I decided 2 weeks into October that there was no better time to read horror fiction. I have several unread horror novels on my bookshelves, I’ve always been curious about the genre, and I just like the idea of taking part in something. As I wrote in my Halloween post, the holiday is treated as a whole season in the USA, so this can be my way of celebrating it.
I think I’m going to make this a yearly tradition on the blog- the same way I do with banned books in the last week of September every year. October is now reserved for horror fiction! And I’ll make sure to always include at least one classic and at least one contemporary novel. I might even throw in a movie or some poems now and then, if I can be arsed. This time around I’m including a little section devoted to the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, since I reviewed the book too.
Sadly I couldn’t find any novels about Jack O’Lanterns or scarecrows, but I decided on this whole Halloween reading thing pretty last minute, so perhaps next time around I can better research the genre to get a hold of the most appropriate material. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is how I got into the spirit of things.
The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Country: United States
First Sentence: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
Review: I thought this book was interesting and well-written, but I didn’t love it. It’s basically about four people who decide to stay in a haunted house over the summer to see if it’s really haunted or not. I liked the commitment to ambiguity and the idea that the real threat is fear itself. Having a small group isolate themselves and slowly go insane is an interesting concept that I can totally get onboard with. I’m fascinated with cases of folie à plusieurs or shared psychotic/hallucinatory disorders, and hoped for something similar to the case of the Tromp family (look it up on Youtube). But the bulk of this book felt so inconsequential. I liked a lot of the story beats, but none of them developed in a way that I thought was very intriguing. By the end, I felt like nothing really happened throughout the book.
I liked the beginning, and when the first strange occurrences started happening I was game. I also really liked the end. The end was perfect in fact. It’s just the meat of the book that lost me. It felt obvious about a third of the way in that nothing was going to harm them in any tangible way, and so all tension was vanquished. I wish it had kept me guessing. The idea that the irregular, unsymmetrical dimensions of the house caused a sense of nausea and disorientation was easily the most interesting aspect of the story for me. The idea that something like geometry could eat away at your subconscious by preying on your sense of pattern recognition. That was good. It was just when the characters started running about in their underwear jabbering to themselves over and over again that I grew bored. The plot felt like one freak out after another, a sequence of pointless events rather than an organic narrative in which one scene informs the next.
Fear Factor: Considering a lot of people (many of them being folks I greatly respect) describe this novel as being one of the scariest ever written, I didn’t find this book even remotely scary. There was no scene in this book (which is itself a series of isolated horror set pieces) that convinced me anything sinister would happen. I’m sure people will say “Ah well it’s not meant to be scary. It’s terror rather than horror. It’s meant to instill a sense of dread”. Nope. I didn’t get that either. Sorry. Shirley Jackson is still a BAMF though, and I adore her short story “The Lottery”. Now that’s what I call horror.
The Haunting of Hill House (TV drama)
Creator(s): Mike Flanagan
Country: United States
First Sentence: “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
Review: I liked this series but I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot better than the book however, and I want to see more books adapted this way, especially older books. The Haunting of Hill House is reimagined from the ground up; everything in the book is boiled down to its most important element- what you might call the crux of the novel- which is the idea of the house itself being an unknowable evil, the only true villain of the story. And it is the crux of a story which is really the only thing worth preserving in my opinion- you take the basic concept and get creative with it, using it to tell an interesting narrative that feels both original and true to the vision of the source material. I think of it like this: a book is a game of dominoes, and all of the blocks can be traced back to that very first block. In this case, the first block is the evil house. You get rid of all the others and start expanding outwards again, telling a new story from the same starting point. I think more books should be reworked this way. It seems like a lazy cash-grab when books are adapted scene-for-scene, or even word-for-word. Where’s the fun in that? You just end up with a bunch of snotty fans screaming about how you didn’t get it exactly right, because there was no ambition beyond trying to replicate a story that’s already been told.
I feel like this TV show should be an example for creators when it comes to the great potential to be found in textual intervention and recontextualizing established narratives. The plot details and characters of The Haunting of Hill House don’t matter, because the soul of the book is kept alive in the show. And in any case, the plot and characters of the novel aren’t very good. We’ve scrapped the four berks channeling Benny Hill by way of Luigi’s Mansion thing and refocused the narrative on five adult siblings who are trying to deal with a mysterious trauma from their childhood. Each of the characters are nicely well-rounded and believable, and it’s interesting how they each remember their shared trauma differently. You’ve got Shirley- uptight and obsessed with order, Luke- a complete smackhead, Theodora- quirky and free-spirited, Nell- sweet but fragile, and Steven- who the others hate because he used their childhood in Hill House to make himself rich.
