Getting Started: Reading Horror Novels

Have you ever wanted to read horror novels but been utterly overwhelmed by the amount out there? Or maybe you are just a film buff and never even thought of venturing into the world of horror literature? Or maybe you’re a fan of Stephen King but other than that you don’t really know how anyone could compare? If you want to get started reading horror novels, read on, and let’s see where to start with horror novels.

Unlike most horror fans, I hated, hated, hated, horror films when I was younger. Not because they were too scary, but because I thought they were hilarious and unintelligible. I thought how could anyone be scared of this nonsense. I know, blasphemy, right? Then a friend of mine introduced me to horror novels, and before I knew it, I fell head over heals in love with all things horror. At first, I too was bewildered at the amount of horror works out there that I never knew existed, and it took me years of schooling and reading to figure out what I liked. There’s something about reading horror that you just don’t get from films. The silence that surrounds you as you read through the pages, the gory descriptions are all for you to imagine, and experiencing the text all by your lonesome adds a whole new level to the fear. Read on for the skinny… The Classics

Everyone has heard about them, and chances are you know the basic plot, but if you’ve never read one, I guarantee the classics are not exactly what you think they are. Most of the classic horror novels actually fall under the genre of gothic literature. In short, gothic novels deal with the supernatural, the sublime, creepy settings, romance, and satires of Victorian society. While the latter two aspects may not seem like the apples of your eye, they add a sense of innocence to the narratives which contrast wonderfully with the horror oriented parts, making them all the more terrifying. Here are some early works, that you certainly have heard of, but probably never read.

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Don’t let the multiple film versions fool you into thinking you know all there is to know about the infamous blood-sucking count. The novel is written entirely in journal form arranged in semi-chronological order, coming from various characters. Much of the early parts of the story are written in brief sentences, making you feel the real eeriness of traveling alone in a strange land.

Dracula, contrary to popular belief, is not merely the king of the vampires. In Stoker’s text, the count is vampire, a shape shifter, a werewolf, and a sexual deviant. He is based on the fifteenth century ruler, Vlad the Impaler, which may explain his love for blood, and his moustache. This is a fantastically written novel about the fears of the new women, sexuality, immigrants, and venereal diseases. Not to mention, one of the most influential texts of all time.

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

For the last time, Frankenstein is NOT the name of the monster! Frankenstein is the doctor who gives life to a horrid monster composed of dead matter; the monster is referred to only as the daemon. The novel, arguably one of the first science fiction texts, is told from the perspective of a ship captain who finds Dr. Frankenstein in the arctic. The sea captain tells the tale of the doctor who created a monster only to abandon him. The doctor’s family slowly gets killed off and he takes it upon himself to seek out and destroy the beast he gave life to. In the middle there is a break in the doctor’s tale, and it switches to the daemon’s perspective. This part of the text is particularly sad, and adds to the overall uncanny feel of the novel. The moral ambiguity of both the doctor and the daemon is really what really makes it such a classic. The language is elegant, the plot is steady, and the grotesque descriptions of the monster’s body are enough to keep anyone reading.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a short, but potent read. The story spans a whopping 80 or so pages and it follows the mystery (which we all know) of Dr Jekyll who becomes increasingly distant from his friends, and a horrible man, Hyde, running around the streets of London. Much like the previous two titles in this section, Stevenson’s gothic tale is likely not what you expect. Hyde’s most heinous crimes are his sexual deviancy, which underlies much of the descriptions in the text. Although everyone knows the twist at the end, the novel becomes more about themes than plot. The Victorian themes explored in this quick read are matters of degeneracy, homosexuality, alcoholism, and the dangers of science.

The classics are, well…classic. They are the foundation of what has become of Horror, and are thus extremely important texts for any fan. That said, the gothic literature mentioned above is certainly not for all horror fans, and is by no means the only place to start reading.

The “Fathers” of Horror

Again, most of you have heard of these guys, and probably have read some of their stories, but their canons of works are vast. The lore and legend associated with these two mysterious dudes is unbelievable, and you would be shocked how many films, old and new, are based on their works. I could talk about these authors for days, but I promise not to go on too long.

Edgar Allan Poe

The man, the alcoholic, the “father” of American horror and mystery. Poe’s writing ranges from love poetry, to hearts beating under floorboards, to travel narratives, and there is without a doubt something for everyone in his works. His Poe-etics are second to none, and his ability to express the eeriness of the landscape, and to describe the fear his characters feel, will leave you breathless.

His most notable horror tales are The Fall of the House of Usher, Murders in the Rue Morgue (yes the Iron Maiden song is based on this), The Black Cat, and The Tell Tale Heart. The best place to start with his poetry is the notorious poem titled, The Raven. Poe’s only full length novel is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. For any horror lover, Poe is a must and a great place to start with his quick short stories. Furthermore, you can probably find a book of Poe’s major works in your local used book shop for under 10 bucks, if not online.

H.P. Lovecraft

Along with Poe, Lovecraft is often described as the father of modern horror fiction. If you are not one for Poe’s older style and are looking for more contemporary classics, Lovecraft is your man. Lovecraft had an obsession with the ocean and the creatures that may dwell deep down. He is the author who probably has the largest cult following. The cthulhu is a massive sea deity with wings, tentacles, and an extremely mysterious background and it plays a huge role in Lovecraft’s works. This creature appears in several stories (most notably The Call of the Cthulhu), and is sure to catch your attention. Much like Poe, Lovecraft’s works come mostly in short story form, and thus offer quick but horrifying reads. Oh and one more thing, this father of horror invented the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead!

