Chicago and horror may not seem synonymous, but the city and surrounding area have produced a bevy of creators of chilling art and hair-raising tales. Author Ray Bradbury hailed from Waukegan, for instance, while Fritz Leiber, Charles Beaumont, Robert Bloch, and Arch Oboler were born in the city proper. As for artists, our region has produced the creepy, fantastical, and macabre likes of Margaret Brundage, Ivan Albright, Anthony Angarola, and Gahan Wilson, among others.
But those are just the 20th century folks. Nowadays, Chicago continues to host a diverse—and perverse, in the best sense of the word—assortment of nightmare creators. If you have a leaky pipe, call a plumber. If you need legal advice, retain a lawyer. But if you want a story that’ll thrill, chill, terrify, and petrify you, reach out to a high-octane horror purveyor—and shop local while you’re at it.
I saved you some time by contacting several Chicago-area horror writers and artists, inquiring about their favorite tales of terror. Read on if you’re in need of a few new literary scares. Happy Halloween!
—Dan Kelly, Third Coast Review Lit Editor
As a writer of horror and dark fiction, not much scares me. I can handle reading books about serial killers, zombies, vampires, and even a pandemic outbreak without a single nightmare. But one type of book always scares the hell out of me and leaves me running to church, praying Hail Marys, and crying “the power of Christ compels you!”: books about demon possession. So, why would I read books that deal with the devil or demons inhabiting and trying to overtake our souls? I think everyone believes in the existence of good and evil. You can make your own assumptions, but for me, I like to think good will always win over evil. I love watching that battle take place.
Originally published in June 1971, by Harper & Row, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Even though it’s almost 50 years old, it holds its own against today’s standards of horror. It’s also my favorite horror novel of all time. Most have heard of or seen the 1973 movie, with its iconic head spinning and vomit-blasting scenes, but I prefer the book over the movie. The story is about a mother trying to save her young daughter from the clutches of a supernatural entity, and a priest finding his faith again to fight a demon and reclaim the soul of an innocent child. Supposedly, The Exorcist was based on a true story, which also fascinated me.
Growing up in a household full of readers, there were books everywhere. My parents never censored anything I ever read, so no one told me not to read the almost 400-page book housed alongside other works by horror masters like King and Koontz on my parents’ bookcase. Being raised Lutheran in a religious household, and living in a small, predominantly Catholic town was another influence. I was all too familiar with the shroud of mystery surrounding possession and the devil. How could I pass up reading The Exorcist? I couldn’t.
I read The Exorcist the first time when I was 10, which probably wasn’t a good idea. I found myself sleeping with the lights on and in my sister’s bedroom for weeks after because I couldn’t get the exorcism scenes out of my head. Particularly when the possessed Regan MacNeil screamed obscenities and spilled out Father Damien Karras’ deepest secrets.
As an adult, I write primarily horror and in the subgenre of possession/religious horror. I’ve read hundreds of books in that subgenre alone, and yet, The Exorcist is still my number one pick as the scariest book I’ve ever read, and one of my all-time favorite horror novels.
Even after reading it several times over, I will still sleep with the lights on and with a rosary and some holy water beside me on my nightstand.
Ancient rites. A secret society. A small town’s hidden mystery. The birth of a new queen to a forgotten cult. These horror set pieces always pique my interest, and there’s no better author than Edward Lee to explore the exploitative, rollercoaster ride possibilities inherent in them. Succubi was originally published back in 1992, and it’s one of those novels that grabs you from the first page and pulls you through in heart-stoppingly fast time. Lee wrote a series of novels during that period, including Incubi and Coven, both of which locked me in from page one to the end. It’s a coin flip for me to choose between them! He’s one of the only writers to keep me glued to a novel from start to finish, all in one sitting. To me there is no better praise for a book than, “I couldn’t put it down!” and, for me, Edward Lee’s Succubi is one of those books.
