s not nearly as romantic as she’s hoping it’s going to be.) I still find it probably way more amusing than it actually is. I’ve no idea what happened to Craig Spector after this partnership dissolved in the early nineties, but Skipp is still going strong.
Peter Sotos, Total Abuse: Collected Writings 1984-1995 (Goad to Hell, 1996)
Peter Sotos does not think of himself as a cultural critic, but honestly, I’ve no idea what else to call him. He’s not a novelist, though Tool., the second third of Total Abuse, is the only piece of Sotos’ writing that has ever been marketed as a novel, and Sotos has since owned up to the fact that it’s all based on his own experiences (“I wouldn’t create fiction.“) anyway. This, his first book, collects the really dangerous stuff–the material that got Jim Goad sued for obscenity when he published it in ANSWER Me! magazine, the stuff that got Sotos’ place raided and him tossed in the clink for possession of child porn, all of it. It’s nasty and foul and every kind of offensive you could ever want, and the real-life antics of your fellow man, reported on by someone whose moral compass is probably far, far different than yours, is more horrific than any fiction. Sotos is one of America’s most important writers. Very few people want to acknowledge that.
Frances Joan Turner, Dust (Ace, 2010)
We close with the list’s other young adult novel, and it couldn’t be more different than The Forest of Hands and Teeth if it tried. This is the same zombie apocalypse, really, and the zombies have still won–though they have not dominated this world they way they have that one–but this one is from the point of a pack of the shuffling dead who have held on to some last shreds of their humanity. The book’s casual attitude towards the decomposition of its pack of main characters turned a lot of people off; this is not YA horror for beginners. But if you look past the sheen of ichor, you’ll find a surprisingly touching novel underneath the rotting flesh. Assuming it doesn’t gnaw your ear off first.