A few folk have asked me over the last few months for some recommendations of horror fiction, and while I have more than a few suggestions, I’ve always put aside the task of compiling any sort of master list. And I’m still not going to.
Instead, let’s do this together. To start, here’s just a few films and books that have inspired or affected or intrigued me. I’ll try to keep this going with a little regularity. Also, on twitter I frequently do ultrabrief reviews, but this will give me a chance to be a little more detailed.
I’d also love your suggestion, so please comment and tell me your favorite or newly discovered films, books, authors, news stories, podcasts, terrifying Wikipedia articles or other scary ephemera of the web. There’s not a story I’ve written that didn’t have a clear inspiration point, and I always need more.
Some of these recommendations are likely old hat for many of you. I’ll try to get more obscure as I go. No numbers, or ratings. If I like it enough to talk about it, then I recommend it.
A crew of men, each with their own secrets accept a job to remove the asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital. Predictably, it goes very badly.
When I was in college, I wrote a short screenplay based on a campus ghost story, called Wraith. It was about a young woman hired to watch over a lab at night, and her eventual obsession with the building and her ambiguous encounters with what may or may not have been a spirit. When I first saw Session 9, my jaw was on the floor. So many elements, motiffs and themes seemed to be directly from my un-filmed screenplay, including almost identical scenes of a character being pursued by darkness as the lights shut off down a long corridor, and the title card framing device of one week’s descent into madness.
When I stopped being angry at the temporally impossible plagiarism (they did it first), I realized I’d seen the first horror film I really wish I’d wrote. Brad Anderson’s low budget thriller (I believe still the one of the first theatrical releases filmed in DV) is self assured, richly textured and a wonderfully ambiguous mix of internal and external horror. No cheap jumps, no tension release valves, just an inertial wave of creeping dread.
It’s not perfect. The pace is off putting for those seeking more traditional and frequent jump-scares. David Caruso’s performance is polarizing (I still get a smile out of his theatrical “Fuck you”), and some sequences ring false or expository, but only next to some of the more sublimely naturalistic and eerie scenes.
A mock documentary meditation on a family’s loss of a daughter and the power of recorded imagery.
Lake Mungo I offer with reservations. It’s the one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the past year, but I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. It’s pace is glacially slow, but that’s offset by having almost no release of dramatic tension. There’s no space to stop and take a breath, it just keeps piling on the mysteries and creepiness and never cuts away when you expect and later desperately want it to. The acting is reserved and natural from a cast of amateurs and the climax, built to slowly over the course of the film is well earned and stuck with me long after the film was over.
There’s more than one person I know that was turned off by the strange revelations halfway through the movie, that seemingly invalidate what came before, but I think the moments are more powerful, not less so, for what they say about those still living. Also, the sequence after the credits piles further ambiguity of the worth of images.
There’s an unnecessary amount of homages to Twin Peaks (we begin with the drowning of a girl with the last name Palmer), that seemed to be unbecoming of a film so in control of its own themes and pacing, but not enough to distract from the original power of this work.
A woman grieving the presumed death of her husband after being missing for seven years reconnects with her recovering drug addict sister. But there’s something very wrong with the underground pedestrian tunnel outside her home.
Absentia caught me by surprise. Do not judge this film by its It has a rich look and feel that belies it’s tiny budget (the money was raised with kickstarter and most of the footage was shot with a DSLR camera.) The script and acting are all leagues above films of similar budgets, and the power of the creepiness comes from building on a pair of rich character studies, not simple and easy imagery.
In fact, the filmmakers subvert expectations of traditional horror more than once, including casting Doug Jones as a completely normal human being. The focus of the supernatural horror is the aforementioned pedestrian tunnel, by definition mundane and ordinary. But for a film that starts slow and subtle, the ending caught me off guard and rattled around my head for several days.
Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig
A troubled young woman who can see how people will die lives a scavenger lifestyle until it catches up with her when she forsees a mans death that will be her fault.