Succubi opens with an archaeologist investigating Ur-loc culture, an ancient female-centric cult that practiced ritual sex and cannibalism, boiled heads, and worshipped the Ardat-Lil, a succubus. Enter Anne, an urban lawyer suffering from a series of nightmares, who ultimately returns to her off-the-beaten path hometown of Lockwood for family reasons. Other forces are also returning to Lockwood. The book is titled Succubi, a term for a sex demon, and Edward Lee is known for writing extreme stuff. You can guess at what you’re getting into here.
There are multiple subdivisions of horror. Asked to select a “classic” or “monster” or “gothic” horror novel to focus on, I could pick favorites in each category. Is Succubi “great literature”? Nah, it’s pulp fiction fun! I want to escape into a book when I read, and this checks all the boxes for me. Growing up, I came from a very repressive, right-wing Catholic household where horror and fantasy were looked down upon. As a kid, I was taken to midnight masses in chapels with incense and Latin masses. Once I came home from college to learn my mother burned a stack of Michael Moorcock’s Elric fantasy novels I’d borrowed in the grill outside, because “they were evil.” Never mind that they weren’t mine! It was a little like being in one of those Rosemary’s Baby cults, but without the sex and violence. That personal background is no doubt why, as an adult, I skewed the opposite way. I’ve always been drawn to peeking into “the forbidden” and demonic “other side” of the religion coin in my reading and writing—dark cults with sexual themes and horrific rituals and history. My childhood experience of an obsessive approach to religion flipped 180 degrees.
Edward Lee exploits those themes in his books, so he’s the perfect author to lure and keep me locked in with the fast-moving plots of his wild, exploitative pulp fiction. Sex-cults and ancient rituals? The rebirth of a new Succubi queen? I’m all in.
The most terrifying literary experience I’ve ever had was with Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream—I read it in one sitting, mid-day, outdoors in summer, but it chilled me from start to finish. Propulsive, and dare I say feverish, it’s a book about how impossible it is to fully protect our children. As a mother of two I took its lessons to heart. The novella races toward the inevitable—equal parts jump scare and psychological thriller—as we follow Amanda, who lies dying in a rural hospital in Argentina telling her story to the little boy at her bedside. Rarely have I read anything so frighteningly visceral, tragic, hypnotic, and unsettling.
Julia Fine is the author of What Should Be Wild, which was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Superior First Novel Award and the Chicago Review of Books Award. Her second novel, The Upstairs House, is forthcoming from Harper in 2021. She teaches writing in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and children.
I wasn’t disappointed when I first read Stephen King’s short story collection Night Shift—it was the first book that absorbed me so deeply I missed my El stop. Nevertheless, even while studying King’s techniques, I noticed a fatal flaw: a dire incomprehension of contemporary Christianity.
My pet theory is that King is legitimately terrified of American Christianity—so terrified he fails to do basic research on the elements he chooses to include in his stories. A lack of baseline knowledge about the religion his characters are steeped in doesn’t serve his writing. In stories relying on Christian tropes, his errors become so distracting their entire conceit collapses, rendering them ineffectual at best, laughable at worst.
King’s mastery of horror lies in his ability to drop the reader directly into the shoes of a normal person living a normal life, then walking that character into the jaws of monstrousness. A mildewy basement seethes with man-eating rats, a laundry machine develops a thirst for blood, and, most famously, high school bullying ricochets into a massacre.
King seems to struggle with the idea that Christianity can be normal—especially since his characters tend to be working-class heroes hailing from deep America. The way he writes about Christianity, you’d think these characters had never seen a church before. He describes entering a church the way Indiana Jones negotiates a booby-trapped ancient ruin. It’s midnight at an abandoned Spirit Halloween warehouse in Area 51.
From “Jerusalem’s Lot:”
“At last we reached the church. It reared above us, grim, uninviting, cold. Its windows were black with the shadows inside, and any Godliness or sanctity had departed from it long ago. Of that I am certain….I opened the portal. How long since that door had been touched? …Rust-clogged hinges screamed as I opened it. The smell of rot and decay which smote us was nearly palpable…there are spiritually noxious places where the milk of the cosmos has become sour and rancid. This church is such a place; I would swear to it…We stepped into a long vestibule…an unremarkable room, I thought, until I heard Calvin’s sharp gasp and saw what he had already noticed.
