Here we have another set of recommendations that may not be outright horror, still hold elements of horror inside their pages. Read on – if you dare!
It was only a couple of years ago that my dad handed me a very dog-eared and yellowing copy of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and ever since finishing it, it’s a novel that I’ve been unable to shake from my mind. This is because the horror that Bradbury uses in this book is something so real and recognisable that it remains one of the most relevant I have ever read.
Bradbury’s novel starts with the arrival of a carnival in a quiet American town and, with its bright lights and glossy façade, it soon catches the main characters in its dark and sinister web. The carnival, and the novel, is full of horrific and fantastical creatures, like the Dust Witch and Mr. Electrico, and especially Mr. Dark, the tattooed man who runs the carnival and who stalks through the novel like an inexorable force of evil.
But the true horror of the novel is far less fantastical than that. The real horrors are the all too familiar childhood fear of having to wait to be a grown-up and the adulthood fear of never being young again. These are the themes the permeate Something Wicked This Way Comes, and they are themes and fears that, no matter the age of the reader, will resonate. Bradbury describes these horrors of life in such a relatable way, that when Mr. Dark and his carnival offer the protagonists a way to beat those fears, to overcome the limitations of life, you can understand why they are tempted, because you know deep down that you would be tempted too. And that is a truly terrifying thing for a book to make you feel.
Bradbury could write fantastical horror as well as anyone, but what he understood better than most is that the greatest horrors are far closer to home – such as not realising how lucky you are with what you have – and that is the reason why Something Wicked This Way Comes will keep you up at night.
So, it’s Horror Month. This is another of those ones where I thought I’d have to skip a week because, like with supernatural books back in June, I’ve simply not read a great deal of horror novels. But I realised I was looking at it wrong – rather than trying to pick the best scary book I’ve ever read, I should have been trying to pick the actual scariest book I’ve ever read, regardless of genre. That suddenly made the choice very easy.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is, without question, the scariest thing I have ever read. It probably needs no introduction but, for the record, it’s a blazing satire of governmental control and systems of power – describing life in a fictional totalitarian state under the all-seeing eye of a dictator who shares his name with the world’s worst television show. And it’s terrifying. Not in an immediate sense (except for a few moments towards the end) but in a far more insidious way that crawls under your skin and slowly eats you alive. It’s the horror of creeping dread and slow despair and, more than anything else, absolute hopelessness. It made me feel dead inside.
Usually people say that this book is scary because we’re edging closer and closer to the kind of society it depicts. But that’s missing the point. This book is scary because it depicts society as it already is – as it always has been and always will be – an unfathomable Lovecraftian monster that binds us and feeds upon us, and that we are utterly powerless to stop.
Big Brother is watching you. He always was.
It was inevitable that I’d draw upon a Stephen King novel as part of this month’s recommendations, but Carrie is an extra special recommendation: it was King’s first novel, the book that launched his career. So why does this novel from a, at the time, short fiction writer who worked as a teacher deserve your attention more than 40 years since it was first published?
A lot of the novel has nothing to do with gross out, full-on horror. Instead it’s about a pressure cooker being left on with no one to keep an eye on it, as Carrie White struggles with becoming a woman and aligning it with the external ideals of high school and the American Way, and the internal ideals drilled into her by her overbearing, Christian fundamentalist mother. It just happens that she’s also manifesting supernatural abilities as this all comes to a head.
Set over two parts, one could argue that the novel’s High School Prom scenes and fallout are its most graphic, but I would say that this simple horror of the flesh pales when compared to the psychological abuse meted out to Carrie in the first part. The horror in this novel is not in the supernatural actions that our protagonist undertakes, but the actions and words of almost everyone around her.
Beyond where the true horror lies, this is one of Stephen King’s most accessible novels. It’s one his shortest, so if you’ve been put off reading his longer works then this one is definitely worth reading.