Halloween weekend starts now, but the Unbound Writers have compiled enough frightening favorites to keep you shivering through the many cold months ahead.
The traveling carnival blows into town attracting two boys, its leader the ageless, tattooed Mr. Dark who is “armored with vile lightning scribbles of carnivores and sheep blasted by the thunder and arun before storms of juggernaut flesh.” When two boys discover that the illustrated man enslaves souls greedy for youth by tricking them into riding a time-warping carousel, they must flee from a dusty, blind witch and Dark, who uses tattoos of the boys imprinted upon his palms to make them bleed and reveal themselves. But it’s “old” Dad who believes the teens’ rambled fears and comes to the rescue, his weapons years of reading while prowling the library as janitor, a harmonica, and laughs lethal as bullets to those who hate the sun and fear love.
This terrifying story of enslaved freaks and dotage-previewing mirrors is told in Bradbury’s over-the-top prose style, here breaking writing workshop rules. He inserts multiple “!?!” signs, embraces adverbs, shifts POV from line to line, and lingers in action scenes with incredible flights of description, often stringing a dozen verbs together to increase the tension:
“And the largest roar of all, flung at the woman, burnt her hands, seared her face, or so it seemed, for she seized herself as from a blast furnace, wrapped her fired hands in Egyptian rags, gripped her dry dugs, skipped back, gave pause, then started a slow retreat, nudged, pushed, pummeled inch by inch, foot by foot, clattering bookracks, shelves, fumbling for handholds …. Chased, bruised, beaten by his laugh which echoed, rang, swam to fill the marble vaults…”
And then, right before the climax, the father of one of the boys pauses in a virtual soliloquy to ponder the power of temptation as he figures out how the carnival survives for centuries:
“So, in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do both, depending on the season and the need. Somehow I feel that carnival watches, to see which we’re doing and who and why, and moves in on us when it feels we’re ripe.”
It’s justifiably a spine-tingling classic in which good still triumphs over evil. (The boys aren’t orphaned, either! Plus points for Bradbury!) Get it, read it, but not in the dark, and never while calliope music is playing backwards in mirrors.
Horror Shorts by Clarion Grads: “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado; “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong; and “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” by Sam J. Miller.
Recommended by Theodore McCombs
Since 1968, the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Workshop has been “the premier proving and training ground for aspiring writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.” Clarion alumni include Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, Kim Stanley Robinson and Cory Doctorow. And recent Clarion grads have shown an exciting interest in the potential that horror fiction has for opening up conversations about race, gender, and sexuality, which tend to get stifled or sterilized in our never-ending culture wars.
On Fiction Unbound, I like talk (a lot) about classic Gothic fiction and the monstrous Other--that social outsider that carries through night the social anxieties of the day. But what if your narrator ‘I’ is the social ‘Other’? What is it like to be powerful and powerless, to be feared, suspected and scrutinized by a hostile majority--or a loved one?
In “The Husband Stitch” (Granta, 2014), Carmen Maria Machado does wonders with the classic selkie set-up: a woman marries, but subject to a magical taboo that must never, ever be broken. Machado’s taboo, a green ribbon round the narrator’s throat, is wonderfully underplayed; it’s the narrator’s seemingly disjointed asides and little wheels of ghost stories that create a persistent dread. And the grim fairy-tale denouement stays true to that old wisdom, that stories’ ends must be both surprising and inevitable. Machado has won like a gazillion awards and been published everywhere, so if you haven’t read her before, now who’s fault is that?
In “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (Nightmare Magazine, 2015), Alyssa Wong’s narrator is an utterly unique ‘monster,’ a queer Asian-American sin-eater who slurps down the evil thoughts of vile people. The conceit is an admirably complex power reversal: the outsider is empowered by the daily flood of misogyny and hate directed at her, but however delectable, the meals are still loathsome and marginal. Wong, a Nebula-, World Fantasy-, and Shirley Jackson- nominated author, has stated she wanted to write identities she hasn’t seen represented before, and boy howdy has she succeeded.