Notable Films inspired on his works: Re-animator, The Haunted Palace, The Evil Dead, In the Mouth of Madness.

Modern

Alright, alright, enough with the classics and the fathers of horror, well sorta. It’s hard to talk about modern horror fiction without referencing this guy.

Stephen King

Everyone knows him, everyone knows the movies based on his books, and everyone knows him as “the” horror author. I mean, it seems as though the man is still pumping out books almost every month. King has far too many works for a few paragraphs to do justice to, but just know that not everything he does is as scary as It or Carrie. If you have never read anything by the King, here are some you may enjoy. And for the love of God, if you have not read anything by him, don’t start with the Dark Tower series.

Bag of Bones is a fairly recent novel and it is extremely well written, and received a lot of critical praise, which most of his other works have not (It won the Bram Stoker award for Best Novel in 1998). It is a nice refreshing take on the typical ghost story and mourning over a lost loved one. Bag of Bones is a wonderful exposition of horror, love, and tribulation.

The Green Mile is magical, compelling, and will leave you with tears in your eyes. If you like reading about prisons and the stuff that goes down in them, then this one is for you.

The Shining is arguably quoted as King’s “best novel”. The film itself is amazing, but does not offer all the subtleties and sub-plots that are intertwined throughout the novel. Creepy twins, a man in a bear suit, a telekinetic boy, and a desolate hotel makes for a horrific read on a cold night.

Other notable King novels are The Stand, Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery, Misery, and Cujo. Stephen King also offers some great short Zombie fiction.

More Modern

There are loads and loads of novels out there now, whether in-store or online, and sifting through the crap can be a rather daunting task. In my years of reading horror, there have been three titles that stood out to me as extremely original great literature. I think these three authors are doing their best to change how the literature world feels about horror one novel at a time. Trust me, these guys are like nothing you’ve ever read before.

House of Leaves -Mark Z. Danielewski

This novel is metafictional as hell. It follows the story of a Johnny Truant who finds a book outlining a documentary film of a creepy house that is bigger on the inside than it is outside. The description of the film is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. Interspersed with this plotline is the life of Johnny. Any more detail about the plot would probably ruin the book and only be more confusing. However, what makes this book stand apart is its unconventional style in terms of both writing and layout. Footnotes are loaded at the bottom of nearly every page, some pages need a mirror to read, and others only have a single word on them. In general the format is made to mirror what is happening in the novel at the time, and Danielewski does an extremely good job of it. Furthermore, some passages need to be de-coded in order to be read properly. This novel is filled with secrets; it may give you nightmares, and definitely takes more than one read to figure out exactly what’s going on.

The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall

This novel is similar in style to House of Leaves, though not nearly as strangely formatted. The Raw Shark Texts (the Rorschach tests, get it?), follows the story of a guy who may or may not be losing his mind, who is being followed by a literary shark which is threatening to eat all his memories. Again, giving away anymore of the plot seems futile. The shark appears in the novel in images made up only of words and letters of various fonts and sizes that make you think it’s coming for you. Not to mention the last part of the novel, I won’t give it away, is basically a retelling of Jaws which fits perfectly with the rest of the novel.

World War Z – Max Brooks

While not nearly as format oriented as the two above novels, World War Z is a great work of modern horror literature. This novel provides mockumentary style interviews, articles, and stories from survivors of the big zombie apocalypse. The novel follows the event from initial reactions to rebuilding plans. If you are into the latest zombie craze, this is one of the most original and chilling books out there, truly underlying the horror of humanity. If novels aren’t yet your bag, check out the audio book, it’s brilliantly executed with a full soundtrack, voice actors, and sound effects, a truly unique experience.

Horror For You

With the amount of horror novels out there today, it can be quite a cumbersome task to just visit the bookstore and pick out a book. There are all types of horror out there now ranging from fantasy horror, romantic horror, and bizarre fiction. For me to write out a list of authors who may tickle your fancy seems trite and boring, so instead I will offer some advice on picking out books.

Judge a Book by its Cover

If you are someone who has read many of the classics, or the Stephen King books and do not know where to go from there, there is some simple advice I can offer. Judge a book by its cover. I was told all throughout school never to do this, and yeah profanity coming from a literature student. But more often than not the books that catch your eye to begin with are the ones you actually enjoy reading. Maybe its fate, maybe its personal preference, or maybe it’s the fact that now, more than ever, publishers know their market and know what looks good. So if something catches your eye, grab it, read the synopsis and you can always put it back on the shelf.

Borrow Books

Whether from a friend or the library borrowing is a great way to get started. If you pick up the book and aren’t feeling it you can just give it back, nothing gained, nothing lost.

Look at Reviews

Reviews can be your best friend when getting started in the world of literature. Check out some online bookstores and see what other horror fans have to say about books you are thinking of checking out.

Novels Based on Films

If you like the movie, you will like the book. How many times have you heard people say “the movie is never as good as the book”. Well, maybe there is a reason for that cliché. So many of the classic horror movies are based on novels (not only by Stephen King), and it’s true the novels are usually better than the films.

Notable novels adapted to film: Rosemary’s Baby, The Ruins, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Exorcist, From Hell, The Silence of the Lambs, Interview With a Vampire

I hope I inspired some of you to start reading horror fiction. It is a vast and terrifying world, and once you find what’s right for you, there’s nothing else like it. So next time you’re bored, don’t go running for your laptops or TVs to watch a flick, instead nestle up in your favorite chair by the window, and pick up a novel, because it might just scare the *@$& out of you.