Some readers may feel I’ve taken certain liberties with the inclusion of some texts on this list, but to paraphrase Joe Lansdale in his foreword to his collection of short stories, ‘High Cotton’, ‘This is my list and I don’t give a shit.” Feel free to get argumentative in the comments section…heh-heh…
Fevre Dream by George RR Martin
This is an eerily atmospheric vampire novel that spans forty-something years and one clearly written by an author with a profound understanding of the tropes that generally permeate such fiction. However, it is Martin’s subverting of certain elements that we commonly associate with this genre that helps give Fevre Dream such a mesmerizing hold on the reader. The characters are crisply delineated and in only a few instances does Martin resort to rendering them as stereotypical (the ship’s pilot Framm and leading deck hand Hairy Mike are examples thereof). Martin’s ‘steady hand on the wheel’ regarding the direction of the story is assured, though on occasion the pace of the plot is maddeningly slow. Taken as a whole it’s a satisfying (though heart-breaking) journey. The book has much to say about the whittling nature of obsession and its unerring tendency to undermine and destroy, both spiritually and physically, to the point where this thematic device threatens to snuff out the optimistic idealism expressed through the characters of Marsh and York.
Shadowland by Peter Straub
Tom Flanagan and Dell Nightingale-both attendees of the same private school and aficionados of magic- find themselves invited to spend their vacation with their Uncle Coleman, a reclusive and oddly gifted man with an expansive estate he calls ‘Shadowland.’. During their stay there, the boys’ friendship is sorely tested by a series of increasingly bizarre events instigated by their mysterious relative, a once revered magician. While Tom and Dell are fascinated by the ethereal qualities of their Uncle’s New England grounds and mansion it becomes quickly apparent that the magical qualities of their environs possess a potentially lethal undercurrent. Straub is admirably restrained when it comes to revealing his overall conceit, his prose style elegant and measured with imagery that veers from the wondrous to the nightmarish. Shadowland’s charms may not be as obvious as some of Straub’s other novels but it’s the work of an author whose risk-taking narrative ambition is gratifyingly realized by his prodigiously entertaining story-telling ability.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
A fantastically odd novel that has much to say about the nature of guilt, alienation and the horrors of unalterable predestination. Joseph K begins this book accused of a crime he’s neither aware he’s committed nor who has accused him. By turns unnervingly surreal, blackly comic and frighteningly grim, Kafka’s portrait of a society that functions as a machine-like construct with an essential ‘cog’ or two missing and a man at the mercy of socio-economic concerns that obey a warped logic that ultimately results in his downfall is mesmerizing in its execution.. Unforgettably nightmarish and with a central existential conceit that’s certainly still relevant today.
The Crow by J. O’Barr
James O’Barr’s phenomenally compelling original story of Eric Draven and his murdered fiance was a revelation when the first issue of ‘The Crow’ was published. O’Barr’s graphic novel is chock full of Rimbaud poetry, Poe-like lyricism and brutal, bloody violence. There’s a sad, poignant catharsis to be gleaned from reading this marvellous creative piece, a touching labor of love when one learns that the core concern of the book was lifted from aspects of the author’s experience. There is a deep seething rage that bleeds out from the pages, but also a dazzling emotional aspect that never devolves into tedious schmaltz as Draven sets about avenging the death of his young bride never-to -be.
The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Young Johnny Smith awakes after five years in a coma to find that much of the world has done a damn fine job of moving on without him, in particular his sweetheart has grieved and married. Legs atrophied from such a long period in stasis Smith has to learn how to walk again, and how to familiarise himself with his altered surroundings. The author takes this intriguing concept of dislocation, both physical and emotional and hexes it up with a paranormal twist. Johnny Smith can, it appears, under conditions, glimpse the future. A fortune teller without a tent, a soothsayer without a purpose. Smith is propelled by the circumstances the text throws up and it’s the awful predestination of Johnny Smith’s fate that imbues this absorbing yarn with such an inordinate amount of dread; Smith’s trajectory is seemingly preordained to end in tragedy from the outset. It’s to King’s great credit as a storyteller that the more maudlin aspects of the tale aren’t allowed to snuff out the dynamism of his plot’s momentum. Heart-breaking, thrilling and certainly one of King’s more focussed and deeply resonant tales.