Together they make for a solid group of protagonists, and all of them are flawed yet likable in their own ways. In fact the best part of the show for me was seeing them confront their personality defects and try to become better siblings for each other. At the forefront it’s a human drama that explores very human themes- grief, addiction, adultery, image, family, you name it. And yeah there’s some supernatural stuff going on in the background, but it works to inform those themes, which means it gets a thumbs up from me.
Fear Factor: I wouldn’t say I found this series particularly scary, especially towards the end, but it definitely startled me several times. This show is full of jump scares, most notably that fucking one in the car from episode 8. But giving me a fresh skidmark isn’t the same as giving me the chills, or fucking with my head. I guess I just don’t find ghosts a very threatening entity as a villain. They can’t really do anything except startle or act as very on-the-nose metaphors for character flaws and traumas. I will say though that the ghosts were all really well designed, especially that tall guy that hovers off the ground like a London street performer. I liked him a lot. And the ghosts are much more nuanced than the ones in American Horror Story: Murder House, which were so annoying they would have caused me to stop watching that show altogether if it weren’t for the fact I’m madly in love with Connie Britton. What a goddess. Sorry, lost my trail of thought there…what were we talking about?
Tree of Crows
Author: Lewis Davies
First Sentence: “I walk across a white open field; grey skies flow close to the mountain and there is a wind coursing the drifts.”
Review: Given that I had little time to prepare my inaugural Halloween Reading celebration, I scoured the internet for horror novels that were short. That way, I could get in as many different stories as possible. I’m a man that likes variety. Also, as a confessed outsider to the horror genre, I recognized that I didn’t know how to go about separating and selecting the many books that fall under this classification. As it turns out, the concept of what constitutes a horror novel is pretty vague, and I think my list will probably demonstrate how I was more or less reaching in the dark. I saw Tree of Crows on a few lists and it stood out to me. It was short, atmospheric, and Welsh as the hills, so that appealed to me a great deal. I didn’t know what to expect, but I hoped for something along the lines of Dylan Thomas stalking holidaymakers in the Brecon Beacons with a pair of rusty sheep shears.
And that isn’t too far from the truth. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. For whatever reason, I didn’t care anything about the characters and their community. I found the setting intriguing- it’s a bleak post apocalypse in a very Brecon-Beacon-y environment. Toward the end, when it all came together, I thought that the mystery was decent and the ending was easily the best and most interesting part of the book. My issue was that, for a murder mystery to grip me, I have to feel more familiar with, and attached to, the characters and their world.
Fear Factor: Simply put, this book didn’t scare me. I was never on edge because the characters were so elusive and underdeveloped that I didn’t care what happened to them. There are a couple creepy moments towards the end, but for the most part it’s an apocalyptic mystery with a gothic tone to it.
Author: Dathan Auerbach
Country: United States
First Sentence: “When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’”.
Review: This book actually began as a single creepypasta on Reddit, based on a childhood memory Auerbach has of waking up out on the porch in the middle of the night. His mom says there is no way it could have ever happened, but Auerbach felt so strongly that it had. The story was an instant hit with online readers, who demanded more. So Auerbach expanded on the mystery of the original creepypasta and uploaded more stories on the subreddit r/nosleep, eventually grouping them together into a novel which he self-published via funds from a Kickstarter campaign.
You can see the book’s history in the way it’s structured. The nonlinear narrative of Penpal is made up of long chapters, each of which cover a specific event in the narrator’s childhood and give you a piece of the puzzle. It was actually really fun putting the pieces together as the book went on, theorizing what these events could mean and how they might be connected. I’d say the structure of this book is one of its greatest strengths. Each chapter is a self-contained scary story in its own right, but you have to put them together to make sense of the mystery.
I don’t wanna spoil any of the plot elements for this book because I really think everyone should give it a go. I’m pretty sure this is the first self-published book I’ve read too, and naturally I had my doubts about its quality before jumping in. But the writing is excellent, and if you weren’t told that this was self-published, you’d never guess it. If a self-published book is getting a lot of buzz from reliable critics, then it’s probably alright. And this book is more than alright. I’d love to see a film adaptation, or mini-series perhaps.
Fear Factor: Yes! This book was scary. I saved the best for last, it looks like. I’d heard reviewers talking about how fucked up this book was, and in true creepypasta fashion this book made me shudder. This is the kind of scariness that I’m interested in- books and movies that are so absorbing, you feel like they’re real. I think what makes the scariness in this book work is the fact that you can so easily imagine yourself in the narrator’s situation. The scenes are set up so intricately, and the atmosphere is so perfect, that you really feel like everything must have happened the way it did. They’re all situations and events that are so familiar to one’s own childhood, except Auerbach has engineered the worst possible things to happen for each scenario. They escalate at such a steady pace, with little elements added one on top of the other to increase your sense of alarm. You’re in danger. You’re in the crawlspace beneath an abandoned house at night. You smell something. You shine your flashlight on it. You get the idea. Buy this book!