Everyone has a personal, readerly definition of what a horror novel is, or should be: our scares are completely individual, after all, and what makes me shudder might make you yawn, or vice versa. As a reader, I tend to seek out novels and stories that show me all the ways in which the world is not at all what I expected, or believed, it was, books that pull out the existential rug while I’m focused with pleasure on the skill of the writers’ narrative voice.
Here are a few genre-defying dark reads that do just that for me, from a modern short story collection that gets under your skin to a bullet train to dread set in Appalachia. None of these books may be considered conventional horror fiction—but the darkness is absolutely there.
Kathe Koja: What an excellent horror story does best is find its way under your skin, under the surface, to nestle in, sharp edges and mystery and all, and stay there. In both these collections, Maryse Meijer does that over and over again, expertly, without needless fireworks, with enormous economy, with simple and beautiful dread. Try this: “The boy nods. The boy knows everything. He is not human. He is a child.” Or this: “I kissed it again, out of gratitude, and the kiss sank into the meat, becoming a vitamin, a protein, fuel, ready to hit the pan screaming.” I’m a huge fan of Maryse’s work, and anyone who loves a fearless voice needs to read her. I recommend Heartbreaker: Stories, Maryse's debut, and Rag: Stories (below).
Book description: " In Rag, Meijer’s fearless follow-up to Heartbreaker, she shifts her focus to the dark heart of intimacies of all kinds, and the ways in which isolated people’s yearning for community can breed violence, danger, and madness."
Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Kathe Koja: If horror is a feeling, that feeling is cold. And Peter Hoeg so calmly and inexorably leads us beside his unforgettable Smilla into a place where all there is is cold of varying degrees: the cold of human greed, the cold of death, the cold of snow and ice, the cold of the ultimately unknowable, the cold that fear creates in a strong heart chasing the truth. This book never goes where the reader expects. Bundle up.
Kathe Koja: This, before anything else, is a ghost story. (And it’s a love story the way Moby Dick is about a jolly sea cruise.) The landscape itself is hardcore, almost no one gets out of the book alive, and everybody accepts as fact that wandering spirits make the earth their home as much, or more than, the living do. I first read this when I was ten years old and it gets better every time I read it.
Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West
Kathe Koja: One is a masterpiece of dark architecture, the other is a bullet train to dread. Cormac McCarthy is rarely named among the greatest writers of horrific fiction, but he definitely belongs in that company. In Blood Meridian we travel a road made of dust and bones, in the shadow of one of literature’s most terrifying creations, the unfathomable Judge Holden. In Outer Dark, we watch the excruciating intersection of two ruined innocents and a trio from hell. In both, the gorgeous language makes everything better and worse.
Book description: "Outer Dark is a novel at once fabular and starkly evocative, set is an unspecified place in Appalachia, sometime around the turn of the century. A woman bears her brother's child, a boy; he leaves the baby in the woods and tells her he died of natural causes. Discovering her brother's lie, she sets forth alone to find her son. Both brother and sister wander separately through a countryside being scourged by three terrifying and elusive strangers, headlong toward an eerie, apocalyptic resolution."
Kathe Koja is the Stoker and Locus Award-winning author of The Cipher, Under the Poppy, Buddha Boy, Christopher Wild, and more. She writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her works have been translated into multiple languages and optioned for film and performance. She's based in Detroit and thinks globally. Her latest release is Velocities from Meerkat Press. In September 2020, Meerkat will publish a new edition of The Cipher.