Sometimes, a genre has to get a little self-reflexive. Horror, especially—because we’re constantly finding new things to be afraid of, the “rules” of monsters are constantly being rewritten, often taking a turn into parody and romance (zombies and vampires, anyone?). Occasionally, horror needs to step outside itself, to comment on itself, to look at where it has been and where it is going. The added benefit of this process is a sort of turning off of the genre’s safety valve—the removal of the fourth wall and the strictures of specific rules and tropes. With all this in mind, here are six books in which horror gets unapologetically meta.
Growing Things, by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay’s short story collection isn’t entirely a meta work, but it’s impossible to ignore the number of stories in it that seem to be a commentaries on the genre as much as they are stories that will creep you out on their own terms. “Something About Birds,” features a horror critic drawn into the world he became so obsessed with. “Notes from the Dog Walkers” highlights possibly the scariest fan-writer interactions since Misery. “It Won’t Go Away” is about two writers who get mixed up in something supernatural, and culminates in a horrifying act that occurs at a public reading. Even the more experimental works like “A Haunted House is a Wheel upon which Some are Broken,” which unfolds as a choose-your-own adventure story, and “Questions for the Somnambulist,” which reaches Danielewskian levels of textual experimentation with its multi-voiced approach, make it clear that Tremblay has some thoughts about his preferred genre. But rather than simply ripping things apart, he infuses each story with his trademark slow-burning sense of dread—things go horribly wrong in ways familiar to horror fans, of course, but from there they build into something more—something entirely new and uniquely Paul Tremblay. Stephen King called this collection one of the best he’s ever read, and we’d agree. Tremblay keeps finding new ways to show us horror can (and should) be darker, weirder, and more personally visceral.
Demon Theory, by Stephen Graham Jones
This unusual work by Stephen Graham Jones (whose next novel, The Only Good Indians, is already one of the buzziest horror novels of 2020) takes the form of a series of screenplay treatments for a fictitious horror film trilogy, following a group of med students as they’re terrorized by all manner of monsters, both human and otherwise. Following a phone call from his diabetic mother, Hale and six of his friends return to his former childhood home, only to find there might be unresolved trauma, unfinished business, and something unsettling waiting for them to wake it up. Jones’s use of the nested fictional narratives, academic asides, footnotes, and pop-culture references expands beyond being merely a horror novel with an interesting narrative conceit, however, creating an odd but endlessly fascinating and cerebral look into the trauma and psychological aspects of trauma and memory.
“Death and the Compass”, by Jorge Luis Borges
No list about metafictional horror would be complete without at least one entry by one of the oldest and most distinguished writers of metafiction. While there are plenty of stories of Borges’ that one might consider horrifying, “Death and the Compass” has the honor of being relatively accessible and a decent story in its own right, even as it ruthlessly ripps apart the genre it’s a part of. Without giving too much away, it is the story of occult detective Lonnrot’s last big case, involving an odd and convoluted series of murders by his nemesis the Red Scarlach incorporating the Kabbalah, sacred geometry, and the Hebrew name for God. But the case isn’t exactly as it seems, and Lonnrot’s tendency to follow the most convoluted clues definitely overcomplicates matters, leading to a conclusion that serves as both a detective’s worst nightmare and an consideration of why mysteries and occult stories are so complicated to begin with.
Kill Creek, by Scott Thomas
Thomas (whose second novel Violet drops this fall) gained attention with his literary-horror debut, which is both an effective scare-fest and an absolute love letter to the genre. It begins as several celebrated horror authors are invited to do a livestream from an infamous haunted house. As the night goes on, they all experience odd phenomena, but nothing more than a few scares and bumps. Unfortunately for them, the force in the Kill Creek house has malevolent plans of its own, and it will stop at nothing to bring them to fruition, even after they’ve left the property. But while the haunted house plot is worth the cover price on its own, Thomas’ deep and abiding love for the genre is clear on every page, resulting in a novel where representations of authors who write books supporting four pillars of the genre (YA, suburban/pastoral gothic, cosmic, and hardcore) are thrust into a situation where merely creating stories can be fatal. It’s a disturbing but entirely fascinating work that skirts the edges of meta, both a genre commentary and a shining example of the form.
The Keep, by Jennifer Egan
Halfway through the first chapter, The Keep suddenly shifts from a novel about two estranged cousins in a gothic-horror castle somewhere in the mountains to the story of a man named Ray who is writing the aforementioned story as part of a prison’s creative writing class. As the two narratives unfold, switching back and forth between perspectives almost at will, they reveal a deeper story of guilt, imprisonment, and isolation as well as the secrets behind the odd mysteries of the castle. It’s disorienting at first, but as the two storylines reveal more of their secrets—and reflect upon one another—the book becomes more and more a consideration of why someone would write a story like this, and what the Keep’s owner’s mysterious quest to symbolically drag the place back to ancient, more mystical times means both to him and to Ray, the author. It’s a fascinating work, full of atmosphere and dread, as well as the accessible weirdness Egan brings to much of her writing.
Mister B Gone, by Clive Barker
The central conceit of this incredibly dark fantasy novel from one of the undisputed masters of horror is that it’s being narrated by a demon named Jakabok Botch, who, after an incident with a printing press, has become trapped within the pages of the book you are currently reading. As he recounts the horrifying tale of his life to the reader, he continually wheedles, begs, and threatens them to burn the book and end his suffering. It’s a delightfully twisted take on the usual tropes of sardonic, anti-heroic narrators, and also serves to erode the fourth wall protecting us from on-the-page madness by involving the reader directly into the plot. Either way, it’s a wonderful dark comedy with deep roots in classic literature.
What are your favorite metafictional horror stories?