4 Horror Books To Read This Halloween

“What do you usually read?” is a question I often get whenever people find out that I like reading. And when I reply that I like horror, there’s always this funny expression on their faces, as if I have just committed social suicide by daring to admit this in public lol.

I mean, I get it. Horror movies and books have always been considered ‘low culture’. They’re popular and they have mass appeal, but they rarely talk about contemporary social problems and issues, and seem to serve little purpose except to entertain. Even if there are moral values, they’re often expressed on an individual level eg how a protagonist beats the odds to outsmart a bloodthirsty killer, or how a priest overcomes his doubt to find faith and strength to banish demons.

But even though many horror titles might not be as ‘groundbreaking’ as books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird, I still feel that horror offers value. Perhaps not in the sense that it highlights social issues to invite discourse and change, but in that it recognizes something primal within ourselves : our sense of self-preservation as a species, and how we cope with ideas and things we cannot fully control or understand. Just as our ancestors used to tell fantastic stories about mythical creatures, demons and things that go bump in the dark as they huddled around campfires or in caves for protection, so do we as modern humans retell these stories and think of our mortality – even when we’re safe and snug in our comfy beds.

But I digress.

Since it’s spook season, I’ve rounded up a list of my favourite horror books to get you into the Halloween mood. Some of these are classics which have been made into films, so you might already have heard of them – but they’re worth reading to see how different they are from the depiction on the silver screen.

It by Stephen King

With King’s novels, I was a late bloomer: I only started reading his books when I was in college and had access to a public library. Which is just as well, because I don’t think a younger me would have been able to deal with the dark themes and mature subject material in many of his books.

My first King book was It, and it remains my favourite to this day, alongside Misery, The Dead Zone and Desperation. As kids, my brother and I had coulrophobia (I still have an irrational fear of clowns actually lol), and the idea of an alien clown that feeds off the flesh of young children and has shapeshifting powers is just … terrifying. That aside, I think It was peak King – it is well written with great pacing, and the villain and characters are well developed. More than just kids banding together to fight an ancient evil, it’s also a brilliant coming-of-age-story and a heartwarming one (when you’re not being scared shitless by Pennywise popping up everywhere) about the power of friendship.

Ring by Koji Suzuki

Here’s an online review which encapsulates how I feel about Ring by Koji Suzuki:

‘one.. you really can’t bear to read and want to lock away and bury away as far as possible, yet at the same time each word is enticing, putting you in a trance, making you read on.’

I have watched the Ring films (both the Japanese and the American versions), and while they’re creepy, they can’t hold a candle to the book. Despite being a grown ass adult when I first read it, I still found it hard to fall asleep as my imagination ran wild with thoughts of Sadako popping up at the foot of my bed, or standing just behind my curtains lol. I did something really childish too: I put the book underneath a pile of books, because I had this silly thought that if I left it on top, the ghost would somehow ‘come to life’ hahahaha. 😛 I guess that’s the mark of a good horror novel… (or maybe I’m just chicken). There’s very little gore or violence in the story, but Suzuki is so adept at playing with the psychological aspect of horror, you can feel the tension and creepiness ooze off the pages like miasma.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blaty

Do you believe in demons? Demons exist in various cultures and faiths because like the concept of yin and yang, where there is good, there will always be evil. The Exorcist is a classic that deals with themes of demonic possession – that of 12-year-old Regan, whose family is dragged into a nightmarish hell as they attempt to rid her of the evil. It is horrifying to read about the abuse that the young girl suffers as the demons torment her. I can’t help but think that it is a literal and figurative representation of the ‘demons’ within humans that drive people to do truly evil things, even without demonic possession. The story has a classic good vs evil plot, and you can’t help but cheer when the big-guns priest – him of the staunch faith and the back-up power of god – comes to smite evil.

The Beaver Book of Horror Stories – edited by Mark Ronson

Image via ebay because I don’t know where I’ve put my copy…

Okay this one is kind of a cheat entry because it isn’t a novel per se, but rather a collection of short stories. I found this gem in a 2nd hand bookstore and even though the cover was super campy, flipping through a couple of pages was enough for me to fork out five bucks. BEST. FIVE. BUCKS. SPENT. EVER.

There are 10 stories within written by different authors, including Mark Ronson himself, and they cover a wide range of horror subgenres including body horror, monsters and the paranormal. Most of the tales are from 19th century authors, which lends them a gothic quality. Some of my favourites are Pickman’s Model by HP Lovecraft, which talks about an artist whose monstrous paintings are so brilliant and terrifying one wonders where the inspiration comes from – and The Seed from the Sepulchre by Clark Ashton Smith, where explorers discover an ancient man-eating plant after stumbling upon some ruins in the jungle.

And there you have it! If you’re new to horror, these are my recommendations – but the world of horror fiction is a vast one, and there are still plenty of terrifying stories to unearth.

What are some of your favourite horror titles? Share them with me so I can look out for them.

Happy Halloween!

Book Review – Joyland by Stephen King

Stephen King may be known as the Master of the Macabre, but many people forget that he can be equally skilled when it comes to drama and crime fiction: I’m talking The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (from his Four Seasons series). There have been a couple of hits and misses, like the lacklustre Mr Mercedes, but I’m happy to declare Joyland, which I picked up recently, a good read.

Synopsis: 

The year is 1973. Fresh out of school, 21-year-old Devin Jones takes on a temporary summer job at the Joyland Amusement Park in North Carolina while attempting to get his mind off his ex, who recently dumped him after moving away for her studies. Jones befriends two other summer hires, Tom and Erin, and settle into ‘carny’ life. Devin is piqued by the mystery of a purported haunting in the Horror House – that of the spirit of a young girl who had her throat slit while in  the ride with her ‘boyfriend’, suspected to be a serial killer who had preyed on several victims. He befriends the psychic resident fortune teller Madam Rosetta, who tells him that he will meet two children that summer who will change his life, and that one of them has the Sight. Shortly after, Devin rescues a girl with a red hat, as per Rosetta’s prediction, from choking, and is lauded as the local town hero. This bolsters his decision to remain at Joyland as a permanent employee after the rest of the summer hires are gone.

