Staff Chat: The Horror.... The Horror...

Article by staff

The Books: Spooky stories, new and old
The Plots: No spoilers, but monsters, killer clowns, zombies and haunted places figure prominently
The Chatters: Keaton Patterson (Buyer), Lydia Melby (Events Coordinator)


K: All right so here we are to discuss the horror genre, because it’s that most wonderful time of the year.

L: It is. I read horror year round, of course, but what better time to sit in the bath and get all shivery while reading CORALINE again for the thousandth time? There is something wonderful about reading your favorites as it’s starting to get cold, when everyone has pumpkins out the porch and those awful skeleton ghoul things hanging from the trees in their yard.

K: So was there a particular book that go you into horror?

L: Um, well I liked it when I was a kid—I read those great SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and the Mary Downing Hahn books, but I didn't really think of it much. I think the first book I read where I realized “Oh wow, this can be literature, this can be a classic” was Henry James’ THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Then I got really into Daphne Du Maurier—I’ve read both REBECCA and DON’T LOOK NOW several times—Wilkie Collins, and M.R. James, and the classic sort of British ghost story, stuff like that. How about you, you have a favorite?

K: Well what got me into it really was my mom, she was a huge Stephen King fan growing up, and our living had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of King books, so I started taking those down and reading them. You know when you’re seven, eight years old and looking through Stephen King books—it’s kind of the stuff of nightmares. But it intrigued me, and that led me on to other things and the first sort of “literary” horror that I reread every couple of years was FRANKENSTEIN.

Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus Cover Image
$19.99
ISBN: 9781632060785
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Restless Books - June 14th, 2016

L: Oh yeah, that’s a good one.

K: I could read it over and over again. It’s new every time, and it’s classic gothic horror, but it’s got a psychological aspect that a lot of literature at that time didn't have. It was very modern in that sense, and that’s always been what I really gravitate towards, this horror of the mind more than the good ol’ blood and guts.

L: Yeah and I think FRANKENSTEIN does a lot with the far-reaching consequences that you don’t always see a lot of, even in modern horror. You know you have the monster coming at you, or the moment where something jumps out at you and it’s all very present and immediate, but in FRANKENSTEIN the monster is haunting him and keeps coming back—it’s this one choice he made that he’ll never get away from, it just keeps coming back and you have this building, hopeless dread that’s really perfectly done.

I never got into Stephen King though. I have a lot of friends whose taste I trust who rave about him and always talk about that feeling they miss of sitting in the treehouse or on the basement couch and reading King, but I think you have to get into his stuff at the right part of your life, when you’re a kid or a teenager because I’ve tried to come back to him as an adult since he’s kind of a mainstay of this genre I love, but I just can’t get into him. But I have to say, it’s not very welcoming for readers outside of what you’d generally think of as your regular horror crowd—women, people of color, queer people. So, I’ve always wanted to have that experience of reading King for the first time that I’ve heard people talk about, but I’ve never found it.

K: For me, it’s his short stories and novellas where he really excels, like FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT. His short stories are always on another level as far as his writing goes. But he writes so much—he throws out books all the time that aren’t always good, but he’s got some real classics too. MISERY is maybe the first novel I read that really frightened me. IT, not the book but the original miniseries with Tim Curry, that gave me nightmares for at least a couple of weeks. Killer clowns, you know, they’re always freaky.

But King was really more of a springboard for me—his book were what I read first and he’s always great for introducing you to other writers too. It was from King that I learned about Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft, and started reading more of the horror tradition, and then I found FRANKENSTEIN and that was all she wrote.

Of all the genres though, I think horror gets the short end of the stick most of the times. It’s really not considered literary, and other genres get that too, like science fiction. I think of genre literature as sort of like poetry—you can have poetry that’s free-form, or you can have poems that are very defined by their form, like a villanelle or a haiku. And that’s how I see genre, as writing with constraints, writing within a designated form, and then of course you can stretch that form or play with it, break it, subvert it however you want. And that’s when you really get the genius writing I think.

But horror really is a wonderful genre, to investigate the unknown and unnamable, what we don't like to deal with or talk about, whether that’s the things that go bump in the night or the possibility that your next-door neighbor may be a serial killer.

L: I agree, I think a lot of other genres like science fiction or fantasy or mystery, people give them more grace, saying “well this counts as literary instead of genre, we can call this literature and teach it in schools” and I think a lot of that goes back to the purpose. For example, the purpose of writing and reading sci-fi has always been to push the boundaries of what we know, to satirize or to reflect present society in this future world, and people can see value in that. But what’s the intended purpose of horror? Why do we read it? Are we just gratifying our basic nature, do we just want to see whatever gross darkness is inside us thrown against this dark mirror? Is it cathartic? It’s pretty indulgent a lot of the time, but there is a purpose to it after all.

K: There’s definitely a level of catharsis in reading horror. I think people naturally have a desire to face their fears, at least to understand them. And there’s a purpose in that. And also with horror as well as sci-fi, I like what you were saying about how the purpose is satirizing or making a social commentary about our world. I think horror and science fiction especially really allow for that to a greater degree that straightforward, realistic literature.

L: Yeah, those “Serious” books.

K: Take Colson Whitehead’s great zombie apocalypse novel that came out a couple years ago, ZONE ONE.


