Supernatural fiction often gets a bum rap from highbrow and even many middle-brow readers—mention that you’re reading a book with supernatural elements and you’re likely to get a terse comment along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t like scary stories, life is scary enough!” or, worse, “I can’t read that—I can’t stand violence and gore.” And it’s not terribly surprising, as many people equate anything involving the supernatural with the unfairly maligned genre of “horror,” and horror with the sort of movies in which people are explicitly tortured and eviscerated en masse. Thanks, Hollywood.
A few breakout hits in the past years—Scott Smith’s The Ruins and Justin Cronin’s The Passage, for example—have given fans hope that the supernatural was regaining its former luster, but those anomalies haven’t moved needle deeper into the realm of literary respectability. Increasingly, horror, dark fantasy, and books dealing with ghosts, demons, and the macabre are relegated to a ghetto outside the sanctified walls protecting “good” literary taste. And despite the steady erosion of those walls by genre-bending literary authors—Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Chabon come to instantly to mind—supernatural-themed writing is still held at bay like a vampire before a priest wielding a sharpened stake and a crucifix. Sure, it’s okay to enjoy reading about Sookie Stackhouse having sex with a studly werewolf when you’re turning your mind off at the beach, but you’re certainly not going to talk about it in serious bookish company? Right?
Browsing any online retailers’ horror listings is also disheartening. If the parade of garish, inept, blood-spattered covers and hideous typography don’t turn you off, the endless variations of Zombie Slaughterpocalypse: The Reckoning of the Bloodmasters titles is enough to drive away anyone who isn’t physically or mentally a stunted teenager.
How did it happen? How did a respected a tradition that began in earnest with heavy-hitters Shelley, Poe, and Stoker become the literary equivalent of a fried stick of butter at a state fair?
It shouldn’t be that way. Because if you’re willing to look you’ll find a enormous number of devilishly creepy and sometimes downright terrifying supernatural novels that are also superbly written, complex, and deeply affecting works of (yes, I’m going to say it) literature.
As a novelist who explores the supernatural in my work, I’ve listed five of my favorites from the past three decades. I’ve avoided obvious bestsellers by big-name authors and you won’t find a brain-slurping zombie, an axe wielding psychopath, or a bucketful of entrails in any of them. If you want gruesome depictions of ultraviolence and a high body count, go search for “horror” at Amazon and have at it.
What you will find are captivating, creepy, darkly atmospheric books that excel at producing what H. P. Lovecraft summarized as “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind . . . fear of the unknown.” So go ahead. Jump in. Don’t worry, it’s all just stories….
The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters’s 2009 Gothic ghost story was her third novel short-listed for the Man Booker prize, so her literary bona fides were never in question. Set in a rotting English mansion in the postwar 1940s, the supernatural elements are deftly woven into a brilliant exploration of class struggles (it is a British book, after all) and serious sexual repression. This is a ghost story for grownups, a psychological descent into supernatural malevolence that builds slowly but leaves you shattered with its final sentence.
The Secret History
Donna Tartt’s bestselling debut novel is not generally considered a supernatural book. Most people probably remember it as a sort of elite college murder mystery, as a tight group of brainiac students studying ancient Greek degenerate into murderous monsters. At the core of the story, however, is a ritual that invokes atavistic horrors and blood-soaked Dionysian revelry. Tartt tells, and doesn’t show, this chilling episode, which paradoxically heightens its creepy intensity.
The Tooth Fairy
The tooth fairy in this riveting coming-of-age story (which won the British World Fantasy Award in 1997) is not the winged fae who leaves coins under a child’s pillow, but rather a monstrous, cruel, sexually-charged entity who hovers on the edge of one boy’s shifting reality. And this fairy doesn’t just take teeth . . . it bites. Pubescence is always painful, but never quite this literally. As in many of the best, most affecting supernatural stories, The Tooth Fairy plays with our sense of reality—is the creature real, or is it a figment of a tortured adolescent imagination run amok? You’ll have to read it to find out.
The Horned Man
This dreamlike, Kafka-esque tale of a college professor’s descent into madness may be one of the best “unreliable narrator” books of all time. I hesitated to include it, as the fantastic elements are not classically supernatural. But as the narrator’s world disintegrates into a surreal, paranoid nightmare, The Horned Man is reminiscent of the best of Edgar Allan Poe. And like The Little Stranger, its final, lyrical and shiver-inducing sentences might melt your brain. Recommended to those who like a dose of masterfully crafted surrealism.
The Woman in Black
A gorgeously written, classic ghost, The Woman in Black is a masterpiece of understated horror in the manner of the best Gothic stories of the early 20th century. More novella than novel, it became a bestseller when first published in 1983 and later was made into a stage play, a radio play, a TV movie, and a theatrical film (starring Daniel Radcliffe). This delicious, deeply chilling tale is written—adroitly and to great effect—in a mannered Victorian style, and despite its adherence to the diction and tropes of an earlier time the scares are downright hair-raising. If you don’t believe a traditional haunted house story still has the power to shock and disturb, read this book now.
So please, go where angels fear to tread. And feel free to add your own favorites to this list in the comments below.
Michael M. Hughes writes both fiction and nonfiction. Blackwater Lights is based on a short story that first appeared in Legends of the Mountain State: Ghostly Tales from the State of West Virginia. When he’s not writing, Hughes lectures on paranormal and Fortean topics and performs as a mentalist. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife and two daughters. Connect with Michael on Facebook and Twitter.