A lot of people ask me to recommend creepy books this time of year. I wasn’t able to do this until recently because I didn’t often read scary stuff. As a kid, I ran out of the room if a trailer for a horror movie came on TV, and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series was almost too much to handle. (I’m pretty sure there was one with an evil ventriloquist’s dummy…) Reading nightmarish stuff the last few Octobers has been fun because this is a genre I’d previously neglected—I thought it would be all gore and jump scares—but it’s full of imaginative writing, memorable characters, and brilliant pacing. This is also the one genre where I almost don’t mind cheesy “and then everything was okay” happy endings because if the monster weren’t defeated at the end I might never sleep again. 😉
So here’s this year’s crop:
(Title links lead to Goodreads pages; this will be long enough without summaries!)
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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Overall: 4.0 (of 5.0)
It’s a classic, but I’m not sure it’s aging well. The core story (creating the monster, some of the monster’s experiences, and the final showdown) are solid, but the connective tissue comprises middling philosophy and rampant sentimentality. Everyone in Dr. Frankenstein’s life (except the monster) is the absolute BEST: his friends are paragons of virtue, his cousin/wife-to-be is a shining beacon of goodliness, and his saintly mother dies with a smile lest she upset anyone with her grief. Dr. Frankenstein is a tedious narrator and his self-pity is trying. All his misery comes from his inability to treat his creature with a shred of decency, but what is he to do when the poor creature is just so…ugly?
His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred. I tried to stifle these sensations; I thought that as I could not sympathize with him, I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow.” (81)
And check out this hyperbolic whinging after the creature exacts his revenge:
A fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man. (112)
Dr. Frankenstein is worse off than anyone in history! Shelley’s use of “creature” here is great, though, since it shows (again) that the doc’s chief fault is a lack of empathy. The sections narrated by the creature are a welcome change of pace, but they soon become too long-winded (impressive for a being that just learned to speak). In a blessing to English teachers everywhere, the creature remains unnamed and students out themselves as not having read the book the instant they call him “Frankenstein.”
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Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)
The most surprising book of the month! I saw both film adaptations (the Swedish original and the American remake) circa 2010 and only remembered the basic plot. The book was much more expansive, with a larger cast, more vampires, and more gross-out moments. When I started reading, I didn’t pay as much attention to characters I thought would stay on the periphery (i.e., everyone outside Eli and Oskar’s immediate orbit). Far from being the filler characters they are in the movie, though, many of them have complete story arcs. Eventually, I figured this out and started paying more attention. Once I did, I was impressed.
Let the Right One In has got a little of everything. Lindqvist’s version of vampirism has its supernatural/fairy-tale elements alongside pseudo-sciency bits. Vampires can’t enter a room without being invited, even as the virus that creates them is described more like a medical condition. As in, modern people who catch the virus describe it in medical terms—it’s an old condition described in a new way. This makes for a suprisingly interesting mash-up, something I didn’t even know was missing from usual vampire fiction. There are vampires resigned to their fates, tragic ones, and truly disgusting ones; this range is unusual and leads to a deep and involving story. Be warned though: It’s pretty disgusting.
Note: The pedophilia angle (mostly in the first quarter of the book) was unexpected. If it was implied in the movie I either blocked it out or didn’t catch it. Eli’s relationship with Håkan is symbiotic in a bad way: She knows he’s attracted to children and he knows she’s a vampire. Their exchange of services is nauseating and clearly untenable. I mention this because it isn’t something you’d expect to encounter in a vampire book and it’s incredibly disturbing.
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The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
Still reading…no score yet.
Part of familiarizing myself with a genre means I’ve got to spend time with the classics. I read some H.P. Lovecraft in high school, but his writing didn’t appeal to me. The stilted, old-fashioned language and the weirdness put me off. The King in Yellow has been cited as one of Lovecraft’s influences for the Necronomicon. I’m only halfway through this collection now. While the stories are good, they’re also deeply strange and skin-crawling.