From The Teeth Of Angels by Jonathan Carroll
Whimsical dark fantasy from Jonathan Carroll, this is gloriously inventive fiction from a modern master criminally overlooked for far too long. This beautifully written novel is a whimsical treatise on the power that the angel of Death has over our lives. Through the use of disparate characters the author’s literary argument is expertly presented and the conclusions are considered and rewarding. This is one of those books I’ve had to purchase multiple times because whenever I’ve loaned this out to friends I’ve never gotten the damn thing back; invariably the reader has passed the book on to someone else claiming they enjoyed it so much ‘they just had to share it’. Carroll’s literary style and provocative thematic concerns here lend readily lend themselves to thoughtful discussion.
Cabal by Clive Barker
The core idea behind ‘Cabal’ is a fascinating one and throws up all sorts of questions relating to the nature of evil while challenging preconceived notions about what exactly constitutes the monstrous and the repulsively self-serving. Part love story, part damning indictment of society and its hypocrisy. Barker presents a compelling argument that, in truth it’s the so-called, seemingly ‘normal’ civilisation that should be feared. We are the monsters, not the creatures that populate our dreams and fantasies. Cabal is Barker’s parable for embracing the strange and the odd. It’s arguably one of the author’s more conventionally-told, straightforward tales where he takes the mythologies of various monster legends and redefines their context and their ‘real’ function. Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, demons – all of them are presented here in albeit slightly altered guises but it’s the so called arbiters of society, the police, the ‘establishment’, the status quo staking out the moral high ground, that proves to be the perverted and ammoral, the truly repugnant. Turns out Dionysus wasn’t such a bad influence after all…
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Published in 1971, long before the horror genre was re-invigorated by the arrival of a certain Stephen King, William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ subsequently spent fifty-seven straight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, receiving largely positive reviews, this was a monster mainstream publishing event whose sales were compounded by a wildly successful film adaptation that Blatty himself penned the screenplay for. The story of a possessed young girl named Regan struck a deeply thrumming chord with the book buying public. Blatty’s novel was also responsible for a sudden and largely execrable influx of similarly themed demonic possession books. Not afraid to startle and disturb the reader, Blatty’s novel pushed a lot of people’s buttons, mostly the wrong ones depending on your religious orientation. Original, shocking and engaging to this day.
The Terror by Dan Simmons
Of all the authors listed here the most problematic was selecting a favorite from this writer’s body of work. Dan Simmons’ output is wonderfully diverse. If this wasn’t a horror list then I’d be scrapping with myself over whether to include his Hemingway homage ‘The Crook Factory’ or the more distinctly mainstream ‘Phases of Gravity’. This particular novel, ‘The Terror’, showcases Simmons’ extraordinary talent for taking heavily researched historical fact, mixing richly drawn characters and locales and combining it with an almost demonic desire to scare his readers silly. The what-if story of the HMS Terror and its sister vessel the HMS Erebus, both of which went missing in the ill-fated Franklin Expedition in the 1840’s while searching for the fabled Northwest passage near the Artic, Simmons’ postulates an intriguing fictional extrapolation of what fate could have befallen the crews of both ships. It’s an entertaining narrative confection and one of the most satisfying genre novels of recent times.
Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg
Melding the genres of crime fiction with that of horror, Hjortsberg’s sublime reworking of the Faustian pact concept is a slickly written, gripping reading experience. Hired by a mysterious wealthy client, Harry Angel is tasked with investigating the whereabouts of once popular singer Johnny Favorite. The novel takes place in 1950’s New York and Hjortsberg gives us a city that appears to seethe with terrible possibilities, showing us the seedier aspects of a municipality redefining itself in a post-World War Two milieu. As the plot gains momentum, it becomes apparent that -to use a well-worn turn of phrase- all is not as it seems and as for the climax, it was Stephen King who wrote in his blurb for the book that reaching the ending was the reading experience equivalent of hitting a brick wall at ninety miles per hour.
Honourable mentions: ‘House Of Leaves’ by Mark Danielewski, ‘Floating Staircase’ by Ronald Malfi, ‘World of Vacancy’ by Charles Schmidt, ‘Wetbones’ by John Shirley, ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, ‘Mystery Walk’ by Robert R McCammon.