I suspect I might be breaking the rules here, but I’m also fairly confident I’ve got a technicality with which I can get off my own hook, and breaking the rules is in my nature — my book The Truants breaks several rules of its own. I’ve been asked for a list of my favorite works of horror. The key word there (which provides the aforementioned technicality) is works, because my list is not a list of books alone. Apologies . . . but tough. It is doubly fitting to bend this unspoken “books only” rule because The Truants is actually a bastard child of all these works (and of course plenty others, but you don’t have all day. Nor, in fact, do I), I’d argue, as much in form as it is in function. I’d even go so far as to say that The Truants is, to my mind at least, as close to being a concept album as it is a novel — a collection of tracks that come together to form a narrative whole . . . but that’s probably just me.
Anyway, let’s do this thing . . .
By Stephen King
There are probably more obvious choices in the King canon: Misery, The Stand, and The Shining are fairly stock (and, fair’s fair, solid) responses. IT is probably my favorite of his — it’s certainly the one I love the most. But Desperation is, for my money, his most balls-to-the-wall horrifying book. It’s mean. It’s cruel and utterly punishing. Much like the God King has oft stated the book is about. In Desperation, King himself takes on the mantle of the cruel god of his fictional creations with absolute mercilessness and, certainly as an author, it’s awesome to behold. Awful. But awesome nonetheless. And horrifying unlike anything else he’s done.
By Manic Street Preachers
The first of my rule-breaking choices is an album. It’s also a towering work of existential horror. You could probably just pore over the lyric sheet and meticulous art design and photography of the thing and be left in a state of profound existential torpor. This might in fact be the version of the Holy Bible that Colonel Kurtz found out there at the end of his river. The fact that its primary creative force, lyricist Richey Edwards, disappeared (presumed dead) shortly after its creation does sadly add to its creative veracity, but incredibly it doesn’t define it. Calling an album The Holy Bible might be considered a monumental act of chutzpah were it not for the fact that it was so nakedly truthful to its author’s anguished and horrified reality, his gospel.
By Mark Z. Danielewski
By Alan Moore
There are a hundred reasons for each of these to be on the list. But, for this list, and the reason they share a spot, it’s because they’re the only two books that have ever made me quite literally drop them in shock. And, so as not to spoil them, I will only give you the barest details here . . .
In House of Leaves, there’s a long and fairly dry section about the science of acoustics and, specifically, echoes. It’s a rather soporific passage. Interesting if you want to know about acoustics. And echoes. (Yep, me neither.) It’s very thorough. But it lulls you . . . and then it does something. And when it did it to me I dropped the book.
In Voice of the Fire, that moment comes at the end of a book of tales across time. You’ve met characters who’ve endured experiences in Northampton, England, over the span of 5,000 years, each experience becoming a myth that informs the truth of each subsequent character. The true protagonist of the book you learn by the end is in fact time itself, and the horror of the tale lies in the casual way time obliterates all the subjective truths and experiences we believe make us what we are. Time cares nothing for our version of events. And time will write our history, however much we might imagine we’ve defined our own lives and selves. When we go, and we become first a memory and then, perhaps, a story, we don’t get to write that story. Time does that. So, all of these things bring us to the final chapter. To here. And now. And that’s when the author turns and looks out from the pages of the book and he sees you. Looks. Right. At. You. Yep. That happens in this book. Dropped the damn thing when it happened to me. I was in the bath at the time too, which was annoying.
Here’s the next rule breaker, this time a film. Jacob’s Ladder is an anomaly. It’s written by the guy who wrote Ghost — you know, that cheesy after-lifer with Priscilla Presley and Frank Drebin and the pottery . . . no, wait, sorry . . . Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. That. And it’s directed by the guy that directed 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction. It should be rubbish. But it’s not. It’s actually perfect. It’s the story of a Vietnam vet struggling with PTSD in late ’70s New York. He sees demons. He’s haunted by guilt and loss and grief. But then maybe it’s not about just that. Maybe something else is going on. But here’s the thing about Jacob’s Ladder that makes it perfect: it has rigorously stress-tested the motivations of its every moment. The first time through you might think, why did that character do that? Why did Jacob feel this, or think that? On subsequent watches, when you’ve been clued in to the truth of it, you can swim in the existentially internalized construct of its narrative: you’re inside Jacob’s head for every single second. Every character and motivation is defined by Jacob’s own understanding of his own life and the people and experiences that populate it. His insecurities. His guilt. His pride. His desires. The whole thing is a portrait of a very human psyche trying to make sense of everything, and ultimately having to accept that he can’t, that he just has to let it go. By contrast however, the film itself actually adds up more and more the more you watch it. It is absolutely watertight. It is also beautiful and profound — which, I’d argue, all the best horror is. Nothing can confront and explore our fears like horror does when it’s done right, and Jacob’s Ladder does it righter than pretty much anything.
By Blake Morrison
This one is tough. It’s the factual account of the murder of two-year-old Jamie Bulger by two ten-year-olds. Morrison went to the trial, met the families, walked the streets they walked. And it broke his heart. It’ll break yours, too. I’m disinclined to say too much about it because it’s not make-believe, not like The Truants. It’s not imagined. A baby died. And two children lost their lives to the judgment and demonization of a society that longed to believe it wasn’t implicit in the horrific tragedy of what happened. What Morrison manages to do here is paint a portrait of what horror truly is. It’s randomness and purposelessness. It’s grim inevitability. And it teaches us what it feels like to be responsible for it. It is a book so full of love, sadness, humility and empathy that it’s almost beyond description. I held it in my mind when I wrote The Truants. Which isn’t to say that I think The Truants is in any way as courageous or important . . . but I do like to think that The Truants at least honors the value of documentary horror in the way As If does. The Truants is a serious book. A heartbroken one, too. Because horror can every now and then be those things. If we’re not too scared to go there.