In Sam J. Miller’s “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” (Nightmare Magazine, 2013), a bullied gay teenager discovers he can puppetmaster anyone with a touch--an apt allegory for the paranoia around gay/straight contact dating as far back as the AIDS panic, but still present in (oh, say) the locker rooms of the NFL. The story’s unconventional form and Miller’s subtly lyrical prose draw a moving portrait of the narrator’s longing, difference and obsessive regret. “57 Reasons” won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award, and Miller has a novel with similar themes coming out from HarperCollins in 2017.
The Magicians may seem an odd choice for a horror book, but two elements of this novel gave me genuine nightmares when I read it: the unseen monster, and the fear of being consumed. The most frightening episode of Doctor Who yet (to me) is “Listen,” where unseen beings leave mysterious notes on chalkboards and hide under beds and blankets. The most sinister element of their presence is that you can’t see them to know what you’re up against (is it an alien? a kid playing a joke? an undiscovered sentient earth species? a ghost?). Levi Grossman presents his monster in The Magicians with similar effect: when we first meet The Beast, he’s devoured a student at Brakebills Academy, and his face is obscured by twigs and leaves, leaving both Quentin and the reader unsure whether the creature he faces is human or… something else. The description brings to mind René Magritte’s painting, The Son of Man, unsettling in its depiction of a man (Adam?) with an apple and all it can symbolize of knowledge, evil, temptation, and selfishness obscuring his face, and thereby his humanity. In addition to not seeing The Beast’s true face in The Magicians, we are left with the unsettling realization that he could pop up and eat people at any moment.
Being consumed is the foundation of nightmares (at least mine, which probably explains the vegetarianism), both from the idea of being physically torn apart and swallowed, and the concept of being fodder for someone else’s existence, negating your own autonomy and value. Anyone who has seen a lamprey knows how scary a creature that is all mouth, teeth, and hunger can be – this monsterish image is well used in both Pan’s Labyrinth with The Thin Man, and Cabin in the Woods with The Sugarplum Fairy. The Thin Man is especially reminiscent of the horrifying Preta: ghosts of humans so bent on consumption to the point of corruption in life, they spend the afterlife wasting away with insatiable hunger, their mouths wide for swallowing, necks so thin they bottleneck their ability to satisfy that hunger, and bloated bellies trimmed by wasted arms and legs. Appropriately, these creatures are often referred to as “hungry ghosts” in English, sometimes preying on the vital elements of life, like blood. Vampires illicit the same skin-crawling fear as Preta because of the elements that make The Beast so bone chilling in The Magicians: the desire to consume the living to maintain their corrupted, half-dead state, all while hiding their true face from victims, rendering them an unknown variable in terms of calculating a defense. And when you don’t know what you’re up against, your attacker might just be unbeatable. Eek.
This is one of my all time favorite set of stories is a collection that has haunted me since I was about eight. Yes, it is a children’s book, but I still remember fall days getting off the bus at my best friend’s house and cracking its fearsome cover. There were stories that we read all the time because they were sort of funny and the ones we knew by heart and didn’t need to read but still did, and then there were the stories that were the scariest, whose pictures delivered goose bumps just opening to their pages. "The White Wolf" was one such story that we saved for our bravest days.
I recently bought a copy of the book, actually a compendium of all three books, to have in my library. The drawings are more than half of the scare in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Reading "The White Wolf" as an adult, I find it difficult to summon the fear I felt has a child even though I distinctly remember trying to keep the page with the picture hidden from view as I turned to find other stories.
The story is so short, just over one page long, about a butcher who abandons his profession to kill wolves. He is so good at it that he retires a success, until a White Wolf that has been spotted around kills his pet cow (apparently he has retired from butchering as well). I’m sure it is the ghostly nature of the wolf that was so scary. It speaks to the inevitably of death and that you might just get what you give in life, so perhaps it is best not to make your living as a killer.
