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: Dark Matter – A Ghost Story

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is a magnificently crafted horror novel – the kind that is delightfully unsettling to read. While there is little blood and gore, and not much running and screaming, Dark Matter offers an eminently creepy and malicious atmosphere and a pervasive sense of dread. What’s not to love about that?

The bones of the story are as follows:

1937, London: Twenty-eight year old Jack, lonely and poor, joins an expedition to the cold, desolate Svalbard, intending to spend a year at the remote Gruhuken. As winter approaches, his companions are forced to drop out of the expedition, one by one. Jack, determined to prove himself and complete the task set out before them, elects to stay.

Alone.

However, as the sun falls below the horizon, not to return until spring, the isolated Jack soon begins suspecting that he is not alone. There is something out there in the dark.

Dark Matter is, as its subtitle suggests, a ghost story at heart. But it is decidedly more than your run-of-the-mill spectre that Paver invokes. The story combines folklore and superstition with the 20th century, showing that the old frights still rule in the abandoned places of the world. This is a centuries-old horror – a product of coastal fishing communities and their well-founded fear of what may lurk in the dark sea. This added dimension is delightful.

The story plays with isolation and darkness, contrasted deftly by Jack’s optimism and hopefulness at the onset of his journey. Jack’s need to prove himself, to belong, is relatable and almost heartbreaking, and his increasing desperation all the more disquieting as a consequence. This is not an “oh no, the lights went out – let’s explore the basement” story. Jack is careful, capable, rational and not easily scared, and that is what makes the approaching terror all the more horrifying.

Go read!

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(cross-posted from tumblr)