My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

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Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

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Book Review: Empire’s End (Star Wars)

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The war is not over… Below is a short goodreads review of Empire’s End, the final book of the official Star Wars Aftermath trilogy by Chuck Wendig. The books are not required reading before seeing the new films, but might be fun to visit for those wanting a better understanding of the Star Wars universe prior to the Force Awakens.


Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

Empire’s End is, in my opinion, the best book of the Aftermath trilogy. The three books fill in some of the blanks between the events of the Return of the Jedi and the onset of the Force Awakens. We are treated to the birth of the New Republic, the politics and fighting that shaped it, and hints to the origin of the First Order.

The first two books in the Aftermath trilogy revolved around family (arguably, so does a lot of the Star Wars universe), and Empire’s End is no exception. We follow the rag-tag crew of Norra Wexley chasing revenge for the loss of family as much as justice for the fledgling republic, whilst Leia Organa and Han Solo are anticipating the birth of their son, and the antagonists of the piece: Rae Sloane and Gallius Rax, highlight the impact of loss and absent familiar ties.

Indeed, the villains of the series are given ample room to shine in the final installation of the trilogy, and their tales are just as engaging as the heroes. In Empire’s End, we even get a better understanding of Palpatine’s plans and world view, and emerge with a feeling that he is even worse than the films led us to believe.

Aftermath: Empire’s End is primarily character driven. Some of the characters in the trilogy are new to the Star Wars universe; some we know from before (the additional information on Leia and Mon Mothma is particularly gratifying in Empire’s End); and some have moved on from the trilogy to make an appearance in the new films (Snap Wexley, and I’m still holding out hope of seeing Jas and Sinjir on the silver screen).

Overall, Empire’s End is a fast-paced, excellent end to a fun trilogy, worth reading to bridge the gap between the original films and the new ones! (I assume we all agree that the prequels should be quietly forgotten).

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Review: In the Tall Grass

In the Tall Grass is a short novella published as a two-parter in Esquire, later released as an ebook. It is a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, both of which know how to spin a scary tale, so my hopes were up for a nice, if short, horror story. I am less familiar with Hill’s work, but have read enough of Stephen King to know that he does not always write flat-out horror. However, in this case, he absolutely does. In the Tall Grass is a simple straight-up horror gore cocktail with a sprinkling of creep on top.

Brief synopsis: The protagonists are Becky and Cal DeMuth, siblings traveling the scenic route through Kansas on their way to arrange for the adoption of Becky’s unborn child. Passing a rest stop by a church, they hear shouts coming from the tall grass by the road: a boy pleading for help and his mother pleading with them to stay out of the grass. They nevertheless enter, only to lose track of one another and the safety of the road within a few, short seconds. [End of synopsis to avoid spoilers]

What comes next is, perhaps predictably, a sequence of escalating horror, moving seamlessly from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ to ‘outright nasty’, and with a liberal amount of gore along the way. It is visceral and unsettling, and (fair warning) it involves cannibalism. I frequently find blood-and-entrails writing dull, too often added as compensation for lack of tension in the story. Bodily fluids are simply not very effective when the reader works in the medical sciences. Here, however, the gore works, and feels like a natural part of the tale rather than a crutch. It is gruesome and unsettling, and it fits nicely with the parallel tale of Becky’s pregnancy. (On that note, it is fascinating how often and how well pregnancy is used in horror. Alien, anyone? Or Rosemary’s Baby?)

The story does not read like a two-author production. The writing is in a single voice, possibly owing to the similar styles of King and Hill (his son). It is well-written and quick-paced. It is also, as other reviewers have pointed out, very short. Whilst I prefer longer to shorter, I am not certain In the Tall Grass would have benefited from added length. It does feel quite contained despite the meagre word count. Whether it is chunky enough to support a full-length film (directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube fame) remains to be seen.

As for the ending, the story grows more and more surreal. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that space (and perhaps time) becomes unreliable once the protagonists enter the field. Once surrounded by the grass, voices drift and distances shift, seemingly without neither rhyme nor reason, but always leaving Cal and Becky ever more lost. I was tickled by this, as it left me pondering the possibilities of King and Hill’s nightmarish world. However, there were aspects of the ending that felt thin, including the lack explanations for the big MacGuffin of the piece (which I will not spoil by any further description). In the end, we are left with more questions than answers. Just for this reason, I want to read the novella over again, to determine whether the head and the tail of this tale truly belong to the same beast. Given its short length and undeniable quality of writing, a second reading is not a great sacrifice.