The Scary Stories series have landed on the most challenged books several times since I was in the target audience. The scariness of the illustrations is often cited for the challenge. The books have been re-released with new (read less scary) illustrations. I think we should be scared when we read. A story is a nice safe place to confront the frightening and cultivate your bravery.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child our apartment was full of books. Well, it was always full of books, but these books weren’t on our laps to transport our imaginations, these new books were here to reduce our anxiety: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Your Pregnancy Week by Week, The Happiest Baby on the Block. Pregnancy lasts a long time, and for a lot of people, each day can feel like a roll of the dice, looking for a saving throw against some yet unknown complication. At its most simple level, Rosemary’s Baby mounts up on that lingering, slow trotting fear and gives it a good kick with some oversized spurs.
But Rosemary’s Baby does not depend on harnessing pregnancy anxiety for its full effect. The book's real power oozes slowly, getting thicker as the pages get deeper, starting from a story based firmly in reality: a young couple has a sudden opportunity to get their dream apartment in a wonderful old building and they just have to take it. Touring the apartment they first notice a few details that seem a little off, but every home has its history and its quirks. As they meet their new neighbors, oddities build on oddities and we already know something is more than not right when the body of a young woman from their floor is found after having taken a shortcut down to the sidewalk.
The secrets of Rosemary’s Baby are probably not that secret to many anymore, but even if you’ve seen the very faithful movie adaptation, the book is still more than worth your time. It’s not really about its secrets as much as watching Rosemary come to understand those secrets. We know everything long before Rosemary quite does and it’s the tension of watching her figure it out and hoping she is able to do so in time that compels us through the reading. Those nine months are the ultimate ticking clock.
Rosemary’s Baby is an important piece of recent literary history, as well. The existence of the modern horror novel is in some ways dependent on it. Horror best sellers were not something that happened before Rosemary’s Baby in 1967. But the book was such a phenome that the publishing and public appetite was whet for the arrival of the next horror blockbusters of the coming years, especially Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971) and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971).
So read it for thrills, read it for history, or read it because you glimpsed at the first couple of pages and then forgot to put it down. It’s a fast read with a long, devilish tail.
The thing is, horror is not my jam. I won’t go near Stephen King (except for the Gunslinger series, and then only the first 4 books). But I have Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon in hardback, bought it the first weekend it hit bookstores in 2013. I’d reveled in Percy’s sharp-edged prose through his short stories and was jonesing for more. When I read Peter Straub’s blurb on the back cover describing Red Moon as ‘literary horror’ I knew my days as a horror novel virgin were over.
The title hints at the nature of the supernatural beings in this story. But this is not your dime a dozen angsty werewolf tragedy where the guy love interest gets bitten and becomes a blood-hungry monster every full moon. This story has lycans--people who were infected either by being bitten or through having sex. Most of them live normal lives except that they are being persecuted (think X-Men) by the ‘normal’ majority. They are required by law to take a drug that keeps them from being able to transform into a werewolf. As with any isolated social group anger is inevitable, and also its expression, both constructive and destructive. When the story opens lycans are beginning to revolt both in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.S. a terrorist cell of lycans coordinates simultaneous attacks on three airplanes and only one passenger survives--one of the four main characters.
Why this story rocks:
It twists all my (admittedly limited) werewolf expectations. Two of the protagonists are lycans and both are female! These lycan chicks are tough survivors, self-sufficient and damned smart.
The story has depth. Our current political and social structures are symbolized throughout.
The language, brothers and sisters. If nothing else, read this book for the language.
And now for my aside: The scariest moment in this book has nothing to do with lycans/werewolves. It involves a clown. I mean, I ask you, is there anything more terrifying than a leering, twisted-face clown with villainy on its mind? (No offense to my esteemed fellow Fiction Unbounder, CS Peterson whose many talents include a career as a professional clown and who has been patiently counseling me on my debilitating scary clown phobia.) Here’s what makes this scary clown scene uber scary--I took a Lighthouse workshop class with Benjamin Percy and in that class he shared that the scary clown that appears in this story is based on a REAL-LIFE experience.
If that isn’t enough to creep you out click this link for a final moment of horror as you listen to Benjamin Percy creepily read Goodnight Moon.