It was an obscenity.
I daren’t describe that elaborately-framed picture further than this: that it was done after the fleshy style of Rubens; that it contained a grotesque travesty of a madonna and child; that strange, half-shadowed creatures sported and crawled in the background. ‘Lord,’ I whispered. ‘There’s no Lord here,’ Calvin said.”
This passage made me burst out laughing. In all honestly: the story was working for me—haunted church and all—until King used a line break to underscore the horror of a…Madonna and Child icon.
Of all the macabre images readily available in Christian art—King thought a Madonna and Child was scary? A mom and her kid? There’s so much to choose from! Violence abounds in the Bible and Church history, and one can easily page through a book of saints to find colorful, gory martyrs. The Sacred Heart is a heart with a sword through it, sometimes still beating. Christianity’s core image of the crucifix is of a man suffocating to death and bleeding out on a Roman torture device. Not in my wildest imagining could I find horror in the very tame Madonna and Child composition.
More distracting is this scene’s historic implausibility. King goes to great lengths to indicate Jerusalem’s Lot is about a Puritan Church in a Puritan town. Iconoclasm and minimalist decor—not having paintings of Mary and the saints laying around, to set themselves apart from their Catholic and Anglican oppressors—is a fundamental tenet of Puritanism, regardless of sect. Finding an “elaborately-framed” Madonna and Child, not to mention a golden cross mentioned later, in a Puritan church is like finding a big plate of bacon at a Passover celebration.
Overhyped, mismatched Christian-horror-trope lawn furniture like this pops up throughout King’s work. King’s Puritans inexplicably collect Eastern Orthodox art. His fundamentalist mothers send their daughters to public school and pray in closets to Catholic icons. His Catholics use the King James Bible, wield crucifixes like assault rifles, and lose major battles to straw-man arguments about faith versus works no practicing Catholic has worried themselves with since the Counter-Reformation.
The disastrous result is that no contemporary Christian can recognize their own religion within King’s work. It’s too exotic. Stage glitter and costume jewelry, corny and glib, too gaudy to be scary, and never part of the normalcy so integral to King’s technique.
King isn’t shy about class warfare or feminist issues—abusive parents, tyrannical bosses, and the rich tend to get fed to their own monsters by proletarian, disenfranchised protagonists, women included. Why is Christianity his blind spot? Why burn so much word count making a church Satanic, when any old Christian church on its own contains the same subtle, banal, daily horror as a day job or an abandoned beach?
King’s so close to making it work; I can only hope that next time he works with Christian-inspired horror tropes, he starts by doing some research.
Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires Terry Galvan’s stories, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry enjoys lurking in dive bars nursing their Catholic guilt with whiskey. Follow Terry @TerryGalvanChi and terrygalvan.com.
Since I can never pick just one favorite of, well, anything, here’s a sentence or two about three of my top faves. Served up first, “Two Bottles of Relish” by Lord Dunsany. This story combines many of my favorite horror tropes and kept me guessing right up to the last minute! Gripping and playfully written, it’s devilishly delicious.
Next up, “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti will send shivers down your spine. This short and brutal story is not for the faint of heart. What happens when a psychologist takes a job at the local prison in a gloomy little town he knows in his gut he shouldn’t take? Pick up a copy of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe to find out!
And finally “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft. A morbid artist, reading a story about a morbid artist making horrifying and cursed paintings!?! I was destined to love it.
Corinne Halbert is a painter, illustrator, and cartoonist. She received her MFA in Painting and Drawing from SAIC in 2008. When she isn’t rendering real and/or imagined body cavities with her signature psychedelic aplomb, she peddles incendiary literature at Chicago’s revered Quimby’s Bookstore. The latest issue of the University of Chicago journal Portable Gray (Vol. 3, #2) contains a feature on Corinne’s art and her short essay titled “The Darker Parts of Ourselves”.
