Overcoming dark times is the point of every scary story ever told. Whether it be pestilence or zombies, ravenous phantoms or vengeful witches, killers or psychos or ghouls from the beyond — the dramatic experience of being afraid, and the exhilaration of living through what we fear, bolster our will to survive. It may be as ancient as our ancestors telling stories around a fire, or as modern as a night alone with a horror novel, but the experience of imagining that which frightens us is a deeply human defense for life’s pageant of horrors.
Horrors of the mind are at play in Catriona Ward’s brilliant new novel, THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET (Tor Nightfire, 319 pp., $27.99), a terrifying exploration of human consciousness that excavates character like an ice pick chipping through an ancient glacier: The deeper one goes, the chillier it gets.
On the surface, the novel has a rather typical horror premise — a child, Lulu, goes missing at a lake, leaving an older sister desperate to find her. But as the story progresses, a far more startling and complicated plot emerges, one that has less to do with Lulu or the kidnapping, and more to do with how the human consciousness copes with the threat of violence.
The novel is told by a chorus of characters who unspool their experiences in first person. These perspectives are then buttressed by a third-person narrative that follows Lulu’s sister as she attempts to hunt down the kidnapper. At first, this shifting among characters feels disorienting, and the choice to include a cat’s point of view verges on silly, but as the novel builds momentum, the structure makes sense. These multiple narrators are like pieces of a cracked mirror, each shard reflecting a central fracture.
Indeed, fragmentation is the point. When a crank psychiatrist known as “the bug man” theorizes that our idea of the “self” doesn’t exist, and that “each living thing and object, each stone and blade of grass, has a soul, and all these souls together form a single consciousness,” Ward’s ambitions become clear: This isn’t a novel about a kidnapping, but a deeply frightening deconstruction of the illusion of the self. In an afterword, Ward writes that she “wrote a book about survival disguised as a book about horror.” In fact, she’s written a novel of existential dread that explores the nature of humanity, our connection to God and the universe, and the monstrosity of that connection.
Credit…Deena So Oteh
Tananarive Due’s spellbinding THE BETWEEN (Harper Perennial, 287 pp., paper, $16.99) opens with 7-year-old Hilton James finding his beloved grandmother dead on the floor, “cold as just-drawn well water.” Hilton runs for help but when he returns, Nana is alive, sort of — she has slipped into a strange state of in-betweenness, a place between life and death where the laws of reality no longer apply.
Decades later, married and the head of a rehab center, Hilton is triggered into this state himself when a white supremacist threatens his wife, Dede, a newly elected judge, and their children. As Hilton tries to stop the man, his reality began to distort and twist, leaving him in a sunken place between terror and doubt.
“The Between,” Due’s debut novel, was originally published in 1995, but it feels as relevant as anything written in 2021, a sad testament to the fact that white supremacy hasn’t diminished in the past decades. There is a pointed political and social layer to this novel that, when juxtaposed with the internal terrors of Hilton’s life, creates a complex portrait of the Black experience in America, one in which aggression, gaslighting and the need to assess and reassess threats, real and imagined, are the stuff of daily life. “While Black horror is a much more recognized and appreciated subgenre than it was when I wrote this novel, the social fears that helped create it are still alive and well,” Due writes in the preface of this new edition. “Some monsters never die.”
Due brings readers into this experience with eerie, beautiful prose that gives the novel a shimmer of the otherworldly. There is a moment when Hilton sees a woman hovering in the “murky phosphorescent gray-green mist” coming off a swimming pool only to discover, when he looks closer, that it is Nana. Is it a ghost? A memory? Or simply refracted light in fog? Thanks to the constant blurring of reality and hallucination, nightmare and memory, the reader becomes as unsettled as Hilton.
Daryl Gregory’s startling literary horror novel, REVELATOR (Knopf, 333 pp., $27), begins as Stella Wallace returns to the backwoods of Tennessee to live with her grandmother Motty. Stella and Motty’s kinship is instantly recognizable: They have an inherited condition that colors their white skin with splotches of red. But the women are special in other ways. They were born part of a line of Revelators, women who communicate with the God in the Mountain, a monstrous being who lives in a cave near the family’s cabin.