Zone One Cover Image
$15.00
ISBN: 9780307455178
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Published: Anchor Books - July 10th, 2012

It’s a tremendous horror novel, but it’s also an allegory for gentrification. He could have approached that in so many ways, there are a lot books on the subject I’ve read—John Lancaster’s CAPITAL pops into my mind—that are straightforwardly about gentrification as a social issue.

But there’s something a little more affecting when you throw the living dead in there, and now you have to go clean them out to build your new shining city.

L: That’s a good point. Something you said earlier too that I wanted to come back to was that you tend to gravitate more towards the horror of the mind. I do that as well, like if I want to something scary or horrific, I don't always pick up the “monster” books, even though I love a good monster here and there. But there’s something more terrifying and haunting about the monster being in your mind, and being something you don't know if or when you’ll ever get away from it.

Something my friend and I were talking about recently as we were watching another great “monster” show, Stranger Things. He was saying that he thought it was decently scary until somewhere around the fourth episode I think when you finally get a good look at the monster, this really well-put together CGI monster who has no face. Spoiler alert, I guess. And from then on, it becomes more of an adventure story, where the characters are venturing into this sort of underworld, and it’s still a really well-written story, but it’s not scary anymore.

Once you’ve seen the monster and you’ve seen it has a physical form, it’s not as frightening anymore. It’s like, ok we’ve seen it, we can try to figure out how to kill it, but even if it’s right behind me or hiding there in the shadows, we know where it is.

Whereas if you look at something more psychological—and here’s where I have to bring up Dan Chaon—if you look at something like Dan Chaon’s collection STAY AWAKE or his new book ILL WILL coming out in March, you see those “monsters” don't exist in the real world. They’re much harder to escape.


Ill Will Cover Image
$28.00
ISBN: 9780345476043
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Published: Ballantine Books - March 7th, 2017

K: I think also that not seeing the object of horror, the object of fear, really heightens that experience and makes the terror more potent. Another cinematic example is Spielberg’s JAWS. You barely see the shark in that movie—they didn't plan it that way, it’s because the shark broke and they couldn't get it to work half the time.

L: But it’s a much better movie because of that!

K: Right, it’s much scarier because you can see the shark, you just know it’s lurking there in the water under you where you can’t see it. But really what people fear more than anything is the unknowable, the thing they can’t quite name. Facing that is really the point of horror, I think.

One of the best examples of this horror of the mind is Shirley Jackson. We’re celebrating her 100th birthday this year so it’s fitting to mention her, but I really think THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is really the height of that sort of horror. The title says it’s a haunted house book, but really it takes place inside the characters’ minds and the reader is just watching people go crazy, little by little, and it’s truly frightening.

L: That’s a great example, I really love Shirley Jackson. I actually just read WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE for the first time last year, and that’s another great example of a horror story that bends the usual tropes.


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We Have Always Lived in the Castle Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780143129547
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Published: Penguin Books - October 18th, 2016

If you’re paying attention as you read, you know who the murderer is, who the real monster in this story is, from the first few chapters. You have a classic set up, with this narrator who’s twelve or thirteen with a sweet, naïve voice, whose best friend is a cat and who lives in an isolated, rotting old mansion with her sister and dying uncle, and the town hates them because of their tragic past. And then the stranger comes to town, and then there’s complications, but you start to realize the monster in the story has manufactured this situation, and for the entire book you’re watching her just tighten her grip. You realize there really is no escape, and when you get to the end of the book, the thing you thought would happen happens, but it’s amazing watching it.

K: And it takes so much skill to do that, to let the reader know at the beginning how it’ll turn out, but still keep them riveted, that’s real talent.

L: She’s the queen.

K: There’s a lot of really great new stuff coming out that I’ve stumbled across that has really blown me away. COLLAPSE OF HORSES by Brian Evenson is a stellar collection of horror and scifi and other surreal stories. BLOOD CRIME was really great too—have you heard of that?


Blood Crime Cover Image
By Sebastia Alzamora, Martha Tennent (Translator), Maruxa Relano (Translator)
$25.95
ISBN: 9781616956288
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Published: Soho Crime - September 13th, 2016

L: I have but haven’t gotten to read it yet.

K: It’s this riveting Spanish Civil War era vampire story, with elements of a detective thriller mixed in. This vampire, not your typical sort of just undead guy but an immortal being of pure evil, is taking advantage of the chaos and bloodshed of the civil war to kill people and add to the horror. If you read the first page and you’re not sucked in, it’s probably because you don’t have a soul, because this monster just ate it.

L: Ha! Yeah, you’re one of the dead already.

K: I also love when the author works in a good deal of comedy too, like in that new book, MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM—this totally 80s exorcism that hilarious at points. He wrote that HORRORSTOR book too, that IKEA store book.


My Best Friend's Exorcism Cover Image
$19.99
ISBN: 9781594748622
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Published: Quirk Books - May 17th, 2016

L: A haunted store is such a perfect extension of the haunted house story, I’m so glad that book exists.

K: I think it’s also a good point to make, that horror is a genre with constraints and tropes, but it’s also very expansive, you can stretch and subvert those tropes in all sorts of different ways. There’s always something new to be afraid of.


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