It’s so hard to pick one favorite, but my mind keeps going back to a story by Richard Matheson called “Born of Man and Woman”. A tale told from the point of view of an eight-year-old child kept chained in the basement by its parents. The child is clearly monstrous in appearance, ugly and dripping green fluid, but it’s the parents who are the real monsters. They beat the child regularly and force it to live in a place with no light where it eats bugs and is bitten by rats. The story is told in a clipped and broken first-person style that firmly roots you in the child’s thoughts and makes you instantly sympathetic to its plight.
As the story unfolds, the child gets glimpses of the outside world when it pulls its chain free from the wall, and you get a great sense of its skewed understanding as it refers to a cat as walking on its arms and children as little mothers and little fathers. But the story’s real power comes from the way the child learns of its own strength, and how it can fight back against its tormenters. By the end, it’s clear that the child’s circumstances have changed, and you’re left both excited and fearful about what the future might bring. Matheson manages to do all this in the space of just three pages. It’s really quite remarkable.
Born and raised near the shores of Lake Michigan, Christopher Hawkins has been writing and telling stories for as long as he can remember. A dyed-in-the-wool geek, he is an avid collector of books, roleplaying games, and curiosities. When he’s not writing, he spends his time exploring old cemeteries, lurking in museums, and searching for a decent cup of tea. For free stories and news about upcoming projects, visit his website, christopher-hawkins.com, or follow him on Twitter @chrishawkins.
One of my favorite contemporary horror novels is The Wild Harmonic, by Beth W. Patterson. I love New Orleans, supernatural creatures, and female protagonists, and this book blends the three so well. Patterson is a professional NOLA musician with a fiction-writing addiction. As it says in the back-cover blurb, “Faced with hecklers, drunks, stalkers, and incompetent bandmates in one life and fang-toothed double agents in the other, Birch doesn’t know who to trust.” There’s plenty of furry ravenous creatures in the book, but the novel is also infused with music. I know a number of her real-life experiences dealing with audiences and bandmates made it into the story, but the music and supernatural worlds are rendered so believably, I sometimes wonder if both parts aren’t based on her real-life experiences!
Tina L. Jens is the author of the award-winning novel The Blues Ain’t Nothin’: Tales of the Lonesome Blues Pub. She was the editor/publisher of the Twilight Tales small press for 15 years and taught fantasy writing courses at Columbia College for 10. She occasionally performs in a two-woman blues musical she adapted from her novel with Chicago Blues Hall of Famer Liz Mandeville. Jens runs the monthly Gumbo Fiction Salon reading series featuring authors from around the country. You can find her and Gumbo Fiction Salon on Facebook and Instagram.
While I’ve had many horror stories from various media affect my psyche over the years, one always clings my memory’s surface with greater tenacity than the others.
I’m a bit shady on the details as to how exactly I came upon the PC CD-ROM game The 7th Guest. In 1994, I was 12 years old. I’d just moved in with my dad and sister in Las Vegas and didn’t have any friends, so I had plenty of time to fill with whatever entertainment I could find. I can only assume at some point I’d found the game’s box during one of my trips to the local computer shop and was drawn to the moody cover art. The back of the box touted cutting-edge technology, fiendish puzzles, and an immersive exploration of a haunted mansion—all of which would have immensely piqued my interest.
The 7th Guest was indeed immersive, far more than many of the games I’d played up to that point. I’d started playing DOOM around the same time, and while I loved the fast-paced action and over-the-top gore of eviscerating demons on Phobos, The 7th Guest offered a more cerebral and cinematic horror experience. Each room of the beautifully rendered 3D mansion contained a puzzle to solve in order to unravel the mystery of the house; its creator, the ghoulish toymaker Henry Stauf; and each of the guests, brought together on one fateful night.
Aside from its haunting storyline I think a large part of what made the game stick in my mind was that it was packaged with its own soundtrack CD, complete with The Fat Man & Team Fat’s wonderful intro/outro songs, game music, and dialogue from the game peppered throughout. Long after I (finally) beat the game I had that album on heavy rotation—and still do!