Stella communes with the God, taking on his thoughts and relating his messages to a growing group of followers. But such divine communion demands a steep price. The messages live inside her long after she’s left the cave, inhabiting her mind and body, even creating stigmata. In one scene Stella, laid out on a slab of rock, is offered up to a monster: The God “slipped down toward her through the dark — a limb, flat as the foreleg of a praying mantis. Its torso became visible, a pale mass gleaming like mother-of-pearl. Half a dozen limbs fanned out behind it, gripping the rock.” Stella’s reaction isn’t terror, but closer to falling in love: “She’d never seen anything so beautiful.” And indeed, “Revelator” is a thing of beauty, brutal in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, a novel in the Southern Gothic tradition that is fresh and deeply disturbing.
In Stephen Graham Jones’s MY HEART IS A CHAINSAW (Saga/Simon & Schuster, 398 pp., $26.99), Jennifer “Jade” Daniels is the ultimate “horror chick,” a 17-year-old slasher film obsessive who dyes her hair blue, works as a summer janitor at her high school and struggles to break free from her abusive father. Jade sees the world as a horror film, wearing “slasher goggles” that color and distort her vision. When Jade meets Letha Mondragon, a rich girl from a gated community across the lake, it’s only natural that she casts her as the Final Girl in the slasher film of her life.
Jade, “the death metal girl, the D&D girl, the devilchild, practically was the walking, talking cover for ‘Sleepaway Camp II.’” She’s pure candy for fans of the genre. But Jade is also a deeply damaged young woman. She struggles to communicate and lies to herself and others, all while trying to come to terms with a traumatic past. Though she does ultimately find a way to the truth, for much of the novel she is a distant, perplexing character, one whose contradictions put her at a remove from everyone, including the reader. While this may be the point — someone like Jade isn’t ever going to be relatable — it makes for a frustrating protagonist.
Jones is a heady writer; gentrification, class and race all come into play here. But while the ideas are sound, the execution is not. The writing can feel rushed and the plot is unfocused, spinning around Jade as she tries to find her way.
Horror films scare us through exteriority: Image and sound come together to create the illusion of danger. Horror novels frighten through interiority: We experience fear through the inner life of a character, their thoughts, their consciousness. Jones has written a novel about a girl whose identity is defined by horror films — a girl who sees her inner world through an exterior lens. Bringing these modes of storytelling together is an ambitious project, but the result feels flat. Jade sees her most intimate experiences as something outside of herself, and yet one wants to see the world through her eyes, to understand her story. At one point she addresses her use of horror as an emotional crutch, saying, “Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.” Like all great love affairs, Jade’s relationship with horror is a private, unknowable thing, one that doesn’t allow anyone — not even the reader — inside.
Nothing is scarier than a Brian Evenson short story, as his new collection, THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL (Coffee House Press, 238 pp., paper, $16.95), shows. Evenson is the Svengali of horror fiction, a hypnotic artist whose work lures one in sentence by sentence, only to shock with insight. Transformative, twisted and utterly surreal, Evenson’s stories are written with the eye of a miniaturist, every detail adding shadow and gloss.
In “The Shimmering Wall,” the narrator lives in a city contained by “semitransparent and flickering walls,” a “firm, jelly-like membrane” that acts as a permeable barrier between one world and another. The narrator’s parents died crossing this barrier and, despite the danger, he tries to break through, too. The result is terrifying: “With a sucking sound, it drew my fingers in, and then my hand … the sensation was odd and disorienting, as if my hand were being taken apart and put together in a way that made it something else.”
Evenson’s stories enact this process on the reader, taking the known world apart and replacing it with something new and strange. Take “The Extrication,” a four-page story about two survivors of a ruined world. One restrains the other and puts him through a terrible procedure that results in biological transformation. Why?
