From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.
The lists of my ten favorite fantasy novels and my ten favorite science fiction novels have been among of the most popular posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and it’s been a long time since I first made those lists. But now here we are in October, the spookiest month of the year, and that got me thinking . . . What about my ten favorite horror novels of all time? As with the previous lists, this is presented in no particular order, but these ten books scared the pants off me in one way or another, and they might do the same for you. And anyway, if you want to write horror . . .
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Johnny Truant is kind of a hipster. He works at a tattoo parlor. He didn’t ask to run across the abandoned life’s work of the enigmatic Zampanò, but he does. And he starts reading . . .
I think this is a haunted house story.
It might be a haunted life story.
But either way, House of Leaves isn’t just one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read—more disturbing than “scary”—I’m prepared to call it one of the greatest debut novels in the history of literature, and I’m not alone.
I don’t remember what drew me to this book. Was it mentioned online somewhere? I don’t read reviews . . . that couldn’t have been it. Did I just run across it on a bookstore shelf, drawn to its unusual large format trade paperback and even stranger interior layout? It definitely reminded me of some great Harlan Ellison stories in terms of that first glance, where the type itself was used to convey added layers to the story. Now, I know you’ve all probably heard me tell you never to do that, to reserve all your creativity for the story itself. I’ve also told you not to affect some kind of period voice in your writing either, unless you’re prepared to go as full-on as Susanna Clarke did in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Same here. If you’re going to use footnotes, your gold standard is the monumentally artful and impossibly readable House of Leaves.
I don’t know what else to tell you about this book. It has to be experienced. Never in my life have I read a novel—any novel by any author in any genre—that felt so real.
Frankly, there’s still a part of me that thinks it actually is a work of non-fiction and that documentary, and that house, are really out there.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman doesn’t necessarily want to get caught, but at the same time he can’t help but take personally the reasons he hasn’t been. Taking that as a challenge, he just kills and kills and kills and kills.
If you’ve only seen the movie, well, shame on you. In fact, never in the history of cinema has a filmmaker so entirely and tragically misunderstood her source material than in that train wreck of an “adaptation.” Sorry. Had to get that out.
This book is, whether he likes it or not, is Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece and will, I fully believe, stand as the seminal American novel of the 1980s. Nowhere else is the peculiar culture of that era captured with such visceral and horrifying glee. Ellis’s deep dive into the twisted psyche of a psychopath came off as gratuitous to some—and there were the misguided cries of misogyny that only ended up fueling sales—but was, for me, the best novel about a serial murderer of all time because it shows with amazing creativity the everything-is-even worldview of that particular mental illness.
And he doesn’t just kill women.
And it really, really isn’t just about creative murder set-ups.
American Psycho is a book about identity in a world created by and for sociopaths and the inevitability of the viper in its embrace.
Go ahead, read this book then try to convince yourself that we should further deregulate Wall Street.
The Stand by Stephen King
A plague kills almost everyone on Earth, giving the few survivors left a clean start. But with that new start comes a very old choice. Call it “original sin” if you want to, but though the plague-ravaged world of this post-apocalyptic epic is no Eden, the forces acting on the survivors is the same.
How many books by horror uber-mega-superstar Stephen King could I have put on this list? Besides this, certainly, The Dark Half, The Shining, Carrie . . . etc. But in the interest of including a few other authors on this list, let me put all my Stephen King chips into The Stand.
I read this very long book, as I’m wont to do, very slowly over the course of a summer. That happened to be the summer my family went on what was, in a long string of bad family vacations, arguably the worst and thankfully the last. Stuck on a rented houseboat on a murky Wisconsin river plagued by swarms of biting flies—and these fuckers took chunks out of you—I didn’t have much else to do but read. When I finished The Stand, I wrestled control of the houseboat away from my father and unilaterally called an early end to the torture. To this day we refer to that trip as Das Hausboot.
Without The Stand I wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long as I did.
People talk about books they can’t put down.
The Stand was, for me at least, one of those—even while suffering the Death of a Thousand Bites.
Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell
When Amy and her father move into the newly remodeled apartment building, it’s hard not to remember what that building once was. And what was left in that house by the former tenants hasn’t entirely moved out yet. They continue to crawl in the shadows, and squirm into Amy’s father’s already fragile psyche.
Oh, boy, do I love a good haunted house story and Nazareth Hill is that and then some. This one will go right to your fear of . . . well, they don’t call Nazareth Hill “the spider house” for nothing.
It’s fair to call Ramsey Campbell the British Stephen King—more so, in my mind at least, than Clive Barker. What Campbell and King share is a keen sense of the ordinary, of the relatable, and both of them start with characters we really understand. We could be these people.
And when that house starts working on them, we’re forced to confront the terrifying fact that we might fall victim in the same way—ways that are as much our own fault as the ghosts’.
Nazareth Hill is a hell of a scary-ass haunted house book. It might be hard to find, but find it!
Alien by Alan Dean Foster
A commercial starship follows a mysterious beacon to an uninhabited world and . . . hell, you know the story.
Yes, I am including a movie novelization on this list.
When I was a kid I read movie novelizations, and quickly got to know the name Alan Dean Foster. In some cases I read the novelizations before seeing the movie—actually did that with both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, believe it or not. I can’t believe I ever did that, myself, but I did. I’d never do it again, but anyway . . .