My favorite horror novel is William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist published in 1971. The novel is loosely based on a supposed real case of possession. In it, Blatty discusses many of the horror themes I explore in my work: the possibility that ritual in our lives can connect to the paranormal or supernatural, triggering some sort of unexplained event in our own reality; the constant battle between good and evil; and the question of what is good and what is evil, and if something exists after death. The novel terrified me when I first read it and I had to put it down and return to it after a short break.
Cynthia “Cina” Pelayo is the author of Loteria, Santa Muerte, The Missing, Poems of My Night, Into the Forest and All the Way Through, and the upcoming Children of Chicago by Agora/Polis Books. Pelayo is an International Latino Book Award-winning author and an Elgin Award nominee. You can find her at cinapelayo.com, on Twitter @cinapelayo, and on Instagram at @cinapelayoauthor.
I grew up in a home perfectly suited for a suburban gothic story. Dark, even in the daytime, the old house creaked constantly, and all those sounds amplified after sunset. Breakfast conversations routinely involved my parents asking, “Who was walking around last night?” A dread silence falling over us when we realized none of us had left our beds. As such, whenever I read something that seems akin to those experiences, I find it all the more disturbing since my mind connects it to a real time in my life. Worse is when some clever writer adds a fresh facet to further the fear.
The M.R. James short story “Casting the Runes” was first published in 1911. However, I wouldn’t get to experience the joy of its cutting-edge slicing me open until around 2002. By then a sophomore in college, I had grown so accustomed to the oddities of my home I seldom noticed them. Then, one night, reading a collection of horror stories I stumbled into a literary bear trap that has hobbled me ever since.
Home for winter break, I sat in my room reading the story with a delight most horror fans know. The joyful thrill of diving into terrors that seem safe to explore. Then I came across a specific passage. Winter wind howling outside the window, the story introduced me to Edward Dunning, a scholar from the British Museum, cursed by alchemist and occultist Mr. Karswell. Though a skeptic at first, scoffing at the supernatural, strange events make Mr. Dunning very aware of the spectral dangers surrounding him. One in particular solidified this terrifying truth, and it sounded so terribly familiar to me.
Revisiting the passage seems as sensible as touching a hot stove. Yet, I have to, now and again, such as when I need to warn someone I’m sleeping with why I might flinch, almost jump out of bed when, half awake, I happen to touch them. For one night, alone in his room, Mr. Edward Dunning heard someone creeping about the house. Despite the clear sounds of movement, he couldn’t find anyone in the building. Going back to bed, his hand slipped beneath the pillow and unmistakably felt “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being”
Nowadays, as I close my eyes and feel close to slipping into some peaceful slumber, the thought intrudes, uninvited. Sharp as a razor, it slits my eyelids open leaving me staring in the dark. Onto the blank canvas of inky shadows spilled across the room, my mind conjures sinister shapes skulking around. I can even half-hear footsteps in the hallway. Then, slowly, worries worsening, I begin to dread shifting in bed for fear my hand will brush against some inhuman presence lurking beneath the covers. Even if I find the bed empty and breathe a short-lived sigh of relief, I’m certain some future night, something will be there. Because of M. R. James, some nights I can’t sleep—lying awake waiting for the ghost to bite.
Looking at online reviews of Penpal by Dathan Aurbach, it’s clear this is a book people either love or hate. It’s almost all high or low, with very few lukewarm feelings about Aurbach’s work—and that illustrates an interesting gap in perception regarding the book. People of my generation (Gen Y?) and below will enjoy this the way they do an Internet creepypasta—a story well told around the digital version of a campfire, narrator wide-eyed and sweating, spinning a tale of horror and doom for those present. Older readers, or the less Internet-savvy, might feel robbed of deep characterizations and the in-the-moment, representational theatre of a novel. It’s told in a nonlinear fashion, jumping around in time, and varies wildly in tone, from coming-of-age incidents à la Robert McCammon’s Boys Life to unsettling details of architecture, as in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It should surprise nobody that the book began as a series of connected Internet stories on a forum.