In order to adapt. “As the world sickens further, as the air grows poisonous, as the oceans die, so too must we shift and change if we care to survive. We must extricate ourselves from humanity and become something other than ourselves.” That this extrication is unthinkably terrible, and involves great pain, is only to be expected.
In Zoje Stage’s GETAWAY (Mulholland, 352 pp., $28), Imogen, a writer who has lived through a massacre at a synagogue, is “lured out of her hermit’s cave” and to the Grand Canyon by her sister Beck in an effort to find some peace in nature.
When Beck invites Tilda, an old friend with whom Imogen has fallen out, the stage is set. Tilda is not made for the Grand Canyon. She’s an “American Idol” finalist turned Instagram influencer who was recently given a book advance “five times what Imogen had been paid for her first finally-got-the-damn-thing-published novel.” But Beck believes a seven-day hike will help heal old wounds, and so they head out over Tonto Platform to Boucher Trail. A premise full of dramatic possibilities becomes even more intense when the women are ambushed by “Red Fred,” a scraggly ex-con. What began as a respite from reality spirals into a struggle for survival.
Stage is a writer with a gift for the lyrical and the frightening. She creates gorgeous descriptions of nature, with its “colors so rich she could smell them: flamingo rock, terra-cotta dirt, cornflower sky” in one paragraph, and heart-stopping scenes of violence in the next. And while the story itself isn’t surprising — anyone familiar with James Dickey’s “Deliverance” can guess what will happen — Stage’s characters are so engrossing, her ability to create tension so deft, that “Getaway” feels original, and very scary.
Mindfulness apps are frightening beasts, but a mindfulness app that delves deep inside the psyche to control dreams? Pure horror. The premise of WHERE THEY WAIT (Emily Bestler/Atria, 387 pp., $27), Scott Carson’s compulsively readable psychological horror novel, rests upon anxiety and a need to soothe it. Nick Bishop, an unemployed journalist, is hired to write a profile of Bryce Lermond, a wealthy tech entrepreneur whose mindfulness app, Clarity, is about to hit the market. Nick is skeptical, but when he tries it, he discovers that it is the “Inception”of mindfulness apps. In a series of chilling sessions, we experience the mind-warping power of Clarity’s incantations called “sleep songs,” meditations taken from an ancient source and sung by a ghostly voice, “an eerie, whispering wail, a sound caught between a warning and an invitation, a sound that could conjure thoughts of a night hunt with hounds and now one of a tall, ancient church with stained-glass windows and high ceilings and flickering candles” that inspires all who hear it to commit suicide. Think Enya with a razor blade.
Carson’s storytelling is like the Clarityapp: It’s easy to get hooked and hard to forget. After reading “Where They Wait,” you may find that earbuds take on a sinister quality, and downloading an app — especially one that is supposed to promote mindfulness — calls up a strange, haunting voice in your head.
Caitlin Starling’s THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE (St. Martin’s, 362 pp., $27.99) is a jewel box of a Gothic novel, one filled with ghosts and sorcery, great stores of romance, medical curiosities and so much galloping about in carriages that there is hardly a moment to catch your breath.
Jane Shoringfield needs a husband, and Dr. Augustine Lawrence fits her purposes to a T. But what begins as a marriage of convenience transforms into a love affair that pulls her into Augustine’s past. The problems begin on their wedding night. Although they had decided that Jane would never sleep at Augustine’s crumbling manor, Lindridge Hall, that agreement is broken when a storm hits, stranding Jane, and revealing Augustine to be a very different man than she had believed.
Half of the pleasure of Starling’s novel is the world she’s constructed. Set in an alternate postwar England of crumbling manors, bloody surgical theaters and hidden crypts, it would be easy to sink into the delicious gloom. But there is too much happening to get comfortable: Jane proves herself as persistent as Jane Eyre in overcoming an ill-fated marriage. And while Augustine’s past is more than she bargained for, she shows she is his equal in love and magic.