I read this novelization after seeing the movie—what I still consider the scariest movie I’ve ever seen—because I’d heard there were extra scenes in it. Those scenes are now familiar to anyone who’s seen the Director’s Cut, but for me, it added a whole new layer, and one that, frankly, Alan Dean Foster pulled off better than the tacked-on deleted scenes in later DVDs.
Maybe it was the fact that this movie had already lodged itself in my brain, that reading the book reactivated that fear impulse, but honestly I have never been more scared in my life reading a book. Say what you will about the humble movie novelization, but Alan Dean Foster smashed this one out of the ballpark. It actually stands as a brilliant science fiction-horror novel in its own right.
Résumé With Monsters by William Browning Spencer
Philip Kean works in a blah office in a blah industrial park in a blah part of Austin, Texas. He doesn’t like his job, doesn’t get along with his coworkers, and is having trouble finishing that novel. Oh, and he’s pretty sure he’s being stalked by Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.
This one might be even harder to find than Nazareth Hill, having originally been published by RPG publisher White Wolf, but damn it, go hunt it down.
I’m not a big fan of any genre mixed with comedy, unless someone somehow manages to do that perfectly, and in what’s sort of a post-modern Lovecraftian Young Frankenstein, William Browning Spencer does indeed pull that off perfectly.
I don’t know what else to say. I’ve given you a rumor of a treasure map. Follow it to your just rewards.
The Collected Stories of H.P. Lovecraft
Okay, so I went with a short story collection among my favorite science fiction novels, so I get to put old H.P. here as well.
I’ve written about how I feel about H.P. Lovecraft here before, used him as my primary muse in Writing Monsters, and I know what you’re going to say before you say it—at least I have a short list of possible responses—and I’m not going to even try to argue it out.
He’s just the gold standard. Even more so than Edgar Allen Poe, who he tried so hard to rip off. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is the grandmaster of otherworldly monster horror.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
A little girl plays host to the Devil Himself, and just tying her to the bed isn’t going to be good enough. Medical science fails, so what’s a mother to do? Call in the Catholic Church’s controversial and mysterious exorcist and watch him wage a battle between perfect Good and perfect Evil—inside your daughter.
I was about ten or eleven years old when the movie adaptation of The Exorcist came out and the TV commercials would send me running from the room in abject terror. Looking back, frankly, I have to admit that I had fallen for the hype—and there was considerable hype around this movie. Tales of people fainting and having heart attacks in movie theaters rippled across the country and as terrified as I was, I was also fascinated.
I never had any sort of religious upbringing, so all this stuff about the Devil and possession was all new to me, and there was something about it that really dug into me. It could be that the victim in this definitely-for-adults horror movie was a kid that did me in. I’m still not sure.
But at some point one of my parents must have bought the book and a few years later I worked up the courage to read it. It was scary, to be sure, but what struck me about the novel wasn’t just the visceral creepiness of it—and it was viscerally creepy as hell—but the sometimes subtle, sometimes less than subtle cues that author William Peter Blatty infused his novel with. Unlike the movie, which fully commits to the metaphysics of it all, there’s a sense in the novel that this whole possession thing might just be bullshit after all.
And even then, it still scared the bejeezus outta me.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A lonely spinster is invited to join in a paranormal investigation at a purportedly haunted house. Eleanor brings more baggage to Hill House than just her carefully packed suitcases, and the house itself takes note.
The Queen of Haunted House Stories begins with what is, in my humble opinion, the greatest first paragraph of any novel, full stop:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem
Richard Carter and his daughter Serena find their way to the secluded—even, strangely walled-in—Deadfall Hotel and immediately run afoul of the hotel’s eccentric residents. As the days pass, the hotel reveals itself to be something much, much more than a secluded vacation spot. And the residents and staff reveal even stranger sides of themselves.
I included J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon, a book I acquired for the ill-fated Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint, on my list of favorite fantasy novels so it’s only fair I include another here.
Having published Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem’s incredible The Man on the Ceiling, I went back to both of them for more and got, from Melanie, The Yellow Wood, and from Steve, Deadfall Hotel. Then the imprint was killed by the forces of evil within Wizards of the Coast and we weren’t able to publish either book. Happily, someone else was smart enough to pick up both, so you get to discover this amazing, weird, chilling book too.
When I was first reading the manuscript of Deadfall Hotel, sitting at my desk at the Renton, Washington offices of Wizards of the Coast, I fell so deeply into the story that I was able to tune out the general office buzz around me—then my desk phone rang and I about jumped out of my skin.
I’ve been asked what editors look for when they’re reading a manuscript.
That moment sold me on Deadfall Hotel.
When you read it, just remember to turn the ringer on your phone off.
Well, there it is, more than in time for Halloween—my favorite horror novels of all time.
Where Story Meets World™
Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.
Hey, thank you!
Oh, thanks for this! I love horror movies and occasionally incorporate some horror elements in my work, but I’ve never read much of it beyond Stephen King. I’m adding some of these to my TBR list.
The only one of these I’d disagree with is The Stand. I’ve generally found King to be more effective in short stories. I found Apt Pupil supremely disturbing, and I’d generally rate it very high in any list of horror novels or stories. The other book I think that shouldn’t be left off this list is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which to me is the ultimate haunted house story.
I absolutely should have included The Haunting of Hill House! But I still stand behind The Stand (see how clever I was, there?). Maybe it just hit me at the right time…
Pingback: ￼DEFINING MY TERMS | Fantasy Author's Handbook
Pingback: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXXIV: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS | Fantasy Author's Handbook