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Book review: At the Mountains of Madness

I have read some of Lovecraft’s work – ‘The Shunned House’ and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ are examples of stories I liked – but I have overall been less convinced by his alien gods and tentacles. At the Mountains of Madness may therefore not be the best choice for me, but as it is considered a classic, I thought I would give it a go.

Summary: The story is written from the point of view of Dyer, a geologist, retrospectively describing an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in the hopes that it may dissuade another, imminent research endeavour in the same region. The purpose of the Dyer expedition was to bore into ancient strata of rock, but this plan was quickly derailed as the biologist on the team, Lake, discovered odd triangular tracks in the rocks. After setting off on their own to explore these tracks further inland, Lake and his small team radioed the main group to report of the discovery of a massive mountain range and the desiccated bodies of ancient alien beings buried in a vast cave, just as a storm was about to hit. After the storm, there was radio silence. When Dyer and the rest of the group caught up to Lake, they made a series of horrific discoveries…

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First of all, I love the concept, like the premise, and have no problem with the (now) historical setting. The vast landscape, the hostile cold weather and the madness that can spring from being so dwarfed and isolated – it all appeals to me in a story. I had hoped that this would be enough to keep me excited, and was therefore disappointed to discover that I did not like the book. Even with so many set pieces being spot on, I was a bit bored with the entire exercise. It was neither particularly entertaining, nor was it frightening.

After an encouraging, relatively tense, beginning, the story stalls when we get to the meat of the events. At this point, dry descriptions of murals, references aplenty to the Necronomicon and Poe, and long lists of technical details, distract from the events. Given that the tale is written as a personal account from a scientist’s perspective, it is not unexpected that the prose strays somewhat into drier territories. However, while a bit of technical realism goes a long way to induce horror, this felt excessive. As Dyer and Danforth (a graduate student, not particularly well fleshed out as a character) investigate the fate of Lake’s team, the details of their scientific pursuits become repetitive. After the umpteenth lamentation that they ran out of film for their camera, there was very little tension left in the tale. I am happy to accept curiosity in the face of fear, but the attention to technical detail here just made the plot seem a trifle banal.

In spite of this, there were elements that I enjoyed. Lovecraft’s prose, although its merit is often debated, works well within his universe of horror in my opinion. It is as archaic as the monsters that he describes. In this book, I particularly liked his attention to the setting, easily evoking a sense of being dwarfed by the landscape.

“Only the incredible, unhuman massiveness of these vast stone towers and ramparts had saved the frightful things from utter annihilation in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of years it had brooded there […]”

For a story set in such a vast expanse, this ability to convey age and size is definitely a strength. However, there are places where the prose falls flat. For example, “indescribably awful” as a description of a creature does not work for me. It comes across as lazy rather than too horrendous for words. The vagueness doesn’t fit with the retrospective aspect of the story, in that the main character should have been expected to at least attempt a more precise recollection in the years that he has supposedly had to mull over events. It also jars with the plethora of technical detail that is painstakingly inserted everywhere else in the story. Again, if the tale had been tense, I could have overlooked this, but given that it was already bogged down, the ‘indescribably awful’ sights became just that: not described.

In short, I found the book interesting from the point of view of it being a classic and I had no problems with the alien antagonists per se. I am glad I read it, but I would not pick it up again, nor am I in a particular hurry to recommend it to anyone not already a fan of Lovecraft (who probably would have read it already). As a caveat, I am not (and have never been) a die-hard Lovecraft aficionado. Rather, I am a dilettante and a dabbler in matters Lovecraft, preferring other styles of horror whilst recognising his contribution to the genre. It is quite possible that those who are more invested in his works would enjoy At the Mountain of Madness. It simply was not my cup of tea.