But that point of origin is no indicator of a lack of quality. This story is absolutely terrifying. It’s a quiet horror—not the kind where you jump out of your seat because a faceless ghost appeared in a mirror, or someone’s limbs exploded off their body. It’s the sort of horror whispering in your ear as you walk down your hallway at night. Waking up and seeing a dark shadow at the foot of your bed, only to realize that it was just your mind playing tricks on you, coming out of sleep paralysis. Or was it? In the middle of the night, at our most vulnerable, those questions appear, even for the most skeptical among us. That’s where Penpal does its best work. It doesn’t deal in shock, it works to create a mood.
Penpal is the story of the narrator, ostensibly Dathan himself, putting together the puzzle pieces of his childhood, and coming to the horrifying realization that sinister and dangerous things happened all around him during his formative years. A balloon with a fun greeting, released into the air, leads young Dathan to find a pen pal, someone who becomes obsessed with him, though he doesn’t realize how much danger he’s in. Even as the kids around him are murdered in the woods. Even as evidence mounts of someone watching him when he’s alone. Even when his mother discovers proof that someone has been literally under their house, only feet away from her child. Dathan, our narrator, realizes these things as we do—as an adult—and wonders what else he’s oblivious to, and how close to death he’s been during his quiet life.
This is where the novel most deftly succeeds. Anyone who had a similar, middle-class upbringing will pull up the covers at night and wonder, “What was I protected from? What am I unaware of? What eyes with evil intent are watching me?” Anyone who has had a stalker, who was told not to talk to a certain neighbor growing up, who has felt that unmistakable sensation of not being alone, when they know the doors are still locked and the windows are shut—they’re the audience for this interconnected series of incidents that lead to mystery, terror, and the feeling all is not right with the universe. What have we forgotten, and is forgetting sometimes better than remembering?
Michael Allen Rose is an author, musician and performer based in Chicago. He has published books with several small presses, with his newest bizarro comedy Jurassichrist set to be released in Spring 2021, through Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. He creates new chapbooks and zines every month for his patrons, and would love for you to join up at www.patreon.com/michaelallenrose.
I’ve been writing horror fiction for more than 30 years, so it’s definitely my groove. However, I’ve been reading it for considerably longer. I come from a family of readers. All of us—brother, sisters, mother and father—were readers in our respective genres. My father, a police officer, steered toward James Bond, thrillers, and police procedurals. But my mother, brother, and oldest sister enjoyed our horror, in both fiction and nonfiction forms
There wasn’t as much horror fiction out back then (early 70s) as there is now. King was but a prince at that point, but there was Poe and Lovecraft and writers like Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty. Raised a nice, young St. Louis Catholic boy, I was certainly not allowed to read those books. But there were also Eerie Comics and some of the stuff Marvel did back then, like Son of Satan, Man-Thing, Journey into Mystery, Crypt of Shadows, Tomb of Dracula, and Werewolf by Night (which poses the question, could one be a werewolf by day?). My comic book intake wasn’t monitored, so I read these titles voraciously.
I’ve read a lot of horror since. A lot. Authors like King, sure, but also Rice, Barker, Straub, Matheson(s), Garton, and Ketchum. I still read horror, a lot of horror. Horror fiction is kind of in a Golden Age, with the bulk of it being published in the independent press. Yeah, sure there are the Josh Malermans and the Paul Tremblays being published by the big houses, but there is a plentitude of fantastic horror authors in the small presses—John Langan, Jonathan Janz, Sarah Read, Brian Kirk, Gemma Files, Gabino Iglesias, Livia Llwellyn, Alan Baxter, John Foster, V. Castro, and I could go on and on (and probably should, as more writers will read this and wonder where their names are).
But I digress.
The book I go back to most often during the Halloween season is, curiously enough, listed as nonfiction. It’s a Time-Life reprint of a book by 1930s British ghost hunter Harry Price titled The Most Haunted House in England. Price, a noted parapsychologist of questionable repute (read: flimflam man) could write a scary story, however, and this does it for me.
