Horror, as a genre, has a tendency to get a bit of a bad rap outside of its rather ardent fan base, despite the fact that more than a few literary icons made their bones on the backs of some truly spine-tingling tales (Ray Bradbury, anyone?). There has long been a strong relationship between literary fiction and the horror genre – the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde can attest to that. While violence and gore and things that more traditionally go bump in the night certainly have their place, so too do well-crafted sentences and deeper philosophical underpinnings. Over the last decade or so, there has somewhat quietly been a resurgence in literary horror as immensely talented writers pick up the genre trappings of horror, tear them apart and fuse them back together into wholly original and truly unsettling creations. Writers like China Mieville, Brian Evenson, and Jeff VanderMeer are following the footsteps of Bradbury, Peter Straub, and Shirley Jackson and creating some stunningly imaginative and extraordinarily unsettling prose. Here are a few of our (relatively) recent favorites. [Editor’s Note: adding a quick plug for Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol, out April 10th, which perfectly fits the literary horror bill. Preorder it!]
The Remastered, Full-Color Edition
Mark Z. Danielewski
If you haven’t read House of Leaves, go grab a copy now. We’re happy to wait, it’s just that good. I’m pretty confident saying this literary head-spinner is unlike any other novel you’ve read. Part epistolary novel, part haunted house thriller, with a bit of weird fiction thrown in for good measure – House of Leaves is a difficult book to pin down or describe. It’s a narrative as twisting (literally) and expansive as the house it chronicles.
The fairy tale form is built on a dark undercurrent that, in many ways, is the perfect foundation for horror. That’s something that Helen Oyeyemi illustrates with terrifying brilliance in White is for Witching. The story centers on the Silver family, specifically the four generations of Silver women who have lived in the family home. When her mother passes, Lily, the latest in the family line, begins experiencing strange ailments and soon the Silver house itself begins to manifest malevolent intent. It is at once a dread-inducing mystery and powerful examination of race and family legacy.
Literary horror is at its best when writers play with readers’ expectations to create something that is at once familiar enough but also wildly original. Scott Hawkins draws from a wide range of influences for The Library at Mount Char – there are hints of Gaiman, a bit of Lovecraft, a little King. Hawkins takes inspiration before proceeding to tear it all to shreds and glue the pieces back together into something truly original, grotesque, and oddly beautiful.
A Head Full of Ghosts owes a nod to The Haunting of Hill House and The Exorcist for its slow-burn, constantly-shifting narrative. The novel centers on a suburban New England family coming to grips with a fourteen year old daughter who’s suddenly showing signs of schizophrenia – or so they hope. What follows is a novel that riffs on unreliable narration, reality TV, and familial tragedies in ways that are both unexpected and truly unsettling.
With The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters reinvigorated Gothic fiction in a way that would’ve made Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe proud. Part haunted house horror, part unreliable narration, and part social critique, The Little Stranger is a deeply unsettling descent into madness and dread within the walls of a crumbling Georgian Mansion where a malevolent presence may or may not be lurking.
Robert Jackson Bennett
Mr. Shivers reads like the literary love child of China Mieville and John Steinbeck. It’s The Grapes of Wrath by way of Lovecraft. Bennett’s tale of a father on the trail of the possibly otherworldly killer who murdered his daughter is a slow-burn piece of dread-fueled Americana. Robert Jackson Bennett has quietly positioned himself as one of the more talented voices in the New Weird genre, and Mr. Shivers remains among his best work.
Weird fiction and literary horror have long been comfortable bedfellows, and novels don’t get much weirder than Drew Magary’s The Hike. In this tale of a hike in rural Pennsylvania gone terribly wrong, Magary manages to infuse his pop culture references and classic folklore tropes with a nearly suffocating sense of existential dread.
Jarret Middleton’s Darkansas is a novel that begins as an examination of familial strife and quickly progresses to one of preternatural dangers lurking just beyond the page and a century-old curse at its center. The story centers on itinerant musician who is his family’s black sheep. Unfortunately, any hope of reconciliation may have been doomed decades before he was born. It’s a dark, twisting page-turner with hints of Southern gothic lurking around the corners of its horror tinged sense of dread and juxtaposes its gritty reality against a mounting sense of surrealistic terror.
“CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL.” Imagine you’ve just lost your spouse and you suddenly begin finding messages like those above hidden throughout your home: that’s the disturbing premise for Amelia Gray’s wholly unnerving examination of death, grief, and memory. The novel follows David, a man attempting to unravel the mystery of his wife’s death against his increasingly unreliable recollections and a world that no longer makes sense.
Brian Evenson is the sort of writer who simply knows how to get under a reader’s skin. A Collapse of Horses is a short story collection that grapples with some big existential questions on reality and perception while simultaneously veering into the sort of grotesquerie that will leave you haunted long after you finish the last tale.
Curious about other sci-fi/fantasy subgenres? Check out all of our So You Want To Read lists – we’re adding new ones all the time!