During this time he becomes close to a standoffish woman named Annie and her terminally ill son Mike – the second child in Rosetta’s prediction, who is gifted with the Sight. Mike wishes to go to Joyland for the first and last time before he dies, not just for himself but also to ‘free’ the spirit of the trapped ghost in the Horror House – a wish that Devin managed to grant, thanks to him being in the good books with the park’s bosses. Mike’s presence helps free the ghost. Devin, who still had an interest in finding out the truth of the murder, returns home and pores over evidence and research presented by Erin, whom he had enlisted for help earlier to investigate the case. It then hits Devin who the killer is – but of course, the latter is always one step ahead…

Verdict

Joyland isn’t your typical horror novel. It leans toward drama, albeit with supernatural elements – a ghost, a boy with the sight, and a serial killer. It is also very much about young love and the vagaries of youth. Devin was in love with his ex, convinced that he was going to marry her someday and have kids with a suburban job and a happy life, but it was not to be. How many times have we, ourselves, been let down by people we thought we loved and who loved us? The way Devin spiralled into a depression, throwing himself into work during the day while listening to suicidal songs at night, reminded me of my own experiences. The slow way he finds joy in his newfound carny work, the support given by his friends and the way he discovers his sense of purpose is beautifully written and evokes a feeling of nostalgia. His interactions with Annie and Mike are particularly touching: the way a simple desire to do good by two people he met on his way to work blossoms into a friendship. How the Mother and Son opened their hearts to him, and vice versa. It was all a wistful read, until the grand finale of catching WhoDunnit. At that point, the reader is pleasantly surprised by the twist in plot, but it would have been good enough on its own without the horror plot thrown in. That being said, I felt the story was too slow at times, which isn’t what I’m used to with a King novel. For that reason, I’d give it a …

Score: 7/10. 

 

Book Review – Thinner by Stephen King

Horror is one of my favourite genres, and when you talk about horror in  fiction, you can’t go by without thinking of Stephen King. In a career spanning decades and dozens of best selling novels that sent chills down our spines such as It and Pet Sematary, King is… well, king of horror novels.

I recently bought one of his older books, written under the pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, called ‘Thinner’, which was published in 1984. It even had a film adaptation, although I have yet to watch it.

Thinner centers around a well-to-do lawyer, William ‘Billy’ Halleck, who has a bank account and a career as generous as his gut. He lives the perfect life – beautiful wife, loving daughter, rich friends and comfortable lifestyle. All that changes when he is charged in court for knocking down an old gypsy woman and killing her, because his wife was giving him a handjob in the car. Thanks to ‘connections’ to a judge friend and the biased attitude of the police in dealing with the victims (the gypsies), Halleck slips off the hook. But not before old Taduz Lemke, father to the dead gypsy woman, lays a powerful curse on Halleck. He touches his cheek and simply whispers one word: ‘Thinner’.

Spooked but initially not thinking much of it, Halleck is merely relieved the whole episode is over. He goes on with his life… only to discover that he has been steadily losing weight. At first, it was a welcome change – he was a fat unhealthy person and shedding a few pounds was great, right? But then the drop doesn’t stop, and Halleck starts to worry that it might be something more sinister after treatments at the local clinic fail to diagnose anything wrong with him. His fears are confirmed when he realises his judge friend and local chief of police (who failed to do a fair and accurate investigation of the case) are suffering from weird ailments as well.

The next part of the story involves Halleck’s desperate race against time to locate the gypsies and get the old man to reverse the curse, before he withers down to nothing.With the help of his friend Richard Ginelli, a former client and mafia figure, they plan to make the gypsy remove the curse, or else…

Verdict

TBH, Halleck is not a very likeable character. He is weak-willed, refuses to take blame for his actions, and vengeful. The saying ‘Misery loves company’ applies to Halleck, because he comes to hate his wife whom he blames for his predicament.

King does write Halleck in such a way that readers are still intrigued to find out what his fate would be – whether he receives punishment or gets away scot-free. I actually found myself sympathising with the supposed ‘antagonist’, Taduz Lemke, and his travelling family of gypsies.

Here King touches on the theme of discrimination, and what we see as ‘good’ and ‘normal’. The ‘good’ folk and upstanding citizens of each suburban town treat the gypsies like dirt, always ready to blame them for any misfortunes. Despite that, they take what they can from the gypsies in the form of fortunes, entertainment, etc.  before unceremoniously kicking them out from town once they got tired of them. Society paints them as thieves, liars, bad men and women, who deserve to be in their place because they were, simply, gypsies.

The entire basis of the novel revolves around revenge and how it will eat us (ha!) from the inside out if we fail to find forgiveness in our hearts. ‘Revenge is sweet’…. but it also comes at a steep price, so to speak. The most terrible thing about it is that it often hurts the ones we love the most. Even unto the end of the novel, Halleck fails to acknowledge the fact that he made a mistake and that it cost the life of a woman. But if you wanna know if he is going to suffer from it, read the novel. 😛

Overall, I’d say ‘Thinner’ is a staple Stephen King novel: full of suspense and thrills. But it is also one of my more favourite novels, because his protagonist is kind of a prick and I found myself rooting for the ‘baddie’ instead. It is also one of his novels which have a deeper message instead of just scaring us shitless – on how society views people they deem of ‘lower standing’, and how, as I mentioned above, revenge brings nothing but hurt on ourselves.

7/10.