List of dystopian novels

A brief summary of some of the prime examples of the genre.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Encouraging passivity and egotism with a side order of pleasant distractions, Huxley’s dystopia is insidious. A system designed to keep the population compliant and docile is all too believable. It may be orgy porgys rather than lolcatz, but the parallels in Huxley’s cautionary tale are not too hard to find.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
The book which preceded 1984 and Brave New World, and inspired Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. We describes the One State, ruled by the Benefactor – a society with glass walls and mass surveillance which has abolished free will.

The Trial – Franz Kafka
Faceless opponents, senseless arrests and a realisation of danger that comes far too late is part of Josef K’s nightmare world. Kafka’s masterpiece may be as much absurdist/paranoid fiction, but the fight against an unassailable, relentless authority which does not follow neither custom nor law belongs at least partly in the dystopian genre.

Parable of Talents – Octavia Butler
Demagoguery is the villain of Butler’s second Parable novel. The antagonist is a populist, jingoistic politician, the success of which has catastrophic consequences. This is not an enjoyable tale. The punch that it packs, however, cannot be denied.

Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
The automation of society comes with a downside in Player Piano, where machines replace the working class, widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Purposeless, ‘useless’ people is the core of Vonnegut’s story. And the societal effects of automation is not the spectre of some distant future – this world has already arrived.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
There are many ways to erase opposing thoughts, but book burning is one of the most egregious. Fahrenheit 451 has certainly been censored and banned enough times to prove its point. The eradication of dissenting ideas, whether it be by book burning or by authoritarian decree, is dangerous territory.

A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Gilead is an unpleasant, uncomfortable and flat out harrowing place to visit. But revisit it we must, over and over again, until we no longer have to. Atwood’s tale of subjugation and lost agency is sadly still relevant, more than thirty years after its publication.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
The book that gave us doublespeak and the Ministry of Truth doesn’t need any further introduction.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Telling the story of fascism versus anarchy in the UK, this graphic novel concerns itself with the debate of freedom and resistance. In Alan Moore’s London, freedom does not come for free.

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Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

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Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

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In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is one of those books I happened to stumble upon and decided to give a shot. Wedged between two other books purchased that day, I didn’t even open it until a few days later. But when I did, I didn’t close it until the last page. (Slight spoilers ahead).

If you haven’t read it yet, Flowers for Algernon is a classic masterwork. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a below-average intelligent man, who is the first human subject for an experimental surgical procedure designed to improve intelligence. Preceded by the successful surgery on a laboratory mouse, the eponymous Algernon, Charlie’s intervention is successful, and his intelligence begins to rise.

The story unfolds through diary entries written by Charlie. We see how his grammar and spelling improves, how he becomes capable of complex thinking and expressing himself clearly, both on the page and to others. We see how his relationships grow from simple to difficult – first as he discovers slights and jokes at his expense that he previously had not had the capacity to spot, and second as he inevitably surpasses those around him, from his beloved teacher Alice Kinnian to the ambitious research lead Dr Nemur. His ability to form meaningful relationships suffers from the widening gap in intelligence between himself and those of a normal intellect, a cruel mirror of his former life. And then we observe how he regresses, just as Algernon did. From his scientific prowess and rich vocabulary down to his literacy – it is all stripped away. And throughout this process, we observe his grief and despair at the loss of his mind, followed by the inevitable isolation as a man who remember his former self but knows that it is hopelessly out of reach.

I’m normally not too fond of the epistolary form, but in this case I think it is perfect. It allows Keyes to present both the rise and descent of Charlie’s intelligence directly, and the result is almost painfully personal.

The novel does what most great sci-fi does: it uses the genre to debate current problems. Sci-fi has a long and illustrious history of social commentary, emphasised by its larger-than-life settings. You can strip human society bare when extrapolating using aliens, spaceships or futuristic drugs. In Flowers for Algernon, we are treated to the question of intelligence versus emotion, to the role of intellect in human relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to the mistreatment of those with a mental disability. Keyes wrote the original short story (which was given a Hugo award and later developed into the more familiar novel) against the backdrop of his own work teaching English to students with special needs.

Flowers for Algernon is the kind of book that works perfectly, from start to finish, with a story so clear it seems inevitable that it was written. It is perhaps the most bitter-sweet sci-fi book I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and it left me awed and heartbroken at the same time. In Charlie Gordon’s own final words:

“PS please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”

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