With the exception of one story so far, this collection is structured around an assortment of characters finding the play “The King in Yellow” and going mad. Some are drawn to it, others try to avoid it, but no one can stop reading once they get started. The play itself is never outlined (not yet at least) so it exists mostly in its effect on the characters. Given that the same general plot is explored in each, I was expecting a lot of repetition, but there’s a good amount of variety in the characters so far. Somehow, it’s eerier that a variety of people are drawn to the play, including seemingly normal people. Since this is one of those books that has influenced many others, readers who are more familiar with horror might see these stories as rote and predictable (even I’ve called a couple endings), but they’re well-written and definitely provoke a shiver.
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It by Stephen King
Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0)
Full review here. TL;DR: Great book; great movie.
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The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
I’m not posting a mini review since The Loney deserves a full one. I’ve read it twice now and can’t make up my mind about it. The brooding atmosphere that comes from two (two!) gothic mansions and a religious mania make it a claustrophobic read, but the warm relationship between the brothers adds some lightness—plus, they give the reader someone to cheer for. The pacing is brilliant but the ending… There’s just not enough information for me to sort it all out. There are a few ways to interpret it, but all open a plot hole. I read The Loney with a couple friends and everyone had a slightly different take on the ending, but no one’s theory answered all questions. There was a loose thread in each that unwound the whole thing. Frustratingly, not enough people have read this little gem, so online chatter is in short supply.
Therefore, I should give this book a high score so that many, many more people read it! But if any one of those people ask me to explain the ending I’ll be at a loss and look like an idiot… My hope is that in pulling quotes for a full review, I’ll figure out the ending. It’ll be like in college where I didn’t figure out my thesis statement until halfway through the paper.
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Zero K by Don DeLillo
Still reading…no score yet.
I’m not sure why I thought this book would be creepy. I wanted something with a little sci-fi edge to round out the list. Don DeLillo’s unsettling White Noise is one of those books I had to read for class that turned out to be good. Though I own a couple other DeLillo books, I keep returning to White Noise. I do this sometimes—when I find a book I really like by an author, I’ll stall on their other works in case they aren’t as good. It’s so disappointing when a writer follows up a great book with a mediocre one!
Fear of death is a big theme of White Noise and, while it isn’t scary, the repeated refrain “Who will die first?” is the kind of thing that gets stuck in my head when I’m trying to sleep. Since Zero K digs into dying more directly, I expected the same kind of unsettling vibe. Though many reviews describe this book as funny, the cryogenic facility felt terrifyingly sterile to me. I thought this book was heading into some dark territory (hence its presence on my October list), but I put it down halfway through. I wasn’t feeling a connection to any of the characters and their ridiculously pretentious mode of speaking got to me.
99% of the reason I picked up this book is that I’ve been working on a series of stories about a cryogenic facility and wanted to check out the competition. DeLillo and I have gone completely different directions with our stories, which is really all I wanted from this book.
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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0)
This is more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel, but Tom Ripley isn’t someone I’d ever want to meet. I didn’t link to Goodreads because this is a book that’s more fun the less you know about it; spoilers are tough to avoid for this one given its popularity. All you need to know is the barest outline: A wealthy man pays Tom to convince his son to return home. The son, Dickie Greenleaf, has been gallivanting around Europe and his father thinks Tom, a former schoolmate, can push him in a way that family can’t. Tom soon becomes enamored with Dickie’s way of life and doesn’t want to uphold his end of the bargain since it’ll upend the gravy train.
The Talented Mr. Ripley starts slow but builds to a fever pitch. The writing is clever and tight, there are numerous bits of dark humor, and details from the earliest chapters pay off at the climax. Tom’s internal monologue, bizarrely, is simultaneously over-confident and paranoid. It’s such a closely-written, internal portrayal of his mindset that it’s hard to see how this was ever adapted into a film. Even if you’ve seen the film, there’s plenty here for a more unfiltered view of the characters.
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