“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:
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
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.