I’ve been following Chuck’s blog, tweets, and books on writing for a few months. (it’s great profane no bullshit stuff. If you’re a writer, stop reading this blog and head for terribleminds. Then come back. If you have time.) But I’d never actually read any of his fiction. Which was ridiculous. So I picked up his latest, as well as his previous novel Double Dead, and a pair of Novellas.
I read them all in one week. Chuck’s prose (may I call you Chuck, Chuck?) is hyper focused, lean, mean and brutal. I don’t mean that there’s not moments of beauty and lyrical prose, it’s just perfectly economical and is never just there for the sake of sounding good. The novel has a simple, but effective framing device, a plot hook that also acts as a brilliant character sketch (how someone dies tells you everything about who they are), and his characters are breathing, stinking, sweaty real human beings. It’s like Stephen King with a better editor. Terse, bloody and captivating. This goes for all four of his works I just blazed through like a forest fire, but Blackbirds is his finest. For the moment.
Song of Kali, by Dan Simmons
A man and his wife go to India in search of a dead poet who may not be dead.
Dan Simmons is one of my heroes. He writes across every genre of genre fiction. His Hyperion Cantos are a magnificent space opera that begin as a retelling of the Canterbury Tales and end somewhere far stranger. “The Terror” will probably be a book I discuss later, but it’s historical fiction as invaded by a monster, and it’s one of my favorite books (I have a weakness for polar fiction and history).
Song of Kali is his first novel, and it bears all the rough hallmarks of such (says the man who’s yet to complete a novel), but it has perhaps the greatest first page of any book I’ve ever read. Many of my stories begin with attempts to emulate the economic dread Simmons conjures in a few sentences, and the end of “Collision” flat out apes the end of Song of Kali.
There’s an inspiring scene midway through the novel when a revelation of enormous emotional power comes as the cold and clinical transcript of a police report, a device that frankly, I’m scared to steal for fear of doing not half as well.
The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell
Signs of life are discovered on a nearby planet, and the Catholic Church is first to send an manned expedition. Only one man returns, broken and scarred.
The Sparrow is not horror, but it is unsettling and heart breaking. It doesn’t feel like science fiction, although it clearly has elements of it. Instead The Sparrow feels like a first contact of novel of real and believable cultures and the inevitable conflict between good and well meaning peoples who simply can never understand each other. It’s a difficult book, but one that you should seek out.
Just about every episode of Radiolab, an incredible and approachable science and history radio show, is full of story seeds. Probably a good third of my stories owe some debt to this show. The production design and editing will challenge what you think radio can do, to say nothing of the content. Not an episode goes by that doesn’t completely shock and floor me. There’s not much else to say other than it’s worth every second of your time.
I’ve been cagey about my personal beliefs at times, but I’m a skeptic and rationalist. Like, subscription to “Skeptical Inquirer” skeptic. Certainly my stories exist outside those realms at times, but I think it’s natural to be both skeptical and to be fascinated by the strange.
Mysterious Universe, an Australian podcast of paranormal news and stories treads a much finer line between Skeptical Inquirer and Fortean Times, bringing stories of the surreal without too much judgment, but without outright acceptance. The hosts are charismatic and funny, and it’s a much better program than Coast to Coast, but in the same vein. Again, many story seeds and details have come right from this podcast.
Over at twitter, Shawn recently pointed me to a creepypasta I’d not seen before, but with a URL I have. I wish I could recall the radio program that led me to this website a few years ago but here’s the basic story: Yuri Gagarin’s flight was not the first. Supposedly there were Russian pioneers who died, cosmonauts who burned up on re-entry or suffocated in orbit. The proof? A series of unnerving recordings made by two Italian brothers who happened to be pointing the antenna in the right way. I recommend listening to the recordings on youtube, as opposed to on the website, unless you’re fond of Real Audio files. Here’s “First Woman in Space“, with the translation in the notes. This is the sort of horror I adore: entirely plausible and clinically detached when documenting terrifying situations.
So, what’s gotten under your skin recently? I must know. Podcasts, books, movies. Anything. Sound off.