The story concerns a house known as Borley Rectory in what was then rural southeast England. The Rectory was built by a reverend in 1862, on the site of an earlier rectory, destroyed by fire in 1841. The nearby church had been around since the 12th century. The area, like many in England, is replete with ruins, including Borley Hall, the ancestral seat of the Waldegrave family, and a Benedictine monastery.
As Price writes it, the house and ground hosted a series of hauntings and manifestations, including phantom carriages, an ethereal lady, writing on walls, and assorted knockings and rappings. Price also hosted a series of seances with spine-chilling details of buried bodies, walled-up nuns, and all kinds of spectral shenanigans.
Most of the stuff Price details has been long since disproved, and Borley Rectory itself burned down in a fire (reputedly set by ghosts, of course) in 1939. Harry Price has gained the reputation of a charlatan these days, a showman of the time, more interested in fame and money than actual ghosts floating up or down staircases.
But does that really matter? To me it doesn’t, no more than it bothers me that what Poe or King writes is fiction. Why should it? It scares me, and that’s enough. Sitting with The Most Haunted House in England some fall evening, as I no doubt will, fire in the fireplace, tea in a mug, cold winds outside stirring the casement, it won’t matter to me at all.
John F.D. Taff is a multiple Bram Stoker Award®-nominated author who’s worked for 30 years in the horror genre, with 100-plus short stories and five novels in print. Little Deaths was named the best horror fiction collection of 2012 by HorrorTalk. Look for more of his work in anthologies such as The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Shadows Over Main Street 2, and Behold: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders. Taff lives in the wilds of Illinois with three pugs, two cats, and one long-suffering wife.
I’m going to avoid all the usual suspects—such as Stephen King, who I love, and so many of his books, as well as Jack Ketchum and his breed of graphic horror—for a hybrid novel that blends fantasy, science fiction, and horror into a powerful, intense, crushing experience.
I’m talking about Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. This novel kicked off the new-weird movement, blending the old weird (Lovecraft) with the visceral body horror of Clive Barker (think Hellraiser) to create something entirely unique. Let me talk a bit about why this book is one of my favorites to read and to teach (which I do in my Contemporary Dark Fiction class).
First, the world building is fascinating. We get the city, New Crobuzon, with all its wealth and poverty, rippling magic, detailed suffering, continuous wonder, and endless grotesquerie. It’s done so well we hardly know we just spent three pages on a boat coming into the city, or an entire chapter in a slaughterhouse. This is what sets the stage for the surrealism, the darkness, the humanity, and the horror to come.
Second is the blend of characters. Some are human, but other are hybrid, or different species entirely—Yagharek a birdman (garuda), Lin a woman with a beetle head (khepri). When you add the villains and monsters that are the Slake Moths (possessing iridescent wings they use to hypnotize victims, sucking out their minds), and the Weaver (similar to a spider) you have a ton of originality.
Third is the horror. I mean, that’s what you asked me about here, right? There is the horror of how the Slake Moths feed, the ways they destroy, seep into the dreams of the community, and breed—seemingly unstoppable. There is the horror of Motley, a man built from the limbs and forms of a dozen different creatures—a violent mob boss, hell-bent on destruction. There is the Weaver, a helpful creature, with an odd rhyming voice and means of communicating, who can be quite violent too, dipping in and out of realities, slicing off ears to make a pretty pattern on the ground. And the ending, the truth about a major character altering our view of the whole story, causing us to question everything we’ve seen, felt, and desired. It’s a brutal ending that will leave you stunned.
For me, the epic experience of a horror novel can happen in 200 pages—in titles like Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer) or Come Closer (Sara Gran)—or in the epic sagas of longer work like The Stand or It (Stephen King). Perdido Street Station is one of the few books I’ve read that blends the world building and characters of epic fantasy, with the mind-blowing technology of science fiction (the crisis engine!), and the true horrors of man, beast, and unstoppable forces. China Mieville has written a powerful, layered, original novel that will stand the test of time. Pick it up and fall into this world today. You won’t regret it.
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of three novels, three short story collections, more than 150 stories in print, and the editor of four anthologies. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. Visit whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.